If you know me, you know I love my wine. I’ve graduated from the days of chugging 2L bottles of zinfandel to appreciating the sipping, smell and swirl of a really good glass. I was recently invited to a VIP experience at The Wayne Gretzky Winery and Distillery in Niagara-on-the-Lake and I couldn’t turn it down. I had the rare opportunity to get a behind the scenes peek of the facility and learn what the Great One does to make a great wine and whisky.
Wayne Gretzky Estates wines have been produced in the Niagara region for the last six years under the direction of Andrew Pellar Limited (APL). Over time, the wines have received international awards for their high quality and they have become amongst the top selling wines in Canada. Alongside growing grapes, grains are now grown to produce Wayne Gretzky’s No 99 ‘Red Cask’ Canadian Whisky, the newest offering from their distillery which is finished in red wine casks from the Gretzky winery.
Upon our arrival to the 23,000-square foot facility, we were taken to one of the outdoor spaces complete with a bar, food warming station, fire pits and a recently drained fountain. In the spring, the fountain is used as a reflection pond and in the Winter, an ice rink. I wonder if Wayne ever shows up for a casual skate? Head bartender Zak Kvas took us through the creation of some of his his favourite drinks and treated us to a welcome cocktail appropriately called “The Rusty Skate” made with homemade pumpkin syrup, whisky and topped with a black cherry. Strong but delightful.
Zak wasn’t going to just make us cocktails all night, it was now time to learn from the expert and experience how to design the perfect whisky cocktail. The key we learned, is to balance the strength of the alcohol with subtle notes from your ingredients of choice such as fruit, herbs and syrups. Whisky as compared to other alcohols adds flavor to a cocktail so it’s important to ensure that you let the taste come through and not mask it with your chosen fixings. Our cocktail was actually quite lovely and light with lemon, lavender infused simple syrup and a ginger based juice.
On to my favorite part of the day, the food. The chefs put together an unreal 3-course menu and each course was paired with a whisky cocktail and wine.
On the menu for the evening:
Fall Minestrone Soup with a spiced cheese straw, house prosciutto and Fresh Mozzarella
Paired with: WGE Chardonnay & Indian Jones and the Fennel of Doom
Whisky Caramel Pecan Crusted Lamb Shank, Grilled Lamb Sirloin, Merguez Sausage with Ice wine red cabbage, white bean and chorizo cassoulet and fall heirloom carrots
Paired with: WGE Red 2015 & My Mint of the Lambs
Creamed Whiskey Cheesecake Bar
Paired with: WGE Vidal Ice Wine & WGE Creamed Whisky
There was a little contest between the staff during dinner. We had to vote on whether we preferred the wine or cocktail pairing with each course. I personally loved every cocktail which is strange since wine is my go to dinner drink. Cocktails did end up winning out in the end.
After some cozy time and desserts by the fire pits, it was time to sleep off all the food and drinks at the charming Queens Landing Hotel. It’s a Georgian style mansion with graceful décor and views of the Niagara river. They even have a library that I swear is out of Beauty and the Beast.
Bright and early the next morning we were greeted by Craig MacDonald who is the head winemaker for Trius and WGE. He has devoted the last 20 years to creating award-winning VQA wines in Niagara, and was named Ontario Winemaker of the Year in 2008. I could listen to his Australian accent all day.
Craig really took us behind the scenes to show us the whole wine making process from how the grapes are fermented to how they are barrelled and aged. Super interesting to taste the wine along the way and see how the flavour and acidity changes as you go.
We learned about wine and now it was time to learn about whisky. Enter Joshua Beach. He studied at the Herot Watt in Scotland where he completed his MSc in Brewing and Distilling and then moved to Canada to start a distillery in Vancouver. How did I not know about this degree?
Josh took us through the whisky making process from the raw materials, to how the alcohol is added and the difference between when the mixture is placed in wine barrels versus standard ones. After learning about the whisky process, we had to naturally try some, and in this case, 6 different kinds. I won’t lie, I may have lost the ability to concentrate after the 3rd one. I think I should probably stick to whisky cocktails.
The hospitable and generous staff didn’t let us leave empty handed and gifted us with a beautiful set of drinks including the WGE Merlot, Pinot Grigio and Red Cask Whisky. What can I say? The Great One makes great wine. And Whisky.