Last week, I had the pleasure of a whirlwind 24 hours, filled with the greats. The greats being wine, whisky, and The Great One himself’s winery in Niagara-On-The-Lake. Except, the Wayne Gretzky Estate Wines property holds a lot more than just a wine. It’s also a distillery, a restaurant, an employer of many fine people and a love letter to a Canadian hero. A group of fellow wine & food writers/lovers were bussed out to the wine region- nestled just past the crook of Hamilton, Ontario- and checked into the Queen’s Landing. I have to say that when I first heard this hotel’s name, many Game of Thrones and Beyonce references were made…
We pivoted over to the winery and were met by Zachary Kvas, resident mixologist on site. The estate is super modern, full of clean lines and earnest nods to the namesake Gretzky. Kvas took us through his opener cocktail which had cinnamon, orange peel, star anise house-spiced whisky, and pumpkin simple syrup with Dillon’s DSB Bitters. The whisky’s smokiness shined through, while the anise helped exhibit a complex version of the notoriously “basic” yet seasonal flavour – pumpkin spice. Following Zachary, we went from sipping outside by the “99” skating rink to a tasting room within the estate. At this point, Kvas is going full-mad scientist with smoke machines, in-depth explanations of the importance of proper ice and he provides us with a litany of tools to craft a cocktail. We sip away, and mix one of my favourite tastes of the night which involved lemon, whisky, mint and dried lavender flower petals.
Of course, no one can get through a purely liquid day. So, what better way to showcase the wine and whisky than to have a Wine Vs. Whisky dinner? So competitive, these guys. Wine and whisky pairings were served with a three course meal and choosing the winner of each time was not always easy. I loved the herbaceous cocktail- titled “Indiana Jones and the Fennel of Doom” – that Je put together for the minestrone dish, with a spiced cheese straw and prosciutto and that won over the Wayne Gretzky Estate Chardonnay, 2013. But then I found myself beholden to tradition, opting for the Wayne Gretzky Estate Red, 2015, when the whisky caramel pecan-crusted lamb shank came around. And then, while I actually loved ending the food parade with the Wayne Gretzky Estate Vidal Icewine, 2015 (crisp, sweet maple tones)… It was topped by a truly unique offering of the Wayne Gretzky Creamed Whisky! Made in small batches, think of Bailey’s but seemingly lighter, stronger, better. I think the key is the fresh Ontario cream and fellow-traveller Dan is still beside himself after this discovery (then again, as am I). We shuttled home to Queen’s Landing; some went out to a nearby bar, but I felt fully content.
The next morning was an early start with an 8 AM pickup, heading back to the winery grounds, shared with Trius. WINE FOR BREAKFAST – love it! We were greeted by the winemaking team, and were divided into two groups. The first group’s activity – my group – involved a harness. A few volunteers were actually strapped in and handed up a large rod that uses air to mix the grapes, as they ferment inside a two-story wooden barrel, from above. The next session was a little more low key with the man himself, Craig McDonald, lead Winemaker who hails from Australia. With his guidance, we went around sampling some very young white wines and it was so interesting to see and taste the evolution. First try, we tapped a barrel where the grape juice had only been added a few days prior. This left us tasting just about the fanciest, highest quality white grape juice one can find. Delicious. As we moved about the winery, we went up in age and could taste the wines taking shape.
After such a robust morning, breakfast was due. My plate was filled with ice wine-cured salmon (went back for seconds), dilly soft-scrambled eggs, and grilled sausage. Hearty, yet light. Mimosas were served with sparking wine from Trius, of course, to further underscore the Trius-Peller-Gretzky relationship.
For our final stop on this Wayne Gretzky train, we joined Master Distiller Joshua Beach in his domain. He was involved in building the distillery from the ground up, and you can see the pride on his face. Ask him now, and he may even ponder if they should have made it even bigger! And yet, how can you expect such things to take off the way they do? The spirit programme at Wayne Gretzky has been wildly successful, continues to experiment and continues to expand into the United States. Beach has been doing this for a long time, even getting his training at the prestigious Heriot Watt in Scotland, where he completed his MSc in Brewing and Distillery. When you hear his story, it sounds like he was the right person, at the right time, with the right experience to take on this very specific task. We had a little tour, tasted from the top hatch of stills and smelt some face-melting, mid-being-distilled spirits, knowing that we would soon try the real deal. Once again, it is really fascinating to see all the tweaks and methodical, scientific work that goes into each product.
Up in another custom tasting room, Joshua took us through two different flights, one with the fortified spirits and one with their whisky. We had a really cool station set up (above) and as a relative whisky novice to my cohorts on the trip, I really appreciated this little tasting wheel. It got my brain going when I was thinking up the different words to describe what I was tasting and smelling. Word to the wise – always try to guess! It’s truly one of those “you can never be wrong” situations, and you may discover something that no one else has picked up yet. Fortified wines are wines that have been distilled into spirits, and he took us through the Vidal, Muscat and Rose. It left my mind was racing, thinking about all the cocktails I could make if I had a couple bottles of these on my bar cart. Despite being 40%, the flavours are much more nuanced than a typical vodka.
Next up, we tried Red Cask, Ice Cask and 99 Proof whisky. I know it’s one of their more simple offerings, but I found the Red Cask to be my favourite. The taste is smooth, a bit smoky and frankly, I just love the idea of taking their used red wine barrels and using them to age the whisky. A brilliant use of resources!
And with that, the wine and spirit renaissance was over. It might have been a short and sweet visit, but I left a little wiser now that I know #itswhatsinsidethatcounts at Wayne Gretsky Estates.
In partnership with Wayne Gretzky Estate Wines.