The beauty of blending

Winemaker dinners are a lot of work for everyone involved - the winemaker, who painstakingly selects the wines for the evening, the chef, responsible for pairing dishes to complement or contrast with said wines, and for the folks who are along for the often-four-hour-long ride.

As the Westin's executive chef Jeffrey Young succinctly states, "I always call it a journey."

Well, count me in for the trip. As part of the first evening of Cornucopia festivities, I'll be attending The Westin's Magic of Meritage winemaker dinner tonight, which will be hosted by renowned B.C. winemaker and industry pioneer, Harry McWatters.

McWatters got his start in the B.C. wine business in 1968 and since then has amassed an impressive resume. Among his many industry accolades, McWatters is founder of Sumac Ridge Estate, president of Black Sage Vineyard, director of the Canadian Vintners Association, and founding chairman of VQA Canada.

Chef Young is responsible for creating a tantalizing seven-course menu, marrying each and every course with the wines that McWatters has selected. With a background as the 2008 Culinary Olympic gold medalist and B.C. Chef of the Year for 2009, Young clearly isn't one to shy away from a challenge. And creating a menu for a winemaker's dinner is just that - a challenge.

"It's really exciting to me because you can go right out of the box, you don't have to do anything specific. You concentrate on the wine and how to pair with the wine," Young explained.

To prepare, he starts by examining the winemaker's notes, and sampling all the wines himself. And while that all sounds like good fun, it also involves a lot of thought. With menu items that include maple wood-smoked sable fish, spot prawn and melon relish, duck breast with dark chocolate gnocchi and a parsley root emulsion and rabbit ballontine 
with chanterelle mushroom risotto and black truffle shavings, it promises to be quite the culinary experience. Especially since each of these dishes is paired with a wine specially selected by McWatters.

"I'm the one that brought meritage to Canada, to make it an international term," McWatters said, explaining that meritage is actually a term that was coined to describe the blending of traditional Bordeaux grape varieties.

"Initially in 1988, a group of Napa producers were making wines like Insignia and Trilogy and so on and they were all marketing independently. So they said, 'you know, if we're going to brand this concept as a premium high-end blend using the old tradition of blending varieties to bring out different characteristics in them, then why don't we market together, but we need to brand it."

So the producers advertised for a name, running a contest that carried a prize of two cases of high-end wine from each of the partners, plus two bottles per year from each for the next 10 years.

Of almost 6,300 entries, "meritage" was selected. Neither old or new world, the term is a combination of "merit" and "age" and is pronounced like "heritage."

"So the person that was selected for "meritage" has got a pretty impressive cellar, I would imagine," McWatters laughed.

"It was taking the old world tradition of blending, but very clearly in a new world style."

Now, meritage has grown beyond North America, reaching as far away as Australia and Israel.

"I'm waiting for the first French producer to have enough guts to put 'meritage' on their label. We'll even let them call it merit-age," McWatters laughed.

So what's the difference between a blended and unblended wine? Is one superior to the other?

In McWatters's opinion, the answer is no - it's all simply a matter of taste. And while he's clearly a proponent of meritage, he's still a purist at heart.

"I'm also a very strong proponent of letting the varieties stand on their own for what they are. So what we're doing with this Magic of Meritage dinner is we're actually going to taste the components and see what they do."

Up to 50 dinner guests will be sampling Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot from McWatters's Black Sage Vineyard, gradually adding in other components and tasting the end results.

"I'm also going to encourage the folks there to take the single variety that they like best, and then blend the varieties according to their tastes."

Then, they'll have a chance to compare their own blend with another meritage, choosing which they like best.

"My guess is that 50 per cent of you will pick your own, and the other 50 per cent will be honest," McWatters said.

"...The goal is that people will determine easily that the final blend is greater than the sum of the parts."

Tickets to the event are $130 plus tax. For more information, visit www.whistlercornucopia.com .




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