Ottawa Citizen

Pouring with purpose

Bored with the usual tutored food and wine pairings? Try blending instead.

- BY RON EADE

Ever- so- confidentl­y, Olivier Picard picks up a handsome decanter, gives our blend of California red a gentle swirl, then carefully pours a splash into a spotless long- stemmed tulip glass for a considered sniff. ( Oops, a drop spills on the white tablecloth, but never mind.)

Unfazed, the director of operations at the Hilton Lac- Leamy makes another deft attempt to pour a sample of our blended wine that, we hope, will dazzle the sommelier judges sitting nearby.

Again, a splotch of red explodes on the linen. ( I’m thinking, gee, these fancy flagons may be beautiful to behold, but in practical terms the base is too wide to allow easy pouring. At this rate, we may need to hose down the table.)

A determined man, Mr. Picard ultimately succeeds in measuring two samples of our precious concoction. We send them off to the hotel sommeliers waiting patiently at the bar, and give them a knowing smile and thumbs- up.

The question is, will they actually like it? We feel like giddy children on Christmas Eve.

Ours was a table of four, one of five groups gathered in the hotel’s Le Cellier Wine Bar outside Arôme Seafood & Grill for a fun- filled evening of pairing fine California wine with fine cuisine prepared by executive chef Hector Diaz.

But the event was more than that.

For the first time, members of the public were invited to actually blend their own wine from a selection of raw vintages — a hands- on exercise that elevated what would otherwise be yet another wine- and- food pairing into a taste experience of substance.

All wines were from Delicato Family Vineyards in California, which has been held by the Indelicato family for more than 75 years. These days, Delicato has 10,000 acres of vineyards under cultivatio­n.

The winery supplied everything from a bubbly Clay Station Viognier 2004 to start off the evening, to Monterra Chardonnay that paired with marinated lobster and scallop.

It also brought along Merlot Delicato to sip with Mr. Diaz’s delicious striped bass, Delicato Shiraz to marry with the chef’s roast duck Magret, and Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel to enjoy with select Quebec artisan cheeses.

But before we did any eating, we were seated in teams at separate tables, each with five bottles of Delicato unblended vintages to mix and match. I was joined by my wife, Nancy, Mr. Picard, and his wife Josée.

Our job ( for the next 45 minutes, at any rate) was to assess each of the unblended Delicato wines before us, and then blend two or more based on their individual strengths and weaknesses using a graduated cylinder ( think high school chemistry class) to produce an improved result — just as experts do at real wineries.

Wines are often blended commercial­ly under controlled conditions to improve the complexity and flavours of vintages that may not be interestin­g enough on their own.

The wines we had to work with included:

• Cabernet Sauvignon, which seemed a bit tannic, spicy, oaky with aromas of berries;

• Merlot, with a fruit- filled blackberry bouquet, very tannic and spicy;

• Petit Syrah with blackberry in the nose, a little less tannic;

• Petit Verdot, which seemed brighter and lighter in fragrance and body;

• Shiraz, with spicy and berry taste, a hint of licourice on the palate.

“ Basically it was the Delicato winery’s idea to do this,” says Fabienne Nadeau, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.

Tickets cost $ 85 and included the blending, a four- course dinner paired with wines, taxes and tip. There was slightly more than two dozen people on the evening we attended.

While I am usually reluctant to flaunt my wine knowledge and vocabulary, on this occasion I felt I must make an exception. The Cabernet Sauvignon was a strong candidate for blending, I figured, but it needed livening up with the fruity nose of Petit Syrah and the spicy notes of Shiraz. Our team settled on a percentage blend of 50- 30- 20 ( that’s Cab- Petit Syrah- Shiraz). Mr. Picard was in charge of measuring and, ah, decanting.

Our first attempt tasted pretty darned impressive to us, with none of the overwhelmi­ng tannic character of some of the unblended vintages straight from the bottle. It had a tantalizin­g berry bouquet and was full in the mouth. In my expert vernacular, it was yummy. Next, we tried fine- tuning the mix by doubling the amount of Shiraz and reducing the percentage of Petit Syrah. Sadly, the second attempt was no where near as appealing as the first: It just seemed too rough, so we dumped it in the spit bucket. In short, not- so- yummy.

Eventually we went back to the original formula, carefully decanted the blend into tasting glasses ( by now, Mr. Picard had placed a new white napkin over the tablecloth) and sent the result over to judges.

All the other teams did the same thing.

“ We wanted to try blending in a restaurant situation to raise awareness with the public,” says Guy Bougie of Select Wines, which represents the California winery.

“ I think the public may have heard about blending, but they may not be exactly sure what it involves. So with an event like this, we’re showing people how wines come together and what a winemaker looks for when he or she creates a blend.

“ We’d never done this before in Canada and we were pleased with the response at the Hilton Lac- Leamy. The people enjoyed themselves and also learned something.” To me, it was a brilliant idea. Citizen wine columnist Rod Phillips was also intrigued by the concept when I described it to him later. He says blending at the table can fun as well as educationa­l to help people appreciate the characteri­stics of various components that go into a finished product.

“ Most commercial wines today are blended,” Mr. Phillips says, “ so this shows you the different components you can put in to make a difference in the result. It shows people how wines are really made, and you can even modify your wine depending on the food you’re having.”

Turns out that our group produced the second- best blend of the evening. ( Apparently, another group did somewhat better.)

The hotel sommeliers had this to say about our result: “ The nose was not too expressive but had nice aromas of fruit and flowers. It was a winner in the mouth, very smooth and well- balanced.”

I would have said yummy, but there you have it.

Guy Bougie at Select Wines says Delicato winery may organize another blending if enough people show interest, either by calling him at 613- 8647889 or by sending an e- mail to bougie@ selectwine­s. ca .

While special events are offered at various times at Arôme Seafood & Grill in the Hilton Lac- Leamy, no wine blending session is currently scheduled. To get the events newsletter, e- mail sales@ hiltonlacl­eamy. com .

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ROD MACIVOR, THE OTTAWA CITIZEN Olivier Picard of the Hilton Lac- Leamy.

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