Liz’s cousin (and ex-Canadian Idol contestant) Matt married his long-time girlfriend Heidi in a gloriously decadent ceremony in Toronto last spring. After recovering from the endless bottles of champagne and the endless guitar solos of the ’90s rock-n-roll cover band we jumped into our rental and headed around the west end of Lake Ontario on to the Niagara Peninsula wine country. We found a delightfully scenic drive peppered with some of the most friendly and modern wineries offering tastes of surprisingly scrumptious wines.

We lazily made our way toward the quaint Niagara-on-the-Lake, stopping to take in a taste of the local grape in an area just south of the lake and west of St. Catharines referred to as the Niagara Escarpment. This area has shale and limestone cliffs from the glacial movements that provide good drainage for the rain and melting snow and allow the roots of the vines to grow deep. Over 40 wineries have cropped up over the years, further establishing the Niagara Peninsula as a strong appellation and the jewel in the VQA crown.

We stopped at Thirty Bench Wine Makers, a quaint winery on the northern edge of the Beamsville Bench along Highway 81. On a clear day (luckily, ours was) you can see across the lake to Toronto. Thirty Bench’s winemaker, Natalie Reynolds, is an alumnus of the nearby Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute and former winemaker at another Niagara winery, Hillebrand Estates. She makes one of the region’s best Rieslings, but we settled on a rich full-bodied red called ‘Beamsville Bench Red.’ It is an estate-grown Bordeaux blend of 55% Cabernet Franc, 40% Cab Sauv and 5% Merlot. There was some acidity from the coolish climate and brisk tannins, but with an upfront juicy yum that made us smile! I had to find the right dish for this one.

It was another cold Sunday night in this seemingly endless winter, and I decided to cook up a big pot of the Languedoc’s classic homey earthy cassoulet. With no rabbit to be found, I dug around my cookbooks and found a vegetarian recipe (trust me, it’s good) in the book Moosewood Restaurant’s Low-Fat Favorites. I found a package of spicy veggie sausage to provide some body and richness and added in a couple extra colors of beans – red, black and white. I finished it off with a dark-green lacinato kale for contrast. The oversized pot of goodness made for days of hearty eating. I only wish that the bottle of Beamsville Bench Red was as bottomless.

Get the wine here (direct).

Get the cassoulet recipe here.


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