Sooke Harbour House – The beauty in age.

Before eating local or the 0-100 mile diets were becoming fashionable, Sooke Harbour House was bushwhacking a path for the local culinary scene and putting BC on the map as a serious food and wine region.  Growing a large part of their produce and sourcing as local as they could, Sinclair Phillip (Canada’s Slow Food Pioneer) was leading the charge to be more sustainable in our choices.

Recently Sooke Harbour House was listed again as one of the best resorts in Canada by Travel and Leisure Magazine, and is one of five Canadian restaurants in the world to take the Wine Spectators Grand Award for its incredible wine cellar.  Today Sinclair is focused on building an incredible BC wine list to compliment the locally focused menu.  You will still find some worldly classics and not to mention some heart warming depth to some Canadian iconic wineries.

I was giddy to see Sumac Ridges Stellars Jay sparkling wines go back over 20 years, so it wasn’t difficult to settle in on a 1991.  The wine showed a wonderful golden hue, and fine small beads of bubbles, I even expected it to be slightly darker in colour.  The nose started with some honeyed lemon and bruised apple and didn’t evolve too much over the 45 minutes we experienced it.  On the palate the acidity had softened and given some nice weight to the slightly oxidized flavours.  Impressively, there was still a solid core of vibrancy to this wine and an ageless vigour that made it extremely enjoyable.  A real treat.

To start our Gastronomic journey Chef Robin Jackson started with a beet, rutabaga, and leek soup, topped with pickled mustard seed, creme friache, croutons, and fresh dill.  The soup had an elegance to it, a lightness that respected the ingredients from the garden.  I was expecting the soup to be richer in texture and was rejoiced to see such focused clarity in the flavours and a lightness on the tongue.

The Beet and Rutabaga soup pairing with the older Sumac Ridge Sparkling wine was like watching something old become young again.  The savouriness of the soup elevated the brightness in the wine and elevated the citrus element giving it a renewed youthfulness, it was perfect.

We were then greeted by Halibut cheeks topped with a light breadcrumb crust and served over baby beet greens just melted on your tongue.  A thin layer of butter on the bottom of the dish rounded out the decadence while balancing the bitter freshness of the baby beets. Beautiful!

This course was still paired with the ’91 Stellars Jay and really brought out the age and honey tones in the wine.  This was decadent on decadent, and I didn’t want the wine or the dish to end.

Next, is a braised local Berkshire pork belly with lentils and a fresh pea shoot puree with fresh and pickled garden radishes.  A great balance of rich and fresh.  In describing the Chef’s cooking character, he brings a natural sense of balance to his dishes.  There is a clarity to the flavours in his cooking, a restraint that many Chefs never learn.  When you respect and attempt to understand your ingredients, you learn to let them speak and compliment each other, rather than compete.

For this course our sommelier recommended a 2009 Rosato from Venturi Schulze.  Pinot Noir based that goes through extended lees contact and fermented with just a bit of sugar left in it.  The hint of sweetness balanced the richness of the pork belly without overpowering the freshness of the fresh pea puree and baby radishes.

At this point I had asked for a bottle of 2000 Merlot from Leonetti be opened  and allowed to breathe.  At 12 years old this wine showed a wonderful bright core of blue and black berries.  Some slight oxidation in the flavours but a beautiful long finish with layers of tobacco, cassis, and blueberry jam.  Definitely identifiable as a new world Merlot, but well built and still a few years of life in it before it starts to become noticeably aged.  If this wine was served blind, I would probably estimate it to be 6-8 years old, not 12.

How many times have you heard the old rhetoric that red wine should be had with meat and white wine with fish??  When you look at regional cuisine, especially from Europe, you will find that wine is an accompaniment and has a natural affinity to its regional foods and ways of cooking.  I’m not saying this because my next wine was a Washington based Merlot and I was having a Pacific West coast salmon and the two should be a perfect pairing.  I am saying we need to pay more attention to the dish and its ingredients and how it is all put together.  We focus too much on the main protein and don’t pay enough attention to all the flavours and textures on the plate that may have more  influence on the wine than we expect.

Even having Salmon for our next dish, I felt we could still enjoy a big merlot based on the rest of the dish.  We had a young, still slightly aggressive big red with our Leonetti and you have a perfectly cooked piece of Barkley Sound Chinook with  its natural oils to slightly tame some tannins.   You have a savoury local crawfish sauce with cream that also plays nicely with the tannins.  You have some slow roasted baby carrots with their natural sweetness to help tame the big fruit flavours. You have sautéed baby greens, pickled fennel, and sautéed baby garlic tips to accentuate the fruit from their natural bitterness, and you have a light and savoury accompaniment of quinoa and dungeness crab offering up a salty nuttiness that really grounds and balances out the flavours of this wine.

This dish really brought out a youthfulness in the wine and focused on the fruit profiles rather than the savoury components in the wine giving it a lightness that didn’t over power the ingredients.  Sometimes you need to be careful with powerful berry and plum flavours that can just dominate delicate taste profiles of seafood, but in this case the age of the wine and the other ingredients kept this fella from taking over.

Our last main course was Local lamb. Chef made some some bacon from the belly and seared the loin to a perfect doneness. He complimented the plate with the lightest potato gallette I have ever had and lightly roasted cauliflower.  This dish brought out the muscle in the wine.  Leonetti is known for making world class merlot and this wine didn’t disappoint. We saw the bright blue and black fruits show a little red fruit character with the lamb.  The saltiness from the belly brought out more of the leathery tobacco notes in the wine and seemed to stretch the complexity in the finish along with the alcohol.  Even after an hour in the decanter this wine was still showing some exuberance.  The wine, the food, the view, everything was perfect.

For dessert we sat down in front of the fireplace within the restaurant to enjoy some local strawberries with a mint chiffonade, a strawberry tart, and a yogurt panna cotta.  We paired this with a 1992 Riesilng Icewine from Gehringer Brothers in Oliver.  20 years old and this dessert wine had taken on a complexity that balanced against its sweetness.  The nectarine core with some burnt orange spice and the most amazing liquorish herb flavour was the perfect way to end to this amazing experience.

Age-worthiness in wine is not an exact science and a very frequent question I get asked about wines regularly.  I have always believed that our region has the ability to craft wines with world class age-ability, and when you get to experience it first hand, you experience a pride for our industry and our region that is almost like vindication that we are coming of age.  To find wines of these ages is a rarity, to find them on a wine list in a restaurant is even rarer.  Not everything you squirrel away may make the long haul, but when it does, it deepens the experience of your setting and can truly be something magical.  I know the flavours a wine takes on with age are not for everyone, but if you are getting tired of the tutti-fruity, zippy, zingy styles of wines and want to try something with a bit more personality?  Go after wines with some age on them and you will discover a whole new world of wine out there.  You may even discover a new hobby of collecting that can equal rewards only serious wine lovers enjoy.

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