Prize Noggins

Prize Noggins

Last weekend, I went down to Niagara to research an article for a food magazine’s autumn issue on the Twenty Valley region. Had myself a ball. Zigzagging hither and thither between Beamsville, Vineland and Jordan, visiting old friends and new, I watched winter suddenly morph into spring, snowbanks melting before my very eyes, glossy green things pushing up through the sodden leaf litter. Breakfast number one at Inn on the Twenty offered views of a winter wonderland, the bushes and trees white with frost clear down to the creek. For breakfast number two, the next morning, everything was dripping and wet, the sky dazzly blue and bam! Spring.

And now I’m sitting here, some days later, sipping the late summer and fall of 2005 in a glorious creation called La Penna, a wine made by Angelo Pavan of Cave Spring Cellars using cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon grapes with an amarone-like twist: some of the clusters are air-dried to near-raisinhood and then pressed, the sticky juice blended in to the final oeuvre. It’s beautifully balanced, rich, ripe and really delicious (not a word I use lightly). And only available down at the winery, as far as I know. Incidentally, Cave Spring’s gewurztraminer is also very impressive, made in an aromatic Alsatian style with a lovely body—well worth seeking out.

Another, even more rarified, most probably once-in-my-lifetime treat was the opportunity to taste a 50-year-old version of The Balvenie, a noble Speyside single malt scotch. For most of the 45 years he has been with The Balvenie, master distiller David Stewart has kept his eye on an exceptional sherry hogshead (known as Cask 191) that was filled with new whisky in 1952. In 2002, when most of the whisky had evaporated, Stewart decided the time had come to bottle what was left, a total of 83 bottles in all, from a cask that once held 300, each one signed by himself. The LCBO bought two of them and put them up for sale at its Summerhill store, asking $30,000 each—the single most expensive bottle of anything the LCBO has ever sold. On Thursday, John Maxwell, proprietor of the excellent (and air-conditioned) Allen’s on the Danforth, bought one of the bottles, bringing it back to his saloon on the TTC—a fearless move which earned him considerable publicity. Stewart was guest of honour at the small presentation that followed, his first such experience in Canada, and was gracious enough to lead those present through a tasting of some of The Balvenie’s delightful iterations. When that was done, Maxwell, Stewart, a friend of Maxwell’s called Oliver Murray and I repaired to a table at the rear of the establishment and the $30,000 bottle was opened. Maxwell is charging $1,750 an ounce (plus tax) for the elixir, but was generous enough to pour a wee dram for each of the four of us.

I don’t think David Stewart had expected the gesture. He hadn’t tasted the whisky since he bottled it, but was clearly pleased by what he found. To begin with, it was an extraordinary colour, a dark chocolate brown. The nose reminded Stewart of toffee, marzipan and licorice with a sweet oakiness, but not the superabundance of oak you might expect in a spirit that had lain quietly in a barrel for 50 years. The gentle heart of honeyed sweetness that is one of the features of the palate of all versions of The Balveniewas still there, and there was a brightness and liveliness to the scotch that made everyone smile. There was a fruitiness, too, in the way that some very good, very dark chocolate can be fruity. Amazing stuff.

Who knows how many drams of Cask 191 will be sold at Allen’s. But having such a whisky on the list reflects well on all the other single malts in John Maxwell’s collection—like the faint (and often illusory) glow of piety one notices in people who have a priest in the family. Another bottle remains at the LCBO, begging to be bought by some collector of very rare objets d’art.