Q&A: Ontario winemaker Paul Pender on underrated wines, his love of cycling and drinking with Wolverine

Q&A: Ontario winemaker Paul Pender on underrated wines, his love of cycling and drinking with Wolverine

At Tawse Winery, sheep wander the fields and birds and butterflies linger on the breeze that creeps up the slope from Lake Ontario. It’s exactly what one pictures when thinking of a winery. But Tawse is a bit different than most. As one of Ontario’s few biodynamic wineries, the importance of sound eco-stewardship is taken very seriously. And what goes into the bottle—well, that’s taken even more seriously, which is just one of the reasons why we wanted to include a bottle from Tawse in the first offering from our just-launched Toronto Life Wine Club. We caught up with Paul Pender, Tawse’s award-winning winemaker, to talk about wine pairings, superheroes, his cycling habits and why he would just as soon enjoy a cold beer as a pinot noir—as long as both are handy at all times.

Which is better, Ontario wine or Ontario beer?

Oh, the hardest question ever! I drink a lot of beer. I like to start a night with a beer and then drink some wine and end up with a beer at the end of the night. The older I get, the more I want things that are fresh and light. Fresh, crisp gamays and pinot noirs, and the same for beer. I’m a little embarrassed—my new favourite is Red Baron Platinum Light. It’s 60 calories and 2.7 per cent alcohol. You can drink it all day on a hot Saturday at the cottage, cutting the grass, doing whatever. There’s nothing to it, and that’s what I love about it.

Toronto Life Wine Club

Do you ever run out of wine at your house?

Never. I’ll bring home two bottles of each wine we make off the bottling line. We make a lot of different wines so there’s always a bottle kicking around. In the industry you do a lot of swaps and trades, too. And I buy a lot of wine—it’s something that I love to have around. There’s always a couple bottles of Ontario chardonnay in the fridge, and maybe the odd Italian white, depending on what’s available and where I’ve been.

What’s the most underrated type of wine?

Well here’s my little plug for Ontario. We’re making chardonnay in Ontario that rivals the best of Burgundy. At Tawse and Redstone, and in the city, we’ve done a bunch of Ontario-versus-Burgundy tastings, and we do them blind. The favourite is always Ontario. Sometimes by a slim margin, but the Ontario wines are $25 to $40 a bottle versus, you know, $100 to $400 a bottle from Burgundy. We’re selling ourselves short. I think Ontario chardonnay may be the best-kept secret and when the word gets out that it’s as good as it is for the price, Burgundy might have to watch out.

Why is rosé so hot right now?

We can’t keep it in stock anymore and we’re increasing our production every year. People are treating rosé as serious wine now. It’s got that great balance of acidity, a little bit of tension from the skin contact and often a touch of sugar that just balances it all out. Those three components in a cold glass on a hot day… and I think, you know, historically rosé has been a great wine to have in the afternoon with salad or pizza. It’s kind of a chameleon wine; it can go well with so many different foods. We promote it for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. It’s great with turkey because it has the flavours of cranberry and herbs.

Are food and wine matching rules bogus or true?

I’m not a rule follower—I like to drink what I like while eating what I like. I mean, some things can be terrible together but I’m not a stickler. If I love a certain wine and I a certain food, that’s my pairing criteria.

Any curveball pairings you really love?

I’m a big fan of riesling and charcuterie. Dried, cured meats with a little saltiness and fattiness, matched with an off-dry riesling. It’s a great pairing.

What superhero would you love to have a glass of wine with and what would you drink?

Wolverine. I think he’d be a Barolo guy. Yeah, something a little bit muscular and with lots of tension.

Outside of your own, who’s making the best wines in Ontario?

In no order, as I don’t want to play favourites: Hidden Bench, for one. Henry of Pelham, on the other side of the scale as they are a big winery. But they have committed so deeply to making quality Ontario wines at all levels of the spectrum. They’re always solid. Flat Rock is killing it with great value wines. We own the vineyard beside them, and I think it’s the best vineyard in Niagara. For $21, Flat Rock makes one of the best pinots you’re going to get for that price. Malivoire is knocking out some great wines and pushing the envelope on rosé and gamay.

You have a cool bike. What do you like about cycling?

It’s a great time to be alone and enjoy the beautiful scenery of Niagara. I try to get out three to five times a week.

How far do you go?

If I have time, 100km is my favourite distance; most often I ride 40 to 60.

What’s the perfect food pairing for the 2013 Tawse Laundry Vineyard Cabernet Franc?

Anything Italian, pizza or pasta. I think Ontario cabernet francs are a lot like Chianti in terms of food pairing.

What else do you like to drink?

Italian. Italian food and wine is so regional—the wine matches the food and the food matches the wine. There’s great acidity and lightness in the wines, something you don’t always expect, depending on where they’re from. They’re just so much fun and drinkable.

Do you think Canadian wine and food culture is heading in the same direction?

I hope in a hundred years, that’s where we’re at. They’ve been doing it for a thousand years, growing the same grapes and eating the same food. It just goes so well together. When I was in Verona, a buddy told me to go to this place and order the donkey Bolognese and the house wine. They had a huge wine list but he said to get the five-euro house red and it will be amazing. And it was. I don’t even know what the grape was. Anybody with money can drink great wine, but it’s nice not to have to sell your car to buy a bottle.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.