Norm Hardie and Didier

Norm Hardie and

Old world wine made in the new world accompanied by old world food made with fresh  Canadian ingredients. Hearing it seems like a bit of contradiction but the recent dinner by Didier Leroy and Norman Hardie went a long way to showing that you can build something special and unique yet classic so long as you choose the inspiration that fits with what’s around you.

The genesis of the event came when French born Master Chef Leroy and partner Tory Edwards of Didier restaurant approached Hardie a year ago. Hardie jumped at the opportunity, collaborating with Leroy on a menu that marries his old world styled wines with the classical French cuisine that Leroy prepares at his uptown Toronto restaurant. Leroy spent his early career working in Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris before coming to Toronto and working in kitchens of fine dining French restaurants and as Executive chef of French Embassy since 1990. In 2004 he and Edwards opened-up Didier and they have built a reputation of providing a menu using fresh organic Canadian ingredients prepared with classic French techniques. Didier has been recognised by the French Ministry of Agriculture with an order of merit and the restaurant has received a VQA Award of Excellence each year since 2007 for its commitment to local wines.

For those unfamiliar with Norman Hardie’s line-up, the wines are essentially Burgundian with the focus firmly on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There’s also nods to the Loire Valley with Cabernet Franc and Melon de Bourgogne and Alsace and the Alto Adige with a Pinot Gris. The philosophy in the vineyards is on growing and sourcing quality fruit from the ideal sites that reflect a unique sense of the place. Once in the winery, little manipulation is done with fermentation allowed to occur naturally, bottling products unfiltered and aging largely done in larger than normal 500L barrels from Burgundian cooper Mercurey. Hardie feels they provide structure and the ideal surface area for gentle micro-oxidization and oak contact for seasoning. “We spend a lot of money on barrels to make wine that doesn’t taste like oak,” he says in a half-joking half-serious tone.

The first part of the evening was a structured tasting with Norm leading everyone though his 2008 Chardonnays. Up first was the County Chardonnay grown on the estate on the calcium-rich soils which are nearly identical to to the best in the Burgundy according to Hardie. He should know, spending six years apprenticing in Burgundy at producers like Domaine de la Pousse d’Or and with other notable cool-climate  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers like Evesham Wood in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the Central Otago Wine Company in New Zealand and Santa Barbara County California producer Au Bon Climat.

Made from vines planted in 2003 the County Chardonnay is very leesy. This is intentional with Hardie using long converted dairy tanks to maximize contact with these dead yeast cells. The lees brings aromas of gun smoke and a bready yeastiness along with the lemon and green apple often found in cool climate Chardonnay. The lees also contributes a round rich mouth feel without being too heavy. It allows the minerality from the Prince Edward County limestone soil to shine through. He believes good wine is reflective of the where it is grown, “Lees are critical to wine making.  When you filter it strips the provenance and structure”, says Hardie.

Up next was the unfiltered Chardonnay made from ten-year-old vines that sit on a strip of red clay, where the planter just happened to stop on that grower’s Niagara property. According to Hardie, red clay is the best translator of minerality in Chardonnay. Compared to the County Chardonnay this wine is a little richer with fruit aromas and notes of pear and white peach showing through.

The last Chardonnay served was the Cuvee “L” named so as homage to his late sister Lisa and the Cuvée “J” from Evesham Wood. While apprenticing there Hardie took a liking to the story of how winemaker Russ Raney used the yeast isolated from a bottle made by Burgundian winemaker Henri Jayer and named it after him rather than the more common reserve labeling. It is made from 65% Niagara and 35% County fruit and is only produced in exceptional years when the blend produces a distinctive wine. As you expect the wine taste of a blend of the two but it is also more than the sum of its parts. The Cuvee “L” received an extra five months in “really old” 500L barrels providing a gentle oxygen exposure that allowed the blend to come together. In the wine some of the leesy-forward nature of the County Chardonnay is mellowed while still retaining that character. There is also an undercurrent of minerality that melds well with the rich depth of the Niagara Chardonnay creating a wine that’s even more complex. The Chardonnays were served with shrimp and bisque dipping sauce, mini quiche and a cured salmon canape. The County Chardonnay with flintiness and minerality worked particularly well with the salmon while the richness of the eggy quiche paired nicely with complexity of the Niagara Chardonnay.

After the structured tasting came the formal sit-down dinner with Hardie introducing each wine and how it paired with each of Leroy’s five course. Drawing on his experience as a sommelier at the now closed Truffles in Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel, Hardie was able to speak to the pairings and tell anecdotes and the stories behind the wines. For instance the sold-out 2009 Melon de Bourgogne comes from Hardie’s neighbour who planted it thinking it was Burgundian variety suited to Prince Edward County’s limestone-rich soil. Hardie gave it a shot knowing that the calcium-rich soils are similar to the grape’s classic growing region at the mouth of the Loire river. There the wines are paired with prized local Belon Flat oysters. Norman’s high acid and mineral driven Melon worked very well with briny and salty Malpeque oysters served chilled on ice and enhanced with judicious use of a citrus infusion. Norman also noted that he saves about quarter of the small production for Josh Bishop owner of Whalesbone Oyster House in Ottawa—an unpretentious place to get a good selection of oysters and fresh Ocean Wise certified sustainable seafood dishes. Although he now sells out the wine quickly and could use more stock for the retail market, Hardie stressed the importance of supporting his early adopters and friends like Bishop because it wasn’t so easy selling a wine made with an obscure grape in the winery’s infancy.

Norm Hardie and Didier

One of the highlights of dinner was the seared Arctic Char with a wild mushroom fricassee and turned apples that were sauteed. It was a balanced dish with the mushrooms adding an earthiness to the seafood. The apples brought the dish to another level accentuating the char’s slightly sweeter and more delicate flavour compared to salmon. They also provided a crisp slightly-sweet slightly-tart accompaniment that is a nice alternative to the common roasted potato. The dish was paired with the 2009 Pinot Gris grown on the calcium-rich estate soil. Hardie describes the wine as stylistic leaning a little more towards North Eastern Italy’s leaner Alto Adige take on grape than Alsace’s richer fuller style. On the palate there’s a mineral focus with citrus notes. The topic of discussion at the table turned to the grape when one of the diners said they hadn’t come across a compelling bottle. Although Hardie said that the high point of Pinot Gris will likely never reach the level of a good Chardonnay or Riesling it can get very close. The key is finding the right site and restricting yields.

Norm Hardie and Didier

The best dish of the night was the de-boned quail stuffed with butternut squash, sour cherries, quail mousse and merguez sausage. This was served with the 2008 County Pinot Noir. Hardie described the wine as ethereal and feminine owing to the estate’s soil. Hardie compared Pinot Noir to a ballerina “You don’t see an ounce of muscle when she jumps. But there’s not only tremendous power behind it but also grace.” The cherry notes that are a hallmark of Ontario Pinot Noir were well matched with the sour cherries in the bird. The mineral backbone of the County Pinot helped cut through some the richness from the mousse, squash and spicy merguez. Richer and more concentrated than the County Pinot Noir, the 2008 Pinot Noir from Niagara maintains the food-friendly strong acidity and lightness of the varietal with aromas of dark cherries and wild strawberries and an earthiness. Although not a classic match, it held-up well to a perfectly cooked medium rare filet of Beef Rossini topped by a generous disc of rich Foie Gras, served with crisp and creamy Pommes Dauphine and a bundle of squeaky green beans. It’s a vegetable that is overlooked and too often overcooked until it resembles tired greyish mush.

Dessert was a plate of French cheese paired with Hardie’s Cabernet Franc. The Cabernet Franc came about in 2005 as regulations dictated that Hardie needed more Prince Edward County sourced fruit in the winery’s first year of operation. He turned to his neighbour for fruit and was pleased with the result. He likens this 2009 version to a high-acid Loire style of Cabernet Franc. It has blueberry, yeasty and vegetal aromas and flavours of currents and cranberries. The high-acidity allowed it cut through the rich cheeses and move between the chalky and herbal falvours of the goat cheese, the rich barnyard of the ripe soft rind cheese and even the pungent blue Roquefort—although a wine with more sweetness would have been a more ideal pair for the blue.

The food and wine was not the only high point, service was impeccable. Sommeliers Zoltan Szabo and Jamie Drummond gracefully refilled wine glasses through the night. Edwards orchestrated service making sure it was attentive enough to address wants and needs without being obtrusive to dinner conversation. A particular nice touch was an extra bundle of green beans with the beef Rossini served to one of the table’s dining companions after Edwards overheard that the diner found the menu a little protein heavy.

As the evening closed chef Leroy brought out his kitchen team to greet the attendees. The crowd was a mix of younger and older wine enthusiasts many of which are customers who have lent a hand during winery’s harvests over the year. People enjoyed sharing stories and asking questions at both the structured tasting and as Hardie visited each table throughout the night. For Hardie it was a way to share the story and passion behind the wine “more important than the score is where it comes from,” he says. It allows him to showcase his wine at their best; served along side the classic flavours of good food made with fresh local ingredients.

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Norm Hardie Winery

Didier Restaurant

Written by Mike Di Caro

Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.

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