When life gives you grapes, make lemonade

Posted May 19th, 2010 in Eating Niagara

When life gives you grapes, make lemonade

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Far from being a trendsetter, I'm calling this summer's drink: Winemaker's lemonade.

It's as good as it sounds — different, refreshing, a patio drink sure to impress and, unlike real lemonade, which is my favourite non-alcoholic beverage, the main ingredient is local.

I made the concoction this weekend to get the creative juices flowing for a freelance story whose deadline was looming. What better way to find inspiration then to delve into what it was I had to write about: verjus.

I had no idea what verjus was until I got my assignment. Turning to my trusty research associate, Google, for help, I found out verjus is the snappy, fresh juice of unripened wine grapes removed by hand from the vines because they aren't showing signs of maturing. Thinning those sluggish berries enables the fruit that does stand a chance of producing a great vintage to continue on that path. With the thinned grapes gone, the vine can concentrate its energies on the remaining fruit.

The culled grapes are pressed for verjus, which is used as a substitute for tangy staples, such as vinegar and lemon juice, in marinades, salad dressing and my new drink of choice. The benefit: it doesn't clash with wine that may be drunk while enjoying verjus-laced culinary creations. Verjus has been made in wine regions around the globe as long as they've been making vino but it's relatively uncommon here. Typically, those young grapes are left on the ground to rot.

Further research led me to Featherstone Estate Winery perched atop the escarpment in Vineland. Far from being ostentatious, Featherstone is all vineyards with a comfy, white-sided farmhouse plunked in the middle. Proprietors Louise Engel and David Johnson practice a sustainable existence in the wine world, using falconry to keep berry-eating birds at bay and bringing in lambs each season as free labour to eat light-blocking leaves off their vines. Featherstone is also one of three Niagara wineries that have ventured into verjus making, joining Crown BenchRidge Road and Hidden Bench wineries.

I picked up a bottle of Featherstone Pinot Noir verjus — they go for about $13 for a 750-millilitre bottle — when I stopped by recently to do an interview and fortunately for me, it came with a recipe card around the neck, including the how-to for making Winemaker's lemonade.

Here are the instructions:

Pour verjus over crushed ice, add some sparkling water and a slice of fresh lemon.

Take it from me, less is more when it comes to making this measurement-free, non-alcoholic bevvie. My first glass was more verjus than water. A little lip-pursing and cheek-tensing in the mouth. Next glass, I put in slightly more water than verjus. Better by far, but the third time was indeed the charm. I only put the equivalent of a shot of verjus in and it was spectacular. Keep in mind this is not sweet stuff — think 12 brix, or sugar units. Icewine has 35 of these sweeties by comparison.

A little experimentation led me to discover that a smidge of gingerale thrown in the mix adds a hint of sweetness without losing the flavour of the verjus or the killilng the spirit of Winemaker's lemonade.

Cheers!

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