York Region may not immediately spring to mind when referencing Ontario's wine country - the vast majority appears to prefer Niagara. However, the quaint Whitchurch-Stouffville winery, Willow Springs, is not only a picturesque destination preparing for a summer of wine tastings, tasting menus and weddings, they are VQA recognized wine producers who defied the odds to grow, harvest and process their grapes into award winning wines.
"We were told you couldn't grow grapes here," remembered owner M
ario Testa, "We first started fruit wines then experimented with, what turned out to be, a successful test plot out front, in 1995."
Over ten varieties are now planted on Mario and his wife Julia's 11-acres of land, making them the most northern commercial winery in Ontario. Willow Springs' success as winery has come from a lot of trial and error. "We could learn a little from growers in Niagara, but overall, this area is very different. We essentially taught ourselves everything," said Mario.
The difference between Niagara vs. Stouffville lies within the natural characteristics of the Oak Ridges Moraine. This sandy ridge, often referred to as the "the rainbarrel" of Southern Ontario, stretches 160km from the Trent River to the Niagara Escarpment. There is no run off to ponds and streams, such as with soil, instead, water drains vertically. The glacially deposited sand acts as a spongy core, retaining water, naturally filtering it and feeding it to over 65 river systems. These conditions are ideal for maintaining the healthy root system of various grape varieties.
Four of their wines, the Meritage, the Baco Noir, the Vidal and the Vidal Icewine, can be purchased through the LCBO. "The 2006 Vidal won a white ribbon (3rd place), the Pinot Grigio/Baco Noir RosÃ©, the Merlot and the Meritage all won red ribbons (1st place) at the 2008 Royal Winter Fair's wine competition," said Mario, "we never competed before this... we came out of the blue and walked away feeling pretty good."
Willow Springs operates entirely out of a 2400sq ft multipurpose facility. This location houses their offices, gift shop, fermenting cellars, holding tanks, kitchen and dining room. By enlisting the assistance of Chef Tanis Hargrave and housing her catering company, The Roving Chef, Willow Springs is able to provide event services to individuals looking to host corporate retreats, weddings and other private events in addition to the holiday brunches as well as the monthly Wine Maker's Dinners.
"The Wine Maker's Dinner is a multi-course meal prepared with and to pair with wines from the winery," shared Tanis, as she led us to the kitchen where we would be sampling her dishes, "that and our holiday brunches are really some of the most popular events we hold for the public."
We are seated at the kitchen's preparation station, a wedding is taking place in the main room and we will be sampling a few of the catered dishes. Appetizers consisted of crisp homemade wonton shells filled with artichoke and hearts of palm. Looking more like wonton quiche, the appetizer was actually a bite sized introduction to Tanis' philosophies in the kitchen, simple, satisfying and great tasting.
Founded in 2003, The Roving Chef, has grown to include several employees with the most recent addition of award winning, and CityTV regular, Chef Todd Timleck. Regardless, Tanis has a reputation to ensure that all of her dishes meet a very high standard. "In the beginning there were jobs where we showed up and all we had available to us were a few warming trays and a portable oven," recalled Tanis, "the only choice is to adapt; to make it work."
Thankfully, in the neatly organized kitchen of Willow Springs Winery, the days of learning to make do are long gone. Here, plates of mixed greens and goat cheese are generously assembled with strawberries and toasted pine nuts, a classic combo. Fork tender prime rib is served up medium-rare, with seasonal vegetables, roasted potatoes and au jus, a meal reminiscent of an eagerly anticipated Sunday dinner. CrÃ¨me brulee began on the right foot with the snap of a crisp sugar shell which led to the, slightly grainy custard - something I overlooked because of the heartwarming flavor akin to a crÃ¨me caramel.
Beyond this meal, looking at The Roving Chef's book of catering options. It is mind boggling to think what appears to be hundreds of dishes are made from scratch; Tanis wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, it is clear that it is the only way to cook, much like sourcing local produce whenever possible.
The doors are always open to visitors wishing to drop in and sample a free tasting of the wineries finest while the kitchen is currently preparing for the upcoming 3-course Wine Maker's Dinner. Questions are easily answered with a single call or an email from their website. Willow Springs Winery is a surprising gem. In their own picturesque wine country, it defied the nay-saying to become one of the jewels of Stouffville, just on the edges of the Oak Ridges Moraine.