You can’t help noticing the raisins garnishing the cheese board at the tasting bar at Reif Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. They’re a little bit different, larger and darker-looking than their California kin. But that’s to be expected, as these are no ordinary raisins. In a Canadian first, the purchase of two Simcoe County tobacco kilns resulted in the first-ever production of Canadian raisins last year. Made from Ontario-grown seedless Sovereign Coronation grapes and produced by Reif Estates, they’re thicker-skinned and a different texture than your average Sun-Maid—and boast a complex flavour befitting the viniferous surroundings.
“Originally, the idea was to make an appassimento-style wine that involves the drying of grapes that is common in a region of Italy where they make Amarone-style wines,” explains Reif Estate winemaker Roberto DiDomenico. DiDomenico and Reif Estate owner Klaus Reif, a 13th-generation winemaker who immigrated from Germany in the early 1980s and bought his uncle’s Niagara winery in 1987, had some contacts in Simcoe’s tobacco country. “We learned that there would be some kilns available as the tobacco industry has been waning,” says DiDomenico. They purchased two refurbished kilns that were shipped up to Reif Estates in the spring of 2009. And that’s when the process began. Almost. Explains Reif, “Our grapes that we use for the appassimento winemaking process were not yet ready, so we had these two kilns sitting here and we thought, what should we do with them now?”
Wine is made from grapes with seeds while raisins are generally made from seedless grapes. Niagara is wine country, but as luck would have it, a friend of Reif’s, John Klassen, who grows table grapes for supermarkets, happened to stop by the winery for a visit. “He was telling us that his grapes were ripe, but the supermarkets didn’t want them anymore,” says Reif. With those plump, juicy Sovereign Coronation grapes destined for the birds, Reif said, “Bring them in; we’ll try to make raisins.” (While most raisins are made from green grapes, these Niagara raisins are made from red grapes.) DiDomenico and Reif put the grapes in the tobacco kilns for three to four weeks to raisin-up.
But what about the missing California sunshine? The kilns work just as well, says Reif. “The grapes don’t know if it’s real sun or real heat or artificial heat.” (The kilns are powered by natural gas.)
At Reif Estate Winery, they’ve featured their oversized raisins on cheese and charcuterie platters, and they’ve even coated them in chocolate. At the Stone Road Grille in Niagara-on-the-Lake, they use the Reif raisins in the sourdough raisin and walnut bread that’s served with their artisanal Canadian cheese plate. Ruby Watchco, the raucous Toronto restaurant owned by chef Lynn Crawford, has used the raisins in chef de cuisine Lora Kirk’s justifiably famous carrot cake, as well as in sides like rosemary roasted spaghetti squash with Chardonnay-soused raisins. At Niagara’s Casa Mia Ristorante, an Italian field-to-table spot helmed by mother-and-son chefs Luciana and Claudio Mollica, they’re using the Reif raisins in both sweet and savoury preparations; on the sweet side, Reif raisins are topped with a scoop of vanilla bean gelato made by a local artisan ice cream maker. Chef Claudio Mollica finds that in their natural state, the dried Sovereign Coronation grapes are plumper, sweeter and tastier than your average raisin, and “they don’t even have to be reconstituted to be juicy.”
The winery produced two tonnes last year, and will try to double that number this year. “For the time being, especially since we’re limited in our production, we’re treating it as a cottage industry,” says Reif. “But we’d like to expand it into food markets and high-end stores down the road.” They’re currently selling the Niagara raisins in the Reif Estate Winery store for $4.95 per 100-gram box, plus wholesale to chefs, but “hopefully in the next three to four months they’ll be available in Toronto,” says Reif. Could we finally be on the path to the ultimate Canadian granola?