For at least 4,000 years, wine drinkers have chosen food to accompany certain wines and vise versa. When I imagine trying a good wine, it is always in a setting around a table or gathered with friends, and food is always a part of the picture.

I worry that the North American wine industry has cultivated an image of wine “connoisseurs” in suits and ties, cocktail dresses and high heels, delicately sipping wines from beautiful stemware, with nary a morsel of accompanying food to be found.

I prefer the image of relaxed friends on a winter evening, sitting around a table brimming with food, encouraging each other to try another dish, talking about the impact that the wine has on how the food tastes, and how the food makes the wine even better.

In October, I was reminded of the magic of wines paired with good food.

Several days before its 20th annual Wine and Fine Food Festival, the Rendezvous Rotary Club of Whitehorse hosted a special wine and dinner evening presented by the High Country Inn and Grey Monk Estates Winery.

Months before, the Grey Monk wine representative and several Rotary Club members met with the High Country Inn’s executive chef, Gedas Pabritsa, to taste and discuss the possibilities.

The idea was to offer a sumptuous six-course meal with seating limited to 50 people, with each dish selected and prepared to fully complement the selected wines.

For the first time since they started their vineyard in British Columbia, almost 30 years ago, Grey Monk Estates owners, George and Trudy Heiss, left during the grape harvest to attend this dinner and provide commentary on the wine pairings.

The evening began with hors d’oeuvres, paired with Gray Monk Latitude 50, their blended white wine ($18.60).

To accompany this, Chef Gedas had prepared Calabrese bites (dried ham, melon and cheese), celery boats with smoked salmon mousse, vegetarian samosas and tandoori chicken wings. All were delicious, but I thought the Calabrese bites went particularly well with the Latitude 50.

We then sat down to a wonderful appetizer of house smoked chicken galantine with sugar beet compote—a sort of pâté with a delicious, fruity sauce, drizzled on the side. This was paired with the Gray Monk Pinot Noir ($20.65), which opened brilliantly with the chicken galantine.

I have commented in the past that I found many of the BC pinot noirs that I have tasted to be a little thin and watery. This one had a delicate but balanced bouquet, and was a terrific complement to the galatine, with a really great and long finish (the taste remained in your mouth a long time after you swallowed the wine).

We moved on to a small salad and then delicately baked Chilean sea bass with fava bean purée and quinoa grain, paired with Gray Monk Pinot Gris ($20.65). This was another brilliant pairing, and served to re-enforce my opinion that pinot gris may be the best white wines coming out of the northwest of the United States and BC.

This well balanced, but slightly tart, non-oaky wine was a perfect, crisp foil to the delicate taste of the sea bass, the fresh garden taste of the fava bean purée, and the slightly smoky taste and beady mouth feel of the quinoa. Yum!

For me, though, the wine highlight and discovery of the evening was the Gray Monk Odyssey Merlot ($24.60), one of merlots that was paired with poached elk striploin with fingerling potato comfit, patty pan vegetables and Alaskan crab béarnaise sauce.

I am generally not a huge merlot fan, and though I had tasted the other Gray Monk Merlot ($20.65) that was also served with the dinner, and enjoyed it, I was entirely unprepared for the delightful shock of the Odyssey.

This was a wine to savour. When I first put my nose in the glass, it had an almost port-like bouquet. I anticipated an almost sweet taste, but instead got a mouthful of rich, balanced, intense fruit… but full bodied and dry. I honestly couldn’t get enough of that wine. Even writing about it now, I want to go out and buy a bottle!

This and a much more expensive Italian wine are the only two merlots that have ever knocked my socks off. It is moments like this, when you think you know what to expect, and are completely taken by surprise, and find such new delight in a wine, that make tasting wine such an exciting adventure.

I really congratulate the Heiss family for raising the bar on Canadian wines in general, but particularly on Canadian merlots, with the Gray Monk Odyssey Merlot.

And I have to say that the elk and vegetables that Chef Gedas chose to accompany both these Gray Monk Merlots was outstanding… flavourful and well cooked, but tender, setting off the wine perfectly.

We finished with a cappuccino meringue with fresh blackberries and vanilla cream, paired with Gray Monk Odyssey III ($24.90). The crunchy sweet meringue, tart blackberry foil and creamy vanilla were just the right accompaniment for the fortified (higher alcohol) port-like Gray Monk Odyssey III.

I tried this wine several years ago and it was as good as I remembered it!

The evening of delicious food and wine, the stories of the wine so generously shared by George and Trudy Heiss, and the terrific efforts of Chef Gedas made for a memorable evening of food and wine pairings.

Cheers!