Some kids attend Scout camp, while others do the sports or arts thing. I went to Italian camp.
The point of Italian camp was to get us little ones immersed in the language, but it was a redundant exercise on that score. We were all offspring of recent immigrants and frankly probably needed more help with English pronunciation than with the language we spoke at home.
What I remember most from that day camp - besides stinking at soccer - was Corrado. He was one of the older teenaged supervisors and he had two strange predilections. Whenever the sweltering school bus would pass a freshly fertilized field, Corrado would make a provocative show of savouring the funky bouquet. "Ahh, nature," he'd say to a busful of pinched noses.
He also liked to catch frogs - and not for sport. On the way home, he would make us gag by holding up his daily catch, a bloated plastic bag full of deceased Kermits. "Dinner," he would proudly declare, and we knew he wasn't kidding.
It didn't surprise me years later to learn that Corrado had gone on to become a distinguished restaurateur, teaming up with a man who would become one of Toronto's pre-eminent hosts, Franco Prevedello, to start Biffi Bistro. That was one of the seminal Italian eateries that taught many a white-bread Torontonian in the early 1980s that Italian food was more than bad Bardolino and "pissghetti and meatballs."
I mention camp because I associate the great Canadian outdoors with my culinary coming of age. It's partly because of Corrado, no doubt, that I'm not turned off by the manure-like aroma of brettanomyces, the spoilage organism common to old wine barrels. In modest doses, "brett" can add an intriguing barnyard nuance to wine. I also happen to be partial to frogs' legs and anything actually butchered by the chef.
I believe, too, that decent wine has a place by the campfire. You just have to know which wines to serve.
On that score, forget most tannic cabs and oaky chardonnays. They can taste bitter or overly alcoholic in the outdoors. Don't bother with fine red Burgundy, either. Delicate aromas can be overwhelmed by the scents of the forest, campfire and your bug spray.
Beer, of course, makes a better thirst quencher. I also tip my hat to the folks at Molson, who have just released Miller Genuine Draft in recyclable, resealable plastic bottles fit for the campsite. The large-size, 473-millilitre containers reportedly get cooler faster and stay colder longer than glass. A hit in the United States, they have just been launched in Ontario and are being sold for $2.50 a bottle at LCBO stores (there's no case discount).
Vino, however, can add a little more sophistication to your alfresco meal than beer.
Wines that taste most compelling in the aromatic outdoors tend to be crisp, lively and bursting with fresh fruit. I call my favourite outdoor wines off-road whites because they include just about every white wine most Canadians have either never heard of or would rarely consider buying. Think Spanish albarino, Rhone blends made from roussanne and marsanne and other French obscurities such as Picpoul de Pinet and Bandol rosé. Think Austrian gruner-veltliner and Australian semillon. I would also include such underappreciated varieties as riesling, chenin blanc and lean Italian whites such as vermentino, vernaccia and bianco di custoza.
Any one of the following wines would pair admirably with the campfire cookout in this section. Most are available in Ontario as part of today's Vintages fine-wine release. Some, where indicated, are available as Internet exclusives to Ontarians through the new Vintagesshoponline website. Some are available in other select provinces.
From the Rias Baixas district of northwest Spain, Leira Albarino 2007 ($18.95, product No. 115816) is a delicate white that is made from the whispering albarino grape and shows almost-sweet lemon-like fruit. The finish is tangy and dry.
Light and minerally, Schmelz Federspiel Gruner Veltliner 2007 ($20.95, No. 119578) is Austrian but puts me in mind of the Alamo, with an uncanny note of tequila as well as gun metal. Delicious. Versatile.
Beauvignac Picpoul de Pinet 2008 ($15.95, No. 350124) is made from the picpoul grape that thrives in southern France, where the name translates as "lip-stinger." This won't hurt, but it is crisp with notes of citrus and red apple as well as nuances of herbs and flowers. It tastes like a Mediterranean breeze in fact and is good on its own as an aperitif or with fish.
Beauvignac Viognier 2008 ($14.95, No. 525295) is medium full-bodied and slightly oily in texture, with an attractive citrus-skin bitterness. A value viognier from the grape's home country. Good for spicy food.
Grandes Serres Les Portes du Castelas Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc 2007 ($14.95, No. 103697) is medium-bodied and savoury, with notes of herbs and mineral. Think of it as an "un-chardonnay."
From Provence in southern France, La Bastide Blanche Bandol Rosé 2008 ($23.95, No. 71084) is a seductively salmon-coloured rosé with notes of strawberry and rhubarb. Soft, with a long finish.
St. Hallett Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($14.95 in Ontario, No. 057687; in B.C. and New Brunswick, look for the "Poachers Blend" for $13.95 and $17.29 respectively) is a medium full-bodied Australian with classic semillon flavours of honeyed lemon and herbs. A substantial white that could stand up to meats, it offers great value too.
Albino Piona Custoza 2008 ($14.95, No. 119446) is from the northern Italian region of Veneto. This delicate wine has a core of candied citrus and an impressively long and harmonious finish for its light weight.
Durin Lunghera Vermentino 2007 ($29, No. 122200, through Vintagesshoponline.com) is an aromatic white from the northwest Italian region of Liguria, home of pesto sauce. It's bracingly crisp and herbal, with a chalky texture. Not a sweet crowd-pleaser, but a serious, unfiltered white that will impress the sommeliers around your campfire.
Made from the invigorating chenin blanc grape, Damien Laureau Le Bel Ouvrage Savennieres 2005 ($54, No. 122788, through Vintagesshoponline.com) is a dry white teeming with minerals, flowers and fresh fruit. Lots going on with this wine, which may distract you from the pines, your fish fry and your friends.