Judge’s Picks from “The Nationals”

Judge’s Pick Favourites from “The Nationals”

Last week WineAlign released the Results of the National Wine Awards of Canada. Since the judging in Niagara this summer our 18 judges have been writing about their favourite wines of the competition, and their observations on Canadian wine in general. This week we welcome Sara D’Amato from Toronto and Rémy Charest from Quebec City. And Canadian syrah emerges as a common theme. 

Sara D’Amato, Toronto 

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

Sara is a Toronto-based wine consultant, sommelier and principal critic at WineAlign. She has worked in cellars both in Niagara and in France and formerly as Sommelier of Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. A graduate of the University of Toronto and Niagara College’s winery and viticulture technician program, she was the youngest and only woman to win the grand prize at Canadian Renaissance Wine Tasting Challenge in 2006 as featured in CBC’s Wine Confidential Documentary. Sara has been awarded The Ontario Hosteliery’s “Top 30 Under 30” Award and is a staunch promoter of local wine and gastroculture. Sara is a member of the Wine Writer’s Circle of Canada and continues to participate in judging wine competitions across the country. Currently, Sara sits on the board of the Ontario Chapter of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers.

Sara on B.C.’s Excellent Pinots and Syrahs

Always the champion of the elegance of Ontario wines, I must give British Columbia due credit for two varietals that I have always upheld as being Ontario’s gems: syrah and pinot noir. Ontario’s fringe climate often coaxes very distinctive flavours and tension in these varietals all on a delicate backdrop, which allows the varietal to express itself very purely with a transparency which is both refreshing and unique.

My first real experience with B.C. syrah was many years ago while judging the Okanagan Wine Festival. Being one of two non-B.C. judges that year, I was surprised to hear of the high expectations for the pinots from the local contingent of judges. Hailing from Ontario, where world-class, fresh and elegant pinots were becoming almost a hallmark of the region, I was a skeptic (playing into the unfortunate stereotype of Ontario consumers). And in fact, my preconceived notions were not changed. I was largely unimpressed with the pinots I was presented with. However, I was unprepared for the glass after glass of stunning syrah that arrived my way.

As a result, going into our first annual National Wine Awards of Canada, I was prepared for a similar outcome. What I was afforded with was, as David Lawrason put it, a “snapshot” of the changing landscape of Canadian wine. Much to my delight, I felt as if B.C.’s pinots had come a long way both in the diversity of their styles and the more pure, distinctive feel of them. And, although B.C. syrah continues to deliver a great deal of “wow factor”, I was equally impressed to see that Ontario had become no slouch in this department and was easily able to hold their own in the face of the slightly more bold B.C. versions. What follows are some of the most standout examples.

Road 13 Syrah Malbec 2011
Okanagan Valley, BC $25.00

A strong performer in the National Wine Awards, Road 13 was awarded 15 medals out of the 19 wines that were submitted. A platinum performer, the syrah malbec blend had immediate show-stopping appeal. Here was an expressive, peppery syrah dominant wine with a real musky, sensual appeal. The wine certainly stood out among the more homogeneous, indistinct examples that were far more common in this flight. Not having much personal experience with Road 13, I was surprised to see, upon the completion of my judging that many of my highest scores were given to the wines submitted from this relatively new player. As I was not alone in this realization among the judges, we placed Road 13 among the Top 3 of 20 Canadian wineries in the competition.

Road 13 Syrah Malbec 2011

Nk’mip Cellars Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir 2010
Okanagan Valley, BC $21.99

Although I’ve learned to really appreciate well-made styles of more modern pinot, it has never been my stylistic preference. However, this New World inspired pinot noir from NK’Mip Qwam Qwmt series (the premium tier of wines – Qwam Qwmt translates to “achieving excellence”) was a real stunner. With a depth of progressively-revealed flavours on the palate and a judicious use of treatments, this balanced beauty really captured my attention. Characteristically pinot with wild aromatics and juicy, mouthwatering fruit, it is also highly accessible and a testament to the ability of the Okanagan to produce some truly distinctive and expressive pinots.

Nk'Mip Cellars Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir

Rémy Charest, Québec

Based in Québec City, Rémy has been writing about wine and food for over 15 years for various magazines, daily newspapers and online publications, in both French and English. Among other things, he was a restaurant critic for Montreal daily Le Devoir from 1998 to 2006, and since 2011, he has been a regular contributor to the food and wine radio show Bien dans son assiette, broadcast coast to coast on Radio-Canada. He also writes for several magazines like Cellier, Châtelaine and Coup de Pouce, and is a member of the editorial board and regular contributor to US-based online magazine Palate Press. Time permitting, he also blogs about wine and food on his own personal blogs, winecase.ca and foodcase.ca.

Rémy Charest

Rémy Charest

He has been judging in both national and international wine competitions since 2009, including at the National Wine Awards of Canada and the World Wine Awards of Canada, which he sees as a great opportunity to better understand what drives wine production and wine sales across the country.

What he likes the most about the wine world is the seemingly infinite variations in terroir, vintage, varieties, blends and styles found across the planet, but also within specific wine regions. He is also greatly interested in viticultural and winemaking processes, to understand the specifics of what makes great grapes and, from there, great wines.

Rémy on Canadian Wine

My first gig writing about wine professionally was a Canadian wine column in Via Rail’s on-board magazine in the late 1990s. At the time, writing it was a true voyage of discovery about a young industry that was starting to find its marks. Tasting a good Canadian wine had a “hey, we can do this!” kind of feeling, whereas today, it has become a question of what we do best and how well our best wine can compare to standard-bearers from renowned regions across the globe.

The two varieties that have been getting me the most excited at the National Wine Awards of Canada are riesling and syrah. In both cases, there are excellent, complex, vibrant examples from both Ontario and British Columbia—and particularly in the case of riesling, often at very reasonable prices.

Pinot gris/grigio is also a constantly improving grape, with all sorts of pleasant wines from the crisp and fresh to the full-bodied and aromatic. It’s the perfect people pleaser of Canadian wine: the variety everyone and their grandmother can enjoy. Chardonnay, generally reliable, impresses when it reaches for the top: the very best Canadian chardonnays are complex and intense, worth laying down, and able to compete against similarly-priced wines from, say, Burgundy or California.

It’s also very interesting to taste some of the new or rare varieties that dot the Canadian wine landscape (I never thought I’d ever have so much fun tasting a touriga nacional from BC!), as well as the inventive blends that some winemakers are coming up with. When done with care and purpose, those unusual red and white blends can be some of the most accomplished wines around. Zweigelt maréchal foch, pinot noir and michurnitz in the same wine? Why not? Syrah and malbec? Delicious. Riesling and chardonnay together? That can work too. A bubbly made with seyval, l’acadie and chardonnay? Party on!

That willingness to push boundaries, whether in planting of blending, is one of the most encouraging things for the future of wine in this country. While we do a lot of things well, there is always more to learn and hidden gems to discover.

Rémy’s picks

Vineland Estate Winery 2011 Elevation Riesling St. Urban Vineyard
Niagara Escarpment, Ontario, $19.95

There were many rieslings I loved at the NWACs, whether from out West (Tantalus, Synchromesh, Orofino, etc.) or out East (Tawse, Coffin Ridge, Château des Charmes), but I have to give a tip of the hat to Vineland’s 2011 Elevation from the St. Urban vineyard, one of the oldest and most significant vineyards in Canada. Mineral and fresh on the nose, with enticing citrus notes, it shows a lot of complexity, as well as a great balance between sugar and energetic acid. A wine you could drink now or lay down for several years.

Vineland Estates Elevation St. Urban Riesling 2011

Konzelmann Estate 2012 Shiraz
Niagara Lakeshore, $13.00

It keeps being said that Canada has trouble producing solid “value” wines – a term, “value”, that many seem to confuse with cheap, in any case. This fresh, appealing, simple wine with a lovely, bright red color, nice red fruit and lively peppery notes, certainly shows it can be done. My only qualm would be the use of the name shiraz, which evokes burly Australian wines, rather than syrah, as this is closer to the Northern Rhône than to Barossa. As pleasant as it is affordable.

Konzelmann Shiraz 2012

Moon Curser Vineyards 2010 Dead of Night
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia $38.00

A blend of 50% syrah and 50% tannat (a tannic, serious, late-ripening variety originally from Madiran, in the Southwest of France), this Okanagan red blend is expressive and enticing, with beautiful savoury, peppery notes and a fair bit of well-focused dark fruit. On the mouth, a bit of orange peel and salty licorice complement the peppery nose. Well-structured and delicious.

Moon Curser Dead Of The Night 2010

Happy Knight Crème de Cassis
Prince Edward Island. $24.29

This fortified cassis drink is a great example of how you shouldn’t discount either fruit wines or less-established regions, when it comes to opening a good Canadian bottle. This offers a pure, clean and zippy expression of black currant, very distinctive and pleasant. Blend with a crisp Canadian white or bubbly for a terrific kir, or drink on its own and enjoy its precise, fresh fruit aromas.

Happy Knight Creme De Cassis

The complete results of the National Wine Awards of Canada are now posted on WineAlign at: NWAC 2013 Results. The results include all the Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze medal winners in several style and grape variety categories, plus a “performance report” on the Top 20 wineries in the country.

National Wine Awards of Canada


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