Oh Canada! The Best of 2014
Results from the 2014 National Wine Awards of Canada
by Anthony Gismondi
The results are out for this year’s WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada. Believe it or not, 2014 is year fourteen for ‘The Nationals’, first launched in 2001. Back then, the original Toronto-based Wine Access newsletter founded by co-head judge David Lawrason was looking for a way to reliably gauge the quality of the wines being produced in Canada. David and I conceived of a yearly national competition that would span the entire country including wine producers, wine judges and results that consumers could use no matter where they lived. As we proudly announce the medals and winners for 2014 we can report with some pride that we have reached our goal.
There is still one missing component – the freedom to buy and sell these wines around the country, but today we want to celebrate the best in the country not the worst. Our selfish, short-sighted, protectionist and ‘provincial’ in every sense of the word liquor regulations, will have to wait for another day.
In 2014 we attracted 1,335 wines from across the country and 209 wineries to compete in The Nationals, our largest competition yet. As you would expect the majority of wine comes from British Columbia and Ontario wineries but with growing numbers from Quebec and Nova Scotia and bits and pieces from the rest of the country it is becoming a very broad, national picture.
We have been always been careful when awarding medals at The Nationals because as a team of reviewers we want each of them to mean something to the producer and the wine buyer. This year we tasted the 1,335 wines in three days and brought back about 265, the top 20 percent, on the fourth day. By the end of the fifth day we had reduced those numbers to 60 or 70 wines as we searched for our platinum medal winners. In the end we issued 14 Platinum medals to the top scoring (golds), a mere one percent of all entries. These wines are simply outstanding and are the cornerstones of the results.
In days gone by we would focus on all the categories and flight winners, still a big part of the results, but by celebrating the top one percent of wines in the competition regardless of grape, category or origin we are trying to send a message about what can be done in Canadian wine at a very high level. Also, we think when you encounter a WineAlign 2014 National Wine Awards of Canada Platinum medal winner you can bet on it. Once the Platinum medals are accounted for, the 2014 competition yielded 81 Gold medals, 302 Silver and 251 Bronze medals.
If the numbers look small, it’s because they are meant to be. We agonize over each score, especially where it separates a wine from gold or silver or silver from bronze. We try all week, from the first wine to the last tasted, to set a standard for our readers that they can believe in. We use the regular WineAlign 100 point system to score all wines; the medals simply reflect the score each wine attains. There are no quotas and no pressure to award any medals. There is one final proviso about our scoring concerning bronze medals. We only reward the highest scoring bronze medals in the competition, in a sense they are wines that barely missed getting a silver at 87.5. This makes them worthy medal winners, and again our thinking is to improve the breed (in the case the worth of a bronze medal) by simply rewarding the best.
A great deal of the excitement will surround all the medal winners this week but for my money it’s the annual performance report that tracks a winery’s entire body of work at the competition that is the big prize. Over the years our report that determines Canada’s Best Winery has drawn a great deal of attention and stature to the winning winery. It’s highly coveted by Canada’s most competitive wineries and frankly in a country with over 500 producers any winery getting into the top 25 as a result of its performance at The Nationals is really something to crow about.
In 2014, for the first time ever, the accolade of the WineAlign Canadian Winery of the Year goes to Ontario’s Peller Estate Niagara-on-the-Lake. As has been the case in the last few years it has taken five gold medals to take top place illustrating how difficult it is to grab the title. For the record, our performance report rates any winery entering six or more wines in the competition, automatically entering that producer into the race for the WineAlign Canadian Winery of the Year. While the report was originally designed to help us assess each winery’s performance in the competition, the results are so compelling we now share them for Canada’s top 25 wineries to help you make better buying decisions.
From a practical point of view, we know consumers are interested in a winery’s top wines, so the final calculation is done by selecting the wineries’ five top scoring entries. It also means large wineries entering 10 or 20 wines have no special advantage over smaller boutiques since only five of the top six wines are used to calculate any single performance ranking.
Each performance score begins with the wine’s raw base score as awarded by the judges out of 100 points. Then, employing a series of calculations the wine receives additional points depending upon whether or not it was awarded a bronze, silver, gold or platinum medal. The value of any medal takes into account the total number of medals awarded in each class and the total number of medals issued overall to produce a unique performance score. That total added together with a winery’s other five top scoring wines is used to assess the winery’s performance against all others entered in the competition and hence the list of top performing wineries. What it all comes down to is one of the most useful wine lists in the country, and a true guide to which wines and wineries are performing at the very top of the Canadian wine industry.
We hope you enjoy our report and know that we will roll out further analysis of all the key flights and wines and wineries as we head into the fall and winter. In closing I asked some of our esteemed judges to submit a sentence or two to reflect on their week inside the room, here is what they had to say.
Remy Charest, Quebec City: [bio] We’re certainly seeing a number of constants and positives that we pretty much agree on among the judges. Riesling and syrah are shining and providing the most complex and exciting wines across Canada followed by chardonnay and to a lesser extent cabernet franc and pinot noir. Another highly positive development is the growing diversity of offerings. What a pleasure to taste delicious tannat, melon de bourgogne, verdejo and albarino blends but also well-crafted reds from marquette or remarkably fine maple wines. The Canadian wine industry is maturing if still young, and seeing winemakers try new things successfully is a cause for rejoicing. On the other hand, some categories are also consistently less exciting. Cabernet sauvignon flights are not the easiest to judge, and many red blends seem like an afterthought, or something put together with whatever was left, rather than something made with purpose and a clear vision. And in the end, purpose and a clear vision are what makes great wine, whether you’re producing a maple fortified wine, a gamay or a blackberry wine. It’s good to see more clarity and focus, year after year.
Janet Dorozynski, Ottawa: [bio] Always a pleasure to judge NWAC and check the pulse of the Canadian wine industry. Based on the range of entries, it is obvious that there is still a fair bit of experimentation going on, both in terms of grape varieties and wine styles. That said, for whites, chardonnay and riesling continue to prove the most reliable and exciting, whereas for reds, syrah continues to shine and it’s great to see a growing number of both entries and award winners in this category. There were also a number of impressive traditional method sparkling wines, which given that most (if not all) of Canada’s wine regions are cool climate areas, this is a style that makes sense and whose quality improves by leaps and bounds each year.
Jamie Goode, London England: [bio] Judging the Nationals was a really good experience. Any competition is only as good as its judges, and all those I tasted with had consistent palates and showed excellent judgement. The organization was also first rate, allowing judges to concentrate on doing their job. And the wines? I found plenty to love, and this confirms the impression that I’d gained from previous travels in wine country that Canadian wines are going places.
David Lawrason, Toronto: Judging ‘The Nationals” is as precise, fair and technical as we can possibly make it, but of course wine always generates emotional reactions as well. There is always palpable expectation and excitement in the judging room when certain flights are encountered: pinot noir, syrah, riesling, chardonnay and sparkling leap to mind, with gamay and even cab franc joining the list this year. This does not mean we are less critical on a wine-by-wine basis, in fact we may be more critical, but overall these varieties have provided more pleasure and excitement year after year, and this makes them, in my mind, Canada’s best varieties coast to coast.
DJ Kearney, Vancouver: [bio] I was particularly impressed and captivated by white Rhone-styled wines. Planted in the right sites, viognier, marsanne and roussanne are responsible for some of my highest scores, most lavish notes, and the best wines will blossom in the bottle for several more years. Likewise, syrah is simply going from strength to strength, and not just in B.C., but Niagara too. Over a decade of judging these awards has made something very clear to me: we are becoming a confident wine country – you can feel and taste it in our wines like never before.
Rhys Pender MW, Cawston BC: [bio] Every year judging at the Nationals you get a great snapshot of what is happening in Canadian wine and each year I feel the overall standard is getting higher. There are still varieties that are producing mediocre wine across the board but a few, grapes and styles, are very exciting. It seems Canadian wine growers have hit on a style of wine that fits perfectly with the unique growing conditions we have across our many regions. Riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah are the stars, regularly hitting high points that stand up to many top quality wines around the world. Gamay is finally being understood and made crisp, fresh and juicy like it should be. Rhône white blends are also of a consistently high standard. But the best news is there are fewer poor wines and that the better wines are starting to gain complexity, minerality and just be a lot more interesting than they were in the past.
Craig Pinhey, New Brunswick: [bio] It is always a pleasure and honour to judge wines with my qualified peers from across the country. Canadian wines just keep getting better, all varieties from all regions, and the organization of this competition results in the wines being presented to judges in such a way that we can taste without getting over-tired, in totally ‘blind’ flights without rushing and with post flight discussion; these elements are essential to a thoughtful and fair evaluation.
Treve Ring, Victoria: [bio] I love to see the wineries, and our wine industry gain confidence year after year. Each year at The Nationals the wines become more dialled in, more precise and site-driven rather than sloppy and market-dictated. Yes, there will always be a customer for merlot, but it doesn’t mean you need to plant it in your – often entirely unsuitable – site. Every year I see more experimentation, to great results. Viognier, marsanne, roussanne, albarino, semillon, chenin blanc, melon de bourgogne, lemberger, touriga nacional, nebbiolo, sangiovese and many more. Bring it! Our country and terroir are wide and diverse, and winemakers are becoming keyed into the opportunity and possibilities.
Brad Royale, Calgary: [bio] There is nothing better than being able to try an entire country worth of wine with the country’s best palates. As a sommelier and wine buyer this competition is one of the most important events for me in the year, honing my palate on the best wines in the country to place in our restaurants. Judging these awards over the years I’ve seen a wonder in advancement with purity of varietal, oak use and most importantly, a sense of place. It is much easier now to identify Prince Edward County versus Niagara Peninsula versus Naramata Bench…this is any wine producing country’s goal, and we’re well on our way.
John Szabo MS, Toronto: [bio] The huge number of sub-region, and vineyard-designated wines submitted this year reveals the growing confidence Canadian winegrowers have in their grapes, and the effort to craft an artistic expression rather than simply a commercial product. Winemaking technique is getting relegated to the supporting role, whose sole purpose is to make the place – a special parcel, or a unique sub-area, shine. This transparency was evident across the board, and it’s a clear sign of a maturing industry. It’s that turning point from chasing a style to creating a style. And considering that Canada by nature produces vibrant cool climate wines, which is what the world is increasingly thirsty for, I’d say the industry is currently in a great place. These are exciting times.
A video showing a behind the scenes look at the comprehensive and rigorous judging process for Canada’s largest wine awards.
Please join us at our inaugural “Champions Tasting” to be held at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) on Thursday October 16th, 2014 at 6:30pm.
Our Champions Tasting is unique compared to other tastings in that all wines being poured are “Champions” from our 2014 wine awards. These include only Platinum and Gold winning wines from the 2014 National Wine Awards of Canada, as well as, Top Value, Category Champion and Best of Country wines from the 2014 World Wine Awards of Canada.