The 2015 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada
A Record Medal Haul, A Widening Range of WinesJuly 29, 2015
by David Lawrason
The results of the 2015 National Wine Awards of Canada are out (read on or skip to the results), with more medals handed out than Canadian athletes won at the Pan American games that wrapped up Sunday in Toronto (they won 271). Who knew there were so many sports, and so many young Canadian athletes so good at what they do? And who knew that so many different types of Canadian wines from different regions in the country would also rise to the top? This is the 15th anniversary of these Awards. And the stats on this year’s judging, which took place at the Sheraton on the Falls in Niagara Falls, are record-breaking. A total of 1,408 wines were entered from 205 wineries. Sixty wineries entered for the first time, a testament to the growing number of wineries in the country, and faith in these awards as being a way to showcase and benchmark new wines.
We handed out a record number of awards as well – 14 Platinum, 101 Gold, 263 Silver and 375 Bronze. Given that a bronze must have been scored 87 points by a panel of a minimum of three judges, we have hundreds of wines in Canada that our experts felt were ‘very good’or better. That should instill some confidence among consumers.
Among the list of 14 Platinum winners – the top 1% of wines in the country – there were three gamays from B.C. and Ontario, three “Rhone/syrah” inspired reds and one Rhone inspired white from B.C., two cabernet francs from Ontario and one merlot-based blend from B.C., two chardonnays from Norman Hardie in Prince Edward County, a great Niagara riesling, and a classic vidal icewine from the Okanagan Valley.
Among the 101 Gold Medals, we again saw a huge diversity of styles and varietals on the podium, although two thirds were reds, which may come as surprise to those who perceive cool climate Canada as a white wine hot zone. And within the reds there was a fairly equal split among the main genres – pinot noirs, cabs and merlots as well as syrahs and blends thereof. Both British Columbia and Ontario were dealing with good red wine vintages in 2012 and 2013, the vintages that dominated this year’s competition (To qualify a wine must be bottled and available commercially in 2015).
Among the many silver and bronze medals you will find even more varietal and regional diversity. We saw wines from grapes like arneis, blattner, chasselas, pinotage, tempranillo, carmenere, grenache and a seyval/chardonnay from Quebec. We had western Canada wines from Vancouver Island & the Gulf Islands, the Fraser Valley and Cranbrook. We had eastern Canada wines from all of Ontario’s VQA regions, Quebec’s Eastern Townships, and regions of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
What underlies this success and diversity? It is winemakers – not the varieties or regions themselves. It might be a stretch to compare our winemakers to athletes – in a physical sense at least – but there is certainly no less passion among the many – and often young – Canadians that are taking over the reins of Canada’s wine industry. These men and women are driven not so much by competition with their Pan-American and Euro peers, as they are driven by being different, and exploring with both confidence and a sense of adventure, what Canada can do well. There is now a huge sense of what’s possible here, a spirit that actually does mirror the new attitude fuelling our athletic success.
Speaking of passionate and innovative winemakers, the 2015 National Wine Awards of Canada are dedicated to Richard Karlo, a much loved winemaker from Prince Edward County who passed away earlier this year. As well his ever-present optimism and booming laugh, Richard was known for pushing boundaries in the County, which is defined largely as pinot-chardonnay-sparkling region. He planted winter hardy Minnesota hybrids like Frontenac Gris that resulted in much loved rosé and dessert wines. He worked with a wide range of red varietals from both Niagara and PEC to create a portfolio of wines as generous and outgoing as he was himself. In his memory The National Wine Awards is making a donation in his honour to his favourite local charity, The Loyalist Humane Society.
Richard’s winemaking spirit is pan-Canadian, making it less and less important to be comparing regions in a quality sense. Certainly given geography and vintage variation there will be differences in terms of which varietals might fare better, but when you dig deep into sub-appellations in both B.C. and Ontario in particular, you find that both provinces have micro-zones that are quite capable of producing a wide range of grapes and styles.
So is it time to stop generalizing? Have we matured enough to do so? I personally think Canada, as a multi-regional wine growing country, has a huge future with Icewine, sparkling wine, chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, gamay, cabernet franc and merlot, with perhaps more vintage specific success awaiting cabernet sauvignon and syrah.
Chief judge and awards architect Anthony Gismondi will be announcing the NWAC 2015 Winery of the Year Award on August 5th, as well as the winner of our new WineAlign 2015 National Wine Awards Best Performing Small Winery (10,000 cases and under). He will explain the process of ranking the wineries, one that we think is ultimately the fairest and most objective that can be achieved. This year, because we want to make it easier to relate to wines that might only be available in their provinces, we will be presenting lists of the top performing wineries in each B.C. and Ontario.
The Judges and the Judging
This national blind tasting competition for Canadian wines began in 2001 as the Canadian Wine Awards operated by Wine Access magazine. In 2012 the awards were acquired by WineAlign and re-named the National Wine Awards of Canada. Chief judge Anthony Gismondi and I have been aboard from the beginning, along with a core of veteran judges from east and west. As well each year we have added new judges, including an impressive group from Quebec when WineAlign took over and then created its French language site called Chacun Son Vin.
We had 16 core judges from seven provinces, and those judges were regionally interspersed among six panels so that each wine was judged from a “national” perspective. We also welcomed back Dr. Jamie Goode, one of the leading palates and wine bloggers from the United Kingdom. You can link to read about each of our judges here.
Last year, under the guidance of veteran Vancouver judge DJ Kearney we initiated a program called the Judges Training Judges Mentoring Initiative, where “top palates” were selected to attend a pre-competition judging seminar, then sit in on the preliminary round of tasting. Their scores were not counted but they were fully engaged in the discussion, listened to and respected. This year we were delighted to have two very accomplished sommeliers working with two of the largest restaurant cellars in Ontario: Emily Pearce, sommelier at Toronto’s Barberians Steakhouse and sommelier Katy Moore from Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ontario.
The actual judging process is very carefully designed to be fair to each wine entered. They are of course served blind, and served at appropriate temperature. The wines are grouped in small flights by variety/style of 8 to 10 wines. Judges tasted about eight flights a day (fewer than many other competitions) to help stave off palate fatigue.
Three person panels have about three minutes to judge each wine, in silence – then another five to ten minutes to discuss any discrepancies. An odd-man-out difference of opinion on a wine would have a huge influence on a straight mathematical score. So it becomes a panel captain’s job to build a fair consensus, making sure that wines don’t fall through the cracks.
But landing the wines on the table requires as much or more diligence as the judging. The right wine has to be in the right glass, in the right order, and appear thus on all flights lists and the competition database. This requires a detailed wine registration process, then back room set up that begins 48 hours before the first wine is sipped. This year our incredible back room staff of over 20 volunteers processed 1408 entries, handling 4,500 bottles in the process.
Our judge’s tasting experiences in Niagara were not limited to the judging bench. We would begin at 8:30 each day going until about 3:30, with a non-wine lunch break. At 6pm each evening we were off to visit with dozens of Ontario winemakers assembled at various wineries/restaurants in Niagara. Many thanks to fabulous evenings and food, wine and conversation at Ravine Vineyards Restaurant, The Good Earth Winery Bistro, Treadwell’s in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Trius Winery Restaurant and the new Restaurant at Redstone Winery. We all learn a great deal about each other at these events. So a special thanks for all the very efficient co-ordination efforts by Magdalena Kaiser and Joanna Muratori of Wine Country Ontario.
Next year the National Wine Awards return to Penticton, British Columbia, repeating a process of alternating between east and west each year. From the outset these awards have been designed a national event, not a series of regional awards, and after fifteen years Canadian wine is feeling very much like it is just that – Canadian. We just need to get it flowing unfettered between the provinces in order for all Canadians to feel the same way about it that we do. Fingers crossed, one day soon!
We would like to acknowledge the following sponsors: Fortessa Canada for the Schott Zwiesel glassware used throughout the judging, Container World for shipping and logistics and Dairy Farmers of Canada for their ongoing support of our Awards. A special thank you to Jason Dziver for the above images, as well as for each and every Awards bottle image appearing our site. You can see more of his work at Jason Dziver Photography.