The Goode Report: Judging at The Nationals
Dr. Jamie Goode’s Global View on Canadian Wines
For the last three years, the National Wine Awards of Canada (NWACs) have been one of the highlights of my year. This is a big call, because as a wine writer I travel a lot, and go to some lovely places. So let me try to explain why I love this event so much.
It was back in 2014 that I was invited to attend as the first overseas judge. The judging was being held in Penticton, in the Okanagan Valley, and it was an eye-opening experience. While the Canuck judges were busy sifting the sheep from the goats in round 1, I was taken to visit some of the Okanagan’s top wineries. I was taken aback by the beauty of the Okanagan. Then I joined in judging round 2, neatly avoiding all the first-round wines. It’s an arrangement that suited me just fine. I was invited back in 2015, when we all headed over to Niagara Falls, and this year I returned again to Penticton. For the 2016 instalment of the NWACs the international ranks had swelled to two: I was joined by Elaine Chukan Brown, a talented wine writer and ex-philosophy teacher from California. Once again, we toured around wine country, and then joined for round 2 of the judging. It was a great experience.
The first reason I love the NWACs is the judges. In 2014 I gate-crashed quite a tight group who all knew each other well, and yet they accepted me immediately as one of them. The judging group is an eclectic bunch of wine professionals, with a wide range of backgrounds, and it fits together remarkably like a family. It’s a long way from Ontario to BC, and so it’s not all that often that the WineAlign team gets together. This makes events like the NWACs a special experience. And it’s lovely that this family is open to accepting strays from the UK so generously and kindly. The wine trade generally is quite a friendly place, but the WineAlign gang is the tightest crew I’ve met.
The second reason the NWACs mean a lot is because of the integration of hard work with after-hours play. Each day after judging we get on the bus and go to visit specific groups of producers. For example, this year we went to see the Similkameen wineries, the Naramata bench wineries and also groups of wineries at Tantalus, Culmina and Okanagan Crush Pad. On the bus ride there will typically be group singing (this year there were two guitars to act as accompaniment). At the wineries we meet with producers, taste wines, and socialize. Then it’s back on the bus to the hotel, where there may be more singing, before perhaps another glass of wine or nightcap. It’s a very bonding experience, but everyone knows that come 0830 the following day it is time to focus in the tasting room and do a professional job.
Judging wine blind is actually quite tough if you want to do it well, and it requires concentration. We sit around a table in groups of four to six, with a team captain. The wines arrive pre-poured with only a number indicating which is which. All we know about the wines is from the flight they are in, for example Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. We write notes on the wines and give them a score. In order to minimize any presentation effects (with one wine influencing the perception of the next), some people taste backwards through the flight, while others might taste odd-numbered wines first, and so on. Then we discuss the wines, and if necessary go back to retaste and adjust scores. Each judge will have a different background, different context, and different preferences. This causes some disagreement from time to time, but results decided by a group of experienced tasters are more robust than any one person’s opinion. The team captains aren’t there to convince us that their opinion is the right one, but to help the group get to the right sort of verdict – not always straightforward. Sometimes it’s good to argue your corner – after all, it shows that we care about getting the right result if we are prepared to explain why we reached a particular verdict. But other times you have to recognize you might have got it wrong, if you are out on your own and everyone else is in agreement. We work hard judging, but we don’t taste so many wines that our palates get jaded. There’s a balance here. Above all, it is about respecting the wines, and the tremendous back-room organization really sets us free to concentrate on doing our job.
The third reason I love the NWACs is the wines themselves. Judging in a competition like this gives you a chance to get a snapshot of what is happening with Canada’s wine scene. It’s fast evolving and dynamic, so an annual picture of what is going on is really useful. Not only for a foreigner like me, but also for the Canadian judges. Because of the retrograde liquor laws that make it very hard to get wine across the country, the BC-based judges don’t see much from Ontario, and vice versa. So a truly national competition is a great opportunity to redress this imbalance.
You can find the complete results here, but these are just a few of my favourite wines from this year’s judging:
Le Vieux Pin 2014 Syrah Cuvée Violette, BC VQA Okanagan Valley
This won a Platinum medal. It’s just such a brilliant expression of Syrah from the talented Severine Pinte. I visited in June and was blown away by her wines.
Norman Hardie 2013 County Chardonnay Unfiltered, VQA Prince Edward County
This is such a stellar wine from the talented Norman Hardie. Pretty much everything he does is worth seeking out, and I’m not surprised he won Platinum for this wine.
Meyer 2014 Old Block Pinot Noir Mclean Creek Vineyard – Okanagan Falls 2014, Okanagan Valley
Jak Meyer’s Pinots and Chardonnays are really good, and this Pinot is one of the best of the Okanagan in my book. I’m glad it won Gold.
Chateau Des Charmes 2014 Gamay Noir “Droit” St. David’s Bench Vineyard, VQA St. David’s Bench, Niagara Peninsula
I love Gamay and this is one of the wine world’s great bargains. Demonstrates the talent Niagara has with this variety, and a clear Gold winner.
Synchromesh 2015 Riesling Thorny Vines Vineyard, Okanagan Valley
Alan Dickinson is leading the field with Okanagan Riesling, and like all his wines the signature here is absolute purity and finesse. Gold in the NWACs.
Orofino 2015 Wild Ferment Syrah, Similkameen Valley
This is quite a distinctive wine, fermented in concrete, which may explain why it got Silver, not higher. I love it: joyful, floral, complete. Watch out for the Similkameen.
Domaine Queylus 2013 Pinot Noir Le Grande Reserve, VQA Niagara Peninsula
Thomas Bachelder is a talented winemaker, and Queylus wines have a distinct savoury seriousness to them. This is a proper Pinot for long ageing. Gold in the NWACs.
Related NWAC Awards Articles:
The Goode Report
Dr. Jamie Goode is the first international member of the WineAlign team, and one of our core judges for The National Wine Awards. He completed a PhD in plant biology and worked as a science editor before switching careers to wine writing. He’s a book author (The Science of Wine and Authentic Wine), writes a weekly wine column for a national newspaper (The Sunday Express), freelances for international magazines and blogs daily at wineanorak.com, the site he founded in 1999 and one of the world’s most popular wine websites. A sought-after speaker and experienced wine judge, he has judged wine in the UK, South Africa, France, Australia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia. He tweets as @jamiegoode and is on Instagram as @drjamiegoode.