Favourites from the National Wine Awards of Canada

Canadian Riesling Resonates in Montreal and Vancouver

Each week between now and the announcement of the results of the NWACs after Labour Day, WineAlign will feature each of the 18 judges, their thoughts on Canadian wine, and their personal favourite wine of the competition. Selection of a wine does not necessarily mean it was a top medal winner, and the scores (if given) reflect the opinion of the taster, not its final mark in the competition.

This week judges from opposite ends of the country land on the same page – riesling – adding credibility to the notion that it is one great Canadian grape.  With our northerly latitude and intriguing mineral-driven soils in the east and west, this makes a whole lot of sense.

Bill Zacharkiw, Montreal

I’ve been writing the Saturday wine page in the Montreal Gazette since 2007. And while I am new to WineAlign, I’m not new to judging national awards. I judged five editions of the previous Canadian Wine Awards.

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

To truly understand a wine region, it must be viewed over generations, and Canadian wine is barely getting into its second. But despite the small sample size, what excites me more and more after judging each competition is that I am starting to see the definition of regional wine “styles.”

A style is defined by more than a single wine or vintage. Its character is a result of a collection of wines, all made in a single region, with the same grapes, and by a number of different people. If the wines are consistently good year after year after year, and show a similar expression, then that region ascends to another level. It joins others whose expression of a particular grape or grapes have become archetypes. We can start talking about it in the same breath as, for example, chardonnay in Chablis, assyrtiko from Santorini, Northern Rhône syrah.

The style can’t be imposed; it has to come from the grapes, from the land. And to the credit of Canadian winemakers, every year I feel that more of them are figuring that out. The wines seem less forced. Maybe they are starting to trust the land more, or maybe, like parents, they have accepted who their children really are, and not what they want them to be.

It’s the big leagues. But by becoming a member of this prestigious club comes higher expectations that wineries in that region will always produce good quality wine, good or bad vintage, and at a price that is fair.

I believe we have one region and style that has made it to this next level – Niagara’s riesling. Every year it is by far the strongest category. Its character seems to rise above the vagaries of vintage variation, and price. Fruity and mineral, Cave Spring’s Tom Pennachetti says the style is reminiscent of Nahe. And it certainly echoes it. But it is Niagara – distinct and delicious.

Others are getting closer. British Columbia is starting to make great riesling, and the drier style is an interesting counterpoint to Niagara. Both chardonnay and pinot noir are settling in for the long haul. Chardonnay might be a bit further along. But whether we are talking Prince Edward County, Niagara or the Okanagan, great and distinctive wines are being made. However they are still too inconsistent. We’ll see as these vines age if the region’s wines truly are “world class,” or if just a small handful of wineries in each region are capable of doing it year after year.

And for the rest, there is good reason to believe that we will find other grapes that will put even more Canadian wine regions on the international map. Winemakers are still struggling to find out what Syrah can be, but there are some very good wines being made. There was an upturn with merlot this year. It’s simply a hard grape to do very well and possibly even more site specific than we give it credit. Other grapes are still works in progress, but the key word here is progress, and that’s a good thing.

Orofino Riesling 2011Tawse Échos Riesling 2010My wines of the competition? I’ll pick two. They are not my highest scoring wines. What they have in common is that they are under $20 and when I taste them, I feel that connection to where the grapes are grown. These are the wines I love to champion. So “chapeau” to following:

Tawse’s 2010 Échos Riesling once again reveals that mineral and fruity Niagara style, in its most straightforward, un-complicated, and utterly gulpable incarnation.

Orofino’s 2011 Riesling from the Similkameen Valley made me stop, think, taste and re-taste. In the final riesling flight, where the vast majority of the wines were exploding with sweet fruit, this glass of “rock juice” stood out for all of its intensity, and to an extent, weirdness. If this is the Similkameen “style,” then there is a lot to be excited about for riesling in this corner of B.C. If it isn’t, then it’s a damn intriguing wine for $20.

DJ Kearney, Vancouver

The very engaging DJ Kearney of Vancouver officially joins the WineAlign team this month. Watch for her debut article in the days ahead as well as her first critic reviews.

DJ Kearney

DJ Kearney

Riesling is a great, great grape for Canada. Fullstop. Traversing the style spectrum from bone-crunchingly dry to vaguely off-dry to honey-sweet, this grape is a brilliant transmitter and translator of Canadian regionality. Nova Scotia, Ontario and BC are all make scintillating versions that have added something new and profoundly different to the global Riesling canon.

It’s an excruciating task to select one favourite above all others and as I thumb through my notes, there is a quartet of rieslings in the final round that have 90 scores and lavish adjectives in my usually blunt notes. Three of these proved to be B.C. rieslings and the succulent Synchromesh 2011 Storm Haven Riesling with its astonishing tension, purity of fruit and drama was the most arresting. The nose showed classic petrol, peaches and exotic citrus plus explicit mineral whiffs. The palate possessed the kind of head-snapping steely intensity that makes you yelp (I’m sure I did) with dazzling green apple, lime and stonefruit flavours. But it was the high-wire tension of ripe fruit sweetness and laser-beam acidity that lit up my palate… this clinched it as my favourite amongst favourites. The finish was a sweet-tart sword fight that didn’t let up for ages. And all this magic at just 9.3 % alcohol.

Mission Hill Reserve Riesling 2011Synchromesh Riesling Storm Haven Vineyard 2011I can’t help but add that the Mission Hill Estate Riesling 2011 bagged the same 91 score in my notes, an absolutely sensational wine with colossal concentration that at just $20.00 was in very fine company with the Synchromesh Storm Haven.

Photo credits from NWAC: Jason Dziver Photography

We invite our Premium Subscription members to use these links for immediate access to DJ’s and Bill’s reviews of these wines. Paid membership to WineAlign has its privileges – this is one of them. Enjoy!

National Wine Awards of Canada