Judge’s Picks from the National Wine Awards of Canada

In advance of the announcement of the complete results of the NWACs after Labour Day, WineAlign has been featuring each of the 18 judges, their thoughts on Canadian wine, and their personal favourite wine of the competition. Today we present the final three. Selection of a wine does not necessarily mean it was a top medal winner, and the scores (if given) reflect the opinion of the judge, not its final mark in the competition.

Steve Thurlow, Toronto 

Steve Thurlow

Steve Thurlow

At WineAlign, Steve Thurlow is a partner and the principal critic mainly responsible for covering the 1500 or so wines always on the shelves of LCBO stores in Ontario. He is also responsible for the organization of two of Canada’s influential annual wine competitions. The World Wine Awards of Canada (WWAC) which is open to all wines that sell for less than $50 no matter their origin and the National Wine Awards of Canada (NWAC) which is only open to wines produced in Canada.

He was a contributor to Wine Access, Canada’s national wine magazine from 2001 until it ceased publication in 2013. With Anthony Gismondi he co-founded the International Value Wine Awards, the precursor of WWAC. He tastes thousands of wines each year and travels extensively all over the world of wine.

Many years ago he was an importer of wine, but today Steve concerns himself with his wine education and communication business, Wine for Life. He leads groups of wine lovers on several travel trips each year to explore the wine, food, culture and history of places such as Sicily, Chile, Argentina, Greece, New Zealand, South Africa and the wine regions that lie along the Danube. Go to SteveThurlow.com to find out more.

Wine for Life is also involved in the training and education of hotel and restaurant wine staff and wine agency personnel. Additionally, Steve frequently conducts wine information sessions in Toronto for wine lovers.

Steve is the Education Director for IWEG, which delivers the International WSET education program in Ontario. IWEG has been educating the trade and wine lovers since 1977. Graduates of IWEG are amongst the “Who’s Who” of the Ontario and Canadian Alcohol Beverage Industries.

In the past he spent much time organizing Toronto’s annual international wine festivals. Steve was on the executive team of the Santé wine festival from 2003 to 2008.

Steve on Canadian Wine

We have been making good wine in Canada for decades, but it has not been until recent years that so many wineries have been making such a large amount of good wine. The quality was always there; you just had to look very hard to find it. Now we have lots of choice. Our industry is still small in world terms and we have a high cost structure, such that if you can only afford $10 then it will be tough to find a big selection. However if $15 is OK or maybe a few dollars more, then there are some very good wines, as we discovered during NWAC this last June.

Our wine regions are mostly cool climate. So unless global warming changes things dramatically or we adjust our national borders, that will always be the case. Consequently grapes that need warm climates, such as cabernet sauvignon, are probably never going to do well other than in a few select areas or in especially hot summers. There are other places on the planet that are better suited. If the public wants big ripe juicy reds it will be difficult for Canada to deliver. However we can make some great lighter style reds and almost every white grape can perform.

For example, Canada is producing lots of world-class chardonnay and riesling and the quantity of good quality pinot noir and syrah grows each year. As the wine drinking population matures there will be increasing interest in these red grapes as well as blends of red and white grapes.

Moreover there are other less well-known cool climate grapes that make magical wines in regions similar to Canada elsewhere in the world. Some of these are starting to get me excited, though for now they are only planted in small quantities here.

It was while living in France, over 30 years ago, that I first started to take wine seriously. I remember during a visit to the Loire Valley, discovering the white wines of Vouvray made from the grape chenin blanc. I have had a love affair with this grape ever since, chasing it down in California and South Africa and recently following a few pioneers in Canada.

Which brings me to my choice of favourite white wine this year at NWAC.

Steve’s Picks

Andrzej (Andre) Lipinski has been involved with making wine at a long list of Ontario wineries: Vineland Estate, Legends, DeSousa, Fielding, Megalomaniac, Foreign Affair, Organized Crime and maybe others that I don’t know about. As far as I can tell, he now makes wine for Burning Kiln, Colarneri and Cornerstone and has just started his own label, Big Head Wines.

During NWAC I tasted two vintages of Big Head Chenin Blanc, 2012 and 2011 — Both wines were made with very ripe grapes, barrel fermented and aged for five months in 25% new oak. They are both elegant yet powerful fruity wines. I liked both with a slight preference for the 2012. They will be released for sale soon for about $25. Contact Bighead Wines for information on availability.

Big Head Wines Chenin Blanc 2011
Niagara, ON $25.00

A big and powerful chenin with impressive aromas and a bold structured palate. Expect aromas of fresh bread, ripe peach with baked lemon and lots of oak spice. The palate is very rich but the acidic structure and oak tones add to the complexity and ensure that it is balanced and very even. Very good length. Try with roast port and baked apples. Tasted June 2013.

Big Head Wines 2011 Chenin Blanc

Big Head Wines Chenin Blanc 2012
Niagara, ON $25.00

A big beautiful creamy smooth chenin with lifted aromas and a rich fruity palate. Expect aromas of ripe apple and melon fruit with lemon marmalade and warm, well-integrated oak spice. The elegant palate is soft and round with vibrant acidity to keep the fruit lively. Good to very good length. Try with rich white meat dishes. Tasted June 2013.

Big Head Wines 2012 Chenin Blanc

My favourite red, also produced in Niagara, is made from the grape syrah (aka shiraz) by Jackson-Triggs, which is part of Canada’s largest wine empire, which in turn is owned by one of the world’s biggest wine producers. Even though they make large quantities of inexpensive wine they do also excel with several limited production lines such as Grand Reserve and are one of the Canada’s most awarded wineries.

Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate Grand Reserve Shiraz 2010
Niagara, ON $19.95

This is a beautiful pure fresh wine with a pliant palate and excellent length that is now coming into prime time for drinking after being a little awkward when released last year. Expect cool climate red grapefruit, white pepper and pure black cherry aromas to lead to a midweight juicy palate, creamy and super smooth with mellow tannin. It is finely balanced with the oak well-integrated and a finish that seems to last forever. Try with a juicy sautéed duck breast. Best 2013 to 2016. Tasted June 2013.

The 2010 was released by Vintages in Ontario. There are still around 100 bottles in their stores for $19.95. The winery has now released the 2011 vintage which I eagerly look forward to sampling.

Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate 2010 Grand Reserve Shiraz

Craig Pinhey, New Brunswick

Originally from Nova Scotia, Craig has been a beverage writer since the early 1990‘s, but only took it on as a full-time career in 2000. He quit his Engineering job after 12 years in Ontario, moved back east, and, after finishing with the top marks in Canada in the International Sommelier Guild program, never looked back.

Craig Pinhey

Craig Pinhey

A certified Sommelier and BJCP (Beer Judge Certification program) judge, Craig has judged national level competitions for 20 years, including for both beer and wine. Although 2013 was the first WineAlign National Wine Awards, Craig judged the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards from 2007-2012, the International Value Wine Awards from 2008-2012, as well as the All Canadian Wine Championships for over a decade. He also judges the Atlantic Wine Awards, Moncton’s World Wine Expo Awards, and PEI’s Wine Show Awards.

Craig is a food and beverage columnist for the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and KV Style, and writes for TAPS Beer Magazine, Halifax’s The Coast, Progress, Palate Press and East Coast Living magazine. He covered the Atlantic Canadian wine scene for Wine Access magazine for 7 years, including writing the entire Atlantic section for their Canadian Wine Annual. He was also CBC Radio’s Shift Sommelier from 2006-2013.

Besides judging and writing, Craig teaches wine courses, conducts regular wine and food events in the Atlantic provinces, and consults to restaurants, doing staff training and wine list design. He lives in Rothesay, New Brunswick with his wife and daughter, and travels regularly in the region and around the world, hunting for great food & drink, and the stories within. You can follow Craig on Twitter @frogspadca and visit his Facebook page: FrogsPad

Craig’s Thoughts on Canadian Wine

I’ve judged national Canadian wine competitions for over a decade, so I’ve seen the gradual – and yet major – shift upwards in quality from a fortunate perspective. It is indeed an honour to judge national competitions, and we take it very seriously.

The most exciting thing about the improving Canadian wine scene is that it is happening from coast to coast.

The emergence of high quality sparkling and aromatic white wines in Atlantic Canada is just as impressive as the establishment of stellar dessert wines in Quebec, the consistently excellent Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Gamay Noir and Pinot Noir in Ontario, and the incredible power reds coming from BC, highlighted by Syrah and Bordeaux blends. It is a thrilling time to be a wine lover, and a judge, in Canada.

Remember, when we get home from sipping and spitting, we DRINK these wines!

Craig’s Picks

Lailey 2011 Pinot Noir
Niagara Peninsula, $24.95

Although a bit understated at first, this revealed itself to have plenty of Pinot Noir varietal character, including earthy notes to go along with the cherry fruit. The wine is pretty, floral and cherry laden, from the nose to the finish. Firm with acid, and well structured, but not overly oaky, this is a well-balanced Pinot, and will be great with food.

Lailey Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011

Jost 2012 Habitant Blanc
Nova Scotia, $10.99

Having grown up in Nova Scotia, and always a champion of good drink from the east coast, I had to give a shout-out to this terrific value wine that made it to the finals in aromatic white blends. It has a clean, fresh nose, with pleasant muscatty floral and citrus notes. On the palate you’ll find great acidity and good weight. This is a pretty wine, with satisfying tropical, citrus and stone fruit and a clean finish. Seeing the price just makes it taste even better.

Jost Vineyards Habitant Blanc

Rhys Pender, Vancouver

A passionate educator, wine lover, judge, writer, and grape grower/farmer, Rhys has worked in the wine industry since he was a teenager. Rhys pursued his food and wine passion by completing a Professional Culinary Diploma to ensure he eats well and all levels of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) programs to make sure there was always good wine at the table. In 2004 Rhys began taking on the grueling Master of Wine program. This culminated in Rhys becoming Canada’s youngest Master of Wine in 2010, one of only approximately 300 in the world.

Rhys Pender, MW

Rhys Pender, MW

Rhys runs a WSET wine school and consultancy through his business Wine Plus+ and between travelling around the world can be found with his boots in the dirt at his small 4 acre vineyard and winery in the Similkameen Valley – Little Farm Winery. He is a regular contributor to Canadian publications such as Montecristo, Taste, Savour, Wine Trend and Good Life Connoisseur. Rhys has recently joined WineAlign where he will be reviewing both B.C. and international wines, writing articles and judging at our national and world wine awards. In addition to judging for Wine Align, Rhys judges wine competitions internationally such as the Decanter World Wine Awards, Vancouver Magazine Wine Awards and the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition.

Rhys on Canadian Wine

Sitting down for five days to taste a good chunk of the 1100 Canadian wines entered into the National Wine Awards of Canada is a privilege and a unique opportunity for a snapshot of what is going on in Canadian wine. There is no better way to taste than blind and no better opportunity to see where Canadian wine is heading than to literally have hundreds of wines at your fingertips. Having been a regular judge in these national competitions now for nearly a decade it is amazing to see the changes. As subtle as they might be from year to year, when you look back over four, five or six years a lot has happened in Canadian wine. And it is mostly for the good. To try to sum up the changes that have taken place in Canadian wine could take thousands of words but if I had to say it in just a few it would be that the wines taste more like the grapes they are made from and the place they are grown every year. With every competition there are less obscenities screamed across the judging room about excess oak and more cheers about purity, elegance and complexity. Overall, you could definitely say that Canadian wine is on a good path.

While there were many great wines in the competition this year, I get most excited when Canadian wineries can take a classic, world-wide grape variety and make it bloody delicious. Not a copy of this region or that but a pure eexpression of one of the many exciting Canadian terroirs.

Rhys’ Pick

Meyer Family Vineyards 2011 McLean Creek Chardonnay

Okanagan Valley, British Columbia. $30

There is great chardonnay popping up in BC and Ontario with increased frequency. These are not just “good” wines, they are up there with the many “excellent” chardonnays of the world. It is not an uncommon sensation while judging Canadian chardonnay to develop an ear-to-ear grin when that magic combination of subtly used oak, lees, freshness, complexity and electricity all come together in a seamless package. One of my favourite chardonnay producers is Meyer in the Okanagan and I gave this wine 92 points in the competition. Great fresh acidity, lemon, nectarine, electricity on the palate, subtle oak, minerality, length and wonderful integrity make this wine a joy that could stand up amongst many chards more than double the price from elsewhere in the world.

Meyer Chardonnay McLean Creek

Photo credits from NWAC: Jason Dziver Photography

National Wine Awards of Canada