Canadian Wine: One Grape at a Time

David’s Award Winning Grapes: Top Picks & Trends from The Nationals
by David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The 2016 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada held in Penticton in June shone the light on several trends in Canadian wine, which we will continue to revisit in this column in the months ahead. Today I would like to take you through some of them one grape at a time. To my mind, these are the most important in shaping what Canada is doing well and not so well – the grape varieties, the regions, and in some cases, the producers that shine.

Before launching in, you need to know the regional breakdown of the 232 wineries in this year’s competition. British Columbia led with 143 wineries entered, Ontario came second with 65, followed by Quebec 13, Nova Scotia 6, New Brunswick 4, and Prince Edward Island 1. This roughly mirrors winery distribution in the country. It may or may not surprise you to know that B.C. has roughly 100 more wineries than Ontario, but Ontario has 70% more vineyard area.

The Nationals (NWAC) do not include every winery in the country. We wish that all Canadian wineries entered but the reality is that only those who care enough, and are brave enough, and can afford the process take the plunge. Still, the NWACs count as the best yardstick and crystal ball available for where Canadian wine sits now, and where we are going.

So here, in alphabetical order are the most important 13 categories in my mind, with one or two personally recommended wine in each. You can click on the headings to see the complete list of medal winners in that category.

Cabernet Franc
No Platinum and only one gold medal suggests this grape is not a huge hit, despite its very important volumes in Ontario (the number one planted red) and B.C. (number 4). In both provinces, however, it is as often blended into Bordeaux-style reds vs bottled solo. The only gold went to Peller Estates from Niagara, which is no surprise to me; they have been making delicious, rich and vibrant, age-worthy high-end Bordeaux reds for several years now, which helped propel them to Winery of the Year honours in 2014. Among the silver medalists, B.C. dominated by the numbers, but the ratio matched the national distribution of wineries. Among the B.C. cab francs, equal parts hailed from wineries in Naramata/Summerland centre as from the hotter southern Okanagan. Those in Ontario tended to be sourced from the Niagara-on-the-Lake appellations where this grape is widely planted. Try: Peller Estates 2014 Private Reserve Cabernet Franc

Here’s what Canada does best right now. Five of 13 platinum medals went to chardonnay, the largest representation. Another 12 won gold, and 45 won silver. Four of the 5 platinums, and 8 of the 12 golds were from Ontario, with Niagara and Prince Edward County represented. Half the silvers went to Ontario as well. This, in my view has to do with Ontario’s limestone base and maturing vines more than climatic factors. But this is not to diminish in any way the fact that chardonnay is among B.C.’s best whites as well, especially from Okanagan Falls and points north. From my perspective inside the judging room, chardonnay was simply one of the most engaging categories. The complexity, acid structure and depth just made me want to dig in and explore. So many good wines! Try: Norman Hardie 2013 County Chardonnay

Peller Estates Private Reserve Cabernet Franc 2014 Norman Hardie County Chardonnay Unfiltered 2013 Vieni Gamay Noir 2015 Thornhaven Gewürztraminer 2015

This was not a large category, but the judges’ enthusiasm for Canadian gamay should not go unnoticed by consumers or winemakers. It’s success partially comes from the current fashion for lighter, more vibrant, pure, unoaked reds. As well, we’re recognizing that Canada’s cool-moderate climes can do the Beaujolais grape very well, despite the fact we lack the granitic soils of Beaujolais (although some B.C. sites may hit this note). Ontario dominated with 7 of 11 medals, with a huge kudos to Chateau des Charmes and their two golds. We want to see many more gamays entered next year. They are out there. The reluctance, I feel, is symptomatic of the “who cares about gamay” attitude among many winemakers. We care. #GoGamayGo. Try: Vieni 2015 Gamay Noir

Again, not a large category, but it’s a grape that judges measure from the corner of their eye, knowing what heights it can hit, especially in Alsace. And again this year, B.C. totally dominated, while one Ontario example medalled. I have formed an opinion that the Okanagan Valley may be one of closest geographic approximations of Alsace in the wine world, with its northerly latitude, rain shadow effect, and hot, dry growing season. I loved the intensity of the gold-medal-winning Arrowleaf Gewurztraminer from vineyards on the 50th parallel in Kelowna/Lake Country. Summerland’s Thornhaven appeared again in the silver ranks. In fact, 5 of the 8 medalists were from the central Okanagan regions of Naramata/Summerland. I am not surprised. Try: Thornhaven 2015 Gewürztraminer

Here’s an issue. No merlots scored platinum or gold. Yet merlot is the number one planted red grape in B.C. and number three in Ontario. So what is going on? Much of that is going into blends. But I also think there is an expectation not being met. Merlot should be full, fruited, smooth and seductive, whereas too many Canadian versions are green, gangly, hot and pushed. A Bordeaux template, yes, but on steroids and unbalanced. Where is the charm and joy? B.C. dominated the silver medals at 14, with Ontario showing a respectable 9. I like merlot, and I was looking for better. Try: CedarCreek 2013 Platinum Merlot Desert Ridge

Pinot Gris/Grigio
This hot consumer category acquitted itself well with 3 golds and a handful of silvers and bronzes. Canada imparts the natural acidity required to give soft pinot gris some lift. The category was dominated by B.C. as it should be, with pinot gris being the number one planted white in the province (another Alsace comparable). The 3 golds were not only all B.C. but all from wineries based in the northern Kelowna region. Most other B.C. medalists were from the Summerland/Penticton/Naramata zone in the central Okanagan. Ontario examples began to creep into the silver category, before registering several bronze medalists. Try: Deep Roots 2015 Pinot Gris

CedarCreek Platinum Merlot Desert Ridge 2013 Deep Roots Pinot Gris 2015 Tawse Winery Tintern Road Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 Spierhead Winery Pinot Noir G F V Saddle Block 2014 Montakarn Estate Angel Share 2013

Pinot Noir
I find it fascinating that in blind tasting, two pinots from the same winery should win the only two platinum pinot medals. Spierhead of East Kelowna has tapped into something the judges adored: energy, intensity, accuracy and purity. Digging down into the gold medal ranks it’s apparent that pinot noir, like chardonnay, is a pan-Canadian success story, with an almost equal number of medalists from Ontario and B.C. It comes as no surprise as both are products of Canada’s Burgundy-like latitude and conditions. Here Ontario’s Prince Edward County began to emerge with two solid golds, as did the Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation of Niagara thanks to a great pair by Tawse (The 2016 Winery of the Year). In B.C. all the pinots were from Okanagan Falls, thanks to a great showing by Meyer Family Vineyards, as well as from points north in the valley, where the climate is cooler. Try: Tawse 2013 Tintern Road Vineyard Pinot Noir or Spierhead 2014 G F V Saddle Block Pinot Noir

Red Blends, Other Single Varietals, Malbec
Red Blends was a huge category dominated by the Bordeaux-style blends involving cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Syrah is increasingly creeping into blends as well, providing a softer lining. These are still rather rugged and tannic wines in Canada, the toughest and one of the largest categories to judge. There are also an increasing number of Rhone blends, led by Road 13 Vineyard’s platinum-winning 2014 Syrah Mourvedre. B.C. took the lion’s share of medals in this category with the 2 platinums, 9 of 11 golds and dozens of silvers. It’s obvious, as many already know, that B.C.’s climate, specifically in the southern Okanagan and the Similkameen Valley, is more conducive to creating the ripeness and body this category requires. Ontario’s medals were largely from the hotter 2012 vintage. In the Other Single Varieties category, there was no dominant themes grape-wise. However, two B.C. wineries, Moon Cursor and Stag’s Hollow, are worth watching for their medal winning experiments with grapes like tempranillo, grenache and petit verdot. And by the way, there were enough B.C. malbecs entered this year to create a bona fide category. There were no golds, but 6 strong silvers. Try: Montakarn Estate 2013 Angel Share

Gray Monk Riesling 2013 Hidden Bench Roman's Block Riesling 2013 Lake Breeze Semillon 2014 Chateau des Charmes Sauvignon Blanc 2015

With one platinum for the delicious Gray Monk Riesling from B.C., 15 golds and dozens of silver medals, riesling again showed it is a very important variety in Canada when it comes to quality and expression of terroir. Ontario took more riesling medals than B.C., with most hailing from maturing vines on the Beamsville Bench, Twenty Mile Bench and Vinemount Ridge of the Niagara Escarpment. The winning B.C. rieslings were largely from the northerly Kelowna/Lake Country district and some from central Okanagan sites. Nova Scotia weighed in with a silver. I was very pleased with the overall quality and styling of rieslings in this year’s competition, with fewer coming across as thin and watery. It’s a grape that needs to be treated with respect, and not as a commodity. Try: Gray Monk 2013 Riesling or  Hidden Bench 2013 Roman’s Block Riesling

Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon
The Sauvignon Blanc category was not large but it produced 3 gold medals, while Lake Breeze 2014 Semillon took a high scoring Platinum. I was intrigued to see that the medals were almost equally distributed between B.C. and Ontario. More specifically, most of Ontario’s medals were from vineyards in the lower altitude (non-escarpment) sub-appellations of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Lincoln Lakeshore and Creek Shores. The B.C. medals tended to come out central Okanagan sites, especially the Naramata Bench. Try: Chateau des Charmes 2015 Sauvignon Blanc

Like chardonnay and pinot noir, sparkling is a great all-Canadian success story. There were no platinum medals for bubbly, but the 11 golds and 19 silvers hailed from sites literally coast to coast. This was the strongest category for Nova Scotia with 4 medals, while out west, Vancouver Island also took a pair. And virtually every pocket of Ontario and the rest of B.C. figured as well; Prince Edward County, Vinemount Ridge and Beamsville Bench in Ontario, and particularly the northern reaches of the Okanagan in B.C. have the right grape varieties, climate and soils to make seriously good traditional-method sparklers, but we also have the diversity of other grape varieties to make fine, less-expensive, medal winning charmat method wines as well. Try: Unsworth Charme de L’ile or Blomidon 2013 Crémant

Unsworth Charme De L'ile Blomidon Crémant 2013 Le Vieux Pin Syrah Cuvée Violette 2014 Lake Breeze Winemaker Series The Spice Jar 2015 Stag's Hollow Viognier Hearle Vineyard 2014

If one can use the judge’s excitement in the tasting room as a measure, syrah was a major hit in these awards. I can personally say that I was very, very impressed by the structure I encountered, not just the weight and richness, but by the acidity and minerality that reminded me more of the Rhone Valley than Australia. There were 3 platinum medals awarded, 6 golds and 32 silvers. B.C. took the vast majority of the syrah medals, with representation spreading from a strong showing from Naramata in the north, south through Okanagan Falls and into the Oliver/Osoyoos syrah heartland. Also of note was a strong showing from the Similkameen Valley. Ontario did place high with Creekside’s three silvers, showing it is clearly Niagara’s syrah sweetheart. Lake Erie North Shore also grabbed a silver medal. Try: Le Vieux Pin 2014 Syrah Cuvée Violette

White Blends, Other Single Varietals, Viognier
The sheer number of white blends and various single white varieties in Canada makes this an important category to watch.  Given our acid-pushing, alcohol-suppressing cooler latitudes we should indeed be doing them well. The only damper is that many wineries are looking to this category to make cheap, fast-buck whites with marketing driven, and often silly, names. There were 5 golds and 28 silvers awarded. Among notable single varieties there were 3 silvers for B.C. pinot blanc, and 3 for white Rhone varieties. That brings us to viognier, which had the strongest outing I can remember at our national awards, with 2 golds and 9 silver, and B.C. taking all but one of those medals . Naramata-based wineries like Terravista and Bench 1775 were particularly strong on viognier and other Rhone whites. Try: Lake Breeze 2015 Winemaker Series The Spice Jar or Stag’s Hollow 2014 Viognier Hearle Vineyard

I urge you to spend some time browsing through the medal lists, and clicking on wines of interest. All the Platinum, Gold and most Silver medals are reviewed by various judges, based on their own blind tasting notes. It’s a fascinating glimpse into what Canada is doing well, and why. I also urge you to go online and begin ordering some of these wines, even across provincial boundaries.  As Canadians, we like to support Canada, but the best possible support is to buy the wines because they are very good.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

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