Whites, Cabernets and Merlot – Medal Winners from the 2017 Nationals

Announcing the Results from the 2017 National Wine Awards of Canada

Due to the large number of top quality Canadian wines entered this year, we have decided to break the announcement of the results into more manageable pieces. Between July 17th and 28th we will be announcing a few categories at a time, wrapping up on July 28th with the Canadian Winery of the Year. 

Results from the 2017 National Wine Awards of Canada

We’ve asked a few of our judges to summarize their impressions of each category. Today David Lawrason comments on the White Single Varieties not already announced, while Michael Godel lends his comments to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot:

The White Single Varieties

by David Lawrason

This is Canada, where we welcome grapes from everywhere.  All the French regions of course including the Rhone, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire and Alsace, plus Spain, Austria, even Vancouver Island. Oh wait, that’s us – even if slightly off-shore!  What’s most telling is that grapes originating in all these places (including petit milo developed on Vancouver Island) have won medals since being planted in Canada. And that is perhaps as it should be in what is essentially a cool climate wine region with great geographic breadth and diversity

This report includes all the small to mid-size single varietal wine groups. Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer were well represented enough to be judged in their own flights. Then there were other mixed flights of more rare varieties. Here the judges were told what varieties were in front of them so they could be judged in context.

As John Szabo pointed out in discussing the White Blends a few days ago, British Columbia has dominated the medals in most of the white wine categories. I will discuss them individually, but to my mind the reason is the central and northern Okanagan’s ideal situation with warm days promoting unfailing ripeness and cool nights maintaining acidity. Sometimes however they can get blowsy and hot. Canada’s eastern regions can produce very vibrant whites indeed, but always with a less ripe, narrower profile, that can come across as thin on the judging table. Especially with some of these varieties. The one emerging strength for Ontario, and perhaps declining in B.C., seems to be sauvignon blanc.

Marsanne, Roussane, Gruner Veltliner, Semillon, Petit Milo, Albarino, Muscat Ottonel and Orange Wine

All the varieties above were judged in the potluck Single White Varietal category, and again every variety mentioned won a medal. The Rhone-based marsanne and roussanne whites were very strong, indicating their natural environment of the desert-like southern Okanagan in producing Rhone varieties, but old marsanne vines in Ontario delivered at Kew, did well too. The Spanish Albarino (which is popping up around the world nowadays) also seems to be a great fit in B.C. LaFrenz has a lock on Semillon. And Culmina’s Unicus Gruner Veltliner is one of the most talked about whites in Canada in recent times.

A flight of three “orange wines” were presented this year for the first time and two scored well. I refer you, again, to the prolific Mr. Szabo’s recent article for full explanation of this new category. But it is being taken seriously enough that Ontario VQA has just announced regulations for Skin Fermented Whites, the first in the world!


The “great white spicy one” that dominates in Alsace, France is dominating in B.C. too.  And I have been tracking this trend long enough now that I feel confident in saying that B.C. is perhaps the most important New World region for this variety. The northerly latitude and sunny growing season in the lee of the coastal mountains is very similar to Alsace, which sits in the lee of the Vosges Mountains. And by the way, the best examples are better value than those in Alsace. Thornhaven in Summerland and Wild Goose in Okanagan Falls are perennial winners. I have had excellent one-off gewurz’s in Ontario too.

Pinot Blanc

The least well-known varietal of Burgundy’s pinot family (noir, gris, blanc and yes even chardonnay) is only important in Canada in B.C. Which is not to say it’s totally incompatible in eastern Canada, but it needs a bit more heat, and the marketplace profile is so minimal that there is simply no commercial imperative to pursue it. I happen to admire this grape with its broad, almost tropical flavour profile and girth, anchored by good acidity in the best bottles. Some fine B.C. examples are lined up in the winner’s circle below.

Sauvignon Blanc

Despite the huge presence of this cool climate grape in global markets, it remains a down-the-ladder varietal in Canada. One reason is its lack of winter hardiness. But if that can be insured (somehow) Canada can do this, we need to persevere. I often find B.C. versions too ripe and blowsy, but in Ontario where the slimmer, mineral, Loire Valley model can be rendered, it can get exciting.  The Peller/Trius winemakers have really found the handle based on vineyards in the Niagara-on-the-Lake appellation. And ageing in oak to make Bordelais-inspired versions is a definite possibility. Don’t give up!


Again B.C. dominates with this very aromatic Mediterranean-based variety. It loves to suck up heat and ripen with exotic abandon. The question is always around the alcohol-acid balance. If you love lushness and warmth the south Okanagan is making some fine examples. But it can also translate into lighter, more acid-driven wines that can also be enjoyable. I have had fine examples of the latter from the Okanagan’s Naramata Bench, and occasionally from Niagara. It’s a buyer’s wine. Find your style by example and enjoy.

Cabernet Sauvignon

by Michael Godel

In the 1970′s American daredevil winemakers were the first to put ‘cabernet sauvignon’ on the labels of their wines, as opposed to the universally acceptable monikers such as ‘Graves’ or ‘Médoc’. Those were innocently sweet times. The early days of wine as comfort food, wines that reached a consumer comfort zone. The wines themselves were not the attraction, but rather the idea they represented. The darling varietal cabernet sauvignon has never looked back and now stands accused as being a ’colonizer’ at the expense of autochthonous varieties. Is the criticism warranted? Should a champion at the top of its game be castigated for its hard-earned, commercial success?

There are few global growing regions where the controversy speaks louder than it does in Canada where although cabernet sauvignon does not intrude on valuable indigenous varietal land space, it does fill rows where grape varieties like riesling, chardonnay, cabernet franc, gamay and pinot noir might otherwise thrive. So why do growers insist on its ubiquitous existence? Because it sells. Simply put, cabernet sauvignon is the grape of dreams. If you produce it, people will come. They will pull the bottles off the shelves, “not knowing for sure why they’re doing it.” They’ll arrive at the wine store, “as innocent as children, longing for the past. The one constant through all the years” has been cabernet sauvignon.

Wine producers in Ontario and British Columbia must buy into the dream because they aren’t backing away from increasing its presence on their soils. Why mess with success is the ideal, even if it rarely ripens in Ontario and gets too hot and bothered in B.C. before the phenolic journey has been completed. In Ontario climate change is making a new argument for its trending growth and in B.C. the acumen and experience is leading to better wines.

There are 735 acres of vines planted in British Columbia, placing it smack dab in the middle between syrah/cabernet franc and pinot noir/merlot. In terms of vinifera, in Ontario only cabernet franc enjoys a larger grape harvest. Even today fashion is stronger than science. At least the varietal (more than merlot and syrah) is capable of managing to survive the harshest of winters. At this year’s NWAC17 the Gold Medal winners were from B.C. producers with a proven track record of making outstanding big reds while surprisingly enough, four of the six Silver Medalists were from Ontario. The Bronze Medals were virtually an even split. Apparently the jury is still out.

Cabernet Franc

by Michael Godel

Cabernet Franc is getting better all the time. In British Columbia the coolest sites are increasingly raising fresh, spirited and ultimately crushable wines with unmistakeable west coast accents; savour, garrigue and mountain tea. With thanks to venn diagram circles drawn in and out of Niagara’s Lincoln Lakeshore, but also magically deep into the Prince Edward County limestone, the great Ontario hope is developing into what we thought it might be. Getable and structured red wine.

New World cabernet franc growing sites produce less delineation as compared to the various lieux-dites in the varietal homeland, France’s Loire Valley. Niagara is beginning to enter into an Old World state of mind, so now winemakers and by extension wine geeks, are posturing over micro-terroirs; Niagara-on-the-Lake, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Escarpment, St. David’s Bench, Lincoln Lakeshore, Four Mile Creek. The same is happening in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley although the cumulative stylistic is worlds (four provinces to be exact) apart. In Nova Scotia Benjamin Bridge Vineyards’ viticultural and vinifying braintrust of Jean-Benoit Deslauriers and Scott Savoy are allocating serious resources to cabernet franc in the Gaspereau Valley. But how is it that decisions are made as to where to plant this crisp, juicy and  crunchy grape? While many will disagree, if you consider growing sites as circles within a Venn Diagram, in Canadian soils the shared subtleties can easily get buried or muddled within the common areas. The lines may be drawn but the web is tangled. That said, the story of franc terroir is getting clearer and clearer.

At this most recent NWAC17 judging experience the results from cabernet franc paints a more palatable picture than those brushed by both merlot and cabernet sauvignon. We are collectively impressed with and solidly behind the direction growers and winemakers are taking with this noble varietal. The 546 acres planted in B.C. are rising steadily and if I were merlot I’d be looking in the rear-view mirror. In Ontario more than 4,000 tonnes were harvested in 2015, third to only chardonnay and riesling. Four of five Gold Medals were Ontario in origin, 10 of 16 were awarded Silver and 10 of 17, Bronze. While only four in Ontario are labled “LL,” no less than 10 of the 24 winners were made with at least some significant amount of fruit grown in the Lincoln Lakeshore/Beamsville Bench circle of commonality. The sites we want to call “cru” are no longer a mystery.


by Michael Godel

There was a time and it’s in the most recent past where the joke “there are 10 kinds of people in the world, those who like Merlot, and those who don’t” was not only fashionable but also poignant. Please don’t hate me for doing so because I am about to join a thousand others in quoting Miles from Sideways, a fictional movie character that single-handedly destroyed one grape (merlot’s) career while simultaneously championing another (pinot noir). “I am not drinking any (insert four letter expletive) merlot!” That 2004 anti-varietal rally cry set off a (insert second expletive) storm against the Bordeaux grape variety and it has yet to rebound from the scarring.

Or has it? Merlot has in fact increased in world-wide plantings dramatically in the last 27 years.  According to the well-respected wine-searcher.com (of findings released by the University of Adelaide) it was number seven worldwide in 1990 and number two in 2010! B.C. wines tells us that in British Columbia there are 1,564 acres under vine, 33 per cent more than pinot noir, more than double cabernet sauvignon and triple that of cabernet franc. According to Wine Country Ontario merlot actually sits in the top five when it comes to vinifera vines planted, behind chardonnay and riesling, while the Grape Growers of Ontario note that harvest amounts are also eclipsed by hybrids vidal and baco noir, along with vinifera cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. In 2015, 1,989 tonnes of merlot was harvested in Ontario.

Merlot comes from the Médoc Merlau, as it was known in the local Occitan language, a black bird who liked eating the ripe grapes on the vine. It has also been referred to as lou seme doù flube, ”the seedling from the ro asiver,” with the grape thought to have originated on one of the islands found along the Garonne river. Its ascension has much to do with the French paradox, a theory that tells us that red wine consumption is good for our health, especially because of the chemical agent resveratrol found (in particular) in red grapes and especially merlot. In the right climate, it’s also very easy to grow. In winemaking terms, it’s a no-brainer to pump out rich, thick, viscous and milkshake-textured wines. Today merlot can go two ways. It can gently appease with a warm and blanketing hug or it can smother you with compressed layers of fruit, structure and often astringency. What’s your cup of merlot?

For the NWAC17 judges the competition doled out mixed results but one thing is clear. If you are going to grow merlot successfully in Canada, the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia is the place to be. All three Gold Medals were west coast based, along with 86 per cent of the Silver and 74 per cent of the Bronze Medals. Looking through the results and my tasting notes I can see that the winners were almost all situated in the deep, dark and handsome camp. Big hugs were few and far between. Welcome to the merlot paradox world of polyphenols, antioxidants and big flavours.

Summary of the results of the 2017 National Wine Awards of Canada.

Zwilling Predicat Crystal Stemware