Riesling, Syrah & Orange Wines – Medal Winners from NWAC 2018

Announcing the Results from the 2018 National Wine Awards of Canada

In 2018, over 1,850 wines from 257 wineries were entered into the National Wine Awards of Canada, making this largest and most comprehensive wine competition in Canadian history. In late June, 22 judges assembled in Penticton BC for five full days to determine the best wines in Canada. Wines were tasted blind in multiple rounds based on category or style.

Due to the amazing array of top quality Canadian wines entered this year, we have decided to break the announcement of the results into more manageable pieces. Each day for the next two weeks we will be announcing a few categories at a time, with the highly-anticipated Platinum Awards to be announced on July 27th, the Best Performing Small Winery on July 30th, and finally the Winery of the Year, along with a list of the nation’s Top 25 Wineries, on July 31st. 

National Wine Awards of Canada

We’ve asked a few of our judges to summarize their impressions of each category. Today we present Riesling, Syrah/Shiraz & Orange Wines (skin fermented whites) with a few words from Michael Godel, John Szabo, MS and Janet Dorozynski.


Category overview by judge Michael Godel

Riesling is again on the rise and the reasons why are as varied as the artistry it’s equipped to display. It has been 40 years since the Pennachetti family of Cave Spring Cellars and German vintner Herman Weis each planted riesling in Ontario, at Cave Spring Vineyard and in St. Urban Vineyard on what is now Vineland Estates. In British Columbia the site originally farmed by Pioneer Vineyards on the eastern slopes of the Okanagan Valley is home to the 1978 planted Block 5 used in the Tantalus Old Vines Riesling.

My how things have changed. The trending line ascends as the general public comes around and warms to the versatile grape so popularity is not just in the hands of geeks, oenophiles and connoisseurs. Ask your favourite sommelier, product consultant or wine writer. Riesling’s neighbourhood is beginning to gentrify in a big way but it’s also expanding experimental and ancestral horizons. It will always be just riesling but today’s varietal vernacular goes beyond dry, off-dry, semi-sweet, Süssreserve, late harvest and Icewine to now include skin-contact, barrel fermented, unfiltered, wild ferment, Blackball and The Geek.

There are many reasons to believe in riesling, that versatile and brutally honest grape. Riesling holds no punches, speaks its mind, tells it like it is. Grown worldwide and vinified in so many varying styles, riesling is not so much a chameleon but rather a mutant. It takes root in every vineyard, marking its terroir, expressing itself singularly and without apology.

WineAlign judge Treve Ring had this to say after the 2017 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada. “As our palates progress, we often shy away from these simpler, fruity styles for more structured, savoury and minerally wines, which again, brings us full circle (close the ring) back to serious and ageworthy riesling.”

Many riesling lovers have long believed that sugar levels are both arbitrary and unpredictable so Canada’a best should be of the dry variety. Do we really think that way anymore? Judge Bill Zacharkiw wrote this last year. “Rieslings, especially from cool climates like the Mosel in Germany and Niagara tend to have residual sugar. Don’t be scared. You know what? I love them. The sugar makes the aromatics go “boom,” while the acidity keeps the wine tasting dry.” Bill is correct and it is also those sugars that allow riesling to stay alive, age and develop its classic petrol notes.

My personal opportunities to taste wines from the Okanagan Valley, Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Valley, The Niagara Peninsula, Prince Edward County, Lake Erie North Shore and Ontario’s South Coast have been many. Before too long there will be greater access to the wines of emerging regions like the Oak Ridges Moraine, Georgian Bay, The Northumberland Hills, Quebec and Vancouver Island. Riesling is everywhere.

The Platinum Award winning riesling for 2018 comes from a winery of no surprise though with such high quality consistency noted across the Thirty Bench single-vineyard wines it’s quite amazing to see Emma Garner’s Winemaker’s Blend as the one to sit at the top of the national peak. It speaks to the entire class of her riesling compositions and this particular Garner acrostic is a mixture of old and young vines from the Beamsville Bench plus fruit from select vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Twenty more rieslings were Gold Medal winners, 29 reached Silver status and a further 17 achieved the level of Bronze. All in all another excellent showing for one of Canada’s most important varietals.


Category overview by judge and panel leader John Szabo, MS

Syrah/shiraz was re-established as one of the most exciting categories in Canadian wine at the 2018 National Awards, earning an unprecedented number of platinum (Note: Platinum medal winners will be announced on Friday), gold and silver medals, in addition to inspiring some of the most animated discussions and palpable enthusiasm from judges.

It is by now abundantly clear that the variety excels in particular in the southern Okanagan and Similkameen valleys, where a combination of scruffy, rocky-sandy soils and extreme, dessert-like climate conspires to yield structured and spicy wines dripping with character.

Ontario, too, has its vineyards of vocation, found predominantly along the Niagara Escarpment, especially the notably warmer St. David’s Bench sub-appellation, and those sited on the heavy red clays of the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation, which are apt to deliver dense and meaty examples.

The stylistic line between shiraz and syrah has become terminally blurred, with a notable decrease of excessively lean and leafy Ontario wines (the syrah vines in the wrong places were mostly culled by the brutal winters of ’15 and ’16), and the overly “Barossa-fied” oaky, raisined and alcoholic shirazes once prevalent in the Okanagan. The happy milieu is simply excellent, meaty, spicy, peppery-smoky, dark-fruit flavoured wines of balance, structure and ageability. The choice to use one-or-the-other synonym for the grape is thus driven more by the marketing department, rather than a winemaker’s stylistic leaning.

Worth pointing out, especially to syrah/shiraz producers, is the judges’ perennial admiration for Le Vieux Pin’s Cuvée Violette, a gold medal winner last year and a platinum winner in 2018 (Ok, we’ll give you this one. It is currently tagged as a Gold and will change to Platinum on Friday when we announce all the Platinum winners). I’d consider it a bellwether of successful styling; as the winery’s “entry level” (least expensive) syrah, it’s an indication that less really can be more. In this case less wood and less concentration equal more freshness, crunchy fruit, and especially more of the grape’s haunting floral-violet perfume, an irresistible combination of complexity and drinkability.

And as a consumer bonus, syrah’s deficiency in cabernet or pinot noir-like name brand recognition means that it’s generally less expensive than either of those latter varieties, while over-delivering on character and personality. Get it before everyone else figures it out

Syrah Button

Orange Wines (skin fermented whites)

Category overview by judge and panel leader Janet Dorozynski

Although there have been a smattering of entries of orange wines over past years, this is the first time that the Nationals has had a separate category for orange or skin-fermented white wines. According to co-head judge Anthony Gismondi, while the category may be “experimental for sure, we admire the willingness of wineries to pursue new styles and suspect there will be even more extended skin contact entries next year“.

While not made from oranges, nor really a new style of wine since Georgian production of skin-fermented whites dates back thousands of years, it is a category that might be new to the average consumer and not always understood. Orange wines are essentially white wines that are made using red wine production techniques, whereby the skin and seeds of the grapes are left in contact with the juice, which gives an orange or amber colour or hue to the finished wine. The wines also have a texture or mouthfeel similar to a red wine, since they have tannins from the skins, seeds and stems, imparted through contact during fermentation.

And although the style of wine or category may be relatively new in Canada, in July 2017 VQA Ontario became the first appellation of origin system in the world to recognize and regulate the production of skin-fermented or orange wines as a separate category (whereas under BC VQA orange wine falls within the white wine category).

The entries in this inaugural category were inspiring and came from British Columbia and Ontario, with many of the wines made from aromatic white wine varieties such as gewurztraminer, viognier, pinot gris and the hybrid vidal blanc which appears well suited to both orange wines and Icewine.

Given the high number of silver medals and a gold among a small sample size, it is clear that the judges were both impressed with the overall quality level and excited for the future of this style in Canada. Congratulations to all the winning wines.

National Wine Awards of Canada National Wine Awards of Canada Judges