Cider & Red Single Varieties – 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 Cider, Cabernet, Merlot and other Red Single Varietals with a few words from John Szabo, Michael Godel and Sara d’Amato:


Category overview by judge and panel leader John Szabo, MS

To say that cider is exploding in Canada falls short of hyperbolic – the market is booming. At last count there are some 150 cider producers across the country (though that number is likely out of date), with Québec boasting over 1/3 of those, followed closely by Ontario, then BC (34), and a respectable contribution from Nova Scotia and a smattering from other maritime provinces and the prairies. Cider sales seem to be outpacing production, led by so-called craft cider – you know, the genuine, hand-crafted stuff made from pure, real apples and pears, the equivalent of craft beer. According to, for example, LCBO sales of craft ciders grew 54 percent in 2015-2016, far faster than industrial brands. That’s a far cry from the not-too-distant days when a couple of multinationals owned the taps and shelves.

Though often lumped in with beer, cider is much closer to wine. It’s made from fermented fruit, after all (apples and/or pears, the latter often called “perry”), and the very best undergo a secondary fermentation in bottle, just like traditional method sparkling wine. Indeed, there are more than a handful of Canadian wineries who have turned their attention to cider production to capitalize on the growing market, the abundance of apples available in Canada, and to faster amortize the expensive equipment they’ve already purchased for wine production, which sits around unused for much of the year.

And like wine, cider comes in all shapes and sizes. The variety(ies) of apples and pears used are of course critical to the final product. True cider apples are quite rare; most Canadian cider is made from apples that do double duty as eating fruit as well. The genuine articles are often inedible, tannic, acidic, and bitter-sweet (and much more expensive thanks to their rarity), but delicious when fermented. But the right table apples can produce more than respectable beverages as well.

A quick survey of the most popular brands shows the public’s preference for sweetness; the average cider seems to have about 35 grams/liter of residual sugar, which, as with wine, goes a long way to obscure off-flavours, or distract you from the fact that the beverage is little more than artificially carbonated apple juice with some alcohol.

Unsurprisingly, the top-scoring ciders this year were largely dry, made from pure apples (and/or pears), with the tannic grip that separates the good from the very best, and natural carbonation from fermentation in bottle, like Southbrook’s silver medal-winning Wild Ferment cider. The medal-winning off-dry and sweet ciders manage the sweet-tart balance admirably, while also delivering much higher complexity than the average commercial example.

2018’s Best Cider of the Year highlights another facet of the category, the (perfectly acceptable) addition of other fruits. Twisted Hills Midnight Cherry cider earned the highest score at the awards, made from organically-grown, genuine cider apples and cherries from the Similkameen Valley of British Columbia, Canada’s capital of organic agricultural. In all, medals were awarded to ciders from BC, Nova Scotia Ontario and Québec, underscoring the pan-national potential for cider and the growing strength of the category.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Category overview by judge Michael Godel

Ontario and British Columbia are the two primary sources of cabernet sauvignon and the only two that really factor into a National Wine Awards discussion. Tasting through a good number of cabernet sauvignon can really assist towards gaining an unbiased impression of what the differences are and what might make their respective terroirs cumulatively unique. British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley has reliably dry summers but much more day/night diurnal temperature fluctuations. In the summer Ontario typically stays much warmer at night and so the two humid beds of cabernet sauvignon have different ripening patterns. B.C. may have significantly more sunshine hours but not necessarily (always) more total heat. Which province reigns varietal supreme?

Neither really. The varietal is neither signature nor essential to the provinces’ red wine production, but the ever-expanding juggernaut will never cease and desist. In both Ontario and in B.C., plantings of the grape continue to remain in the top three. The consumer is always placated and appeased by its fruity-juicy nature, often by how it combines berries and chocolate. Its wide availability makes people happy and so growers gonna grow and producers gonna produce.

The grape populated the vineyards of California and then began to spread with merciless and mercenary fever across the globe. It has always grown with ease and even if it does not always ripen people would always find pleasure in its great ubiquity. It was celebrated and it has never looked back. If it now stands accused as being a colonizer at the expense of both autochthonous and more suitable local varieties, is the criticism warranted? Should a champion at the top of its game be castigated for its hard-earned, commercial success?

Yes and no. Never forget that cabernet sauvignon is the grape of commercial dreams. It sells, in restaurants, wine stores and out of the cellar door. It can be made well, provided the vintage abides and the winemakers find it in their hearts to set ambition aside and go easy on the new barrel augmentation. There are some great cab sauv terroirs on this planet, beyond Bordeaux. Coonawarra and Margaret River in Australia and Stellenbosch in South Africa stand out for me. Our Canadian climates are certainly antithetical to those three locales but still I’d like to see our producers look to these fresh, crisp and crunchy-styled wines for their greatest inspiration.

Cabernet Franc

Category overview by judge Michael Godel

Cabernet Franc quality is a coast to coast matter. If these WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada are any harbinger, in just one year the British Columbia scene has made huge strides. The aforementioned (in the 2017 intro.) coolest sites are truly responsible for doling out crunchy fresh and energetic cabernet franc with western desert spice notes, namely wild sage and garrigue. We’ve been talking up the crop circles overlapping in Niagara’s Lincoln Lakeshore and Beamsville Bench sites but new results mean we’ve also got to look onto the Peninsula’s flats and some farms delivering magical franc fruit. Over atop the Prince Edward County limestone something of an epiphany is also taking place, as is a stretch of greenery in Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Valley. Let’s be franc. The first varietal cut is Canada’s deepest.

The Lincoln Lakeshore is without question one of the Niagara Peninsula’s most important cabernet franc havens, a heavy clay construct that begs the vines to send their roots in deep. This year’s Nationals tell us that the flats of the Niagara Peninsula should not be ignored. The oeuvre can certainly be ambitious and by now, an understood and necessary way to render the Niagara Peninsula, if what you’re after is cabernet franc that is big, bold and earthy structured. At Two Sisters the connection between viticulture and winemaker Adam Pearce’s vision must be wholly contiguous, to take fruit from the northern tip of the Niagara River sub-appellation hung long into the late autumn and see it become as rich as cabernet franc can ever become.

The year has delivered an excellent showing for one of Canada’s most important red varietals. The decisions being made as to where to plant this crisp, juicy and crunchy grape are getting better and better. The shared subtleties enjoyed by sites of provincial soils can easily be taken for granted within the common areas, but the lines drawn are getting clearer by the minute. The story of cabernet franc terroir is quickly coming onto focus, quite amazing compared to just five years ago and faster than anyone could have imagined. So, what are we looking for from this signature Canadian grape? To see it produced in what we all feel is the most exciting fresh breath of cabernet franc air.


Category overview by judge Sara d’Amato

Perhaps it is even harder to be merlot then a red-headed orphan. Merlot has had a hard-knock life even before the ubiquitous anti-merlot diatribe of Miles Raymond from the film “Sideways”. In its most respected home of Bordeaux, merlot was actually banned from being planted between 1970 and 1975 due to fear of its weakness to cold and resistance to mold. For much of merlot’s life in Chile, it was co-mingled and picked with unripe carmenère until DNA profiling in 1998 definitively distinguished the grapes as distinct. Despite falling out of fashion on occasion, merlot has always had enough popularity to get it through the toughest of times.

Almost every wine producing region in the world warm enough to ripen merlot, makes merlot, which means there is stiff competition. There is a traditional, pedantic distinction often made between “classic” and “international” styles of merlot. The “classic” styles are those which tend to be less ripe, more rigidly tannic, and ageworthy, akin to those produced in merlot’s classic home of Bordeaux’s right bank. What is known as an “international style” is a merlot that is riper, more fleshy, charming and easier to enjoy in its youth. Although those may be the two extremities of merlot, the “classic” style is no longer ubiquitous within Bordeaux and the “international style” is no longer a generalization of what can be found in the “new world”. The merlots of this competition emphatically showed that there was diversity in our homegrown Canadian wines.

This year, the number of gold medals more than doubled from last year despite scarcely more entries. The medalled wines were more evenly distributed between Ontario and B.C. in this category. Although many of the top scoring wines offered great intensity and fleshiness, there was much that distinguished them. Those variances tended to be more winemaking in nature as opposed to clear regional distinctiveness. Judges appreciated oak treatment that was well matched to the weight and intensity of the wine. There were several examples of authentic, expressively aromatic wines that were wildly seductive. Other high-ranking wines offered either a richly layered tannic profile combined with vibrant, streamlined acidity. Despite issues with winter hardiness in merlot, the grape seems to show better quality and more consistency nationwide than ever before. Due to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the grape grown in our own varied terroir, there is a great deal of hope for merlot as demonstrated by these results.

We are also pleased to announce the Medal winners for other Red Single Varietals:

National Wine Awards of Canada National Wine Awards of Canada Judges