Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Riesling – Medal Winners from NWAC 2021

Announcing the Results from the 2021 National Wine Awards of Canada

The 20th National Wine Awards of Canada wrapped up in October in Penticton, B.C., fittingly judging a record-setting number of wines from coast to coast. It’s been an amazing two-decade journey for the most respected and important Canadian wine competition. The week-long tasting is but a snapshot of Canadian wine, yet like old family photos, much has changed over two decades. The inaugural competition in 2001 drew 528 wines from 71 wineries, judged by eight men. In 2021, 26 judges — 14 men and 12 women — tasted 2,075 entries from more than 260 wineries. 

As in previous years, we have decided to break the announcement of the results into more manageable pieces, starting today with Canada’s best Sparkling wines. On October 29th we will begin announcing a few categories a day over a two week period, concluding with the highly-anticipated Platinum winners on November 10th, the Best Performing Small Winery of the Year on November 11th, and finally the Winery of the Year along with the nation’s Top 25 Wineries on November 12th.


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We’ve asked a few of our judges to summarize their impressions of each category. Today we present Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Riesling.

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Sauvignon Blanc

The continuing maturation of Canadian Sauvignon Blanc

Category Overview by Judge Michael Godel

The Canadian winemakers’ attraction with sauvignon blanc borders on infatuation and this in spite of the very fact that these vines hate extreme Canadian winters and their grapes rarely duplicate or replicate with any consistency. The wines can be sharp, metallic, vegetal, composted and especially herbaceous. No matter it seems to so many oenological Canadian fanatics who, like any other global counterparts worth their Blundstones in mud or salt adore the challenge to makes wines that can run with the best in Bordeaux, Sancerre and Marlborough. When they get that loving sauvignon blanc feeling the righteousness shines on through.

The cool climate viticultural regions of Canada are indeed capable of delivering the grassy, herbal, gooseberry and even tropical white wine embrace while conversely gifting examples best described as flinty, smouldering, blanched nut creamy and so very rich. We know by now that sauvignon blanc from multifarious Canadian soils can imitate them all; Loire Valley (Sancerre, Touraine, Pouilly Fumé and Cheverny); Bordeaux (Pessac-Léognan, Graves, Côtes de Bordeaux Blayes et Franc and Entre-Deux-Mers); New Zealand (Marlborough, Martinborough and Nelson). There is a sauvignon blanc made in many locales across Canada to please each and every consumer palate.

This year’s NWACs proved to be different. In the past the sauvignon blanc flights might have been assessed and surmised with shrugs, resignation and responses ranging from meh to OK. At the culmination of those varietal groupings this past October the post-flight comments included “wow!, unexpected! and most convincing!” Never before have so many wines scored so high, turned heads, palates and minds into the camp of the duly impressed. And so friends, like it or not, love it or hate it from Canadian soils, sauvignon blanc has fully arrived.

The proof is in the numbers. There were 38 medals awarded to Canadian sauvignon blanc at the 2021 Nationals, four Gold, eight Silver and 25 Bronze. That’s 25 per cent more Gold, (100) more Silver, (56) more Bronze and (52) overall. Ontario outshone British Columbia three to one in the top spots, with total Niagara pros Creekside Estate, Peller Estates and Organized Crime joined by La Frenz of the Okanagan Valley. That said, six of the eight Silver winners are B.C. born, with Creeekside the only winery showing up twice in the top 12. Trius captured the other Ontario Silver to join the ranks of Burrowing Owl, Mayhem, Deep Roots, CedarCreek, Red Rooster and Little Engine. The overall split was almost 50-50, with 20 medals awarded B.C. wines and 18 to those from Ontario.

No longer a trend but a real connectivity and shared excellence is duly noted between British Columbia and Ontario. Whether is goes solo or blends with sémillon the critics are increasingly finding that sauvignon blanc can indeed buy a thrill as witnessed by the maturation of Canadian winemaking when it comes to using these worldly and highly flexible grapes. I have said it before and it bears worth repeating. It’s just so bloody obvious that sauvignon blanc offers consumers what they want: Equality, diplomacy and something for everyone.


Syrah / Shiraz

Category Overview by Judge Sara d’Amato

From dark and enveloping to perfumed and peppery, syrah comes in a multitude of styles whose global benchmarks include southern Australia and the northern Rhône Valley and more recently, Chile, New Zealand, California, South Africa and dare I say, Canada? It may not be a variety that first comes to mind when you think of Canadian wine and it is still produced in small quantities, but syrah plantings are on the rise and thankfully so! Relatively new to the country, syrah first arrived in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley in 1991, planted by the Nichol’s in the Naramata Bench and subsequently in Ontario in 1997 by Mike Kacaba on Niagara’s Beamsville Bench. Largely due to skepticism, it did not take hold in either province very quickly. How can one hope to grow a southern French variety in Niagara, Ontario? Besides, public interest seemed to be on the side of encouraging the planting of cabernet sauvignon. As of 2020 in Ontario, syrah grapes grown and sold make up only a third of the quantity of cabernet sauvignon (as per the Grape Growers of Ontario Annual Report). Yet, it in B.C., syrah is hot on the heels of cabernet sauvignon and is the 5th most planted red variety in the province after cabernet sauvignon and cabernet Franc (as per the 2019 B.C. Wine Grape Acreage Report). Finally, there is some real momentum with respect to the production of syrah in Canada and it continues to be an absolute pleasure to judge this category whether it is positioned as the first or the last flight of the day.

To answer a question that may be surfacing in your mind right now – yes, syrah should be grown in Canada. Why? Because it’s worth it. The reason that syrah flourishes in Canada is because it grows best in moderate climates which describe Canada’s most prolific wine growing regions. In France, syrah performs in an unsurpassed fashion in the cooler reaches of the northern Rhône Valley and in the windy elevations further south. Coveted characteristics such as bountiful pepper, chemically known as rotundone, along with a florid articulation of botanicals and spices seem to be effortlessly expressed in a surprising majority of syrah from across the country. From the St. David’s Bench to Osoyoos, let’s keep it up Canada!



Category Overview by Judge John Szabo, MS

Little remains to be said about Canadian riesling; long-time observers recognize it as one of the country’s strongest suits. There were an impressive 140 entries this year, behind only chardonnay among whites. If the edge for bigger reds goes to B.C., it’s Ontario’s turn to shine in this cool-loving category, taking six of the top ten spots including the only platinum award. The judges’ appreciation of a range of riesling styles was made evident by the varied soil/climate combinations that came up trumps. In Ontario, wines from the warmer, heavier clay pockets of Niagara-on-the-Lake, for example (Trius, Peller Estates), garnered equal praise as those from the cooler parts of the Niagara Escarpment and its thinner, more limestone-laced soils (Thirty Bench, Tawse).

In B.C., the sandy-loams of the Naramata Bench are clearly a superior spot for riesling, yielding three of four BC golds (Upper Bench, Synchromesh, La Frenz), with the other coming from the variety’s original Okanagan home in the cooler area around Kelowna and the volcanic soils of Mount Boucherie (SpearHead).

Overall, judges noted a general decrease in the levels of residual sugar in Rieslings from across the country, once considered essential to balance high acids (or just underripe) grapes. Producers have clearly gained more confidence in the fruit depth and higher ripeness provided by their ageing vines, over 40 years now for Canada’s oldest, and the longer, warmer growing seasons brought on by climate change, making dry, balanced riesling more regularly possible.


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If you have missed our detailed commentary on the various categories that have been announced so far, see them here.