Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot – 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, we 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 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot:

Platinum Pack 2021 NL

Cabernet Sauvignon

Category Overview by Judge John Szabo, MS

The 2021 edition of the NWACs was a topsy-turvy one for the country’s bigger reds, historically most successful in the Okanagan Valley. There were plenty of lows and highs, and no small measure of controversy provoked by the 66 entries. Aside from constantly evolving quality thanks to better viticulture, and the continued, more judicious use of oak for ageing (better balanced flavours, less obvious wood influence), the biggest story in the cabernet sauvignon category this year was the prevalence of smoke taint in wines from the 2018 vintage in the Okanagan.

Few winegrowers like to talk about it, but the damage caused by wildfires is real. And I’m not referring to the horrifying loss of property and vineyards, but the more insidious damage caused to grapes by smoke hanging heavy in the air. Smoke molecules become affixed to grape skins and are brought into the winery. Reds wines are more affected, since for most whites, grapes are pressed immediately and skins discarded, whereas for reds the skins stay in contact with the must/wine for a longer period to extract necessary red pigments and tannins, but also those smoky molecular precursors.

The real problem is that the unmistakeable whiff of fireplace often doesn’t manifest itself until several months later, often when it’s too late to do anything about it. The most effective remedy is also expensive: a reverse osmosis machine that removes the culpable molecules. Few wineries can afford R-O, and in any case, it strips out not only smoke taint, but plenty of other desirable molecules as well. “It beats up the wine”, as one wine maker put it. Cabernet can handle it better than most, but it’s still a fix in extremis.

The 2018s were not yet released for the 2019 edition of the NWACs. A few trickled in to the paired-down, pandemic version of the awards last year and raised the alarm, but 2021 brought the issue into much sharper relief. It’s not universal, and some pockets of the valley emerged unscathed (or with expertly applied reverse osmosis), as shown by the three 2018 Okanagan cabernets (and one from the neighboring Similkameen) in the golds, but it was prevalent enough to engender discussion about “terroir effect” and “vintage variation”. Is smoke taint a new regular reality for the Okanagan Valley (and large swaths of California wine country, among other regions)? The idea that smoke taint is a legitimate aspect of the character of a growing season was first proposed to me by an Australian winemaker 15 years ago as he handed me a big smoky shiraz.

Philosophically the NWAC judges may have different positions on the terroir/vintage typicity question. But the debate is really only beginning. The bottom line is: choose the 2018s Okanagan reds carefully. The good news is that there are plenty of excellent 2017s still available, and the 2019s show fine precision and freshness, so there’s plenty of quality wine to go around.


Cabernet Franc

Category Overview by Judge Michael Godel

Candid, forthright and complex Cabernet Franc

Few varieties in Canada exist in a vacuum of discourse and argumentation as does cabernet franc, that erudite, brutally honest and polarizing grape. From outside the vacuity wine tasters and lovers alike see the varietal relationship to wine appreciation as challenging, often exhilarating and almost always residing on one extreme end of the spectrum. Rarely is cabernet franc considered with middle of the road acuity, evasive of the space between and we inherently either love it or hate it. Yet the prevailing attitude in Canadian circles dictates that varietally pungent, hyaline and brutally honest cabernet franc must take a rightful place as one of Canada’s signature red wines.

What makes cabernet franc great? As with similarly structured medium-bodied reds of western European origin there must be the kind of inviting acidity to forge symbiotic unions with wine-friendly food, concordant with the richness of marbled, sometimes smoked and more often than not, slowly cooked meats. Additionally, roasted nightshades, in eggplant, sweet peppers, tomatoes and foraged fungi are great fans. Even when no barrel aging is involved there is a genesis of perfume by way of France’s Bordeaux and Loire Valley. The key to making great cabernet franc is to allow the land a say and as it is said, “don’t screw it up.” Harder said than done but in this 2021 edition of the National Wine Awards of Canada the judges took note to find winners in the category from both the Okanagan Valley and the Niagara Peninsula. This serves to examine a perfect symmetry to exult and justify the grape’s place in the pantheon of both province’s varietal hierarchy. The Gold Medals were nearly split between the two provinces for a top ten cabernet franc category filled with expressive, site-specific wines to solidify and justify planting sites; Creek Shores, Lincoln Lakeshore and St. David’s Bench sub-appellations of Ontario; the East Bench of Osoyoos, Naramata Bench, Skaha Bench, Oliver and Lillooet in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

A stunning 63 medals were awarded cabernet franc at this year’s Nationals; 2 Platinum, 9 Gold, 24 Silver and 28 Bronze. That is nothing short of a varietal miracle and only serves up proof as to the signature grape’s importance to Canadians and Canadian wineries. The split was nearly even, 32 medals to B.C., 31 to Ontario. To the medal winners know this: Your wines are representative of place, grape and the highest Canadian standard. Be proud of the award, regardless of colour. Who would not conclude that the greatness of cabernet franc is upon us with thanks to many great makers who have come to a place of deeper understanding. The future is wide open.



Category Overview by Judge Sara d’Amato

Be it a response to consumer demand or a desire for growers to make merlot, there is a lot made in Canada. In BC it is the most widely grown red grape and in Ontario, it ties for first place with cabernet franc as the red grape highest % of total production by volume.

Yet, a question that comes up again and again among wine writers, critics and sommeliers is – should we be growing so much merlot in Canada? Like most consumers, I take no offense at merlot. In fact, its affable and accessible nature makes it a safe and widely appealing purchasing choice. At its pinnacle of greatness, merlot is the base for many of the world’s most expensive and coveted reds. It has the potential to reach such great heights, yet how often does it do this in Canada? In the vineyard, merlot is notably cold sensitive and requires careful canopy management to achieve a high degree of quality. Favourably, it is a relatively early ripener among Bordeaux reds. Still, it cannot be grown everywhere in Canada, and if our results this year are any indication, it is most consistently successful when grown in southern B.C. Furthermore, compared to the number of high scoring wines in categories such as pinot noir, or syrah, grapes that produces significantly less wine overall, merlot has achieved fewer medals. Is enthusiasm waning for this variety? Is it a variety that will help define us a wine producing nation? Is Canada’s merlot sufficiently noteworthy to distinguish it from other wine growing regions who readily grow the variety with ease and consistency? Perhaps not but this awareness should not diminish the quality or achievements of the category winners below. If anything, this should serve to elevate their success in this ambivalent category.


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