Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc & Merlot- Medal Winners from NWAC 2022

Announcing the Results from the 2022 National Wine Awards of Canada

The 21st running of the National Wine Awards of Canada wrapped up on June 23 in Niagara. Category results will be rolling out throughout the rest of July, with the final Platinum, Best Performing Small Winery, and Winery of the Year announcements coming at the end of this week. We hope you will stay tuned to follow the results and become engaged in anticipating the final results.


Platinum Pack Case 2022 with Light


We’ve asked a few of our judges to summarize their impressions of each category. Today we present Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc & Merlot:

Cabernet Sauvignon

Category Overview by Judge Geoffrey Moss, MW

Cabernet Sauvignon may not be one of the so-called signature varieties of Canadian wine but, for me, it’s the category that shows the most potential. We’ve heard the story before. Cabernet Sauvignon is late-ripening and struggles to reach “optimal ripeness” in Canada. But plantings continue to surge because wine drinkers love Cab. In British Columbia, plantings increased by 25 percent from 2008 to 2019, and it’s now the most widely planted grape variety in the world. 

Ripeness is intrinsically part of any conversation about Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps more so than any other grape. That’s because Cabernet Sauvignon is a pyrazinic variety. When unripe, Cabernet Sauvignon can be intensely vegetal with pungent green bell pepper notes. However, pyrazine levels will drop as the grape ripens, turning into appealing notes of mint or fresh herbs that add complexity and freshness to wines that can otherwise be monolithic.

Unfortunately, it can be pushed too far. Long hang time will certainly lose the green character of a wine, but in doing so we lose something intrinsic to Cabernet Sauvignon. We lose its innate character, and worse, we end up with overripe fruit that’s stewed, raisinated, or just, well, dead.

It’s often thought Canada’s best expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon come from the sun-soaked vineyards of the South Okanagan. This year’s results should have you questioning that conventional thinking. Yes, Bordertown’s platinum-winning Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Osoyoos, but cool-climate Ontario narrowly edged out BC when it came to gold medals, 7 to 6. 

Should we really be that surprised? Cabernet Sauvignon can perform exceptionally well in Ontario, especially Niagara and Lake Erie North Shore. But the province is on the margins for Cabernet Sauvignon and ripeness can be a challenge in some years. It’s no surprise that the excellent 2020 vintage is well-represented in this year’s results, with gold-medal Cabernet Sauvignons from Magnotta, Niagara College, and Wayne Gretzky.

Muscedere and Two Sisters prove that Cabernet Sauvignon can thrive in cooler vintages, too – at least in the right hands and on the right sites. Lake Eric North Shore-based Muscedere has been making consistently strong Cabernet Sauvignon for years and their 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon shows the winery’s fresh, elegant style. Two Sisters, led by winemaker Adam Pearce, show the benefit of time in bottle, with two gold medals from the 2017 vintage for their dense, polished Cabernet Sauvignons from Niagara’s warm Four Mile Creek sub-appellation.

Across the country in the Okanagan Valley, the challenge can be over-ripeness and over-extraction. The top wines clearly show Cabernet Sauvignon’s potential, though. Painted Rock and Mission Hill are two of the leaders, with strong showings from Covert Farms, Dirty Laundry, Liquidity, and Sunrock Vineyards. And don’t overlook the Similkameen Valley, either. With improvements both in the vineyard and winery, a golden age of BC Cabernet Sauvignon is on the horizon. 


Cabernet Franc
Category Overview by Judge John Szabo, MS

Cabernet franc remains an NWAC judges’ favourite, arguably the one category in which the broadest range of styles is accepted and celebrated, and regional differences embraced and encouraged. It’s pinot noir’s duty to be perfumed and delicate, regardless of origin. It’s cabernet sauvignon’s calling to be bold and firm, and black fruit-flavoured. Syrah should offer up that peppery spice and violet perfume even from the warmest stretches of the Okanagan.

But cabernet franc? Panelists, this year as in the past, put up passionate arguments for the pale, light and leafy, strawberry-scented Loire Valley paradigm, the darker, wood-inflected yet still gravelly and savoury Bordeaux archetype, the full-on, robust, black fruit and pyrazine (vegetal)-free Napa Valley prototype. Does that make Canadian cabernet franc a tough category to define? You bet. But it also makes it one of the most exciting and diverse and reminds us that Canada is an immense country with incredible physical diversity and winemaking potential. It’s a category above all that thrusts vineyard site, and the climate that prevails therein, to the fore, and informs the creative latitude and shapes the intent of the winemaker. And all styles are welcome here.

There were 63 medals awarded in all, coincidently the exact number of medals awarded to cabernet franc in 2021. And, also as in years past, the split was near even between British Columbia and Ontario, with 32 and 29 medals respectively. It’s a testament to the judge’s openness that, while starkly apparent for the most part in which province the wine originated even when tasting blind, that medals flowed unbegrudgingly east and west. It puts to lie the notion of “east coast” and “west coast” palates.

Among the 11 gold medals awarded, Ontario did earn a slight advantage, taking seven. Part of the explanation comes from the fact that the 2020 vintage in Ontario, which was the most represented among the medals (and five of the seven golds), was one of the best yet on record, warm and dry, ideal for varieties like cabernet franc. Ontario 2019’s provided the lighter, more fragrant medal winners.



Category Overview by Judge Sara d’Amato

For those of you who love to hate merlot (and there are many) you might be surprised to hear about its unwavering popularity in Canada. There was no shortage of merlot entries in this year’s competition giving us an accurate representation of the state of the popular grown grape variety in Canada. Let’s start with some positives. Of the red Bordeaux varieties, merlot is one of the earliest ripening which means it can grow reasonably well in a versatile array of climates, even if their temperatures are moderate. Even though it is not very cold tolerant on the vine, its wine is not very difficult to sell, hence the substantial level of production. If you are going to make a lot of it, you should be able to make it reasonably well and with consistency. In my opinion, Canada has demonstrated notable consistency in the quality of merlot produced over the past half decade.

Conversely, merlot is expensive, at least the highly decorated ones are as you’ll find below. The average price of those merlots that achieved a platinum or gold status was $31.95 in their respective provinces with 6 out of 12 priced $40 and up. There seems to be a considerable effort made with this variety in the high-end spectrum. This begs the question, should Canada be putting such a great effort into a variety that is grown so profusely in so many countries around the world? Do we aspire to be a benchmark region for merlot? Or are there other varieties that are more distinctively produced in Canada such as gamay and cabernet franc? I tend to think so but that does not overshadow my appreciation for the quality of the top wines in this category. As demonstrated by the 2022 results, Canada’s merlots showed well.  

The approachable and undeniably affable grape is considered a signature variety in BC and as of 2020, merlot was the most widely planted grape variety overall in the province. This is not to say that it isn’t widely grown in Ontario. According to the Grape Growers of Ontario in 2020, merlot is the province’s second most productive red vinifera grape variety after cabernet franc. Yet, shining most brightly among the top medalists in this competition were the merlots of B.C. The wines medaled as platinum and gold were overwhelmingly from the Okanagan save for a representative from the adjacent Similkameen Valley and another from the slightly cooler Lillooet region near Vancouver. Merlot, love it or leave it, is firmly planted in the Canadian cannon of grape varieties.



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