It's staggering to think I tasted around 400 Canadian wines last week, but it's true -- I was in beautiful Penticton, B.C., to judge at the Wine Access 2012 Canadian Wine Awards.
Now in its 12th year -- this was my fifth year judging -- the competition brought 16 judges and over 1,200 wines from across the country together to take the pulse of the Canadian wine industry.
I'm pleased to report judges came away from the four days of tasting confident our wines are better than ever, and that most of our wines can stand up to the best the world has to offer. There was a real feeling among judges that wineries are increasingly focusing on making the wines best-suited to their region.
Judging goes like this: Wines are grouped by grape variety for judging (there are also categories like red/white blends, dessert wines, fortified wines, sparkling wines, fruit wines and mead) into sets of eight to 10 wines. Judges only know the grape variety/varieties in the wine, not the producer -- glasses come out from the back pre-poured so the bottles aren't seen.
The group of wines (called a flight) is tasted by one or two panels of three to four judges, who write down notes and assign the wine a score based on the 100-point scale commonly used by many wine publications/writers (including here). The best couple of wines from each preliminary flight go through to the final rounds, where the process is repeated.
Of the 1,200-plus wines submitted, around 15 per cent were red blends, typically made up of Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc). Other categories with healthy representation included Chardonnay (oaked and unoaked, both of which did very well), Riesling (another strong category), Pinot Noir (excellent) and Pinot Gris/Grigio (hit-and-miss).
To the surprise of most judges, the grape that showed best throughout the preliminary rounds and final rounds was Syrah (a.k.a. Shiraz). Wines submitted in this category consistently showed beautiful purity and concentration of fruit, light tannins and great restraint when it came to oak aging and alcohol content.
In fact, the flight of nine Syrahs I tasted in later-round judging was the best collection of Canadian wine I've tasted in my five years of judging. Many were gold-medal caliber (90 points or higher), and a few undoubtedly went on to the Best Overall Red flight we tasted (grapes were kept from judges for that flight).
Sparkling wine was another category that brought incredible quality. Examples of both traditional Champagne-type bubbly (typically made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) and other styles (including those made from other fruit) from Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia all showed well.
As for Canadian icewines and dessert wines, many brought beautiful sweet fruit balanced by fresh acidity, but it's not a category that gets the judges too excited. Yes, we make late harvest/dessert wines well, but who drinks them? Not me.
Quality- and focus-wise, Canadian producers are moving their reds and whites in the right direction -- I expect more gold medals than ever when this year's results come out this winter.
While we may not see all the best wines on the shelves of Liquor Marts/private wine stores in Manitoba, we've got plenty that are medal-worthy, whether they were in the competition or not.
We should drink Canadian wines with pride.
(Oh, and thanks so much to everyone that graciously hosted/put up with us while in B.C. -- the evening events were the icing on the cake.)
Vintages may vary on the wines below...
Laughing Stock 2010 Portfolio (Okanagan Valley, B.C. -- around $65, private wine stores)
One of the many red blends entered in the competition, this five-grape, Bordeaux-style wine melds Cabernet Sauvignon aromas of mint and cassis with Merlot's blueberry and plum aromas. It's a ripe, full-bodied red that delivers on the dark fruit -- blackberry, plum, blueberry -- as well as herbal and white pepper flavours, light acidity, and medium tannin. 90/100
Gray Monk 2011 Pinot Gris (Okanagan Valley, B.C. -- $20.06, Liquor Marts and beyond)
The nose on this B.C. Pinot Gris is all fresh fruit: pear, red apple, peach and light melon. On the light-bodied palate it delivers red apple skin/seed and peach flavours with a hint of spice and some light citrus notes. It's a crisp Pinot Gris from the north end of the Okanagan Valley that's ideal for shellfish. 88/100
Vineland Estates 2011 Unoaked Chardonnay (Niagara Peninsula, Ont. -- $14.73, Liquor Marts and beyond)
With 15 per cent Pinot Blanc added in the mix, this white shows perfume, lemon candy, peach and red apple notes come on the nose. There's remarkable complexity on the medium-bodied palate despite no oak aging, with tart lemon, red apple and marmalade flavours with stony minerality and fresh acidity. An outstanding value. 89/100