I taste a lot of Canadian wine every year. From visiting wineries to tasting/judging at Wine Access magazine's Canadian Wine Awards, I typically end up tasting hundreds of wines made in Canada every year.
So when Wine Access announced it was ceasing publication in February, I worried my CanCon quotient of Canadian vino would suffer. Thankfully WineAlign, an Ontario-based website with columns and wine reviews that help consumers, picked up where Wine Access left off, and from the ashes of the Canadian Wine Awards rose the National Wine Awards of Canada.
As a result, I was in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., a couple weeks ago tasting and judging at NWAC. Wines submitted to the competition are placed into flights — groups of eight to 10 wines made from the same grape — for judges to taste and score out of 100 points. Judges don't know who made the wine, where it's from or the cost in the interests of objectivity.
Wines that score well in the first few days survive for a final round of judging. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded accordingly. (There's talk of a few of the very best wines receiving platinum medals).
The original Canadian Wine Awards was in part the brainchild of Anthony Gismondi, a Vancouver-based writer who serves as the NWAC's co-head judge as well as a principal critic at WineAlign. When Gismondi left Wine Access shortly before it folded, the awards travelled with him to WineAlign. As a result, this is his 13th year involved with helping run a national wine awards.
For the most part, it's been a smooth transition. "If there was any confusion, it was among wineries trying to figure out who WineAlign is and where the Canadian Wine Awards went," Gismondi explains. "Nothing much has changed, so it's easy to compare this year to any of the previous 12."
There's representation from a great number of Canada's 600 or so wineries. And as the years have gone by, Gismondi has found each region does more to focus on what they do best rather than growing every wine grape under the sun.
"I think there's been a definite whittling down of resources — in Ontario, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Riesling have become the focus, and they all look good. In B.C., we see Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris."
As for the state of Canadian wine in general, in the six years I've been a judge at the awards, the increase in quality has been evident, especially with grapes like Syrah (predominantly from B.C.), Riesling (Ontario) and Chardonnay (both regions).
Perhaps one of the most surprising successes at this year's competition was the success of Canadian Merlot.
"The Merlot category is the best it's ever been in 13 years," says Gismondi. "We have two gold medals (names weren't released by press time) and that's indicative of changes in viticulture. Those changes are now translating into what we taste in the wines."
And what of Canada's infamous icewine? Not many are entered in the competition, and for good reason — it doesn't sell briskly in Canada.
"I think we do well with icewine, but it's not a major priority (for most wineries) anymore," says Gismondi. "Most of us would like to take the focus off it so we can really look at what else we're doing."
Based on the wines I tasted at the 2013 National Wine Awards of Canada, it's safe to assume the other stuff being made continues to improve in leaps and bounds. If you're looking to pop open some good wine this Canada Day weekend, consider something from your own backyard.
CedarCreek 2011 Pinot Gris (Okanagan Valley, B.C. -- $19.98, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Red apple, peach mango and tangerine notes show well on the nose. Pinot Gris can be made in one of two styles — light and simple (when it's often called Pinot Grigio) or richer and more complex (typically called Pinot Gris). This wine certainly falls into the latter category, with rich, viscous tangerine, mango, lemon and red apple notes as well as bright acidity to keep things crisp. An excellent B.C. white. 90/100
Flat Rock 2008 Riddled (Twenty Mile Bench, Ont. -- $24.73, Liquor Marts and beyond)
A blend of 71 per cent Chardonnay and 29 per cent Pinot Noir, this bubbly from Flat Rock delivers red apple, pear, lemon, bread dough and toasty aromas. It's a light-bodied, crisp sparkling wine, with peach, red apple, honey and doughy notes on the palate as well as some brisk acidity that delivers some freshness. Bottled under crown cap (like a beer), pop this open and enjoy on the patio on a warm summer day. 89/100
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