Judge’s Picks from the National Wine Awards of Canada

Each week between now and the announcement of the results of the NWACs after Labour Day, WineAlign will feature each of the 18 judges, their thoughts on Canadian wine, and their personal favourite wine of the competition. Selection of a wine does not necessarily mean it was a top medal winner, and the scores (if given) reflect the opinion of the judge, not its final mark in the competition.

Margaret Swaine, Toronto

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret has authored thousands of articles on wine, spirits, food and travel since her writing career start in 1978. Current gigs include Principal Critic and Partner at WineAlign where she pens a monthly blog about spirits, the weekly column Forks & the Road about culinary and spirited travel for the National Post, the bi-monthly Global Gourmet columns for Travel Industry Today and the column Paradise Home & Away for Best Health. Prior she was both Toronto Life and Chatelaine’s wine and spirit columnist for over two decades. She’s also written for the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Financial Post, House and Home, Elle, Toronto Life Fashion, USA Today, Canadian Foodservice Hospitality, Ensemble Travel, EnRoute, Food and Drink, Canadian Living, Hello! Canada, NUVO, ScoreGolf, Canadian Restaurant and Foodservice News, Chic, Arrival, Up! Magazine, Zoomer, Ottawa Citizen, Wine Access, Winetidings, Gayot.com, Baltic Outlook and more publications than she can remember. She’s the creator and author of the first three annual “Toronto Life Wine, Beer and Spirits Guides” and has taught wine courses at the YMCA, The Skills Exchange, The Learning Annex, Creative Entertaining, The Creative Touch Cooking School, Harvest Kitchen and Georgian College as well as for private corporate groups. Margaret has participated as a wine judge at many international competitions and has appeared on numerous radio and TV Shows as a wine expert. Margaret founded and was first president of the Wine Writers Circle of Canada and is a founder, director and first treasurer of The Travel Media Association of Canada. She is recipient of the 2003 Life Achievement Award of the Ontario Imported Wine-Spirit-Beer Association. Margaret got her debut in the wine field, as a winner of blind tasting competitions. Back in 1978, when Margaret entered her first Toronto competition, she captured both the first prize and the “women’s prize”.

Margaret on Canadian Wine

I always find it amusing when people say “Canadian wines have come of age”. I wrote that back in 1980 for a feature I did for Chatelaine. We’ve been making great wine for decades – it’s only the volume and number of wineries doing it that has changed. We’ve reached such a critical mass even the ignorant can no longer be so. And while it’s hard for us to make those ten dollar bargain beauties, some do manage it and do so under VQA rules. Bravo to them. On the higher price end I’ve seen lots of exciting wines including an unexpected terrific range of traditional method long-on-the-lees sparkling wines which I discovered while researching a piece for Hello! Canada. I’m also a fan of our red and white blends and was further encouraged by what I tasted in judging the National Wine of Canada Awards this year. Among the single varietals there were some in almost every category that were delightful and gold medal impressive. While Canada has nowhere close to the depth and breadth of grape varietals as in a country like Italy, Portugal or Greece for example, we can and do make magic with what we have planted and continue to experiment with new varietals. I’m waiting for the grüner veltliner – if they can have a GRU route in Australia’s Adelaide Hills – so can we.

Margaret’s Picks

Meyer Family Vineyards 2011 McLean Creek Pinot Noir
Okanagan Valley, BC $40.00

I’m a big pinot noir aficionado and so when I come across ones I love I’m in heaven. When the wines were revealed, it turned out I liked pretty much all the Meyer Family wines, but this one really impressed. It had lovely wild aromatics that were forward with lots of berry and toasted oak. Sweet cherry, integrated oak and earthiness came through on the palate. Meyer family has 19 acres under vine and focus on chardonnay and pinot noir with an emphasis on small lot single vineyard wines. I also really liked their Reimer Family Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011.

Meyer Pinot Noir McLean Creek

Quails’ Gate Winery Chenin Blanc 2012
Okanagan Valley, BC $18.99

I’ve been a fan of Quails’ Gate Chenin Blanc for years and this one stood out for me among the chenin wines we blind tasted. While some of my colleagues felt the 8 per cent of sauvignon blanc in the blend made it less true to the varietal, I begged to differ. I found the bouquet full on ripe quince and honey with a dry, long concentrated and lingering floral finish. I call it a classic.

Quails' Gate Chenin Blanc 2012

Jessica Bryans, Vancouver

Jessica’s passion for wine began almost 10 years ago with an extended stay in Tuscany. Upon returning home, her career in the wine industry began after securing a job in a local wine shop and enrolling in a course with the International Sommelier Guild.  Following several years with Vancouver based retail giant Everything Wine Inc, Jessica now works as the Wine Buyer and Beverage Purchasing Manager for JOEY Restaurant Group’s near 30 restaurants across Canada and the USA. Her role combines her insatiable passion for wine, food and travel with managing the distribution and logistics involved in the purchasing process in several markets. She is also accredited by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.

Jessica on Canadian Wine

Let me first say that Canadian wine impresses me. Even though this is a young region, it feels as though we are on the road to making world class wines, specifically from Riesling and Syrah.

Jessica Bryans

Jessica Bryans

It was no surprise to find that Canadian Riesling is miles ahead of other varietals in terms of its quality and consistency.  Throughout the NWAC competition we tasted a broad spectrum of styles from the bone-dry and mineral driven to the sweet and honeyed, with the best examples showing a certain nervy intensity and purity of fruit that I can only describe as “honest”. What drives the progress in this category is that winemakers are well aware that they have a good thing and are giving the variety a certain respect.  When the flight lists, with the price of each wine, were revealed following the judging (I wouldn’t be a true Wine Buyer without getting excited about that part), I was pleased to learn that there are many great value Rieslings being made in Canada. Some of the wines that I scored highly are available for less than $18…cue the national anthem.

I also feel Syrah is an emerging contender for Canadian greatness. We seem to be on the verge of our own unique style that somehow incorporates pretty with savoury, and elegance with richness. Time will tell if these wines have the ability to age in a fashion that would warrant such a statement but for the moment this is an exciting category and I look forward to seeing how they develop. Again, many of the good Syrah examples tasted were reasonably priced, specifically the Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate “Grand Reserve” seen below.

Finally, a nod to a few other pleasant surprises of the competition. The beauty (and the curse) of being such a young wine region is that there is a considerable amount of experimentation.  Although we did taste some questionable wines, it seems that every now and again the risks do pay off for producers, who have an understanding of their terroir. To me, the most impressive of the less well established varietals was Chenin Blanc. We tasted truly elegant, focused Chenin made in a range of styles including sparkling, dry and off-dry, all of which had much depth and concentration. Another pleasant surprise was Gamay, which showed some potential with bright red fruit and cracked pepper character and some qualities reminiscent of Beaujolais. These varietals may not be destined for commercial success in Canada but they are definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Although these awards are only a snapshot of what is happening with Canadian wine at this moment, I feel as though the key lesson is simple: the best wines are emerging from producers who know, understand and respect the terroir.

Jessica’s Picks
Big Head Wines 2012 Chenin Blanc

Niagara Lakeshore, Niagara Peninsula ($25)

Made in a dry style with mouth-watering acidity and laser like intensity of red apple skin, pear, honey, chamomile and crushed stones. Layers of brilliant complexity, great balance and a long, clean finish. Spot-on.

Big Head Wines 2012 Chenin Blanc

Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate 2010 “Grand Reserve” Shiraz
Niagara Peninsula ($20)

Notes of dark fruit and garrigue on the nose. The palate is structured and concentrated with flavours of cassis, white-pepper and savoury herbs. This wine is edging towards Northern Rhone stylistically and does a great job of offering a delicious and approachable version of an old world classic.

Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate 2010 Grand Reserve Shiraz

Photo credits from NWAC: Jason Dziver Photography

National Wine Awards of Canada