Gamay, Pinot Gris and Sparkling – Medal Winners from NWAC 2019

Announcing the Results from the 2019 National Wine Awards of Canada

The 2019 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada were a huge success with 1,815 entries from 259 different wineries from eight different provinces. The ‘Nationals’ are Canada’s largest wine awards and each year we hold them in a different Canadian wine region. This year we were in Ontario’s bucolic Prince Edward County.

As in previous years, we have decided to break the announcement of the results into more manageable pieces. Each day for the next two weeks we will be announcing a few categories at a time, with the highly-anticipated Platinum Awards on July 31st, the Best Performing Small Winery of the Year on August 1st, and finally the Winery of the Year along with nation’s Top 25 Wineries on August 2nd. 

National Wine Awards of Canada

We’ve asked a few of our judges to summarize their impressions of each category. Today we present Gamay, Pinot Gris and Sparkling:


Category Overview by Judge Janet Dorozynski

Good gamay can be great though unfortunately the grape is still misunderstood or plagued by the stigma of the grape-y bubble gum juice of Beaujolais Nouveau of the past. Producers also say that gamay is a hard varietal wine to sell but with the growing interest by both trade and consumers for lighter bodied and fresher reds, the time is right for gamay and in fact has been getting even better since I first coined the rallying cry #gogamaygo in 2012.

The gamay grape produces wines that are lighter in colour, with fresh acidity and juicy berry, cranberry flavours and a touch of spice. It’s not as precious to grow as pinot noir and benefits from crop thinning in the vineyard to temper its vigorous growth and ensure uniform ripeness and concentration.

Gamay’s homeland is Beaujolais but it is grown in diverse pockets across the globe from New Zealand to South Africa to Chile and beyond. In Canada, gamay grows primarily in Ontario (550 acres) with smaller amounts in BC (less than 200 acres), Quebec, Nova Scotia and even in Prince Edward Island. Stylistically it ranges from crushable summer sippers, that are best slightly chilled, to complex, concentrated wines that are oak aged and serious enough to stand up to some time in bottle.

This year’s gold medals come from the warmer mid to southern reaches of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley though wonderful examples abound from several of the Niagara Peninsula sub-appellations becoming better known for reds (Lincoln Lakeshore, Four Mile Creek and St. David’s Bench) as well as the Similkameen Valley in BC. What more to say but #gogamaygo.

Pinot Gris / Grigio

Category Overview by Judge Michael Godel

One’s gris is another’s grigio but at any rate, more and more Canadian made pinot is coming your way

We seem to be tasting and assessing a considerable amount of pinot gris slash grigio these days. In 2019 the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada bar was raised once again as increasingly the wines spoke to both matters of quantity and quality. The annual competition played host to this country’s largest gris/grigio gathering and 34 medallists prove that trends can also be realities. There are well upwards of 60,000 hectares of pinot gris/grigio planted worldwide and that number is growing, not surprising considering the varietal’s two-step, double-down rise in popularity.

The laconic story would say that when comparing pinot gris to pinot grigio the difference is mainly origin but increasingly so an inculcation of style. The endemically considered pinot grigio is traced to northeastern Italy just as pinot gris is to northeastern France. One grape, two places and ultimately each tracking an approach along one fork of the road. The simplest explanation says one is generally picked earlier and the other later, the former being fresher and crisper, the latter richer and more developed.

Call the grape what you will. Known as gris in Alsace, dry gives way more often than not to sweet, age-worthy, late-harvest styles. As grigio in Northern Italy it’s more straightforward and in Germany it’s also called grauburgunder or ruländer. In Hungary its moniker is zürkebarát. New Zealand may just be the great New World frontier for the pinot gris ideal. Or does that distinction belong to Oregon, a frontier many believe possessive of several AVAs more suitable to the gris stylistic than even chardonnay. It’s easier and less expensive to plant and maintain than chardonnay, harvests early and therefore puts cash flow reports in the green, or in this varietal case, also yellow, pink and orange. By the way, grigio and gris both mean “grey,” as noted by the pinkish-grey sheen of the ripe grape’s skin.

Where does that put the discussion concerning a homogeneity of Canadian style? Well at its simplest dissemination it means looking at a paradigm lying somewhere between Italy and Alsace. That being generally said it is simply ludicrous to imagine examples from British Columbia and Ontario (with few and far between examples from other provinces) to be looked at in one broad stroke of a brush. If you must ask and know, Ontario’s gris-grigio is generally leaner, more “mineral” and often crisper than B.C. counterparts but following that to the a letter of law would do great disservice to diversity and possibility. Get to know the producers and the greater picture will clear.

The grapes are in fact a mutation of Bourgogne’s pinot noir, are vigorous and lie somewhere in the middle of the moderate production mode. They are well adapted to, and suited for, cool climates with well-draining soils. Hardy, easy to grow with relatively small clusters and berries. They are susceptible to Botrytis so they can be a chameleon of a white wine for dry, off-dry and sweet styles, and with some skin-contact they can also produce pink coloured wines. Welcome to Canada.

It matters not which major appellation you look at in British Columbia, as you will always see pinot gris as one of its leading grape varieties. Kelowna, Penticton, Vaseaux-Oliver, Golden Mile, Black Sage-Osoyoos and Similkameen. At approximately 10 percent of the total plantings, only chardonnay is its equal and merlot greater in total acreage.

In Ontario pinot gris is the fifth most planted and harvested grape variety, trailing only chardonnay, riesling, merlot and cabernet franc. In terms of tonnage the number 3,627 from 2017 may still trail merlot by 1,600 tonnes but don’t be fooled by historical statistics. The gris-grigio juggernaut is losing no space-time ascension and continues to gain with exponential force. Ontario has defined three DVAs: Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore (LENS) and Prince Edward County (PEC). Within the Niagara Peninsula, five general grape climatic zones are further defined by 10 sub-appellations: Creek Shores, Lincoln Lakeshore, Vinemount Ridge, Beamsville Bench, Short Hill Bench, Twenty Mile Bench, Four Mile Creek, Niagara Lakeshore, Niagara River and St David’s Bench. Pelee Island is a sub-appellation of LENS. The pinots, gris and grigio are everywhere.

Why plant more pinot gris in Ontario? It’s more than simply a matter of market trends. If we look at cultivar by vineyard risk assessment, the professionals who study such things will tell us that a grape like merlot is less winter hardy and requires more heat and frost free days to reach acceptable maturity than both chardonnay and pinot gris. Do the math.

There were 34 medals awarded in this category, two Gold, 12 Silver and 20 Bronze. British Columbia (gris) and Ontario (grigio) split the Golds while B.C. gris took home all the Silvers, not to mention 24 of the total 32 medals. Six medals were grigio in origin/style and only one of those was from B.C. Origins aside the category results at the 2019 Nationals prove that this didactic grape is showing qualities not seen before which tells us one main thing: farmers and producers are putting time and money into its production, lowering yields and treating it with varietal respect. The pale Vin Gris and Vendanges Tardives examples persist and sometimes excite but at the top of the judges’ heap were dry examples that expressed richness and ultimately flavour.

Congratulations to all the winners and to those producers for offering high quality, well-proportioned and balanced pinot gris/grigio. The consumers are thankful as are we, the judges. Your attention to detail and dedication to crafting solid varietal wines will be repaid.


Category Overview by Judge Treve Ring

Once again based on this year’s stellar showing for sparkling, it’s obvious that we do fizz very well. Think about it: we do share the 49th parallel with Champagne, after all.

While Ontario nabbed the pole, and sole, Platinum position this year with the striking and memorable Two Sisters 2016 Blanc de Franc from Niagara River (NOTE: it is currently listed as a Gold medal until our announcement of all the Platinums on July 31st), the Gold medals were sprinkled between BC, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. Styles ranged widely, with golds struck for Blanc de Blancs (like the precise Lightfoot & Wolfville 2014) through to Blanc de Noirs (as in the structural Fitzpatrick 2015 Fitz Blanc de Noir), and ranging from Extra Brut up to traditional Brut levels.

The Silvers and Bronzes spread even more, showing the full diversity of what our 200+ sparkling producers from coast to coast can achieve. What’s becoming crystalline when tasting through these wines is just how much of a stamp the regions imprint onto the wines. Though we’re tasting all blind of course, it’s increasingly easy to read when a wine is from BC (pure, fruit-forward, and fresh); Ontario (sharp, leaner fruit, with more toast and edges); and Nova Scotia (screeching acidity, high tones, sleek and energetic fruit). This is an exciting category, and future, for Canadian wine. Cheers.