Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot – 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. 

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

Cabernet Sauvignon

Category Overview by Judge Sara d’Amato

From an international standpoint, Canada has not made itself known as a hub of fine cabernet sauvignon. Aside from the obvious small quantity of production, the few pockets of terroir where cabernet sauvignon can reliably ripen in Canada are few. Critics and producers express their frustration that consumer demand for this variety causes it to be grown in areas where it, perhaps, shouldn’t be. Needless to say, controversy abounds. Many critics wouldn’t peg cabernet sauvignon as a variety that is likely to move mountains, but having said this, many critics outside the county are unlikely to have tried those of the southern Okanagan Valley that swept the gold category this year. Unsurprisingly, every single gold medal this year was awarded to wine from to Okanagan Valley fruit. Yet, this does not mean that other parts of Canada, namely Niagara, are incapable of making soul-stirring cabernet sauvignon. In exceptional years, Niagara can prove serendipitous when it comes to cabernet sauvignon. Stylistically speaking, average to warm years in Niagara and slightly cooler vintages in the southern Okanagan are capable of producing left bank Bordelaise styles of cabernet sauvignon that are taught, nervy and with the potential for exceptional ageing.

What do we love about cabernet sauvignon so much anyway? We consumers seem to have a significant impact in permanentizing its worth and necessity in Canada. It is impossible to deny the prestige of the variety as being an important factor. Cabernet sauvignon as a status symbol is largely attributed to its left bank Bordelaise eminence. Napa Valley’s appropriation of the variety in high quality, high priced and cult label followings, does little to reduce our interest. In terms of character, we love the ability that it has to age due to its high concentration of tannins and acids. Curiously, we seem to love the austerity it can impart, its ability to appear youthful even with age. Finally, but not in totality, we appreciate the impact, concentration and overall darkness of the variety. As satisfying as a ripe, oozing cabernet sauvignon can be, on the underripe extreme it can be challenging: too drying, too green and even too tart. In years such as the cool and wet 2017 of Niagara for example, much cabernet sauvignon just couldn’t fully ripen. Despite a warm autumn, ripeness fell too far behind for this variety which needs more heat and sunshine than often even an average year can provide.

Both expensive to grow and to buy, cabernet sauvignon garnered $1,979 per tonne in 2018 according to the Grape Growers of Ontario. The only grapes to command a higher price were syrah and pinot noir. The judges reliably managed to pick out those cabernets at a premium price having given 6 wines gold that ranged between $31.90 and $109.90. Other than the relatively value priced Desert Hills at $31.90, all other wines were above $45. Our palates seemed to identify the price-quality ratio in these wines, perhaps a testament to their pedigree.

Cabernet Franc

Category Overview by Judge Janet Dorozynski

Cabernet Franc is one of Canada’s red grape varieties that is shining. It has captured the attention of grape growers and wine makers and increasingly with trade and consumers both within Canada and internationally. We grow it in most of the growing regions across the country and, with the exception of its homeland in the Loire Valley in France, there is no wine growing region in the world that has “owned” or made it a signature grape variety, with many in Canada thinking it’s high time that we do so here.

We make a range of styles from this ancient red grape and parent of Cabernet Sauvignon, though a fair bit of it still ends up in red blends where it increasingly makes up a higher percentage of the blend. On its own, most Cabernet France is made as a dry red but is also capable of producing luscious red Icewine, interesting rosés and a growing number of interesting traditional method sparkling versions.

With vibrant red and dark fruit and lower tannin, it drinks well young, unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, but is still capable of aging beautifully. It has a charm and elegance, whether made in the fuller bodied versions coming from the Okanagan or prime Niagara sub-appellations of Lincoln Lakeshore, Niagara River or Beamsville Bench, or when made in the lighter fresher styles coming from Prince Edward County and Nova Scotia. Lifted bell pepper notes are kept in check with excessive greenness or steminess being a thing of the past. And always an important consideration, it grows well in most regions of Canada since it’s earlier ripening than other red varieties and proving to be more winter hardy as well.

The large and impressive showing of Cabernet Franc from NWAC 2019 is a testament to the range of styles of this variety and speaks convincingly that this could Canada’s coast to coast Canadian signature red wine.


Category Overview by Judge Michael Godel

It would indeed be tempting to say that merlot is back, but it never left, and truth be told even the critics who outwardly claim to hate it always seem to find a soft spot in their hearts and on their palates for the ones made really well. Merlot can be crafted with honesty, in balance with restraint and when it speaks in the vernacular of the fruit purity it’s so capable of iterating, well then beautiful just happens. Welcome to the breath of fresh merlot air exhaled from out of the 2019 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada. The grape that just keeps coming back.

This year’s competition saw to 35 medals in the merlot varietal category, a Platinum, five Gold, six Silver and 23 Bronze. That’s six more in total than 2018 with just one less Gold-Platinum winner and while the total number was also one more in 2017 there were double the G-P winners in 2019. That tells us merlot has either maintained or increased its ability to convince the judges of its capabilities in one respect or the other.

What about vineyard acreage? Statistics from Wines of British Columbia tells us that the plantings continue to grow. Latest numbers are 1,585 acres under vine, nearly 50 per cent more than pinot noir, more than double cabernet sauvignon and nearly triple that of cabernet franc. It accounts for approximately 16.5 percent of all grapes grown. Who would not agree that in B.C. it can be soft and easy-sipping, but in many cases, “it naturally produces more structured, higher tannin wines than in most parts of the world.” Like pinot gris it can please all camps so it continues to be a go to varietal for so many growers.

According to VQA Ontario merlot now sits in the top four when it comes to wine production, at 9.7 percent in 2018, trailing behind only riesling, chardonnay and cabernet franc. Compared to the previous year, merlot replaced vidal in the top four, a move upwards that is also reflective of the continued recovery from winter damage in past years. The next several climate change-affected years may just bring a whole new crop of full and structured merlot, provided it can shake off any future shocks that more polar vortex winters may bring.

All six Platinum (Note: Platinum winners will be announced on July 31st) and Gold medal winners are from B.C., a shocker I know but two top examples are from two exceptional Ontario vineyards (Thirty Bench on the Beamsville Bench and Tawse on the Lincoln Lakeshore), recognized as Silver along with four from the west. Those top B.C. merlots are all from well-known producers at the head of the class and perennially recognized for their varietal wines. Black Sage, Bartier Bros., CedarCreek, Painted Rock, Stag’s Hollow Winery, Bench 1775, Gray Monk, Hillside, Mission Hill and Wild Goose. Enough said.

We were keenly aware of a shift in merlot style seemingly taking hold with less examples of rich, thick, viscous and milkshake-textured wines. Raising of brows and nods of agreement are for merlot’s two way travelling. There are those that gently appease with pleasant warmth and a hug that blankets without crushing, and still others so impressively compressed with layers of fruit, structure and finishing grip. Which kind of merlot makes you smile?


If you have missed our detailed commentary on the various categories that have been announced so far, see them here.