An Immersion in Canadian Wine: Judging at the National Wine Awards of Canada 2018

These past few weeks have been an immersion in Canadiana. Our national holiday is just behind us and prior to that I got to experience the full spectrum of our country’s wines as a judge at Wine Align’s National Canadian Wine Awards 2018 held in Pentiction, BC.  

What are the Wine Align National Wine Awards of Canada? 

These awards are the largest and most important awards for Canadian wine and this year marked the 18th year of competition. Judging takes place over a very full 5 days with 1867 wines entered in the competition. In first three days, the panel consisted of 22 judges, which includes two apprentice judges. The last two days of the judging are dedicated to revisiting the top scoring wines by the core 20 judges.  

The judges are a motley crew of (mostly) Canadian wine professionals; sommeliers, wine writers, wine educators, shop owners, winemakers and consultants, a few MWs and soon-to-be MWs. In this mix, there were also two international judges; accomplished wine writer Dr. Jamie Goode from London, who returned for his fifth year, and sommelier Christian Zhang of Shanghai, who was the winner of the 1st Canadian Wine Sommelier Championship held last November in Hong Kong. 

The competition is seamlessly organized; the volunteers and WineAlign employees are busy and focused in the back room getting flights ready to drop at the judges tables at the right time, at the proper tasting temperature and in the correct order.  All the wine glasses are stickered with a number that corresponds to a number on the judging sheet so there is no risk of mix ups; which is very important in a competition of this size, where each judge is tasting about 100 wines a day. We judged in panels of three to four judges and each table evaluates different wines. The flights usually consist of 9 wines and we allowed ourselves about 2 to 2.5 minutes to make notes and assign a score out of 100 to each wine.  At the end of each flight, the judges reveal their scores and the table comes to a relative consensus regarding the results. The notes and score sheets are sent to the back room for scores to be tallied and logged.

The Finals

The last two days of the competition are “the finals” where the wines that scored the highest are revisited.  In some ways, the finals are the most challenging to judge as most of what is being tasted is really good and you have to hone in on your focus as a judge even more in order to note the nuances in some of these wines.  The results of the competition are important for Canadian wineries! The role of a good judge is to stay focused and work together with the team of judges to identify the outstanding wines.

Each evening, the judges were hosted by winery associations at individual wineries.  Being my first time in the Penticton area, I really looked forward to these outings and they did not disappoint! Now that I’ve had a taste of what this region offers, I will be definitely be returning to the Okanagan to explore in greater depth- though with over 120 wineries, it could take awhile! 

The Wines- An Inside Scoop

The competition saw various expressions of high quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, bold and elegant Cabernet Franc, as well as rich, single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  There were many red blends from all of the traditional Bordeaux varietals, including Malbec and Petit Verdot, and lots of expressive, concentrated Syrah worth seeking out. The judges always get excited to switch to Gamay after tasting the big reds and there were plenty of great ones this year.  Canadian sparkling wine and Riesling can be held to a very high standard. I was pleasantly surprised by the other white wines being produced in this country; you can find delicious Pinot Blancs, Pinot Gris and Rhone varietals as well as balanced Sauvignon Blanc that tastes neither like Sancerre nor Marlborough- uniquely Canadian.  In addition to more conventional wines, the competition also included ciders, some fortified wines, and fruit wines and one flight of skin contact white wines.

As you can see, I was able to taste many varietals and diverse styles of wine from British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.  As our Canadian wine industry grows, producers will hone in even more on what varietals are best suited to what location rather than planting what is popular and winemakers will use techniques that are best suited to the grape rather than making wine according to a recipe book for a homogenous result.  As these developments continue in Canadian viticulture and enology, we will be well on our way to developing a national wine identity. Even now, we are beginning to associate key grapes and wine styles with particular regions.

When I got a flight of Tidal Bay, I could not help but smile as I smelled and tasted the wines which powerfully convey the viticultural landscape of Nova Scotia and our briny ocean coast.  It felt like I was home! I can’t wait to see how our industry continues to evolve.

Want to learn more? Check out a video from Wine Align here.