By the time you read this I will just be settling in at the 16th WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada in Penticton this year. That's right, we have been assessing the state of Canadian wine for 15 years now and while there have been many surprises, I can confidently say the quality today is light years ahead of where it was back in 2001.
Toronto-based writer/critic David Lawrason and I founded the original awards as a way to reliably gauge the quality of the wines being produced in Canada. It's become a snapshot in time each year, and as we prepare for Year 16 with entries crowding the 1,500 mark, we will have doubled the number of wines we began with in Toronto in Year One.
When we first conceived of a national competition, our plan way back then was to span the entire country to included wine producers and wine judges, and to publish results that consumers could use no matter where they lived.
As we prepare for our largest competition yet, we can report with some pride that we have reached our goal, and then some. But we wish we could say the same for several provincial governments who have yet to come to grips with a system that would permit the free movement of wine across the country and allow Canadians the right to buy any wine sold anywhere in Canada.
"The Nationals," as I like to refer to the tastings, is a serious competition and it generates significant results. In 2016, those 1,500 wines will arrive from over 200-plus wineries spread across the country. You would be hard pressed to think of a winery that doesn't enter the National Wine Awards of Canada, which makes the results even more substantial. As you would expect, the majority of wine comes from British Columbia and Ontario wineries but with growing numbers from Quebec and Nova Scotia and bits and pieces from the rest of the country it's beginning to paint a much broader picture of Canadian wine.
This year, two widely respected international judges, Jamie Goode (London, England) and Elaine Chukan Brown (Sonoma, California) will join our impressive national roster of tasters. In our estimation this is the best way to introduce internationals to Canadian wines because tasting blind is always a great leveller. Fear not, Jamie and Elaine will tour the region and meet the characters behind our wines as well. In fact, they will discover the Okanagan Valley for several days acclimatizing their palates before they get to the tasting room.
We are especially proud of our Canadian contingent of judges from Halifax, Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Cawston, Vancouver and Victoria. The list of men and woman has been finely honed over the last decade, leaving us a team with all the tools to perform under pressure for five long days in the tasting room. We have also reached out to young professionals with a mentorship program that brings prospective apprentice judges (sommeliers and retailers) right into the tasting room to gain valuable experience tasting alongside some of the best and the brightest in the nation.
So what can we say about Canadian wine after a decade and a half?
While icewine remains an international calling card, here at home the story is all about the other wines. When we started a lot of people were making riesling, but not very well, and no one was buying it. Today, riesling and syrah are shining lights nationally. One could argue they are among the most complex wines we make.
Chardonnay has undergone a complete metamorphosis since we began going from flat, oaky and buttery to electric, complex examples with bright fruit and righteous oak use. Not all that far behind are cabernet franc and pinot noir. Both have excelled in Ontario, but in the last five years we have seen some phenomenal growth in quality and complexity in the Okanagan, too.
And let's not forget traditional method sparkling wines that have taken off from coast to coast. If we are truly cool-climate, this is a style we could own.
Here in B.C. we are also having some amazing success with red and white wines made with traditional Rhone grape varieties including grenache, viognier, roussanne and marsanne.
Never have Canadian winemakers been bolder or more focused as they go searching for possibilities based on our soils and vineyards. In fact, we may finally have a style of our own that, maybe one day, others will copy for a change. You will have to wait until next month for all the results but I thought I'd leave you with a short list of some favourite B.C. wines I expect will be in the medal running later this month in Penticton. Availability varies between the winery, private wine shops and grocery stores.
The Clos du Soleil Signature Red ($45) is the flagship red blend from the Similkameen winery, and it's one of the best balanced blends in the province.
Syrah, as mentioned, is a rising star in the Okanagan vineyards and few are better than the Laughing Stock Vineyards Syrah +04/10 2013 ($36). I love florals and the pretty red and peppery black fruit aromas and flavours. Lamb, anyone?Icewine can be delicious but wait till you taste the Elephant Island Orchard Wines Fortified Framboise 2014 ($19). This is a stunning minty, jammy raspberry, peppery affair with a long, persistent finish.
Speaking of intense, the yearly performance of the Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2013 ($30) is legendary now. The Old Vines date back to 1978 heritage blocks that seem happy overlooking the lake in east Kelowna. You can drink it now or wait 20 years; it will wait for you.Farther south in Naramata, Synchromesh Thorny Vines Riesling 2015 ($23) is one of many single vineyard rieslings they turn out each year. Thorny Vines is almost Mosel-like with crisp, delicate fruit flavours and impeccable fruit/acid balance. Crazy value but very hard to find.
Cerqueira Vineyard is making a special case for its terroir as expressed by Bartier Bros. Semillon 2013 ($20) The gently western sloping vineyard land on the lower side of Black Sage Road, nestled between Oliver and Osoyoos, is home to calcium-carbonate-covered granite stones. The result is quintessential Okanagan — stony, fresh, bright fruit flecked with dried herbs, nettle and sagebrush.
None of these wines existed a decade ago so it's exciting to think where we'll be at the 25th Nationals in 2025.
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine, log onto www.gismondionwine.com.