Canadian Wine Awards Reveal New Canadian Classics
Syrahs, cabernet francs, pinot noirs, red blends and chardonnays performed well at the Wine Access 2011 Canadian Wine Awards
It’s hard to believe the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards are 11 years old. The hotly contested national wine competition began innocently enough in the upper reaches of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto in 2000 with about 500 wines. This past summer, it reached a crescendo at the Delta Hotel, high above Halifax Harbour, where 16 judges worked through some 1,117 entries. Among them were some exceptional reds and whites from B.C., readily available in Calgary wine shops or by ordering directly from the wineries.
Seriously, it seems as if it was only yesterday when Harry McWatters, founder of Sumac Ridge and former Vincor executive, began planting red grape varieties in the south Okanagan Valley, but it was more than 30 years ago. A lot of people thought he was crazy, but while it has taken some time to figure out which red grapes perform best, Harry was right in assuming it could be done.
As it turns out, the latest results from the 2011 Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards as they relate to B.C. wines suggest syrah is leading the pack, followed by cabernet franc, pinot noir, merlot and red blends. Interestingly, syrah was more of an afterthought in 1990, but it is clear the red grape with the rambunctious growing habits is thriving in the south Okanagan where its meaty, cool character can sometimes have you thinking about the Rhône Valley.
The CWA judges have always been kind to syrah. At first I thought it was because the wines are so generous. But, after five years of watching this category blossom, I see there is much more to these wines, including a richness and depth of flavour that is difficult to ignore. It also appears B.C. syrah has the capacity to age gracefully, which adds another dimension to its ability to attract the attention of collectors.
There were nine gold medals awarded to syrah nationally, led by the red wine of the year: Church and State 2009 Coyote Bowl Syrah ($26). David and Cynthia Enns, meanwhile, have a big success with their Naramata-based Laughing Stock 2009 Syrah ($34), as does CWA Winery of the Year Painted Rock with its Skaha Bench-based Painted Rock 2008 Estate Grown Syrah ($40). No less impressive were examples from Burrowing Owl 2008 Syrah ($30), Cassini 2009 Syrah ($34), Mission Hill 2007 Select Lot Collection Syrah ($37), Nk’Mip 2008 Qwam Qwmt Syrah ($35) and Peller Estates Okanagan 2009 Private Reserve Syrah ($20).
Canadian Cabernet Franc
Cabernet franc continues its ascendency to fame in British Columbia where the best now easily rival Ontario’s best, and that’s saying something given the time and effort Ontario producers have put into cab franc. Richer and more aromatic, with soft tannins, the early ripening red produced three gold medals in 2011, versus none in 2010, and two of those were from B.C. The surprise has to be newcomer Gold Hill 2009 Cabernet Franc ($25) from Osoyoos, Okanagan Valley, with its floral, ripe blackcurrant and cocoa flavours. Equally impressive is the latest Hester Creek 2008 Reserve Cabernet Franc ($27). The Oliver-based winery and vineyard has undergone extensive renovations, and the results are now visible in the wines.
Winning Pinot Noirs and Red Blends
A lot of wine drinkers have come to love the quirky nuances of pinot noir, and two big CWA winners you can add to your list are winemaker Randy Picton’s delicious Nk’Mip 2009 Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir ($30) and former Road 13 winemaker Michael Bartier’s Road 13 2008 Jackpot Pinot Noir ($40). Pinot remains a mystery to many Canadian producers, but clearly these two are beginning to unravel the story.
Red blends attracted the most entries and produced a plethora of silver medals, but only one wine garnered gold — the Bordeaux-styled Painted Rock 2009 Estate Grown Red Icon ($55). The Skaha Bench blend, made under the direction of Bordeaux consultant Alain Sutre, mixes 30 per cent merlot, 25 per cent malbec, 25 per cent cabernet franc and 20 per cent petit verdot, all aged 18 months in new French oak. As good as it is now, it will be better in a decade.
The CWAs are not all about red wine, so I also want to share with you some of the very best chardonnays we tasted this year from B.C. As you know, chardonnay has undergone massive transformation over the last decade and, while the world is shifting gears and heading toward cooler, leaner, fruiter, fresher models, that style is what we do best in Canada.
This year’s top picks in the West include two labels from Naramata-based Red Rooster, where winemaker Karen Gillis is turning out some finely tuned versions of this popular grape. Gillis grabbed our attention with her Red Rooster 2010 Chardonnay ($17) and the Red Rooster 2010 Reserve Chardonnay ($25), both of which are Okanagan valley blends long on freshness and fruit, with just enough oak to fill out the mouth.
Across the lake at West Bank, Quails’ Gate winemaker Grant Stanley chose to ferment his Quails’ Gate 2009 Chardonnay ($20) in 50 per cent oak and 50 per cent tank, and the result is terrific. The minerality is allowed to shine through the fruit while the oak adds complexity and mouthfeel without overwhelming the palate.
All three chardonnays over-deliver for the price and will brighten any seafood-based pasta dishes, or something like a lemon and rosemary-roasted chicken.
This article was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Avenue magazine.
Photo: Darren Kirby