Wine & Spirits

TASTING NOTES: David Lawrason highlights winning wines from the WineAlign National Wine Awards

Eighteen wine critics from across the country recently assembled for a week at Niagara’s Hilton Garden Inn to blind-taste through 1,100 wines submitted to the 2013 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada.  I was among those judges, and the theme of our conversations, as well as the results, was that certain regions are doing certain types of wines very well and that Canada needs to continue to specialize in matching specific grapes to specific terroir. In order to be taken seriously as a quality producer, both by Canadians and by the growing number of international buyers and critics who are sizing up our growing reputation, an increased focus on specialization is key.

As B.C. judge Rhys Pender, one of only four people in Canada to hold the esteemed Masters of Wine distinction, commented, “Specialization encourages competition, and competition encourages improvement, resulting in better wines for customers to drink and a better reputation for the region and country.” This specialization is what European wines long ago achieved in regions such as Burgundy, Tuscany, and Rioja.

The platinum- and gold-medal winners in the major varietal and style categories below provide a blueprint as to what grapes are key in Canada and which regions are doing them best and in which vintages. Canada’s northern latitude results in considerable vintage variation.

Laughing Stock 2011 Syrah
$36 • Okanagan Valley • Gold
Syrah is emerging as the single best red variety in B.C., especially in the arid south. Laughing Stock is based farther north in Naramata but sourced grapes from the south for this massive, rich wine. It has terrific floral, black cherry, tarry, and smoky aromas and flavours. Road 13 2011 Jackpot and CedarCreek 2010 Platinum also won syrah golds, but the shocker was platinum for Jackson-Triggs 2010 Grand Reserve from Niagara, where syrah is in its infancy.

Mission Hill 2009 Compendium2011_Hardie_PinotNoir
$50 • Okanagan Valley • Platinum
The Red Blends category was the largest in the competition, as winemakers ramp up efforts to create more complex reds. Most, like this elegant red from Mission Hill — which took Winery of the Year — were “Bordeaux” blends based on cabernet and merlot. This sports blackcurrant fruit lined with leafy, cedary, and spicy notes. Road 13 2011 Syrah Malbec and Burrowing Owl 2010 Meritage were also big winners from B.C.

Norman Hardie 2011 Pinot Noir
$35 • Prince Edward County • Gold
The thin-skinned “heartbreak grape” showed gold medal flair in three regions, with Norman Hardie’s version being my personal favourite. It is a very elegant, charming pinot with fragrant cherry jam fruit, well-integrated spice, and a seam of minerality based on the County’s limestone soils. Hidden Bench 2011 from Niagara and Nk’Mip 2010 Qwam Qwmt from the Okanagan were also awarded gold.

Ravine Vineyard 2010 Merlot
$34 • Niagara Peninsula • Gold
It was a big year for merlot in Niagara, especially the warm sub-region called St. David’s Bench, which delivered two gold medallists. Ravine’s very fine example is much like a fine St. Emilion (Bordeaux) with ripe berry fruit nicely fitted with chocolate, cedar, and mineral notes.  Château des Charmes 2010 St. David’s Merlot also won gold. In B.C., where merlot is the number one planted variety, several wineries won silver.

Tawse Laundry Vineyard 2010 Cabernet Franc 
$31.95 • Niagara Peninsula • Gold
Cabernet franc, the earliest-ripening of the Bordeaux varieties, has been important in Ontario for years, but maturing vines in the warmest sites are raising it to new levels of finesse. This is a very refined, quite elegant cab franc with classic, well-integrated berry, currant, herbs, tobacco, and earth. Cab franc is also important in the south Okanagan, with gold medals won by Tinhorn Creek 2010 and Quinta Ferreira 2010.

Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Rosé Brut
$30 • Niagara Peninsula • Gold
We judged the largest and best bunch of Canadian bubblies I have seen assembled in one room, with prizes going east and west. The high acidity wrought by our northern climate is key. Henry of Pelham’s delicate, elegant, raspberry-brioche-scented sparkler charmed the judges. Other gold medals went to Huff Estates 2007 Peter F. Huff from Prince Edward County and Road 13 Sparkling Chenin Blanc from the south Okanagan.  Blomidon 2011 Crémant from Nova Scotia took a silver.  C

2010 Echos Riesling_rtMeyer Family 2011 McLean Creek Road Chardonnay
$30 • Okanagan Valley • Platinum
Meyer Family racked up a platinum for this powerful, complex chardonnay from a single site near Okanagan Falls, continuing a string of honours for this chardonnay and pinot noir specialist.  The top three chardonnays were from B.C. — winners include Quails’ Gate 2011 Stewart Family Reserve and Mission Hill 2011 Perpetua. But golds for Henry of Pelham 2011 Chardonnay Estate from Niagara and Norman Hardie 2010 from Prince Edward County make chardonnay a national star.

Tawse 2010 Echos Riesling
$16 • Niagara Peninsula • Platinum
A platinum medal for this inexpensive riesling, plus five other golds to Niagara and Okanagan wineries, indicate that this grape is benefiting from maturing vineyards in both regions. The intense Echos shows classic riesling petrol aromas with fine apple and citrus flavours set in a mouth-watering off-dry style. Other golds went to Mission Hill 2011 Reserve, Synchromesh 2012 Stormhaven, and Tantalus 2012 from B.C., plus A Foreign Affair 2010 from Niagara. Tawse was runner-up for Winery of the Year and the top-scoring Ontario winery.