2011 Canadian Wine Awards

August 31, 2011

Last week the judging of the 2011 Canadian Wine Awards took place here in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The competition is in its 11th year and normally held in either Ontario or British Columbia. This year I was asked to judge on the panel along with 15 of the country’s top wine experts and writers.

Canadian Wine Awards Logo

Credit: wineaccess.ca

The judging, and related events spanned four days (Aug 22-25) during which 1100 Canadian wines were tasted, evaluated and scored. The tasting was mostly blind – that is, the varietal or blend was known but no other information about the wine – price, vintage or producer – was provided.

In addition to the core tasting, judges had a packed social itinerary which involved getting whirled about the city (and outskirts) on a comprehensive culinary and wine expedition. Topping the agenda were personalized wine-paired dinners (Five Fishermen in Halifax, Tempest in Wolfville, Le Caveau in Grand Pré) and guided tours of our valley wineries and vineyards (Benjamin Bridge, L’Acadie Vineyards, Gaspereau Vineyards, Luckett Vineyards and Domaine de Grand Pré). Most judges were seeing NS wine country and tasting its wines for the first time; the bright acidity and balance of our L’Acadie Blanc, the fresh aromatics of NY Muscat and the richness and delicacy of our best-effort traditional method Sparklings. Add to the judges’ own writings and tweets there was local and national media coverage providing tremendous and necessary exposure for the NS wine industry.

CWA judges at Gaspereau

Judges at Gaspereau Vineyards (Credit: wineaccess.ca)

The competition itself is an enormous and meticulously well-organized operation. The scope and scale of the judging is fascinating and truly eye-opening. Nearly 95 wines were tasted per day by each judge in a brightly lit cellar-temperature controlled room from about 8:30am till late afternoon. Themed flights of 10-12 wines were the norm with each wine individually evaluated and scored by each judge and discussed within the group for consensus. The better wines were tasted again in the Finals round and the stand-outs once more in the Best Ofs.

Going in, one of my top fears (in addition to making an idiot of myself) was palate fatigue. How does the palate stand up to the constant onslaught of sugar, acidity and tannin? Remarkably well it turns out, if the conditions are right. The time of day was key – the palate being perkiest in the morning, along with proper pacing, regular palate-cleansing, and old fashioned focus. I’ve experienced far more exhaustion and loss of concentration from a late-night Sommelier lecture flight, than at this marathon tasting. Illuminating.

Red Blend Flight

Red Blend Final Round Flight

The highlight for me personally, after meeting the extraordinarily skilled group of judges, was getting the full (or near to full) spectrum of Canadian wine. Much of my own tasting experience covers wine from other parts of the world. The Atlantic provinces see only a fraction of the wine produced in the rest of the country and even less from the top producers. Most Atlantic Canadian wine drinkers are  more familiar with the wines of Oz than of the Okanogan, sadly.

Personal impressions: some outstanding single-varietal Whites, White Blends, Pinots and Sparkling wines. Red Blends, Cabs and Merlots were  slightly more controversial with fierce tannins and big oak dominating in many cases.

I look forward to pouring over the results in the Winter 2011/2012 issue of Wine Access Magazine.