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.

This weekend had me in NYC catching up with friends and checking in on old haunts. It’s invigorating getting reacquainted with a city you once lived in, especially one like Manhattan where things are constantly changing. And with all that change usually comes new treats. Well, new-to-me at least. Like, The Ten Bells Wine Bar in SoHo.

The Ten Bells

The Ten Bells

Great atmosphere – small, convivial, rustic, with polished touches – a white marble bar top and funky industrial lighting. It’s cash only, and the menu is strictly chalkboard. At first the wine list appears small, but it’s well chosen with a good selection by the glass and bottle that changes regularly along with the food. At 8pm on a humid Friday night it was rammed with people spilling out onto the sidewalk. We managed to cluster around a high counter toward the back and settle on the Domaine Pascal Pibaleau “La Perlette” – a lightly sparking Rosé from Touraine made from the elusive Grolleau.

La Perlette

La Perlette Sparking Rosé

Domaine Pascal Pibaleau is a biodynamic producer with a focus on natural, organic farming methods including manual harvesting. The alcoholic fermentation for La Perlette is stopped partway through and the wine sits on its lees until disgorgement. Neither sulfur nor dosage is added. A fantastic wine! Lively but delicate fruit, chalky minerality, a touch herbacious, lightly petilant with balanced acidity and a dry finish. Fun to drink and a dream with the spicy octopus, chorizo and duck rilette we devoured.

Uva

Uva

Uva Wine Bar on The Upper East Side was the following night. Another sticky, late evening so we grabbed an outdoor table on their busy sidewalk patio. Specializing in Tuscan fare, it has a hefty wine list with an impressive Italian section. Uniquely, each wine is listed with the varietal in bold, followed by the producer, which I discovered was really handing for navigating (E.g. PECORINO IL FEUDUCCIO ’09 MARCHE 33) Most wines appeared to be single-varietals rather than blends, perhaps by design.

Uva Sidewalk Seating

Uva Sidewalk Seating

We ultimately decided on a Ribolla Gialla from Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, La Tunella “Rjgialla”. Very aromatic – lots of pear and quince on the nose with a touch of spice. I was expecting more fresh fruit on the palate but “cooked” fruit was what came through with a slight bitter/nuttiness I often get (and like) in good Italian whites. Solid structure, well balanced and very dry. My dining companion found it a bit too dry and a touch “gasoline-y”, but I think they too were expecting something fruitier. It has an odd flavour profile, not at all unpleasant but not your typical summertime, easy-drinking white. Personally, I liked it but it’s perhaps not for everyone.

La Tunella Rjgialla

La Tunella Rjgialla

The Portuguese wine selection in Nova Scotia is not exactly killer. So sparse are the offerings in our fine province that the region had all but disappeared off my wine radar. Until I’d heard that Vin Art had recently acquired an appealing assortment worth a gander! With my interest piqued, I hopped in the van and sped (ok… clunked)  off to Clayton Park with a couple of fellow enthusiasts in tow.

We spent an hour or so perusing and after much hmming and hawing, I chose a few bottles to purchase.  I haven’t tasted them all yet, but two have stood out so far – for value and flavour:

Lello Branco

Lello Branco 2008

Lello Branco 2008

Region: Douro
Varietal(s): Malvasia-Fina, Gouveio, Viosinho and Rabigato grapes
Notes: Very pale straw, almost watery colour. Slight sulphur initially, but then floral, peach, citrus on the nose. Clean, fresh, light-bodied, and more tropical fruit on the palate. Finished quickly. Drink young (now). Great sipper.
Food Pairings: I downed this with a chicken, prawn & chorizo Paella. It went well, but had the dish been any spicier the wine would’ve disappeared. I might suggest an even simpler/lighter seafood dish.
Price: About $18 at Vin Art
Meia Encosta Dao

Meia Encosta Dao Vinho Tinto 2007

Meia Encosta Dao Vinho Tinto 2007

Region: Dao
Varietal(s): Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz grapes
Notes: Youthful, bright ruby red colour. Intense, ripe black cherry, spice with some lovely earth, tar & leather notes. Medium-bodied, good acid, plump fruit and soft tannins. Very balanced. Slight bitterness at the end with really quick finish. Despite the finish, I really liked this!
Food Pairings: There is enough complexity/structure to hold up to say, roasted meat – cooked through. The smokiness/spiciness of the wine might be complimented by a bit of spice/pepper in a marinade or sauce. But nothing too heavy.
Price: About $15 at Vin Art