Earlier this week we wrapped the seventeeth National Wine Awards of Canada in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
Alongside 21 of Canada’s top wine judges (my wine family) we tasted some 1700 wines over five days, rolling through 2400 Zwilling Prédicat crystal glasses, 6000 bottles and a couple of hundred flights (and a good number of beers, negronis, cups of coffee and gallons of sparkling mineral water. Here’s a cool short time lapse video of set up for #NWAC17.
I logged a rolling play by play from my panel captain’s chair as I worked my way through over 50 flights of 100 percent Canadian wine over five consecutive days. Here’s what a working week in the life of an NWAC judge looks like:
DAY 1, 0845. We’ve been welcomed and warmed up by Anthony Gismondi and David Lawrason co-founder of The Nationals, or the Canadian Wine Awards back in 2001. I’m leading Code Team Red along with ace mates David Scholefield, Craig Pinhey and Will Predhomme. Current mood: chipper.
1. Chardonnay. A very strong start, I call an omen. Canadian Chardy is typically very strong, and this flight didn’t fail. The tricky thing to keep in mind with prelim flights is that the single best wine of the entire competition might be in your very first flight. Never presume, never complain. There is one striking standout with flinty reduction, though a few sweet and flabby ones.
2. Red Blends. It’s a running joke among judges how many “red blends” there are entered every year. With such a wide-ranging category, some years it feels like, oh, about 20,000 or so? Ours is a Bordeaux-based flight. Many “sweet, oaky” notes. Feel like shouting “less is more” but it’s not yet 10am so decide it best to not.
3. Chardonnay. I’m sensing a theme. Told my panel that ‘they give the hardest flights to the strongest team’. Seems early to trot that out, but caffeine is starting to lag. “sweet Sauvignon armpits” recorded.
4. Red Blends. Starting to get wild, with blends including Frontenac, Lucie Kuhlmann, Precose, Castel, Maréchal Foch, Leon Millet, Baco and—amazingly—“Other Grapes”. The first DNPIM. Also. “Dimetapp cough syrup”, “horse” and “why?” That noted, there are some bright and fresh reds in the flight.
5. Chardonnay. Back on form with another promising flight of Chardy. This is a promising flight. Some flinty. Some salty. Sadly, some sweet cough syrup. But overall, panel is revived. It’s1038 and I’ve just tasted, quite possibly, the very best wine of the day. Current mood: happy.
6. Red Blends. CBC Television is in the room, so everyone is trying to spit impressively and not show scary teeth. Hard to do when this is a flight that contains Tannat and Gamay and Zweigelt and Pinot Nori and Merlot and Malbec and Sangiovese and Dunkenfelder and Barbera. BUT Team Code Red is strong.
7. Icewine. Ok, we were strong, but after tongue-lashing tannins and cool-climate acidity we need to have a sparkling water rinse before assaulting your teeth with 250g/l RS. Two Vidal beauties score very high.
LUNCH. Noticeable lack of greens in today’s hotel buffet, though seems the meat sandwich count is high. Current mood: worried about scurvy.
8. Rosé. Hmmm. A rainbow of hues to return to, though sadly the majority are quite sweet and flabby and frankly, not good. Found the ones with brisk acidity and joy.
9. Gamay. #GoGamayGo! But #NoGamayNo with lashings of oak. There is one that went back twice, with the re-pour, worse than the first. Don’t tart it up people; let Gamay’s friendly smashability shine.
10. Rosé. Sigh. See above. A dog’s breakfast of “candied gummies”, “orange sherbet”, “pointed peppery finish”, and “ripe, bitter, short and gross.” Easy to find the top ones here.
11. Gewürztraminer. Always peculiar. Gew is not a grape Canada typically excels at, yet there are small lakes of it produced annually. I suppose someone is buying it? Or consumers just like saying “goo”? One stellar wine, and a 20-point spread in points to my second DNPIM wine of the day.
FIN. Strong Day 1. Happy to taste some stellar chardonnay. Current mood: need coffee. Possibly carrots.
DAY 2, 0830
After a stunning night at Blomidon Estate Winery, where I did eat carrots and was revived with sparkling wine, I’m all set to tuck into Day 2, Panel Code Red, alongside panel mates Michelle Bouffard, Moira Peters and Stefan Nielsen, one of our local sommelier apprentice judges (and my future dance partner for the week). Found the best coffee shop in Wolfville, so ready to rock. Current mood: caffeinated.
1. White Blends. Remember Day 1 and the endless rivers of Red Blends? I sense we are starting to stream the White Blends. Bright and shiny breakfast ready blends to wake us, with showings of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Schönburger, Muscat, Kerner, Vidal, Pinot Auxerrois, La Crescent and—up to 54% ‘other grapes’ in one blend. WTF? Overall, the flight had ample RS, moderate acid. Wishing I had preloaded espresso.
2. Red Single Variety. A study in diversity, these are always great flights to judge. This gave us a mix from Dolcetto to Lucie Kuhlmann to Carmenère, to Pinot Meunier, to Marquette. I was very pleasantly surprised by a single variety Carmenère. “White peppery! Juicy! Not unripe green but pleasantly herbal. Fresh.”
3. White blends. Called it! Back to perfumed, often overtly so, whites. No standouts here. Time to give the old “the give the hardest flights to the strongest team” talk.
4. Cabernet Franc. Was super excited for this consistently strong flight. Ontario and BC both do Cab Franc very well. But then, a few “Why so much wood don’t do that”, but thankfully a couple others that were not like licking a smoked, cedar plank. OK flight, but I think the best were still out there.
5. Sparkling Fizz! Our tannic-thick tongues were cleaned with a sizable flight of hybrid-threaded sparkling wines. Some were soft and blossomed, and others were bone dry and piercing. Much debate with panel. A mix of traditional method, Charmat, and injected styles. Thankful for the palate break, as I love judging fizz. Current mood: craving brunch, and a patio.
6. Cabernet Sauvignon. Dreams of an easy, likeable brunch were short lived. Unlike the Cabernet Franc flight earlier, Cabernet Sauvignon has had less success as a single variety across Canada. Open minded as ever, with some pleasant black-fruited and gravelled examples, until “Why so much new wood?”, and one that is simple “apothecary’, and my lowest score of the day.
7. Cider Other Fruit. So, Ok. Apple, pear, cranberry, cherry = no scurvy.
LUNCH. More themes! Today was all salads. Loaded up, feeling energized. Assume tomorrow might be the “All Pastas” day? Taking odds.
8. Pinot Gris. Very diverse range, as expected, from richer Alsatian-esque gris to sharp and lean Grigio styles. All over the map. One quite lovely honeyed, waxy, lemon verbena, finely spiced example. Current mood: espresso.
9. Cabernet Franc. Hopeful that these are the wines I was missing this morning. And then. OAK. I had so much hope Franc! Glad the other panels in the room are enjoying top examples. Sigh.
10. Viognier. “Bananas”, “Flaccid”, “Blousy”, “Why?”
11. Sparkling. Stoked for this flight of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fizz. All traditional method, all well executed. Not a low wine in the flight, and the best showing green apple and citrus, tight acidity and linearity. Current mood: Score.
12. Sparkling. Is this payoff for Viognier flight? Not the traditional blends, this fizz flights sees Riesling, Muscat and Pinot Blanc alongside Chardy and Pinot. Less structured and more floral, as expected, and a perfectly pleasant way to finish off Day 2.
FIN. Current mood: walk in the sunshine until I find espresso. Or a G&T. Preferably both.
DAY 3, 0840
My first experience of being Lobster Drunk. Absolutely feasted at a brilliant lobster boil at Benjamin Bridge winery, perfectly accompanied with their stellar sparkling wine and thoughtful cold beer. Even with all the live music and dancing, I’m moving slow. As a west coaster, I never thought that lobster could match (best?) a crab feast. Now…. Fortunately, have a strong, tight Team Code Red with Michael Godel and our NWAC17 second sommelier apprentice judge, Alanna McIntyre. Current mood: #allthelobster.
1. Pinot Noir. A lovely way to start off. Pinot Noir can be so wonderful here, or crushingly bad, and thankfully these were the former. Some finessed, gentle, elegant wines.
2. Muscat. My first ever flight of all Muscat at the NWACs. Huge range in style, from dry and lean to sweet and perfumed. One wine, #2, is forever etched in my memory, with the highest, burning-est pierce of sulphur I can remember. Nose singed for rest of flight. DNPIM.
3. Pinot Noir. Sadly, NOT as successful as the first flight of the day. Darker, oakier, angrier overall. Thankfully, a beauty, with “focused flow and form. Streamlined, savoury, stony, dark cherry fruit. Beaut.” Current mood: relieved.
4. Merlot. Ok, speaking of oak…. Current mood: dejected.
5. Sparkling. Relatively simple and inoffensive, pleasant flight, but nothing shining here.
6. Merlot. Track record holding true. Time to trot out the “strongest teams, toughest flights” chat.
LUNCH. Consisted of gluten free muffin purchased on this morning’s coffee run while crushing emails and dreaming of espresso.
7. Riesling. A happy thing to come back to post lunch, as traditionally very strong. Tasted the best wine of the day – a striking, off-dry, electric wine that was a quick and easy and collective Gold, and one that stood out in a strong flight. Who needs espresso?
8. Sparkling. The afternoon continues to streak along with a flight of Blanc de Noirs. Not as successful as some of the previous flights, but still very interesting to taste through. All traditional method, all quite diverse.
9. Riesling. Someone loves Team Code Red today. “Frisky”, “Driving”, “Focused”, “Generosity”, “Spicy”, “Happiness.”
10. Syrah. Riding the high, we’ve moved into what is traditionally one of NWACs top set of wines. Sadly, the crest of the Syrah wave is not tucked into this flight, with more extraction and resinous heat and thickness than necessary, ever.
11. Riesling. Yup. That’s us. And one of the top wines of the day with smoked stones, herbal, tangerine and energy.
FIN. Current mood: should have investigated the lunch buffet. But thankful to the Riesling gods.
DAY 4 FINALS. 0830
We spent the previous evening doing what we all do: tasting. First, a local cider tasting at Annapolis Cider Company, and then a guided beer evening at the Port Pub with local beer expert and beer judge Jeff Pinhey. There may have been late night guitar involved. Keen to start the finals round with Team Blackheart: Sara d’Amato, Will Predhomme and Brad Royale. Current mood: chill.
1. Rosé. Beauty first finals flight, all high silvers and golds. Delicate, finessed, spiced, vibrant - across both dry and off-dry styles. The prelim rounds certainly weeded out the weedy examples. Reading that makes me realize I should have had more espresso. Current mood: happiness.
2. Red Blends. Strong flight of Bordeaux blends, echoing Day 1, but these are actually pretty much pleasurable. Most successful styles are savoury, restrained and thorny, with the lesser examples riding the wave of medicinal sweet oak. Team Blackheart panel concordance.
3. Rosé. A continuation of the first flight, including two very high scores for a Gamay / Pinot noir lend and one that is 100 % Cabernet Franc “very pale, salted plum, wild strawberries, herbal, seamless. Beaut.”
4. Red Blends. Diversity rules here, with complexed and layered blends that include Syrah, Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Viognier, Sangiovese. Power is easy here, but we are looking for potency with gracefulness. Team Blackheart may be hard assed, but we are fair, and pleased with the flight.
5. Gewürztraminer. Sigh. After my luck with the first Gew flight earlier in the week, I faced down this orange-hued garden with trepidation, but there were three shining examples that did demonstrate why the grape is planted in Canada (note – wineries – do more like these please).
6. Malbec. Sun-soaked blueberries, thorns, well-handed ripeness, alluring perfume – vs – giant extracted wood, dense, bitter finish. Easy flight to differentiate.
LUNCH. Amazingly hitting a special Sunday buffet brunch at the hotel, and have opportunity to feast on everything circa 1985 from scrambled eggs to Jell-O shots to cheese and crackers.
7. Sauvignon Blanc. Oh, Savvy. Again, has been a struggle in the past, but my colleagues have found some gems to push through to the final. Herbal, anise, verve, saline, florality, orange, flinty, popcorn, lemon thistle are livening us up considerably. Current mood: Jell-O shots are never, ever a good idea.
8. Cabernet Sauvignon. A much better flight than in the prelims, with a few lovely structured examples with blackcurrant, dark cocoa and cassis balanced with well-placed wood and firm tannins.
9. White Blends Another diverse flight, including Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne and Albariño, amongst others. Love the tempered intensity of the top wines – all dry or nearly so. Food friendly!
10. White Single Varieties. Perfect counterpoint to the last flight, these show the strength of the lesser-seen single grapes. Strong flight across the board, but my top score goes to a Grüner Veltliner. Applause.
11. Sparkling Rosé. Predominantly a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay flight, though there is one here that is entirely hybrids (respect, you). Pithy, tight, focused, fruity, structured wines win the gold (and our hearts).
12. Cider. Final flight of the day is Cider, either apple or pear. Quite a range, from dry and bitter to buttery and honeyed. Sweetness does not equal scores, folks. Balance equals scores.
FIN. Current mood: toothpaste needed, stat.
DAY 5: FINALS. 0900
We spent a relatively late night in Halifax at fellow judge Heather Rankin’s Obladee Wine Bar, replete with flowing Nova Scotian wine, produce, live music (fiddles!) and so much dancing, most enthusiastically baltered by me. Only four panels now, with less than 300 wines to taste before we all head our separate directions. I’m heading up the crack Team Singing the Blues, with Rhys Pender, Moira Peters, Heather Rankin and Jamie Goode. Current mood: pensive.
1. Tidal Bay. Bring it home Nova Scotia! My first ever entire flight of Tidal Bay. Though these light alcohol, refreshing wines are about drinkability, there are certainly more shades of serious in some than others. We nail the one with harmony, balance and flow.
2. Pinot Noir. All our culling earlier in week has tightened the selection considerably, with finessed frames leading the scores. There is one contentious wine; a riper, rounder, sun-warmed style that sticks out in a flight of lean, herbal examples, but a few of us champion its balance and completion through to Gold, which I am very pleased about.
3. Sparkling Blanc de Blancs. Ah – someone does love us. Pithy, stony, mineral, salty styles, including my highest scoring wine of the competition. Current mood: satisfied.
4. Merlot. Even the Merlot gods are taking care of Team Singing the Blues today. There were a couple of wines that got the boot, but there were a couple that got very high marks for “savoury black plum,” “light smoke,” “gentle kirsch” and “welcome restraint.”
5. Riesling. Canada does this so well. I scored three golds here, all entirely different styles, with my favourite “electric, mineral, pithy.”
6. Red Single Variety. Diverse flight that included hybrids, vinifera and oddballs. Let’s plant more Zweigelt, folks!
7. Riesling. More Golds here, with three vying for top scoring contention, again across a range of styles. My vote tipped towards the “herbal, salted, stony, savoury, pear, lengthy” example.
8. Red Icewine. Wow. After a couple of “why?”, we settled into a groove, and I ended up scoring one browning wine that reminded me of sweet Oloroso quite high. Teeth are ringing.
9. Fortified. Hard to taste through most flights directly after icewine, but Fortified is a natural fit. From Chardonnay to schönburger to Merlot to Shiraz to Pinot Noir, the wines were as diverse as their grapes. Again, my top wine was reminiscent of Sherry.
FIN. Folks are already peeling off for the airport, and the judging room is lined with suitcases. We give a heartfelt and hearty round of applause to the stellar team of volunteers and back room staff – the ones that do all the heavy lifting (and polished 11,000 glasses this week). Our binders containing all our notes and scores already in our hands, along with the answer key and after losing track of hugs and poignant farewells, I’m on the shuttle to the airport. Another incredible week of the Nationals logged, hundreds of wines tasted, new friends made and very, very few hours slept.
Current mood: Gratitude. Keen anticipation for #NWAC18. And can this shuttle bus please stop for espresso.