Wine Culture Magazine

The 2018 National Wine Awards of Canada was the biggest ever—with 7,400 bottles from 257 wineries to taste through. Jason Dziver photos

Reporting from behind the scenes as a wine judge at the nationals

How do you prepare for a week judging the 2018 National Wine Awards of Canada? The country’s largest competition for 100 per cent Canadian-grown wine took place in Penticton mid-July. This year’s NWACs, the largest to date, attracted over 1,850 wines from 257 wineries, and from sea (Vancouver Island) to shining sea (Nova Scotia). It also went through 7,400 bottles, five days, 22 judges, countless Zwilling glasses washed (only a few broken) and an infinite number of sniffs, sips and spits.

For me, as panel chair, the week also added up to two tubes of Sensodyne toothpaste, upwards of 40 shots of espresso, thousands of words logged as tasting notes and one unconfirmed sighting of Ogopogo.

Not everyone who works in wine makes for a good wine judge. Years of dedicated tasting, evaluating, listening, travelling and learning from folks way smarter than you will get you started—plus you need a strong bent for detail, stamina, focus, humility, critical thinking and confidence to treat the wines and the process respectfully and judiciously.

And when all is said and done and poured, you really, really have to be able to taste.

Here are selected crib notes of what it was like to sit in a room for a week of summer to blind taste hundreds of wines during the day, before going out in the evening to taste dozens more with winemakers. And yes, it’s one of my favourite weeks of the year.

Day 1

8:30 a.m. Pep talk from head judge Anthony Gismondi. Everyone’s teeth look shiny.

8:45 a.m. First flight. Big red blends. Teeth black already.

11 a.m. Chardonnay. One of the most coveted of flights, and this flight earns some 90-plus points from my panel. Canuck pride.

3:15 p.m. Sparkling rosé. Notes include “sweeter, baby barf, sharp fruit, some candied notes.”

Day 2

9:25 a.m. Aromatic white blends. Sigh—making me feel as soggy and flabby as many of these sweetish blends. Espresso!

12:30 p.m. #GoGamayGo. Happy for fresh, bright and graceful. Angry for overoaking and broody.

3:10 p.m. Cabernet Franc. Always shows well, and I score gold on one beauty: “medicinal cherry, graphite, earthy, cassis, beauty green / grippy texture, freshness.”

Panel chair Treve Ring samples rosés, seeking pure fruit and fresh acidity in each glass. Jason Dziver photo

Day 3

8:45 a.m. Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon flight. Takes a couple slurps to disrobe the toothpaste. Mouth happy to wake up to citrus acidity. Impressive.

1:15 p.m. Red blends. Struggle to get through this flight. Look at the biodynamic calendar. Root Day. Yup.

4:25 p.m. Cabernet Sauvignon. “… and with rubber.
DNPIM.” The dreaded acronym for Do Not Put In Mouth.

Day 4: Finals Begin

10:20 a.m. Merlot. Wines deemed “hard & charmless” by one of my panel mates. Hard to disagree. Why, Canada?

12:45 p.m. Fruit wines. WOW so much sugar. Ouch ouch ouch. Mental note to schedule dentist.

3:30 p.m. Rosé. All colours of the rainbow and grapes in the kingdom here. Best examples are dry or nearly so, with pure fruit and fresh acidity.

Chardonnay. Killer good wines here. Definitely Canada’s top grape. Top marks to a mineral, herbal, flinty, confident wine with exceptional length and welcome saltiness.

Day 5

9:15 a.m. Riesling. Four wines rated in the 90s. BAM.

10:30 a.m. Chardonnay. Killer good wines here. Definitely Canada’s top grape. Top marks to a mineral, herbal, flinty, confident wine with exceptional length and welcome saltiness.

11:45 a.m. Skin contact wines. First-time category this year, and a sign of how far our industry has come. Some very good examples, some shoddy—we’ve work to do.

When all was said and done, 18 platinum medals were awarded, comprising less than one per cent of all wines entered. No surprise to me, Chardonnay led the pack, with six of the coveted top spots. Somewhat surprising is that we also had a Semillon, Albariño and Roussanne grab top marks, a strong showing for relatively newer grapes planted. I’m thrilled to track Canadian wine’s trajectory over the past 20 years. The future is shining.

View results of the 2018 National Wine Awards of Canada at

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