Why the National Wine Awards are Consistent; New VQA Wines to Love and Top Smart Buys
This week I share some thoughts on the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada put on last week in sunny Niagara wine country, and specifically make my case for why the results are as accurate and consistent as they could be. Along the same local theme, I’ve selected a few VQA Ontario wines for consideration, including some old friends and some new-comers (or returners) to the quality game, in time for Canada Day. A half-dozen additional smart buys from July 6th round out the liquid fun.
And the WineAlign Team ‘Gels’:
How to Get Consistent Results in a Wine Competition and Learning By Example
Last week during the judging of the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada in Niagara, as 17 of us tasted out way through 1100 Canadian wines, I gave a lot of thought to the remarkable synchronicity, and much more occasional divergence, between such a large panel of judges. I wondered how it’s possible for so many different people hailing from all over the country to rate wines in such a consistent fashion, often within a point of one another or bang on. Of course, there was much discussion and passionate debate on each panel, but by and large consensus came naturally and no blood or tears were shed before the final scores were sent in. The results, for this reason, I think are extremely consistent. But consistent with what?
It’s tempting to draw the conclusion that wine must have some intrinsic, universal quality, independent of anything that’s not part of the fermented liquid itself. All one need do is observe that quality, good or bad, and quantify it. Since we mostly agreed on good and bad, it must be so.
And yet, you and I know that’s not true. It’s impossible to make the argument that wine has any measure of universal quality outside of the observer, appreciable by pure reason alone (in the Kantian sense, that is, the capacity to know without having been shown). Like many of the other panelists, I’ve judged at various competitions around the world. And it turns out, as you’ve guessed, that when you bring people together to quantify the quality of wine, not everyone agrees all of the time. The score swings can be ludicrously wide to the point where you wonder what the point of the process is in the first place. I think that for Kant, to carry on the comparison, wine appreciation would fall under practical reason – action, or in this case appreciation, governed by experience. You can’t know quality until you’ve been shown.
So why did the WineAlign judging team ‘gel’ so easily? It comes down to, as I see it, the fact that we’ve all had similar experience and interaction with the world. We’ve grown up along with the Canadian wine industry and know it intimately. And furthermore, virtually every judge on the WineAlign panel has some kind of formal wine training, and everyone without exception has taught others about wine, often within the same formal frameworks, such as the MS, MW, CAPS, ISG, or WSET programs (which are all variations on the same theme), thus we view wines through the same lens. In other words, wine, like language, is learned by concept, and we were all speaking the same language.
I was fascinated by this idea of concept learning and wine. Technically it can be defined as “the search for and listing of attributes that can be used to distinguish exemplars from non exemplars of various categories.” Sounds very much like working through a flight of wines, distinguishing the ones with the attributes that match a concept of quality within a given category, using the same diagnostic tools. Concept learning is often achieved by training someone to classify objects – wine for example – by showing them a set of example objects along with their class labels. Wine is nothing if not a huge set of labels within certain categories, using the diagnostics of colour, smell, taste and texture, to classify them in a regional and varietal context. Regional classic or outlier, varietally correct or non-representative, good, better, or best, or 85, 90, or 95 point quality. That sounds like precisely the way wine students are taught about wine. “Now here, class, we have a high quality, classic northern Rhône syrah…” That’s called learning by example.
It’s sort of like learning a language, which is also done through concepts (at least according to some linguists). You can be shown a rose, be told that it’s a rose, and then forever more associate the ‘concept’ of a rose with the word rose in sounds and letters. The concept of quality wine is more complicated because of the subjectivity involved – there’s no subjectivity in a rose – a rose is a rose is a rose. Ahh, but how beautiful is the rose?
I’d argue that assigning degrees of quality or beauty to wine or roses can be fairly easily taught and learned. Show someone a beautiful rose or a fantastic wine, and tell them it is so. You’ve established an example. But it doesn’t mean that the degree of beauty or tastiness is universal. The scale only applies among people who share the same concepts of quality and beauty – those with similar context.
Get a group of foreigners in the room, on the other hand, and communication is difficult. They can be speaking a different language, have a different concept of quality, based on how, where, when and from whom they learned their language. As I pointed out, I’ve observed this at various awards competitions around the world when people of widely varying backgrounds are brought together to quantify quality.
So it stands to reason then that since the WineAlign panelist share similar experience – were largely taught, or teach about wine using the same concepts of benchmark wines, and are part of the same generation that has seen the rise in availability and quality of Canadian wine – that the scores arrived at independently during blind tastings should be very close one another.
So what’s the point? How does this affect the results of the WineAlign National Wine Awards to be released later this summer. I’d suggest it means that the results are highly accurate and consistent, within the range of acceptability that the judges have collectively (and unconsciously) set forth for each category. But considering the incredible collective experience of the judges and the intimate knowledge of what Canada does best, I’d say that it’s a range of acceptability/quality/enjoyment worth knowing, even if it’s not the only possible range. Had foreign judges with little knowledge of Canadian wine, or individuals without any formal background or training in wine taken part, the results would surely have been different. Not necessarily better or worse – liking or disliking ultimately depends on the observer. (And it’s always interesting, even important, to get an ‘outsider’s’ point of view to benchmark the range of acceptability once in a while, just to make sure that the train hasn’t slipped off the rails.) But I definitely believe the results would have been less consistent. And in the world of subjective wine appreciation, consistency is king.
VQA Wines Worth Knowing
Two fine local specialties stood out from the lineup for July 6th. It won’t come as any surprise to most to see the 2011 Hidden Bench Estate Riesling, VQA Beamsville Bench ($23.95) listed among the recommendations. Hidden Bench is consistently at or near the top of the heap with much of their range, and Riesling is a strong suit. This ’11 is a fine value, terrifically intense, tense, lively and flavourful, with quivering acids, splendid complexity and lots of mineral 11.5% alcohol makes me want to come back for more.
Another predictable recommendation hitting the shelves July 6th is the 2010 Château Des Charmes Gamay Noir Droit, VQA St. David’s Bench ($16.95). It was a deserving medal winner at the 2013 Ontario Wine Awards and may well be the best edition yet. In case you missed the story, it’s made from a gamay clone that’s unique to the estate; it grows particularly straight shoots, hence the name ‘droit’, so baptized by Paul Bosc Sr. back in the 1980s when he discovered it growing amongst other gamay vines in his vineyards. The 2010 edition is a solid and densely packed wine as far as gamay goes, with a nose full of lush dark fruit like blackberry and black raspberry. It’s made without oak, and is slightly reductive off the top (like roasted root vegetables), so I find that time in the glass or a quick carafing before serving opens up the aromatics nicely. Tannins are ripe and plush and the palate comes across as meaty and generously proportioned, without sacrificing the freshness and lively acids that make gamay so appealing.
I was pleased to see the Fielding Pinot Noir 2010, VQA Lincoln Lakeshore ($24.95) take a jump up in quality over the 2009 in my view, and the estate seems to be reaching a new level of quality (their 2012 gamay is terrific). I don’t think this is one for the cellar, but I very much enjoy the bright red berry fruit, floral and pot pourri notes, and integrated barrel spice – a pinot for fans of mature savoury styles.
Peninsula Ridge appears to be another winery happily returning to form, that is, if the Sauvignon Blanc Wismer Vineyard 2012, VQA Twenty Mile Bench ($19.95) is anything to go on. There was a dip in quality (particularly in the sauvignon range) following the departure of Jean Pierre Colas in 2009, but this 2012 from the highly regarded Wismer Vineyard delivers solid grip and evident intensity. I like the way this has maintained the appealing lively and crisp side of the variety, without slipping into the tropical fruit cocktail spectrum of flavours that was a danger in the warm 2012 vintage. Really fine length and well done all around. I can only hope this level of quality is the new standard.
I can’t recall when I last recommended a wine from Angels Gate, but their Pinot Gris 2011, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($14.95) is well worth a look for fans of the true ‘gris’ Alsatian style at an attractive price. It comes across as an almost late harvest style with deep golden colour and plenty of honeyed fruit, dried peach, ginger spice and toasty-leesy notes. Impressive flavour and complexity for the money all in all.
Pondview Estate is another new addition to my quality radar, based on the strength of the 2010 Bella Terra Meritage, VQA Four Mile Creek ($39.95). It’s terrific to see Pondview hitting such quality highs so early on. Four Mile Creek is one of the warmest, and therefore best-suited sub-regions in Niagara for Bordeaux-style blends, and this 2010 Meritage, a blend of 50-50 cabernet franc and sauvignon, is a fine example. I appreciate that the temptation to over-oak and over extract in this warm vintage was avoided, as this retains a good dose of fresh, leafy, floral cabernet franc character, though neither greenness nor leanness. Really lovely, drinkable stuff here.
Closson Chase is more familiar in these pages, and the next bottle to track down is the 2011 Closson Chase Vineyard Chardonnay, VQA Prince Edward County ($29.95). The home County vineyard has by now earned a proven track record of quality, and indeed pound-for-pound, I frequently prefer Deborah Paskus’ PEC chardonnays to the Niagara bottlings. Her predilection for super low-yielding, very ripe grapes works very well here, yielding chardonnay that has uncommon density and richness, with the mineral backbone and acidity to balance that is occasionally absent in Niagara. This comes across as a slightly late harvest style with the signature elevage-over-fruit profile, though there is plenty of ripe orchard fruit flavour to be sure and a vague impression of sweetness, such is the glycerous texture and concentrated nature of this wine.
Syrah/Shiraz from Ontario continues to surprise. By all logic it shouldn’t be planted here, and yet example after example defies all reason, that is, if your concept of quality includes the cool climate profile of smoke and pepper, such as you’ll find in tasty Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate Grand Reserve Shiraz 2010, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($19.95). This is a zesty, lively, fresh and highly drinkable example, though wood influence is a little dominant at the moment, so tuck this in the cellar for another year for better integration.
Smart Buys from July 6
Click through my top picks this week and you’ll find a cracking pair of southern hemisphere sauvignons, an unctuous single vineyard grüner veltliner, a riveting northern Italian red made from none of the expected grapes, and a mature and savoury mourvèdre from arguably the best spot on the planet to grow the grape.
That’s all for this week. To get you thinking about Canadian wine for Canada Day, my WineAlign colleague, Janet Dorozynski has proclaimed today (June 28) as the first Canadian Wine Day on Twitter (#CanadianWineDay). What will be in your glass today?
John Szabo MS
We invite our Premium Subscription members to use these links to find all of John Szabo’s reviews. Paid membership to WineAlign has its privileges – this is one of them. Enjoy!
From the July 6, 2013 Vintages release:
Photo credits: WineAlign and Jason Dziver Photography