Wine 101: Judging Canadian Wine

We just wrapped Northern Lands weekend in Edmonton. The brainchild of Edmonton wine guy Gurvinder Bhatia and dubbed ‘The Great Canadian Wine and Craft Beer Adventure,’ it was a first-of-its-kind festival celebrating 100 percent Can-con food and drink. 47 wineries, a dozen craft breweries, a handful of craft distillers, and a small army of Canada’s best chefs congregated in (sunny and mild) Edmonton for a grand tasting, a series of seminars and dinners all over town.

One of the main reasons I was there, besides to dive into all of the hoopla mentioned above, was to participate as a judge in Northern Lands’ inaugural wine competition that was sponsored by My Wine Canada. It was the most international array of judges to ever judge Canadian wines on Canadian soil, and an eye-opening couple days of looking at all of the wines entered from participating wineries. Before I get to the winners, most of which are available right here on this site, I thought to pull back the curtain on how competitions like this work. The way this competition was run isn’t necessarily the way all wine competitions around the world go, but I think it’s safe to say it was quite similar to the majority of ‘em.

First off, the judges (besides me):

Michael Apstein (U.S.) – A writer for Wine Review Online, The San Francisco Chronicle and many more.

Tony Aspler (Canada) – Legendary wine writer, Order of Canada member, Decanter World Wine Award judge.

Michael Bartier (Canada) – Veteran British Columbian winemaker and consultant, Bartier Brothers wines.

Stephen Brook (U.K.) – Much lauded writer, author and judge. Contributing Editor, Decanter magazine.

W. Blake Gray (U.S.) – Publisher of The Gray Report, California editor of Wine Searcher.

Susan Giacomin (Canada) – Wine importer and marketer, Wine Quest.

Paul Pender (Canada) – Winemaker and viticulturist, Tawse Winery (Ontario).

Treve Ring (Canada) – Prolific wine writer, competition judge, and occasional My Wine Canada contributor.

Bill St. John (U.S.) – Wine educator and Chicago Tribune wine columnist.

Grant Stanley (Canada) – Winemaker, 50th Parallel Winery (British Columbia).

Two full days of judging found us separated into groups of three or four, sitting around round tables. The wines were presented to us blind and we had score sheets to record our individual notes and scores. The wines were arranged in small flights of six to 10 wines, each flight with its own theme: ‘Pinot Noir,’ ‘Sparkling Wine,’ etc.

One small note. While the wines were presented to us blind, and the only thing we knew about each was variety or blend, the competition was organized so that the winemaker judges were not assessing their own wine. At the same time, the winemakers joked that perhaps it’s giving them a little too much credit to assume they could identify their own wines in a flight. Either way, they didn’t receive that opportunity.

After tasting through each flight and jotting down notes and scores, we’d then go around the table and look for some sort of consensus. If, say, three out of four judges scored a certain wine around 90 or 91, and then that lone judge scored it an 83, we’d have a quick discussion on why they had issues with the wine, and then one of us higher-scorers would share our two cents of why we thought it deserved a higher score. After the discussion, points could be adjusted if through discussion and a re-taste, a re-evaluation warranted a slight shift.

After the first day of going through the first flights, basically all of the wines, we returned the next day to reassess the now narrowed-down previous day’s highest scorers from each category through the exact same tasting process. It occasionally came to a taste-off to determine a best in category winner if the scores were too close to call.

Eventually, a couple hundred wines later, and in fairly classic tournament style, we had our winners and can confidently say that these are some of the very best wines out of Canada right now; congratulations to them all.

Wines marked with an asterisk (*) are available here on My Wine Canada to order straight to your door.

Best Bubbles – *Tawse Spark Limestone Ridge Sparkling Riesling 2013, Twenty Mile Bench Ontario

Best White Wine – *Tawse Sketches Riesling 2013, Niagara Peninsula Ontario

Best Red Wine – *Road 13 Jackpot Syrah 2011, Okanagan Valley BC

Best Sticky – Henry of Pelham Special Select Late Harvest Vidal 2013, Ontario

Best Red Blend – Clos du Soleil Celestiale 2012, British Columbia
Runner Up – *Road 13 Fifth Element 2011, Okanagan Valley BC

Best Merlot – 8th Generation Vineyard 2012, Okanagan Valley BC
Runner Up – Tinhorn Creek Vineyards Oldfield Series 2011, Okanagan Valley BC

Best Pinot Noir – *Meyer Family Vineyards ‘McLean Creek Vineyard’ 2013 Okanagan Valley BC
Runner Up – *JoieFarm Winery 2012, Okanagan Valley BC

Best Syrah – *Road 13 Jackpot 2011, Okanagan Valley BC
Runner Up – Church and State Winery Coyote Bowl 2011, Okanagan Valley BC

Best Cabernet Franc – Burrowing Owl 2011, Okanagan Valley BC
Runner Up – Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery 2012, Okanagan Valley BC

Best Pinot Gris – Lake Breeze Vineyards 2014, Okanagan Valley BC
Runner Up – 50th Parallel Estate 2014, Okanagan Valley BC

Best Chardonnay – Mission Hill Family Estate Reserve Chardonnay 2013, Okanagan Valley BC
Runner up – *JoieFarm Winery Reserve “En Famille” 2012, Okanagan Valley BC

Best Riesling – *Tawse Sketches 2013, Niagara Peninsula Ontario
Runner Up – 8th Generation Vineyard Riesling Classic 28 Year Old Vines 2013, Okanagan Valley BC

Runner Up Best Sticky – *Tawse Winery Riesling Icewine 2013, Niagara Peninsula Ontario

Runner Up Best Bubbles (tie) – Henry of Pelham Family Estate Cuvee Catharine Brut NV, Niagara Peninsula Ontario & Benjamin Bridge Brut 2009, Gaspereau Valley Nova Scotia


Kurtis Kolt is a Vancouver-based wine consultant, writer, competition judge and enthusiast. Track him down at, or on Twitter and Instagram @KurtisKolt.

Let us know what you think!
  • @tdmulligan March 30, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    Northern Lands: Impressed with everyone involved and the solid nature of the events and judging...However...why on Earth would you invite winemakers from entered wineries..who then go on to WIN awards? Keep it to writers, judges and experts..If you MUST have winemakers involved please find them from Washington, Oregon and California,so that no one can point fingers.
    Just saying..

  • Meyer Family Vineyards April 1, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    […] that our 2013 McLean Creek Rd Pinot Noir won Best Pinot Noir last weekend at the Northern Lands wine competition in […]

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