best of the okanagan

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The official judging for the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival wrapped up yesterday, and for the first and only time, all eight judges sat together and tasted. In the days preceding, we’d tasted in panels of four – an inconvenient number, which required at least three of the four to vote for a medal in order for a wine to be awarded.

The result was that a wine with, say, a vote for a silver and two bronzes would be given a bronze medal, while a wine that was voted silver-silver-nothing-nothing would receive no medal at all.

Every judging system has its weaknesses, and in the main, my panel found itself in agreement. I would venture that 80% of the votes I cast, whether for no medal, bronze, or silver, matched the ultimate results. But if a wine received a preponderance of gold and silver votes, it was moved up to the final round, and that is where we diverged rather dramatically.

The first flight – 22 wines in all – included one sparkling, two dessert wines, and 19 dry white wines, mostly identified by vintage and varietal. The second flight of 13 wines included a single blush wine and a dozen reds. The organizers were not entirely pleased that only 35 wines had been moved forward (out of more than 450 tasted). Last year’s judges, we were told, had awarded 119 silvers and 38 golds to a smaller field of candidates.

Nonetheless, there we were. 40 wines had already received silver medals, and not moved forward, so the 35 wines before us, which were guaranteed to be either silver or gold, would bring the medal total for silver and gold to 75.

The judges took this as a testimony to our thoroughness and pointed out that winning a gold medal (15 were ultimately awarded) in such strict competition would carry more importance than in one in which golds were handed out like the lollipops at dinner.

As I tasted through the final flights, I drew the following conclusions. First, the variety of wines produced in the Okanagan certainly rivals that in the rest of the Pacific Northwest. The region is something like 100 miles long, south to north, and includes everything from desert to near-alpine conditions. A very fine ehrenfelser was one of my favorite white wines; pinot blancs were especially good, and there were light and fragrant blends of viognier and mixed Rhone whites. We were asked to vote for a Best White – my favorite, a wonderfully pungent sauvignon blanc – did not make it, but showed me another unsuspected strength of the region. In the end, however, the wine voted Best White was my least favorite of the entire flight. A searingly tart riesling, done in what might generously be described as the Eden Valley style of Australian riesling, it wowed all seven of the Canadian judges and left me reaching for the water glass.

We were all in sync when it came to voting a Best Red. The category with the most finalists – Syrah/Shiraz – was also the consensus favorite. So much so that, after a lengthy debate with the organizers, the judges convinced them that there should be a two-way tie for the award (I would have made it a three-way, but that flag wasn’t gonna fly). Not because we were split four and four, but rather because we were united – all eight of us agreeing that both wines were excellent, but quite different in style.

Some questions were posted on Tuesday for which I have no clear answer. Wine judgings and competitions are ubiquitous. They require a tremendous amount of effort to put together, and volunteers behind the scenes do all the essential work of sorting, labeling, pouring, dumping, cleaning, etc. while the judges sit and sip and slurp and spit and debate. It’s hard work on both sides. When I do a judging, it is because I am interested in learning more about the wines of the region. I had a marvelous time up here, tasted wine with some excellent palates, and left, as before, with the strong impression that the Okanagan has world class winemaking potential. Given its proximity to Washington, it is astonishing how little reference there is to Washington wines as comparables. The Canadian rieslings are benchmarked against Australia; the merlots, cabs and Meritage reds against California/Napa; the malbecs against Argentina; the syrahs against Australia and the Rhone. It would make a lot more sense, I think, for our neighbors to the north to become familiar with the Washington versions of these wines. But they remain largely invisible, and rarely seen in shops or on wine lists.

Blame the silly border laws, which require anyone bringing wine into Canada from the U.S. to pay a tariff of 117%. I heard tales of winemakers who were on their way up to Vancouver with a car-load of wines to pour – not sell – at a tasting, and were forced to pay such tariffs on their own wines, which they planned to give away! Is it any wonder when they decided they would rather pour their wines for free elsewhere?

1 comment:

Wawineman said...

Awesome article!
This experience answers a lot of questions about: wine ratings/judgings, Washignton's "whipping boy" impression outside of the State, and wine palates.

The judging at this competition appears to actually consider the value of a "medal." Ideally, I think it should be like any sporting gold, one silver, and one bronze, but then again, wine judgings are devoid of PEDs and the constant spying of the US ADA.

Oh, our government's intervention with those antiquated tariff laws. Too bad NAFTA was of no help to the wine industry. No wonder I've only had Jackson-Triggs from our 'mates to the north. Wine lovers should unite to help change these "protections."

I gather it must have been humbling to see your favorite wine not be eligible for the top prize. Oh, the thoughts that must have been going through your head... This confirms why there are so many different critiques of a specific wine and quite possibly, why Washington wines are still "two to three steps" behind California wines (or other major region) as opined by Californians.

Fascinating. And hey, you have pretty nice handwriting. You'd never have made it as a doctor. :P

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