o canada

Monday, October 05, 2009

In Canada, they know how to do a great wine festival. Here in the Okanagan, they do four a year – spring, summer, fall and winter – and each is loaded with events.

The Fall Wine Festival, which began on October 1st and runs through next weekend, is in its 29th year. It’s flush with brunches, lunches, dinners, receptions, food and wine, jazz and wine, golf and wine, and art and wine events. But the centerpiece of it all is the Wine Judging Competition, which has brought me here.

There are many dozens of major wine judging competitions held each year in North America, and I could spend most of my life attending them. But experience has shown that each has its own quirks and politics, and up until now I’ve never done the same one twice. Sometimes it’s the stemware or the room that sucks; sometimes it’s the accommodations; sometimes there are too many judges for results to be meaningful; sometimes there are too many wines for any single judge to come away with any meaningful knowledge. Often the organizers are in it to make money, and to make money they need to maximize entries, and to maximize entries they need to flog the judges to give out lots and lots and lots of medals. Bronze, silver, gold, platinum, titanium, double and triple this or that, best of category, best of class, best of show, best of the best – it goes on forever.

Here things are handled with far more grace.

The judging is being held at the Cove Lakeside Resort in West Kelowna, and a more posh location I could not ask for. During the first couple of rounds of tasting last night, we watched a full moon rise over the lake, from a fourth floor suite at the resort. There are just eight judges, and roughly 460 wines. We were divided into two teams of four, and for the first hour we sampled four “test” wines and discussed the wines, the scoring, our individual preferences, and then did a trial vote on medals.

There is absolutely no pressure to ramp up the awards. In fact, most of the judges, who are all Canadian except for me/moi, are quite critical, and my trial scores were among the highest in the room. (Imagine my surprise.) Part of that, and one of the reasons I am here, is that the vast majority of these wines don’t cross the border into the U.S., so unless you travel up here you will not have a chance to taste them, which is a pity. The wineries of British Columbia (more than 160 in all, with 100+ here in the Okanagan) produce a full range of European varietal wines, many in a distinctive style unknown elsewhere on the West Coast.

Part of this region is desert, and all of the Okanagan is dry. The diurnal extremes are really extreme. It was up around 90 degrees all last week, and hadn’t rained since mid-spring. It rained on Saturday, the temperature dropped 20 degrees, and it was down in the low 30s last night under the full moon.

I am feeling my way through the wines. The sample merlot we tasted was completely different from a Washington wine, perhaps closer to a southern Oregon style, but more graceful and aromatic. Would it stand out in a lineup of 15 or 20 merlots? That is what I am here to find out. Last night we did a flight of white blends, a flight of red blends, and a flight of fruit wines. Identities will be revealed at the end of the competition, and results announced at the Grand Tasting next weekend. I’ll keep posting my notes and impressions, and you will be able to find the winners on the festival website in a few days. Finding the wines is a different challenge. That may require a visit to this spectacular wine country.

http://TheWineFestivals.com
http://owfs.mobi
http://okanaganwineawards.com

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