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Wine awards and grumblings from the peanut gallery, plus blockbuster Vintages release

By Rick VanSickle

Every so often a good deed is met with uncalled for scorn and baseless accusations from the peanut gallery. And the Ontario wine industry is not immune from that, even from within its own ranks.

Those of us who are privileged enough to call Tony Aspler a colleague and a friend, cherish every moment of that friendship and look to him for opinions and knowledge on all things wine and life. Aspler is a highly respected journalist and has an impeccable palate. He has been writing about wine since 1975, has authored more than 16 wine books (including the Wine Atlas of Canada), was the Toronto Star wine writer for 22 years, co-founded the charity Grapes for Humanity to raise money through the wine community for various worthwhile causes and was named to the Order of Canada for his accomplishments.

Ontario wine

As well, 26 years ago, Aspler (above) founded the Ontario Wine Awards, a widely respected and professionally run competition that attracts a vast number of VQA wines and judged by up to 24 critics and writers over a couple of weekends each year to determine the top wines (at least the wines submitted) made in Ontario every year. The competition is open to each and every winery in the province as long as the wine is made with 100% VQA grapes. Yes, you pay to enter your wines, and, no, you are not guaranteed to earn a medal just because you entered your wine into the competition.

The competition ran uninterrupted for 25 years. And then our world changed forever. COVID-19 has impacted each and every one of us across the globe, some more profoundly than others. It would have been easy for Aspler to forget about 2020 and the awards and just pick back up in 2021. But you don’t know Aspler well enough if you think he was going to let it pass without some recognition.

At a quiet ceremony with little fanfare on a warm Friday night at Kew Vineyards on the Beamsville Bench, Aspler gathered a couple dozen people from the Ontario wine industry and did what few could possibly do — he gave out four key wine awards and kept the awards’ uninterrupted streak alive and well for the 26th year.

It was a mini version of the full awards that last year saw a record number of entries — 542 wines from 78 wineries producing VQA wines in Ontario with 25 different categories being awarded bronze, silver and gold medals along with winemaker of the year, white wine of the year, red wine of the year, wine journalism award, and best label design.

This year there was no formal judging, no wines submitted and very few people outside Aspler’s circle of friends and colleagues had a clue there would be any awards in these challenging times. But he had a plan to keep parts of the competition alive — four awards to bring attention to the great wines and people who make them in Ontario. His plan was to reach out to all the judges (there are 24 per competition) who had judged over the last three years and ask them for their top three wines in three categories: top Ontario red wine, white wine and sparkling wine. Those judges were also asked for three names for the best winemaker in 2020.

Aspler tallied up the results and that led to the small ceremony at Kew Vineyards, which I felt honoured to attend and break the news through this website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

While I believe most people understand the trying times and noble gesture by Aspler to keep the awards alive, even in its modest state, at least one commenter on a Facebook post on the awards was not happy. It’s not the first time I’ve heard grumbling from the peanut gallery over awards.

That commenter, who I am not naming here and has since removed those comments, was extremely upset that the winery they work for wasn’t even considered for an award. The commenter bemoaned the fact that they rarely see wine writers or critics at their Niagara winery, somms don’t come by, and they are simply ignored: “My point is, it’s not a level playing field. Can you not see that?” the commenter said.

While I don’t want to dwell on this, or focus on one commenter, it does concern me that there are people out there who feel this way. These kind of comments about awards are common. How would one even know if the winery they work for was considered or not? Dozens of writers/critics picked three wines and three winemakers from the wines they tasted in the past year. Do they get to every winery? I doubt it, that’s impossible. Has the winery ever reached out to writers and critics? Lots do, but I have no idea if this winery has. Did they submit their wines to the competition previously? No idea. Does the person know for sure no critic/writer came through their doors in the last 12 months? I just don’t know, and they likely don’t know either.

Look, the point here is that not every winery is awarded a medal. Not every wine gets the attention others do. Not every wine is great or deserves attention or recognition, which does not in any way mean their wine isn’t fantastic. And not every winery even cares about competitions (of the nearly 200 wineries in Ontario, only 78 submitted wines to the awards last year, the most ever).

But one thing you can’t do, if you care about competitions as this commenter so evidently does, is sit on the sidelines and hope the writers and critics walk through their doors and fall in love with their wines. You have to work for it, not sling mud when it doesn’t go your winery’s way.

The four winners of this year’s Ontario Wine Awards (all in the photo above with Tony Aspler) — Charles Baker (white wine of the year), Philip Dowell/Angels Gate (winemaker of the year), Dan Sullivan/Rosehall Run (red wine of the year) and Henry of Pelham (sparkling wine of the year) — deserve applause for their achievements.

And Tony Aspler certainly merits the wine community’s appreciation for keeping the awards going, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Note: Full story and list of the Ontario Award Winners and photos posted here.

Blockbusters coming to Vintages Saturday

Winemaker Thomas Bachelder has a pair of his top Niagara wines being released at LCBO/Vintages flagship stores Saturday. There are also some other tasty Niagara wines being made available in the wider release, plus a tasty Vio from the Okanagan.

Bachelder Wismer-Wingfield Ouest Chardonnay 2017 ($48, flagship stores, 95+ points) — The Twenty Mile Bench Wismer-Wingfield Chardonnay is from Thomas Bachelder’s latest ripening vineyard parcel, furthest from Lake Ontario, at the highest elevation, from the western part of the block. “I know what to do with this wine. Just get out of the way of it,” Bachelder says. “You can practically taste the crunchy rocks between your teeth,” he says, adding: “Old world, that’s what it tastes like to me.” No other wine in the Bachelder portfolio defines his style more than this Chardonnay. If this is not the most interesting Chardonnay made in every vintage in all of Ontario, it is certainly close. When Niagara finally decides to create a “cru” system of defining the best sites for certain varieties, Wismer-Wingfield, now sourced by some of the finest Chardonnay vintners in the region, will get an automatic pass to the elite list. No question about it. This is all about elegance, finesse and defining the undefinable — minerality, and is consistent vintage to vintage because Bachelder makes the necessary tweaks to be true to the vineyard’s potential. It is one of those Chardonnays that you can pick out of a lineup of 100 Chardonnays from anywhere in the world, it’s that singular in style and that particular to Niagara and the Twenty Mile Bench. The nose is dreamy with white flowers, pear, stony/flinty minerality, lemon sharpness, bin apple and underlying elegant spice notes that all build in intensity as you swirl it in the glass. And then as you move to the palate, oh, my, such a clean and fresh entry that builds and builds in complexity with pear, apple and lemony vibrancy, adding crushed rocks, flint, spice and nougat that all leads to an enthralling and elegant finish that lasts for minutes. This will gain some fat and depth as it ages gracefully for 5+ years but is irresistible right now. Get to your nearest flagship store early on Saturday.

Bachelder Wismer-Parke Ouest Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($45, flagship stores, 92 points) — This Pinot from the “sweet spot” of the Twenty Mile Bench has such a unique nose of dark cherries, forest berries, perfumed bloody/iodine minerality, cloves, touch of damp earth, reduction and savoury spice notes. It is velvety smooth on the palate with savoury red berries, iron minerality, earth, and integrated spice notes all leading to a finessed and vibrant finish. Can cellar for further integration of acidity and tannins.

Other wines released at Vintages from the full release

Flat Rock Cellars Unplugged Chardonnay 2019 ($18, 89 points) — Unplugged, Flat Rock’s version of unoaked Chardonnay, is a consistently good example of this style in Niagara. It shows fresh apple, pear, touch of peach and minerals on the nose, with subtle lemon zest. It’s lean with a mineral edge on the palate to go with crisp apple, fresh pear and citrus zest on the finish. Good value Chardonnay here.

Henry of Pelham Estate Riesling 2019 ($20, 91 points) — The fruit comes from the estate’s Old Farm planted to the 21b Riesling clone in 1984 on the Short Hills Bench. What a lovely Riesling with a nose of lime, grapefruit lemon blossom and stony minerality. It shows firm tension on the palate between sweet and tart citrus fruits with added orange zest, ginger and wet stones with an electric finish.

Featherstone Rosé 2019 ($16, 89 points) — The blend for this consistently delicious rosé is 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Cabernet Franc, 16% Gamay and the rest Merlot. It was kept on the lees for four weeks before bottling. The colour is a bright cherry red with an enticing nose of raspberries, herbs, cherries, red plums and a floral note. There’s just a hint of sweetness on the palate but nicely balanced by the mouth-watering acidity and shows bright red berries and subtle herbaceousness.

A Vio to try from the Okanagan

Castoro de Oro Viognier 2018, Okanagan Valley ($22, 90 points) — Highly aromatic with pears, apricots, honeydew melon and poached pear. It has lovely viscosity on the palate followed by rich tropical fruits, apricot, peach, wild honey and juicy acidity to keep it fresh on the finish.

Also released Saturday, but not reviewed:

• 13th Street Whitty Vineyard Gamay 2018 ($24)