1,000 Wines of the Week

1,000 Wines of the Week

I’ve tasted so many wines this past week that I can’t pick one to feature. Furthermore I don’t have tasting notes (yet) on any single one of them, because I don’t know exactly which wines I tasted.

I’m in Calgary judging for the International Value Wine Awards, a blind competition that wraps up today. The contest is only open to wines that sell for under $25 somewhere in Canada. A total of 998 were entered in this second year (up about 20%), most of them pictured at right in a huge convention room at the University of Calgary where the judging took place.

Fifteen wine critics—four from B.C., three from Alberta, one from Manitoba, four from Ontario and three from Quebec—gathered to judge the final round of the competition this week, while yours truly, reviewers from Wine Access, as well as Calgary sommeliers, did a preliminary round last week. The winners will be announced in early September but that doesn’t preclude me making some comments on the classes I’ve judged.

The objective of the IVWA is finding value and there are certain categories of wines that clearly under-deliver and over-deliver. And it is fair to make the following general statement: the largest categories (chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz from mainstream regions) offer the lowest proportion of good value wines. With popularity comes higher prices and thus lesser value. Conversely, less well-known varieties and regions are the place to search for real bargains. And there are many, many good wines on our shelves for under $25.

Among whites, one surprise so far is the quality in the pinot gris/pinot grigio class, where once-skinny, bland whites are being pumped with new fruit brightness and purity—and I presume many are well under $25. In other whites, Greek whites showed well, although not universally; the same with a group of miscellaneous whites that included several from Italy. Sauvignon blancs were good in general, riesling as well, with wooded chardonnay being the most challenged. It’s hard to build great fruit quality and skillful oak handling into chardonnays under $25.

Among reds, Spain, Portugal and Greece are offering sound quality and value, along with blends from the south of France and the south of Italy. They, by and large, had surprising complexity and were interesting wines.

One great little red group soared to prominence—a flight of petite syrahs (alias durif) and petit verdot. These historically minor grapes in Europe are finding fertile new ground and a growing fan base in Australia and California in particular.

Although there are grumblings about the ubiquitous shiraz, and a certain homogeny therein, I have found many to be very good, even excellent quality. Shiraz is not in decline although I urge you to avoid those that are too sweet.

Another general observation comes from a post-judging get-together with a group of Calgary sommeliers and wine store managers—an incredibly knowledgeable, passionate group of young men and women who have the luxury of working in one of the most dynamic, diverse, privatized wine markets in the world.

Their conversation brimmed with tales of finding the most obscure grape varieties, appellations and producers in the world, and buying tiny lots of two or four cases to sell from their stores. This is a level of fine wine commerce that our giant LCBO simply cannot address efficiently. And it poses a compelling reason for the opening of a certain number of privately managed stores which are free to list and import rare and interesting wines.

Four provinces in Canada (BC, AB, MB, NS) have this freedom. Wine enthusiasts in Ontario should be storming the LCBO HQ to press their demand.