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Ontario Wine Awards

Judging for the 2008 Ontario Wine Awards took place over the past two Saturdays in Toronto. Teams of Ontario sommeliers and wine writers, including myself, combed through a record number of entries, some 480-plus wines, in search of the best bottles.

    Panels tasted blind with no knowledge of who the producer was or what wine region the grapes were sourced from. We were only informed the type or style of wine (i.e. Oak-aged Chardonnay priced at over $20) and the vintage. That way judges could set aside any preconceived notions and simply address the quality of the wines in the glass.

   The winners will be announced at a gala dinner April 26 in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and I'll be as anxious as anyone to find out which wines were the tasters' choice. More information about the awards gala is available at www.ontariowineawards.ca.

    What I do know is that my panel saw a strong assortment of oak-aged Chardonnays and an impressive selection of Syrahs. Other varieties, particularly Pinot Noir and Riesling, were unfortunately more varied, with some impressive wines and some not so impressive offerings.

   My highest scores went to two Chardonnays that really captured my imagination. They offered finesse, impressive structure and thrilling character. These were wines that grabbed my full attention in the middle of a flight of 35 different glasses. I can't wait to congratulate the winemakers responsible for bringing those beautiful wines to market.

Wines of the Week:
Here is a selection of Niagara Chardonnays I have tasted and enjoyed lately.

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Cave Spring Cellars 2006 Chardonnay
Niagara Peninsula $12.85 (228551)
   Here is a very nice and expressive Chardonnay that over-delivers for its price point. A small amount of Chardonnay Musque and barrel-fermented fruit helps dress up the nose and palate. A slight mineral note on the palate makes this taste like a much more expensive bottle as does the lingering spicy citrus flavour. www.cavespring.ca (Winery/LCBO General List, widely available)

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DeSousa Wines 2006 Chardonnay Reserve
Niagara Peninsula $19.95
    DeSousa is undergoing a quiet revolution: upgrading its label and wine quality while retaining its humble, no-nonsense approach to marketing and promotion. As such, the established Beamsville winery is a hidden gem waiting to be re-discovered by wine lovers. Visitors should definitely sample this impressive Chardonnay Reserve, which makes the most of its grilled pineapple and spicy complexity. This creamy-textured Chardonnay conveys sweet vanilla and pineapple flavour and a lingering toasted note on the palate. It is nicely balanced and fresh, making it a winning match for grilled seafood or roasted pork done with apricot or apple sauce. www.desousawines.com (3753 Quarry Rd., Beamsville, 905-563-7269)

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Hillebrand Winery 2006 Showcase Chardonnay Unfiltered
Niagara Peninsula $35
 Hillebrand's serious Showcase bottling boasts impressive structure and a nervy, linear style. It has plenty of oak and fruit in balance, and gradually opened itself in the glass to reveal an appealing honeyed character cut with grapefruit and lemony acidity. This is a terrific food wine that will develop nicely over the next three or four years. www.hillebrand.com (1249 Niagara Stone Rd., Niagara-on-the-Lake, 905-468-7123)

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Tawse Wines 2007 Sketches of Niagara Unoaked Chardonnay
Niagara Peninsula $18
   Sketches of Niagara is new label from Vineland boutique winery, Tawse, which will include grape varieties grown on the biodynamically farmed estate vineyards. The portfolio will be available this spring at the Cherry Road winery and potentially via the LCBO. The debut Chardonnay is produced primarily with fruit from the winery's own Quarry Road vineyard and from grower Ed Hughes. The Quarry Road site contributes a more austere, earthy/minerally component to this blend, while the bought-in fruit delivers an appealing tropical fruit element that makes for a best-of-both worlds sort of blend. This is a good value, early-drinking style of Chardonnay, a welcome departure from the heavy, barrel-aged Chardonnays for which Tawse is famous. www.tawsewinery.ca (3955 Cherry Ave., Vineland, 905-562-9500)

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