What’s that aroma wafting through the city? Is it poutine? No. Is it beaver tails? No. It’s the scent of a well-stocked passion. Ottawa used to be better known for hot chocolate than for wine, but a vinous Group of Seven is changing the dining landscape: seven local restaurants recently won Wine Spectator Magazine awards for their wine lists.

Waiting for the awards to be issued is like waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain: first a lot of speculation, then everyone scrambles to see what’s on the list. The chosen few this year are: Juniper, Medithéo, Trattoria Italia, Vineyards, Wilfred’s, Vittoria Trattoria and Les Fougères. That’s more than twice as many as last year, when only three area restaurants won awards: and it compares respectably with Toronto’s thirty-four winners and Montreal’s ten.

Since 1981, Wine Spectator has recognized restaurants from forty countries that have outstanding wine lists. Restaurateurs submit a wine list, a menu and a one-page description of their wine program for review. (The Spectator relies on the honour system, and on its readers to detect fraud – except for the top-tier awards. For these, magazine staff inspect the restaurant cellars.) This year, 2,753 restaurants were chosen worldwide , 146 of them in Canada. To qualify for an Award of Excellence, a restaurant must have at least eighty well-chosen labels from various producers, with a supporting inventory of bottles. Eighty-three per cent of the awards were in this category, including our seven winners.

To achieve the more elevated Best of Award of Excellence, a restaurant must have 500 or more labels, with selections from several vintages of top producers, strengths in specific regions, and menu harmony. Fourteen per cent of winners achieved this distinction, twenty-one in Canada. The most coveted designation, the Grand Award, requires lists offering at least 1,250 different labels, including older vintages, rare wines, large-format bottles and a hefty overall inventory. According to the magazine, it takes “extraordinary passion, dedication and financial commitment” to build a wine list deserving this award. Only three per cent of all restaurants and just two in Canada won this year.

Vineyards has held the Award of Excellence every year since 1988, and was the first regional restaurant to win one. As the Founding Mother of this city’s great wine lists (“mother,” for we are talking about one of nature’s finest gifts), it continues to improve its own list, recently adding fourteen wine flights – groups of three wines, poured two ounces to a glass. Flight tasting enables diners to compare the styles of three Italian red wines, for example, or three New World chardonnays — something that isn’t possible when you just drink one bottle.

The only other restaurant to win both this year and last is Vittoria Trattoria, which has fifty-seven wines by the half-bottle and a sixteen-page list. As part of the restaurant’s renovations this year, co-owner Cesare Santaguida added a private wine cellar dining room. Now, for that eighteenth-century lord-of-the-manor feeling, you and up to twelve of your friends can dine surrounded by the restaurant’s 8,000 bottle inventory, chandeliers and wooden crates from top producers around the world.

Dominic Carrozza, owner of Trattoria Italia, which won the award for the first time this year, says diners shouldn’t have to go to expensive establishments to find a large wine list. His goal is to make a wide selection of wine available with a moderately priced menu, and he pulls it off. With some surprise, he notes that despite his focus on Italian wines and fare, the most popular wines with customers are Australian. But he admits a shiraz drinks as well with pasta as a barolo.

Michael Sobocov, co-owner of Juniper, says that winning the award is a tonic for his business since many tourists and businesspeople dine at his restaurant after reading about it in the Wine Spectator. His list continues to focus solely on New World wines, including California cult wines and Australian favourites. Ninety per cent are bought on consignment — they can’t be bought in stores, which makes them a rare treat for wine lovers. But the biggest change is the growth of Canadian wines on his list, which he says is easy to achieve now that their quality has improved dramatically. He offers rising regional stars such as Peninsula Ridge, Malivore and Burrowing Owl.

Medithéo offers half its 180 wines by the glass and aims to have 100 by the glass at the end of the year – great for those who like to try a different wine with each course. Wilfred’s Grill in the Château Laurier has 225 labels, mostly Canadian, U.S. and Australian wines. Sommelier Daniel Rousselle hopes to offer customers more wines from undiscovered regions as he builds the list to more than 300 labels in the next year. Les Fougères, a long-time favourite spot in Chelsea, offers all wines priced at $36 or less by the glass. It also charges guests only for the one-half or three-quarters of the bottle they drink. Les Fougères will be adding a gourmet take-away food store next to the restaurant this year and also use the space for cooking classes, wine and food matching seminars, and winemakers’ dinners.

Hy’s Steak House won an award last year but missed the deadline this year – the Spectator moved the April closing date back one month to March 1, and as sommeliers are not exactly men and women of leisure, the change escaped notice. Hy’s list is still Spectator-quality, though, especially this year: it has added a full page of half bottles, ranging from moderately-priced Canadian wines to coveted California cabernets. This city needs more half bottles – they’re ideal for the single diner or a couple who want to try two wines instead of committing to one bottle. Half bottles also guarantee freshness: often, wines by the glass may come from bottles opened several days ago.

Other restaurants with lists that could quality for Spectator awards include Giovanni’s, Baco, Le Café (NAC), Merlot (Ottawa Marriott), Bistro 1908, Laurier sur Montcalm, L’Orée du Bois and Le Baccara at the Casino de Hull – all have well over eighty thoughtful selections. These last four, located in Quebec, may suffer from the magazine’s cultural bias. There is no French edition of the Wine Spectator – and the magazine is so firmly rooted in Californian culture that you can almost hear the surf pounding in the background of each article. Many French sommeliers simply aren’t aware of the award and therefore don’t apply for it. Le Baccara, for example, has an inventory of 16,000 bottles, and recently purchased a vertical of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild from 1945 to 1997. That cache includes labels painted by Picasso, Riopelle and the controversial Balthus label of a nude girl that was banned in the U.S. but is available to more forward-drinking Canadians.

It takes a barrelful of money and time to build a bottle inventory and then to age it, so it’s a challenge for new restaurants to develop an interesting list just when their capital expenses are highest and their revenues lowest. However, several spots that opened in the past year are ripening early. Penstock, the restaurant in the recently restored Wakefield Inn, already has an inventory of 675 bottles and intends to rapidly fill its traditional underground cave, which can store 20,000. Most of the current wines are privately imported from Europe. Arome, the restaurant in the new Hilton Lac Leamy Hotel beside the Casino de Hull, came out of the gate with a staggering 200 labels on its list, including many of the classified growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

While Restaurant Signatures at the new Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute is primarily for fine dining, it also offers a reasonable range of wines from around $30 — including some interesting choices from Languedoc-Roussillon. The Signatures list was designed by Veronique Rivest, who also created Les Fougères’ award-winning list. Caroline Gosselin, co-owner of Eighteen restaurant, has built an inventory of close to 2000 bottles, with about 170 different labels on the list to suit seasonal menus, assisted by Lee Wagner, formerly a sommelier at Wilfred’s. Be sure to ask for her descriptive wine list that includes tasting notes and scores from critics.

While these new and existing restaurants are investing thoughtfully in their wine programs, unfortunately many more local restaurants offer a greater range of coffees than wines. In fact, several restaurants with good food (notably those in the Byward Market and the Glebe that are often named as favourites of fading media personalities and high tech has-beens) manage to anaesthetize both palate and wallet with safe wines at ridiculous mark-ups.

But restaurants don’t have to create a Wine and Peace tomes. Most can design lists that are as satisfyingly concise as an Alice Munroe short story, but still stocked with the terrific values coming out of Chile, Argentina, Australia, Languedoc-Rousillon and South Africa. At the very least, restaurants serving customers stranded in the vinous wasteland west of Westboro can opt for the simple solution of adding one line to the bottom of the wine list: “Please ask your server about our reserve bottles.” The restauranteur needs to stock only three to five special bottles for those wanting good wine with their meals. Think of the customer satisfaction. OK, then, think of the profits. Alas, it is with great difficulty that I complete this dispatch, parched and crawling out of Kanata. Please send help – or consultants.