The winter nectar of Canada

Icewine is a highly lucrative product for Canadian wineries.

Icewine is a highly lucrative product for Canadian wineries.

The Germans may have invented it, but it was the Canadians who turned Icewine into the world’s most expensive dessert wine. Tony Aspler takes a look at how Canada built its reputation on this one wine – and how it plans to keep the counterfeiters at bay.

Not since New Zealand hijacked the Sauvignon Blanc grape has one country so successfully dominated the international market with a wine style. Eiswein (literally “ice wine”) is a German invention that dates back to the late eighteenth century, when a freak drop in temperature froze the late harvest grapes in Franconia before they could be picked. Today true vine-frozen Icewine is made in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Romania, Slovenia and Switzerland, but it is Canada that has co-opted Icewine and made it its own.

The date when the wine world first became aware of the product was June 1991. The place: the wine fair Vinexpo in Bordeaux. Inniskillin’s Vidal 1989 won the Prix d’Honneur in the Challenge Internationale du Vin competition. Since then, Icewines from Ontario and British Columbia have been winning gold medals in virtually every competition in which they are entered.

A difficult beginning

The kudos for having produced the first Icewine in Canada goes to the late Walter Hainle, a former textile salesman from Hamburg who migrated to British Columbia in 1970. In 1973 Hainle made about 40 litres of Icewine from frozen grapes he had purchased from a local grower in the Okanagan Valley, a tradition he continued until his death in 1995. It was not vinifera Riesling, but Okanagan Riesling, a grape of dubious origin that was widely planted in the 1960s and 1970s, which has virtually disappeared since the province’s pull-out programme of 1989. The very first attempts at producing Icewine on a commercial basis in Ontario were sabotaged by bird and man. In 1983 Inniskillin lost its entire crop to the birds the day before picking was scheduled.

That same year winemaker Walter Strehn at Pelee Island Vineyards had taken the precaution of netting his vines to protect them from the feathered frenzy, because his vineyard was in the direct flight path of migrating birds from the Point Pelee sanctuary. Some persistent Blue Jays, however, managed to break through his nets and were trapped in the mesh. A passing bird fancier reported Strehn to the Ministry of Natural Resources and officials descended on the vineyard and tore off the netting. Strehn not only lost $25,000 worth of Riesling and Vidal grapes to the rapacious flock, but was charged with trapping birds out of season. Happily, the case was dropped and, with the grapes that were left, Strehn managed to make 50 cases of Vidal Icewine 1983, which he labelled, in the old German fashion, as Beerenauslese Eiswein. He sold the wine to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which set a retail price of CA$12.50($12.70/€9.00) a half bottle. The public was not familiar with this wine style and bought very little, so the LCBO returned the majority of bottles to the winery and demanded a refund. Pelee Island found a more willing market in the United States, where the product sold for $100 (€71) a bottle.

Canadian success story

Given its price, Icewine is a highly lucrative product for Canadian wineries. Joseph DeMaria in Ontario and James Stewart in British Columbia share the distinction of being the world’s only wine producers who specialise in Icewine. Stewart, who has made it from eight different varieties, sold his Paradise Ranch vineyard in Naramata, BC, to Mission Hill, but continues to make the product from bought-in grapes. DeMaria, a Toronto hairdresser by trade, owns Royal DeMaria in Vine land, Ontario, where he produces Icewine from 21 different grape varieties.

De Maria and Stewart are just two of some 100 wine producers across Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, who make Icewine. The sheer number of producers puts Canada at the top of the international Icewine league in terms of volume. If we can’t do it in the frozen north, however, who can? Although Icewine accounts for only 6% of total Canadian wine production, it is the industry’s most celebrated wine.

“Icewine is the ambassador of our industry,”  says Donald Triggs, former CEO of Vincor International. “When we move into new markets we start selling Icewine first, then we feed our other products in on the back of Icewine’s success.”

Vincor itself produces and sells more Icewine than any other company in the world and controls approximately 40% of the Canadian Icewine market.

The Chinese threat

The success of Canadian Icewine in the Chinese market has created twin challenges for the industry: the first is the emergence of Icewine produced in China. In the fall of 2007, China’s Tonghua Grape Wine Co. purchased a 75% stake for CA$7.1m ($7.2m/€5.1m) in an Ontario wine company specializing in Icewine production. And three Chinese companies have begun to make Icewine – Changyu Pioneer (one of the three largest wineries in China), Dragon Seal (one of the oldest wineries) and Xinjang, located inland to the west, which has the potential for colder temperatures.

In December 2006, Changyu announced they had formed a partnership with Canadian producer Aolos to set up a 5,000 acre wine estate in Liaoning Province specifically for Icewine. RMB100 million ($13.98m/ €9.93m) will be invested in this project. “Global annual production [of Icewine] is only 1,000 tons, which is much lower than demand,”  says Zhou Hongjiang, Changyu’s manager. “It is this imbalance that attracts us to invest in this industry, which is entirely new to China. As a result, [our winery’s] production can reach 1,000 tons when it comes onstream.”

Counterfeit Icewine

The second – and most immediate – threat to Canada’s Icewine supremacy is the knock-off products that proliferate on wine shop shelves in China and Taiwan.

The counterfeiters try to make the label and the package look like a Canadian VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) product, but their sense of geography sometimes leaves much to be desired. Faux labels read “Chilliwacko, Ontario,” instead of “Chilliwack, British Columbia”, or “Elixir of the Gods, Torontow,” with a picture of Whistler, BC, in the background and maple leafs all over.

According to the Ontario Wine Council, sales of genuine Canadian Icewine have dropped 60% in the last five years as a result of these illegal wines. Brian Schmidt, the president of Vineland Estates winery in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula region, has spent $600,000 (€432,000) in legal fees in the last four years trying to protect his brand of Icewine in the Chinese market. Although Schmidt has never sold a drop of Vineland Estate Icewine to the Chinese market, bottles with labels that look exactly like his own are turning up in department stores in mainland China.

Another disturbing factor for the Canadian producers is the imminent introduction of new regulations for Icewine devised by the Chinese government. “Today the Chinese are starting to devise their own government implemented Icewine standards for wines made in China,” says Pillitteri. “This concerns me because there’s the global Icewine standard set by the OIV through Germany, Austria and Canada. If the Chinese don’t use the same criteria then what’s the point?” Pillitteri worries that if the Chinese use their own criteria, it will diminish the overall quality of Icewine. “My greatest concern is that they’re going to make Icewine at 32 Brix and -6C or -5C.”

On June 23, 2000, Canada, Germany and Austria signed an agreement governing the production of Icewine. The regulations stated that the grapes must be frozen on the vine with a minimum 34 Brix at harvest, to be picked and crushed at a minimum temperature of at -7C. In Canada the VQA standard is stricter: Brix must be at least 35 and harvest temperature a minimum of -8C. In November 2002, the US followed suit, stipulating that Icewine must be made from grapes frozen on a vine. Wines made by transferring late-harvested grapes into commercial freezers (cryoextraction, which is practiced in Sauternes) cannot be called Icewine. Witness Californian Bonny Doon’s Vin de Glaci¨re, which had to drop its original name of Vin de Glace, following Canadian objections.

But despite unscrupulous producers and the looming threat of Chinese production, Icewine is an economic boon to the Canadian wine industry. And if Joseph DeMaria of Royal DeMaria has his way the price of the product will continue to rise. DeMaria has 31 half bottles of his Chardonnay Icewine 2000 left. He has an interesting take on supply and demand. “As usual, when I create these series I increase the price point as the sales increase. Although the 2000 Chardonnay Icewine is at $30,000 (€21,000) now, I can guarantee that by the last bottle, this Icewine will have a price tag of $500,000 a bottle.”

by Tony Aspler