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Special trucks are predominant features in harvests now, but testing the grapes is still a hands-on job. (Johan Hallberg-Campbell)
Special trucks are predominant features in harvests now, but testing the grapes is still a hands-on job. (Johan Hallberg-Campbell)

Asia's favourite Canadian export Add to ...

Frankly, nature doesn’t want you to have icewine. The only reason wine grapes get sweeter in the winter is to attract starlings. When the snow flies, leaves drop off the vines. The starlings notice that grapes have magically appeared, brown and beckoning against the backdrop of snow. Nothing to do with your dessert wine cravings; nature wants birds to swallow and distribute grape seeds.

The longer a grape sits on the vine, the browner and more dehydrated it gets. When the temperature drops to -8 or below, the water in the grape cells gradually freezes while the more concentrated sugar in the grape resists freezing, leaving behind sweeter and sweeter juice.

All of this is fine by the birds. In 1983, the first year Canada’s most famous winemaker, Karl Kaiser, set aside rows of grapes for icewine, his entire crop was eaten. He had driven to New York State for the weekend and when he returned, “The grapes were gone. The starlings were still sitting on the driveway.”

In a vineyard meant for icewine, you’ll hear the gunshot sounds of propane-powered “bird-bangers” going off at irregular intervals. Rudimentary scarecrows and paper hawks on strings flap in the wind. And on the vines themselves: netting. It shrouds the vines in green nylon threads, leaving spaces large enough to let the grapes fall through during machine harvest, but small enough to discourage the starlings.

Birds are just one way nature gets in the way of your icewine craving. Another is the sugar itself, which resists fermentation. High sugar concentrations are deadly for yeast, so winemakers need 21/2 times as much yeast as normal. Even then, the alcohol content of icewine barely inches over 9%.

But for vintners, the most stressful part of icewine making is waiting for the cold. Social lives cease. Holidays get cancelled. As a likely harvest night approaches, winemakers track the temperature minute by minute.

It’s not as simple as checking the Weather Network. The Niagara region is made up of dozens, maybe hundreds, of microclimates. It can be -9 in one vineyard, and -7 in another just a few hundred metres away. But it gets worse—at the top of a vine it can be one temperature, and at the bottom another. Weather stations throughout the region pick up data at different elevations and report it at 15-minute intervals through a central website. And some winemakers have gone a step beyond, installing “Sensaphones” that monitor conditions and call the vintner when temperatures hit a predetermined target.

 

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In 2011, Canada shipped nearly 500,000 of the typical 375 ml icewine bottles, to 35 countries. In many eyes, Canada’s luxury tipple belongs in the same shopping bag as the Hermès scarves and Krug Champagnes of the world. For this we can thank Roger Provost.

Provost, a Quebecker educated at the Harvard Business School, had worked mostly in Europe as a wine and spirits executive, and he’d gained valuable experience in France as the director of international marketing for Courvoisier S.A. In 1996 he came home to work for Vincor International, Canada’s young but acquisitive wine conglomerate. The jewel of Vincor’s holdings in Canada was Inniskillin, the estate winery started in 1975 by Karl Kaiser and Don Ziraldo.

Inniskillin had made scandalous headlines a few years earlier, in 1991, when its Vidal icewine won the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Bordeaux’s Vinexpo, the world’s most important wine competition. At the time, thanks in part to a lingering trade dispute over Canada’s use of terms like “Burgundy” and “Champagne” in its domestic wines, Canadian icewine was an illegal product in Europe. It shouldn’t even have been allowed to enter.

The win helped secure Inniskillin icewine’s international reputation, but Vincor had no sales channels to make it pay off. By the time Provost came aboard, the company had locked up about 50% of the Canadian wine market. The chair of its board, Onex’s Gerry Schwartz, was pushing the company to expand beyond Canada’s borders. So Provost came up with an export strategy that he called “Ice Storm.”

It was brilliant. Ice Storm bypassed the problem of unwelcoming national markets by simply targeting duty-free retailers instead. Controlled by huge companies—chief among them Duty Free Shoppers (DFS)—the channel was a multibillion-dollar market that essentially amounted to its own country, the republic of Travel Retail.

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