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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 ...

In the course of a sales pitch, the icewine flows. A dinner party of 12 people can go through two cases. Pillitteri raises an imaginary glass and calls out the Chinese for “bottoms up!”: “Gan bei! Gan bei!” He chuckles. “If you want to see 12 guys bouncing off the walls…”

Pillitteri Estates icewines are now sold from South Korea to Singapore. Pillitteri’s is the largest of seven estate wineries selling through the “Canadian Icewine Gallery” in Japan. In China, they’ve taken a 25% piece of a Beijing-based retailer called Canbest, selling high-end Canadian consumables including icewine and maple syrup. “There was no market for a retail business in the mainland,” says Pillitteri. “So I decided with my partners that we needed to build one.”

As China develops the taste and the means for icewine, Chinese counterfeiters are rushing to fill the demand. “It’s quite frightening,” says Constellation Brands’ Randy Dufour. “You go to some of these stores and there’s 50 or 60 brands of icewine and maybe five or 10 of them are legitimate.”

Despite constant attempts to get authorities to act, nothing seems to happen. “The government doesn’t seem to have been as effective as we would hope,” Dufour says carefully. But the more the scamming goes on, the more customer impressions are tainted. “When somebody spends a significant amount of money on something they perceive as icewine, and they’re disappointed…we’ve lost them out of the category.”

During his travels, Pillitteri has confronted counterfeiters at wine fairs. He makes a commotion, pointing to the bottles and shouting, “Fake!” What’s in those bottles? “Wine that’s been sweetened with sugar, at best,” he says. “Usually they’re cloudy, there’s stuff floating in them.”

In his office, Pillitteri brings out one of these fakes. It’s a tall, black bottle from “Tian Jin Canadian Icewine Co., Ltd,” with a label declaring “Canadian Icewine.” In difficult-to-read script at the bottom are the words “Produced by China and Canada.”

Pillitteri agrees to open it, and when he pours it out, it’s as dark as madeira, clearly oxidized. It tastes roughly icewine-like, sweet with some acidity, like something a hobbyist might make at home. “For an imitation it’s not a bad one,” Pillitteri admits.

 

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You can drink it, protect it and admire it all you want, but you haven’t really lived icewine until you’ve picked its grapes by hand. It’s a rare event these days. “Sometimes you can trick a tourist into doing it,” I was told by one of the workers helping the Vineland harvest. But there are still some small vineyards and wineries with particularly fragile crops that choose to do it the old-fashioned way.

Debbie Inglis’s Niagara Vintage Harvesters is one. A professor at Brock University, Inglis inherited the 20-acre property, which is in the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation. Planted in 1981, it’s one of the oldest blocks of Riesling in Niagara. Inglis—who was named Niagara’s “Grape King” in 2010 for the quality of her vineyard—manages it with her husband, Rob. Inniskillin contracts her to net off four acres of Riesling for icewine and to deliver 3,000 litres of juice at between 38 and 40 Brix. If she’s paid for juice by the litre (rather than by the grape tonne), that would be as much as $90,000, three times what a regular fall harvest would fetch.

It’s the third week of January and the temperature’s supposed to fall to -10 or -11 by midnight. The wind chill puts it at -22. When I arrive at the vineyard at 11 p.m., Rob looks me over and says, “Is that the coat you’re wearing?” I have layers on, but it’s decided I need another coat to put underneath my coat. They lend me snow pants too. They’re not wowed by my two sets of gloves, but I’ll have to live with them.

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