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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 ...

During the first icewine harvest I attended, strictly as an observer, my car froze solid. The emergency brake seized in a fit of I-wasn’t-made-for-this pique. “There is nothing,” I’d been told by a veteran winemaker, “that will try your stamina and endurance more than making icewine.” In its refusal to budge from the edge of a snow-covered Niagara vineyard at 2 a.m., my Toyota seemed to concur. And I have to admit, it did make me review the wisdom of my plan to actually participate in a harvest.

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But then, it’s not often you get to assist the birth of a Canadian product that utterly dominates the global stage. A small stage, to be sure—sales of icewine from Ontario, home to 85% of Canada’s production, amounted to about $32 million last year. But bragging rights are bragging rights, and in terms of market share, icewine may be our most successful export ever.

The irony of that is rich. Out in the world, no one considers Canada to be a wine-producing nation. To the European connoisseur, we’re a land of ice and snow, inhospitable to viticulture. And yet in winemaking, terroir—the unique mating of grape, land and climate—means everything. And it’s the bitter certainty of the Canadian winter that has made the prospects for icewine makers so sweet.

That, and some smart decisions.

A little over three decades ago, when negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement forced the removal of the low-quality Labrusca grape varieties that had dominated here, Canadian winemakers began to tinker seriously with European grapes and techniques. Icewine was a version of the German Eiswein, and because Canadian winters were colder, it was better. Industry leaders here quickly realized that to lock in that advantage, they had to impose certain rules. To wit: Icewine can only come from grapes harvested at temperatures of -8 C or colder. Each year the rows of grapes meant for icewine must be registered with the Vintners Quality Alliance by Nov. 15. The grapes must be left to freeze naturally on the vine, and must be harvested and pressed in a continuous process—no storing, cryogenically freezing or trucking them somewhere else. And they must be naturally sweet, made from juice measuring at least 35 Brix, using the North American scale for sugar concentration. (Table wine tends to fall between 20 and 25 Brix. At 45 Brix, you can feel your teeth rotting.)

The rules don’t specify that the grapes be harvested in brutal conditions, with brown grape clusters disappearing in darkness and an icy wind tearing at your cheeks. It’s just implied. Most growers choose to pick when it’s colder than -8 C because the results at that temperature barely squeak over the 35 Brix minimum. And that’s assuming a steady cold spell. What usually happens is temperatures fall through the day. If they fall too quickly, at -8 the grapes still won’t be thoroughly frozen. You squeeze them to see whether they give, and they do. So you wait till it’s -9 or -10, sometimes lower, till those “berries” are hard. By then it’s often 1 or 2 in the morning. You haven’t even started yet. And you have just a few hours to get a harvest in before the temperature starts to climb.

You could say Brian Schmidt embraces cold like this. Schmidt is the winemaker at Vineland Estates. One year he travelled to the North Pole with his brother, Allan. They took a load of icewine on that trip, maybe for irony’s sake. Outside at 1 a.m., with his truck’s headlights illuminating the vineyard, he barely seems to notice how frigid it is. “It depends,” he jokes, “on how much Scotch we’ve drunk before.”

Or maybe he’s just relieved that it’s early January and he’s already harvesting. This enormous vineyard is part of Glen Elgin Vineyard Management, owned by Rick Wismer. Like many Niagara winemakers, Schmidt contracts out a section. It’s Wismer’s three tall sons who are working with Schmidt tonight. One of them drives the roaring French-made Grégoire harvester that straddles the rows. As it inches along, it shakes the vines with oscillating metal rods to release the grapes onto conveyor belts that load them into insulated bins. The turbocharger exhaust is turned on the belts to keep them from stiffening in the cold.

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.

Provost targeted Asia. Japanese travellers to Canada had already become entranced with icewine—tens of thousands of them visited Inniskillin every year. More important, high taxes in Japan had entrenched a duty-free shopping culture. Thanks to his Courvoisier experience, Provost knew that only a luxury product could produce the margins necessary to succeed. So he pushed Inniskillin to produce a rarer brand of icewine purely for the duty-free market. This “Gold Label” brand, aged in oak and some years reaching 46 Brix, was made from grapes harvested at the lowest possible temperatures, between -12 and -14.

The first order from DFS was disappointing: a grand total of 48 bottles. But soon, Inniskillin icewine was being rolled out in stores across the Asia-Pacific region. Within a few years, it was DFS’s top-selling wine. And in 2004 came Provost’s biggest coup, when Inniskillin’s Gold Label won the Star Product of the Year distinction at the Frontier Awards, the duty-free industry’s big event in Cannes. “I was just stunned,” remembers Provost. He was shaking so much, “I couldn’t even text.”

Today, Vincor is owned by the massive U.S. company Constellation Brands, and while it is increasing its efforts in the traditional “duty-paid” market, the travel retail sector is, if anything, even more important. For premium spirits, it’s the second-largest market in the world after the United States. Duty-free sales at South Korea’s Incheon Airport alone total $1.6 billion (U.S.) a year (duty-free sales in Canada come to just $396 million). The average Chinese traveller spends $490 (U.S.) in duty-free shops per trip. And icewine—positioned by Vincor as “the Rolex of wines”—is the ideal duty-free product. It’s luxurious. It’s small: Four bottles take up the same space in your luggage as one bottle of cognac. And it’s the perfect gift. No wonder Vincor now exports 60% of the icewine it makes.

 

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No export market has seen more explosive growth than China—a nearly 15-fold increase in icewine sales from 2004 to 2011. And with Vincor having locked up the duty-free market for icewine, where does that leave other wineries? It leaves them following the path of Charlie Pillitteri.

Since 1995, when then-Liquor Control Board of Ontario chairman Andy Brandt told him there was no room for his wines on LCBO shelves, Pillitteri has made it his mission to expand the horizons of Canadian icewine throughout Asia. Because the duty-free channel was closed to him, he had to find another way in.

Working through Canadian embassies and trade offices, travelling up to 200 days a year, he found and developed agent reps in each market. One brand per distributor, in each region. (The family-run winery, founded by Charlie’s father, Gary, a onetime Liberal MP, sells eight icewine brands in all.) In China, he says, “if you don’t give them exclusivity, they won’t partner with you. If you overload them, they get scared away.”

He learned by hard lesson always to ship “FOB” (freight on board), which meant as soon as the shipment left the driveway, it was the distributor’s problem. He tried selling “CIF” (taking responsibility for customs, insurance and freight), and DPD (duty paid and delivered), but no more. “You know how many Chinese guys you have to grease to get that wine all the way through the system?”

As he met potential new reps or retailers, he controlled every moment. He made sure he always carried the box of product, fending off any offers to help. “Nobody touched the box.” He referred to the bottles as his “babies.” And when his potential customers asked for samples, Pillitteri delayed the moment as long as possible—usually until after dinner. “I made it into a show.”

He was building up the preciousness of the product, and he wanted to make sure he was there when they brought the glasses to their lips, to see their reaction. “I could gauge my opportunity from that.”

Pillitteri (who, incidentally, pleaded guilty to tax evasion last year and had to pay $122,031 in fines) travels less frequently for the winery now, but he’s still a salesman. He likes to do something many winemakers attempt to do, and that is to tell you what you think their wine tastes like. He’s better at it than most. The second after his Sauvignon Blanc icewine hits your tongue, he says with a knowing smile, “Lemon drops.” Okay, sure. Try a sip of his Sangiovese icewine and he offers, “Cherry bonbons.” Why, yes.

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.

The harvesters—an all-Vietnamese crew numbering about 18—arrive at midnight. A tractor lifts a bank of floodlights high, to shine down on the rows. A supply of flimsy wooden baskets gets unloaded and distributed. Debbie has chicken soup on the stove, meant for her husband and Steve, a winery hand, some time in the morning. The workers will get a meal break too, but the crew boss prefers they eat outside in the wind.

It’s a brutal, burning wind. After a thaw earlier in the month, there’s no snow on the ground, so the wind tries to lift the dirt. It’s already knocked down the sign at the entrance to the property, and now it balloons the chests of the scarecrows made from hazmat jumpsuits and Javex-bottle heads, and sends the paper hawks above spinning. After workers dump the grapes from their baskets into a bin, they toss the baskets high against the black sky and let the wind carry them to the next row.

After an unusually warm fall and unpredictable winter, the grapes hardly look like grapes any more. What once were plump, green berries are now brown and desiccated. Some, pecked at by birds, have been reduced to leathery black husks. Some still cling in stiff clumps to the vine, but many small bunches have fallen to the bottom of the netting, where it’s closed by plastic clips. So the “picking” is more akin to gutting the nets, taking hold of the sides of the seam and yanking to break the clips and spill the grape clumps into baskets.

But it’s not as easy as that because the hard clusters get caught in the nets, so you hit the nets from below, bouncing the frozen bunches toward the opening. Sometimes the net hits you in the face. Dust flies into your eyes. Then you reach inside the nets and grab at the clusters still holding on to the vine, or paw at them ineffectually if you’re wearing inappropriate gloves. Last, you gather up the bunches that have fallen outside the baskets onto the frozen ground. In the darkness, the grapes are the same brown as the dirt. Each cluster is precious, though, so you search to make sure you’ve grabbed all you can. Then you haul your basket to the next full section of the row, get down on your knees and gut the net. You keep going until the basket’s full and gets dumped and sent sailing high over the row.

I’d planned to be out long enough to fill one basket, but stayed for three, although by then my nose was running and I was moving more slowly. The Vietnamese guys took pity on me and began dumping grapes from their baskets into mine.

The barn, where the press waited, offered shelter from the wind but no heat. There were rubberized mats to keep one’s feet off the frozen concrete. “You learn these tricks,” says Rob.

Eventually grape loads began to arrive from the vineyard—7.5 frozen tonnes in all, their smallest harvest ever—and pressing started. By the middle of the night, the temperature had dropped to -14 and that, plus the dehydrated nature of the grapes, meant the juice was coming out between 42 and 47 Brix. That in turn meant the compressed cakes of grapes would be dumped from the press, the hard surfaces of the flattened fruit looking like dull pennies. The cakes would be broken up, reloaded and repressed. Later pressings would be lower in Brix, and so they would keep pressing, for days, until they met Inniskillin’s 40 Brix measure.

Some time around 3 in the morning, Debbie went into her house to check on her chicken soup. On the TV, a Weather Network announcer said a cold front was forcing people to stay indoors.

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