'We have to switch our business model overnight': Antler Kitchen & Bar owner
It’s early December and below freezing, and Peller Estates winemaker Katie Dickieson wants it colder still. About -10C (14F) or lower would be nice.
Two farms tapped by the Andrew Peller Ltd. winery in Canada’s Niagara region still have clusters of Vidal grapes hanging from vines that lost their leaves to winter’s approach. Black mesh protects them from hungry birds. Mother Nature is taking her time cooling off.
It was an “exceptional” summer, says Dickieson, who’s waiting to turn those once-plump green grapes, now golden brown after repeated freezing and thawing, into a concentrated, sweet elixir known as ice wine. Harvests usually happen in the dead of night, and this season’s is likely to take place in January.
“A good growing season equals good fruit equals good ice wine,” Dickieson says. “For collectors especially, it’ll probably be a real desired year.”
Scarcity alone will make 2020 ice wines a standout for connoisseurs—this will be the region’s smallest winter harvest in two decades. Peller Estates pared its winter crop to from 25 per cent to 30 per cent of a typical yield, as did other Niagara producers.
Canada is the world leader of the premium dessert drink, which has aficionados splurging upward of $400—sometimes more—for a slender half-bottle. Western Canadian winemakers started dabbling in ice wine in the 1970s, though commercial production didn’t take off until wineries in Eastern Canada’s Ontario province gave it a try in the 1980s. The term “icewine” has been trademarked and is produced and sold under stringent standards.
Today, the Canadian speciality is sold in more than 75 countries, most of it coming from an area along Lake Ontario near Niagara Falls, about a 120-kilometer (75-mile) drive south of Toronto. This is one of the world’s few wine-growing locales where it gets cold enough (at least -8C) for an annual ice wine crop, offering a natural advantage over other producing regions in Germany, Austria, and the U.S.
Niagara grape-growers were blessed with a spectacular, if smaller, summer crop in 2020, encouraging wineries to maximize their table wine output and leave fewer grapes behind for the signature drink. On top of that, many producers are already awash in ice wine supply because the pandemic sidelined travel and tourism—a key market for the luxe product—giving vintners little incentive to make more of it.
Ontario vineyards earmarked the lowest amount of grapes for this winter’s ice wine harvest in at least 20 years, said VQA Ontario, which regulates the province’s wine appellation system. Forty-six vineyards registered the equivalent of 1,068 metric tons of grapes, less than a third of the annual average.
Arterra Wines Canada Inc. is the world’s biggest ice wine producer and exporter, even though it scaled back after COVID-19 hammered sales.
“What we’re planning to do is probably pick 25 per cent to 30 per cent of what we’d normally pick,” says Randy Dufour, vice president of exports. “We feel comfortable with our supply of Vidal, but we do need to pick some Cabernet Franc and some Riesling to carry us through to the next vintage.”
Arterra earmarks about 65 per cent of the ice wine it produces at its wineries for the export market, with annual shipments averaging about 10,000 to 12,000 9-liter cases—equal to as many as 288,000 half-bottles. The winemaker accounts for a significant chunk of ice wine exports from Canada, which in 2019 shipped 205,400 liters to 29 countries including the U.S., China, and South Korea, according to the nation’s statistics agency.
Its high-end Inniskillin brand is a familiar sight at duty-free shops and upscale wine merchants around the world, and can even be found in the pages of Korean Air Lines Co.’s in-flight catalog. Prices start at $55 for a 375-milliliter bottle, while a sparkling Cabernet Franc fetches $145, and the exclusive 40th Anniversary Inniskillin Riesling Icewine carries a $450 price tag for a 750-ml bottle.
With this winter’s pullback, Dufour advises: “Keep your eyes out for the 2020 Rieslings and the Cabernet Francs. We won’t be producing a lot of them.” The 2019 Cabernet Franc was described as showing an abundance of rhubarb and raspberry aromas, with rich flavors of cherries and strawberries and cream.
Other producers are skipping the winter harvest altogether. Paul Speck and his family have grown grapes in Niagara for more than three decades at their Henry of Pelham Estate Winery, turning summer crops into wines, including chardonnay and pinot noir, before shifting to ice wine back in 1989.
“It’s an unusual year for us,” Speck said. “This is the first year we’re not making ice wine.”
Speck, like his winemaking peers, blames COVID-19. The pandemic decimated tourism, and the main market for ice wines—duty-free shops at airports and border crossings—dried up within three months after last season’s vintage was produced.
“We haven’t sold a lot of ice wine since March, so we’re not short of it,” he said. “We just simply don’t need it.”
Canadian icewine pioneer Donald Ziraldo isn’t giving up. He has been involved with the product since 1983.
“Ice wine became an icon for Canada, and I ran with it,” he says. “It’s always been my sweet spot.”
He has a 2.5-acre plot in Niagara, where he grows Riesling strictly for ice wine under his Ziraldo Estate Winery label. Typically, he produces about 6,000 bottles yearly.
“I’ll do less this year because the yield’s down—so it might be cut in half,” Ziraldo says. “The quality, of course, is going to be spectacular.”