Behind the bottle: Inniskillin Icewine

A chattering of starlings may have devoured the first crop at Inniskillin, but that didn't put founders Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser off their dream of making liquid gold in Niagara. Jim Clarke takes a look behind the frosty bottle

Words by Jim Clarke

Inniskillin winemaker Nicholas Gizuk

Maple syrup may be indelibly tied to the Canadian identity, but it’s not the only sweet, luscious elixir the country has made a speciality of. Forty years ago Donald Ziraldo and Austrian-born Karl Kaiser, the founders of Inniskillin on Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, took their first shot at making Icewine – an attempt that failed when starlings devoured the entire crop. Protective netting made the next harvest a success, and Inniskillin has gone on to define Canadian Icewine.

In 1975, Inniskillin became the first licensed winery in Canada since Prohibition. It was not the first to make Icewine; Hainle, in the Okanagan Valley, holds that distinction. But in 1991, the 1989 Inniskillin Vidal Blanc Icewine took the Grand Prix d’Honneur at VinExpo in Bordeaux, putting Inniskillin and Canadian Icewine, and even the very idea of Canada as a source of fine wine on the map.

While Canada has followed up on that success with increasing amounts of dry wine, Icewine remains the flagship of the country’s wine industry. ‘We didn’t invent Icewine,’ says winemaker Nicholas Gizuk, ‘and Inniskillin didn’t make the first Icewine, but we’re probably the most recognised internationally. I like to say that we, not just Inniskillin but Canadians, perfected Icewine and made it an iconic product.’

To produce Icewine the grapes must first freeze on the vine

The Origins of Inniskillin Icewine

Germany and Austria had been making Icewine for centuries, though infrequently until the mid-20th century. ‘Karl saw the merit in our cold winters,’ Gizuk says, ‘and had seen that places like Austria and Germany weren’t as reliably cold as we were. If you’ve ever been here in January, you know it’s going to get really cold.’ Kaiser’s instincts were right; German producers only see the right conditions to make Icewines once every five years or so, whereas Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula has provided Inniskillin with the requisite freeze every year since 1984.

Kaiser also believed he had the right grape. ‘Donald and Karl’s vision was to make vinifera wines in Canada at a high level,’ Gizuk says, ‘but Icewine was a passion project. Karl believed that Vidal, a hybrid variety, would make an excellent Icewine.’ French grape breeder Jean Vidal had developed Vidal Blanc for Cognac production. Thick-skinned, its grapes can hang on the vine for a long time without succumbing to mould, wind, or pests. Today 80% of Inniskillin’s Icewine is varietal Vidal Blanc, made in three different styles; Riesling and Cabernet Franc make up the rest of the Icewine portfolio aside from occasional small-production items.

The Icewine harvest takes place in late December or early January, and when it comes, it’s a race to press the grapes while they’re still frozen

What Goes Into Making Icewine?

To produce Icewine the grapes must first freeze on the vine. Canadian regulations require temperatures to drop to at least -8°C. ‘The sweet spot we’ve found over the years is -10°; it gets me about 38 to 42 degrees brix [the sugar content of the grape], which is where I’m looking to make a beautiful Inniskillin Icewine.’ Much colder, and the berries become so hard they can break a press. ‘I’ve seen some people pick at -16°, -17°,’ Gizuk says. ‘Those grapes were like rocks; you could throw them on the ground and they would bounce right back up.’

Reaching those low temperatures requires patience, waiting for the concentration of sugars, acids, and flavour that give Icewine its rich but fresh character. The Icewine harvest is typically in late December or even January. When it comes, it’s a race to bring the grapes in and press them while they’re still frozen. Usually, Riesling and Cabernet Franc come in first; they’re less hardy on the vine. After the first pressing, the grapes are compressed into a puck that needs breaking apart to get the whole berries still not properly pressed.

The sweet spot for harvesting is -10° – much colder, and the berries become so hard they can break a press

The juice that flows from the press is highly concentrated, all the water lost to dehydration and freezing. It’s a fight for every drop of juice; an acre of Icewine might yield 15 percent of what the same vineyard would have provided if harvested normally. Fermenting such concentrated juice calls for hardy yeasts and careful monitoring, with a close eye on the final result. ‘I’m all about balance when it comes to Icewine,’ Gizuk says. ‘I have a total acidity of about nine or 10, which is similar to Champagne, then I’m looking for about nine-and-a-half alcohol, which leaves me 220-240 grams of residual sugar. That amount of acidity cuts the sugar so you have beautiful balance, texture, and intensity.’

In 1975 Inniskillin became the first licensed winery in Canada since Prohibition

How did the design come about?

Inniskillin Icewines are generally sold in tall narrow 375ml bottles – a shape that has set a trend for the category. For a time in some Asian markets, it was important to check the bottle carefully; the wines became so popular that counterfeit versions were not uncommon. ‘Our packaging is very strict,’ Gizuk says. ‘Every Icewine bottle has to have the VQA logo on it, it has to have an appellation declaration, “Icewine” was to be one word spelt with a capital “I”. A lot of these counterfeit products will spell Icewine all sorts of funky ways to get around it. If it doesn’t follow the VQA parameters it’s probably a fake.’



Inniskillin's Icewines are sold in tall, narrow 375ml bottles befitting of the category

What’s Next For Inniskillin Icewine?

As a product that requires such cold temperatures to make, could Icewine become harder to produce in a warming climate? ‘I get asked that a lot,’ says Gizuk. ‘I think climate change is more likely to affect the growing season – when bud break starts, what we need to do during the growing season when regular harvest stops – than when we actually get to pick for Icewine.’ Moisture, already a challenge in the Niagara Peninsula, could become a bigger headache, for example. ‘But I don’t think climate change is going to affect us being able to pick Icewine. Ontario in January or February: it’s cold.’