I can’t believe no-one has done a Mad Men-style TV series on the pioneering wine producers of North America, because those were some real wild, frontiersmen type folks — the Mondavis, Martinis, Turleys, Shafers, and, in Canada, Donald Ziraldo. All in their way broke (often very hard) ground, making wine most of the world didn’t take remotely seriously at the time. Last laughs and all that, but what conviction it took to persist and ultimately make wine the world embraced!
Donald Ziraldo had a particularly large hurdle to, um, hurdle — Canada wasn’t then, and let’s be honest isn’t now, considered a premium wine producing country. This is partly because most of it is frozen. There are only two real growing regions (although they actually attempt to make wine in Nova Scotia, which I find very funny, on the grounds that Nova Scotia is almost in the Arctic Circle, or at least somewhere around there) — the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, and the Niagara Peninsula in southern Ontario, right on the United States border, near the immortal Falls.
It’s Niagara-on-the-Lake that Ziraldo very literally, and improbably, put on the wine map back in the ‘70s when he co-founded Inniskillin Vineyards in 1974, originally producing a couple of fine, textured white wines. The inspired icewine came later.
I have history with Donald! I met him in 1982 when I was, for a short while, living at the Dorchester in London (let that sink in — I was living at the Dorchester, one of the grandest hotels in the world… I was 26). He and his sparkling young girlfriend were staying there, although, of course, not living there. We met in the breakfast room (back when even grand hotels laid on a free breakfast for their guests) and hit it off. They were returning to Canada the next day, but to different cities and from different airports. I offered to drive them both. So the following morning I drove Donald to Heathrow, said goodbye to him, and got back in my car to take his girlfriend to Gatwick. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the panicked look on his face as it suddenly dawned on him that a man he barely knew had just driven off with his lover.
I never saw the girlfriend again, but when Donald got back to Niagara, he sent me a box with a couple of bottles of his wine as a thank you (for the lift? Not stealing his girlfriend?). I thought, Canadian wine, what a hoot! I sent him a postcard that said: Send more wine, the plants didn’t die. I’m not sure he ever found that funny, but we have remained friends over the decades. And he dated my sister!
He became a powerhouse, and a big celebrity, in Canada over the next many years, a national symbol of the kind of success a hard working, determined visionary can attain. He sold Inniskillin in 2006 and pottered around, married, had a son, consulted, including to a top quality vineyard in the Douro Valley in Portugal that made a sumptuous vintage Port, got unmarried, and recently went back into partnership with Inniskillin to grow, produce and market Ziraldo Icewine. His first official vintage was the 2014 Riesling Icewine (his site tells you where it’s available). Distribution is growing across the US.
“I planted that vineyard in 2007 after I left Inniskillin, with the intent to go back to farming and ride off into the sunset,” he says wistfully. Upcoming is the release of his 2019 Inniskillin Niagara Estate VQA Riesling Icewine. (VQA is a regional guarantee of quality, like Italy’s DOC.)
“The basic premise is that the grapes are left to hang naturally on the vine, until the grapes freeze at -8° C,” he explains about the unique process for cultivating ice wine.
“That temperature is governed by our Appellation of Origin system called the Vintners Quality Alliance — VQA. I was the founding chairman of the VQA and it is based on the OIV (Organizatione Internationale du Vin) which regulates all of the wine production worldwide.”
What makes the wine so sweet and strong is that when the grapes freeze, most if not all of the water, which constitutes about 90% of the grape, is removed. The sugars and the acid are concentrated, which is very important, he says, “in order to create an optimum balance in the finished wine.”
Ice wine predates Ziraldo, although, I suspect, not by much. In the first century AD, then New York Times wine correspondent Pliny the Elder noted that some grape varieties were left on the vines until after the first frost. No-one today knows how the Romans made wines from frozen grapes but apparently it was a thing even then. Chiomonte, in the Val di Susa, made wine in Roman times, and today is one of the rare makers of Italian ice wines.
“It originated in Germany in the mid 1700s,” says Donald, ignoring my deeper research. “Folklore has it that a baron came back from the war for Christmas and found that the grapes had not been harvested by the peasants. When he asked why not, they said he had not ordered them to do so. He sent them out to collect what ended up being frozen grapes, and it became a Christmas tradition.”
More recently, in the 19th century, German winemakers in Dromersheim and Rheinhessen discovered the extraordinary sweetness and smoothness of grapes that had been left on the vines — due to a particularly harsh winter — and presumed worthless. For the rest of the 19th century, there were only six ice wine harvests, so whereas it was once again a thing, it wasn’t much of one.
Flash forward into the 20th century, and ice wine production picked up and became sophisticated, first in Germany and then in Canada. In 1972 a German immigrant Walter Hainle made a very small amount in British Columbia. Eleven years later Ziraldo and his Austrian-born business partner, Karl Kaiser, who had moved to Canada having studied in a European monastery where he learned winemaking, bottled the first commercial production in the New World.
Ice wine is invariably a small production, and a bottle isn’t cheap. “When all of the water is removed from the berries, only 15 to 20% of the normal weight remains,” Donald elucidates. There is also, apparently, the not inconsequential matter of starlings, who do not fly south for the winter. “When they get hungry, they can devour an entire vineyard in one day. So we have to cover the entire vineyard with netting by hand… Very expensive.”
Production is risky. “The freeze/frost may not come at all before the grapes rot or are otherwise lost, and it requires the availability of a large enough labor force to pick the whole crop within a few hours, at a moment’s notice. This results in relatively small amounts of ice wine being made worldwide, making them expensive. For example, the 2020 vintage was less than 50% of the normal harvest because of the summer drought, late picking at the end of January, and bird damage.
“Production is limited to that minority of the world’s wine-growing regions where the necessary cold temperatures can be expected to be reached with some regularity. Canada is the world’s largest producer of ice wines, producing a greater volume than all other countries combined.” Germany is second.
What makes it different from other dessert wines? What makes a great ice wine?
“Basically the balance between sugar and acidity. The difference from other dessert wines like Vin Santo from Italy or Sauternes from France, is that ice wine has a bracing acidity, which balances the intense sweetness. It comes from being grown in cold climates.”
How should it be served/drunk, I ask, pretending I don’t know and haven’t consumed more than my fair share?
“There are a number of ways besides the traditional dessert wine, like Château d’Yquem, the great French Sauterne. Our resident chef Isabella created some very creative pairings with more traditional dishes — my favorite is seared foie gras and the ice wine brownie. There is also the Ziraldo Icewine martini: two parts vodka, one part ice wine, garnished with a frozen grape.”
Upon further reflection, he suggests: “We will have to update the Brownie and add some cannabis… haha, now that would be a trip!”