U.S. beat us in curling and hockey: could icewine be next?

Only in Canada you say? Not anymore, apparently. Americans are making icewine proudly proclaiming they're following the Canadian standards. But does it pass the taste test?

They may use Canadian methods, but whether Americans' icewine passes taste test remains uncertain

Icewine makes up just 0.5 per cent of Canadian wine sales by volume but it represents more than 24 per cent of all Canadian wine revenue. (Joe Fiorino/CBC News)

Only in Canada you say? Not anymore, apparently. Americans are making icewine, proudly proclaiming they're following the Canadian standards.

"I think it's the same way with us trying to make wine the way the French do or make port wine the way the Portuguese do" said Phil Randazzo, owner of Coyote Moon Vineyards, a family-run business in Clayton, N.Y., in the Thousand Islands region of the state.

"You go to the source of who's doing it superbly, who's doing it better than anyone else in the world, and that's what you model yourself against." he says.

"And it just so happens Canadians make really good icewine."

Canada is the world's largest producer of icewine, and ours is widely considered to be the best in the world. It is also liquid gold for the Canadian wine industry.

Canadian icewine sells for as much as $100 dollars a bottle — one that's half the size of a bottle of table wine.

In 2016 icewine made up about 0.5 per cent of Canadian wine exports by volume. But it represented more than 24 per cent of the total export value.

With numbers like that, it's not surprising others around the world want in on the action.

In China, you can find counterfeit Canadian icewine made by mixing wine with sugar. Australia and New Zealand make icewine by artificially freezing grapes after harvest. Others use frozen grape juice.

But this may be the first time a competitor has declared it would make icewine using Canada's very own meticulous and exacting criteria

"Some people will take grapes and freeze them and then make something called 'iced wine,' but it's not the real deal. The grapes must be frozen on the vine in order for it to be a legitimate icewine," says Randazzo.

The Canadian standards were developed by the Canadian Vintners Association, in part to help distinguish the Canadian product from all the knock-offs. They contain more than a dozen specifications that must be followed precisely. They include:

  •  The grapes must be left on the vine and can't be picked until the air temperature drops to a minimum of –8 C.
  • They have to be pressed immediately in a continuous process while still frozen.
  • There can't be any artificial refrigeration at any point during the manufacturing process, prior to fermentation.

In Canada, the single word "icewine" is a registered trademark that can only be used by producers who follow the Canadian standards entirely.

"Anyone can throw grapes in a freezer and press them and get juice, but that is not what icewine is," says Craig Youdale, dean of the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

"There has to be a process so that no matter who produces it, if they're going to put icewine on that label, they have to meet that standard."

It wasn't always this way.

Icewine was actually first produced in Germany in the 1700s. But Canada, with its hot, dry summers and freezing cold winters, turned out to have a perfect climate for making icewine. 

The first commercially produced Canadian icewine, a Riesling, is said to have been made in B.C. by Walter Hainle in the late 1970s.  A few winemakers in the U.S., in Washington state, started producing icewine around the same time.

But icewine didn't really take off until more than a decade later, when an icewine made by Karl Kaiser and Donald Ziraldo, the co-founder of Inniskillin Wines, beat more than 4,000 competitors to win the prestigious Grand Prix D'Honneur at VinExpo in Bordeaux, France, in 1991.

"When the French blessed it, it was like the Pope blessing an Italian or a Catholic." says Ziraldo. "It just exploded."

With that stamp of approval and the natural marketing synergies of a country known for ice and snow, Canadian icewine became a hot-ticket item, especially popular in Asian markets.

"We made this great, global image of a luxury global brand," says Ziraldo, who after leaving Inniskillin and waiting out a non-compete clause is back making icewine again under his own eponymous brand.

The question is, can someone else use Canada's own methods to grab a chunk of that market?

"The Asian market has really bought in over decades of work, distribution channels, a lot of negotiation and transportation in getting icewine into the Asian market," says Niagara College's Craig Youdale.

Cracking that market will be extremely difficult for the U.S., he says.

However, that doesn't mean Canada should dismiss the idea out of hand.

"Whenever an American business wants to produce a product, we always worry about them producing this large volume of product, [so] they're able to produce it at a lower price," he says.

"[It could create] a different balance for how we sell our icewine."

Donald Ziraldo has no such concerns.

"I think if the Americans want to challenge us, great," he says.

"You know, we'll do like the hockey team, we'll beat 'em. And then we'll be even more famous than we already are."

About the Author

Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Reporter for Consumer Affairs. Tips/Story ideas always welcome. aaron.saltzman@cbc.ca twitter.com/cbcsaltzman

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