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Published:  23 July, 2008

Ice wine from Canada, the world's largest producer, may now be sold in the EU, where the UK is the number one target. As well as adding to the growing niche market for dessert wines, it provides a good example to the rest of the world of how trade barriers can be overcome. Neil Beckett tells a tale of ice and men

Canada. The ultima thule of the wine world, you might think. The admission of Canadian ice wine into the EU? About as significant as the fall of a single snowflake halfway between Ottawa and Vancouver in the middle of winter, you might think. But you would be wrong. Canada offers affordability, consistency, quantity and quality in one of the few genuinely unique styles of wine. So the UK, already arguably the most diverse and exciting wine market in the world, is now more diverse and exciting than ever. (Now, as well as red and white wines, we even have sparkling ice wine. We also have three different spellings: eiswein, ice wine and icewine, as it is known in Canada.) What is more, the legislation permitting the sale of ice wine in the EU smoothes the way for a far larger settlement, which should benefit both sides in several ways. Finally, the solution suggests how many other New World wines, still prohibited in the EU, may soon be on sale there too. The admission of Canadian ice wine, certainly the country's flagship wine, is a victory for which its producers and politicians have been fighting hard for several years (see Harpers on Retail, July/August 2000). As long as Canada (like other producers on a relatively small scale) did not ship more than 1,000hl of wine into the EU, it did not have to conform to EU specifications. But over the last few years, exports to the EU have approached or exceeded that level. And in the absence of an EU accord (as concluded with Australia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania) or an EU derogation (as granted to Austria and Germany), Canadian ice wine fell foul of legislation prohibiting sweet wines with a total alcohol by volume (abv) of more than 15% (which run a greater risk of turning unstable). The Canadians felt hard done by, on at least two counts. First, because they believed they were following standards as strict as those in Austria and Germany. And second, because the deficit in terms of traded wines is vast, EU exports to Canada exceeding Canadian exports to the EU by almost 1,500:1. According to government statistics, in 2000 Canada exported CDN$373,198 worth of must and wine to the EU, and imported CDN$534,428,357 worth from the EU. Astonishingly, Canada has been exporting to the EU a far higher value of ice and snow than of wine. Moreover, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (British Columbia and Ontario are the two provinces which produce almost all of Canada's ice wine) is believed to be the largest single importer of EU wine in the world. Any formal threat by Canada to restrict shipments of EU wine would have been like a red maple leaf rag to a bull. And the EU could have taken its case to the World Trade Organization (WTO). On the other hand, Canada could have taken its case to the WTO. Both sides saw that it was going to be better to reach a settlement themselves. And once the EU accepted as satisfactory new production and regulation standards under the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) (Canada's Appellation of Origin system), the derogation followed on 24 April 2001 (Commission Regulation 885/2001). Nothing in trade talks, though, is ever quite as simple as it seems. The derogation is described as "transitional", and is designed to facilitate a general settlement on the trade in wine and spirits. As Ian Thomson, Counsellor (Commercial) at the Canadian High Commission in London admits, the acceptance of national or traditional usages is "a double-edged sword", because Canada is now under greater pressure to recognise those in the EU. As part of the quid pro quo for the admission of Canadian ice wine into the EU, Canada will be expected to abandon "semi-generics" such as Canadian "Champagne", "Claret", "Port" and "Sherry". It will also be expected to respect the same standards in Scotch and non-Scotch whisky, not selling Japanese whisky which has been aged in cask for a minimum of one year, when Scotch whisky has been aged in cask for a minimum of three years. The significance of this should not be underestimated. In 2000 Canada imported CDN$72,674,884 worth of whisky from the UK. The pricing of products in the provincial stores, which have a monopoly on the sale of spirits and wines (except Canadian wines), will also be raised. All in all, therefore, the concession on Canadian ice wine is a bargaining chip in a game where the overall stakes are far higher.

Canada: the pick of the ice wine berg? Moving from the bargaining table to the dinner table, what of Canadian ice wine itself? How does it differ from Austrian and German eisweine, or from ice wine from elsewhere? It can now be sold in the EU, but how well will it sell? Will the first few cases now appearing in the UK be the tip of an ice wine berg which will sink sweet wines from the rest of the world? Canadian ice wine certainly has many advantages over ice wine from elsewhere. Above all, it offers consistency and quantity. As defined by Canada and the EU, ice wine must be made from naturally frozen grapes, which are harvested at temperatures of -8C or lower, often in the middle of the night. Accordingly, Dr Dirk Richter, the Mosel producer of one of the world's most highly rated ice wines, describes them as "the dot on the i of the vintage". But the odds against the dot on the i getting into the bottle are higher than the odds of a snowflake landing on the London Weather Centre at 12 noon on Christmas Day. The best eisweine are among the most highly prized wines in the world. But quite apart from their rarity, it is often a case of "ice wine, shame about the face" (scarred with Gothic script); or "ice wine, shame about the price" (as high as 400 a half-bottle for a recent vintage). By contrast, Canadian ice wine can be made almost every year. Canadian producers such as Bill Redelmeier, president of Southbrook Winery and chair of the UK Export Committee, say that they can make it nine years out of ten, and that they have still to have that tenth year (even in the freakishly warm El Nio winter of 1997/98 the wine was still made). Any global warming will probably promise Auchtermuchty Chardonnay or Cupar Angus Cabernet before it threatens Niagara or Okanagan ice wine. Thus Canada is, and always will be, the world's largest producer of ice wine. According to John Schreiner, author of a forthcoming 300-page book on the subject, there are about a dozen Canadian wineries which produce ice wine in what are "from a European perspective, mind-boggling volumes". Magnotta Winery, in Ontario, advertises its Vidal ice wine as "the world's bestselling ice wine", and sells more than 11,000 cases of ice wines a year. Inniskillin, with vineyards in British Columbia as well as in Ontario, produces some 30-40,000 litres of ice wines a year, and the Vincor Group of which it is a part produces a total of some 100,000 litres of ice wines a year. Moreover, in the absence of planting restrictions, Canada can always expand production so that demand should never exceed supply. All the same, ice wine still accounts for a relatively small proportion of production in Canada. According to Karl Kaiser, co-founder with Donald Ziraldo of Inniskillin, and still the head winemaker there, ice wine represents only 3-4% by volume (several times higher than that by value). And it is still both costly and risky to produce. Kaiser recollects seeing starlings stripping all of the crop in a heartbreaking half an hour in 1983, since when Inniskillin has had to invest in netting every year. Even when the frozen grapes survive the birds and the winds, they yield only 5-10% of the juice picked by still wine grapes in regular harvest. As a result, many of the wines are as expensive as their Old World rivals from Germany and Austria. Magnotta, with a motto of "affordable excellence", does sell an ice wine which will retail in the UK for around 3.50 for a 50ml sample-size bottle, and its Vidal Ice Wine will sell for around 20 per 375ml bottle (distributed by Friarwood). Inniskillin's 1999 Silver Riesling will retail for 44.95 per 375ml bottle, the 1998 Gold Vidal (Oak Aged) for 49.95 per 375ml bottle (distributed by Hallgarten). Vine to Wine Ltd, which offers the largest selection of Canadian wines in the UK, sells ice wines from six wineries (Hillebrand Estate, Kittling Ridge, Lakeview, Paradise Ranch, Peller and Pillitteri), ranging from 4.50 per 50ml bottle to 31.75 per 375ml bottle. Austrian eisweine from such highly rated producers as Alois Kracher and Hardegg are available from Noel Young Wines at 12.99 and 20.00 per 375ml bottle. German eisweine, however, generally sell for far more. As for the quality of the wines, generalisations are as difficult as for any other region or style. Kaiser emphasises, however, that only since 1983 has German eiswein been a carefully regulated category in its own right (before that it was used as a qualification for Sptlese or Auslese wines) and that the VQA standards are strict. The grapes need to be pressed while the air temperature is -8C or lower, and the concentration of dissolved solids in the must needs to be at least 35 Brix/ 150 Oechsle, deliberately higher than for German eiswein and as high as for German Trockenbeerenauslese. What is certain is that the quality of the best Canadian ice wines is high, and recognised widely as "world class". In the foreword to Ziraldo's book on Inniskillin, Hugh Johnson has written that: "The 1980s saw Ontario take its place at the high table of the world's cool climate wine regions. The 1990s saw it finesse its style, identify its most privileged sites and build its reputation beyond regional interest into the mainstream of the world's acknowledged fine wines." The ice wines from Inniskillin, Magnotta and other wineries have won many top prizes worldwide. John Schreiner (who has tasted more than 400 ice wines) is careful to note, though, that some 80% of Canadian ice wine is made from Vidal. Although it is an ideal variety in some ways, surviving on the vine better than Riesling, it is a hybrid which as such would not normally be permitted in the EU. On the whole, Schreiner suggests that, especially in Ontario, it gives "buxom, Dolly Parton, Rubenesque wines, which are immediately appealing, grabbing you and giving you a big hug, with a bouquet which comes roaring out of the glass". They are generally higher in alcohol than Austrian or German wines (at 10-11%abv), often with lower acidity, more exotic fruit, and more caramel, maple syrup flavours. Schreiner agrees with Noel Young, however, that they lack the elegance and finesse of the finest German Riesling wines. Another great strength of the Canadian wines is packaging, which is normally distinctive and stylish. Availability in several sizes (50ml, 200ml and 375ml) is also identified by David Maslen, founder and managing director of Vine to Wine, as important for products still relatively unknown in the UK. He recognises that the biggest challenge will be to "blow the socks off" those in the trade, who will then be able to spread the word more widely. While Canadian wineries were able to unite when lobbying the EU, the competitive environment is such that they will aggressively promote their own wines in the UK. Cliff Nicholson of Hallgarten says that the Inniskillin wines are at once "aspirational" and "easy to understand": "they're all about the ultimate". In an attempt to attract buyers, and demonstrate the quality of the wines, Hallgarten is currently offering a free Riedel ice wine glass with each six half-bottles. Most distributors will almost certainly be targeting hotels and restaurants, as well as independent specialists.

Conclusion All distributors accept that the wines will not be an easy sell. And David Gleave MW, managing director of Liberty Wines, who has experience of both the Canadian and UK markets, is surely right to say that they will always be a niche within a niche within a niche. But dessert wines appear to be a growing and highly profitable niche, where exciting new wines sell well (see Harpers, 29 June). The best Canadian ice wines are both exciting and new, and the trade as a whole should give them a warm welcome. As long as governments and producers in New Zealand and South Africa see the lessons to be learnt, we may soon be able to hold out a hand for their great sweet wines as well.

John Schreiner's "Icewine: The Complete Story" will be published by Warwick Publishing in October. Tel: 001 416 596 1555; Fax: 001 416 596 1520; e-mail: