INTERVIEW Donald Ziraldo, Inniskillin, Ontario and British Columbia
The Sommelier Journal June 2009
Catherine Fallis, MS
Noted for both extreme skiing and extreme winemaking, this northern pioneer describes how he helped launch the modern Canadian wine industry.
I first met Donald Ziraldo while researching Canada for The Global Encyclopedia of Wine several years ago. He organized extensive, region-wide tours and tastings for me and even took me up in a helicopter to get a bird’s-eye view of the Niagara Peninsula and the falls. It struck me immediately that this quiet, soft-spoken, modest, and very determined man was the Canadian version of Robert Mondavi.
Over the past several years, Ziraldo has been recognized internationally for his entrepreneurial and marketing skills and for his pioneering efforts in establishing Canada’s appellation system and its signature natural icewine. In 2008, he received the 2008 Masi Civiltà Del Vino Prize, given by Masi Winery to honor “personalities or institutions that have left their mark on the ancient history of winemaking every year for more than 20 years.” Previous winners include Émile Peynaud, Hugh Johnson, and Mondavi himself.
When I returned home from my visit to the Niagara Peninsula, I received a lovely invitation from Ziraldo, asking me to join his icewine harvest team. Since it had taken me close to three years to set up my opportunity to work the 1993 harvest in Bordeaux, I said “yes” without really thinking it through. When the date drew nearer—icewine is typically harvested right around the holidays—I started asking serious questions, like what to wear. My experience with the rainy harvest in Bordeaux had taught me well, and I wanted to be prepared. Then I asked about the actual work involved. Only when Ziraldo casually mentioned that we would start to pick in the middle of the night, but only when temperatures dipped below freezing, did I realize what I had signed up for. I thought perhaps I could sneak into the winery every so often to warm up, but then he explained how the winery doors were left open so the inside temperature would also stay below freezing. Middle of the night, freezing outdoors, freezing indoors. Hmm. Maybe next year.
CATHERINE FALLIS, MS, CWP
Your roots are in Italy; what made you think you could produce great wine in Canada?
Following my graduation with a bachelor of science in agriculture from the University of Guelph in Ontario in 1971, I continued to experiment with Vitis vinifera and European rootstocks. There were also experimental plantings being done by other wineries, such as Bright’s Wines, which had made experimental varieties of Chardonnay. Bright’s French enologist, Adhemar de Chaunac, had imported the first French hybrids to Canada, varieties like Marechal Foch and Seibel 9549, which was named De Chaunac in his honor. They were successful, so we knew that more susceptible varieties could be grown in Niagara.
In addition, we grow peaches and apricots. I noticed that many countries in Europe did not grow these tender fruits and yet grew Vitis vinifera with little difficulty. In 1994, I planted 30 acres of Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gamay, basically because I had all this plant material remaining from my nursery business. I was obviously optimistic that someone would buy the grafted vines. When they didn’t, I planted them myself to see if they could be grown commercially, and then I vinified them into premium table wine.
How did you and Karl Kaiser start Inniskillin?
Karl came to my nursery looking for European grapevines, which I was experimenting with. He brought me a bottle of wine he made from De Chaunac grapes, if I remember correctly, and I was impressed. I then went to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario in Toronto to request a wine license. I was informed that there had not been a license issued since 1929, which was the year of Prohibition—and, by the way, that they didn’t even have application forms. I returned to Niagara and informed Karl that our idea would probably go nowhere. However, several months later, I received a letter from the chairman, Gen. George Kitching. With his support and enthusiasm, we were given a manufacturing permit in 1974 to make wine. The first wines we made were 500 bottles of Marechal Foch and 500 bottles of De Chaunac. In July 1975, we received the first winery license since Prohibition.
Aside from the obvious temperature ranges, what is it about the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario that creates ideal conditions for making icewine?
Besides being blessed with cold weather, the Niagara Peninsula has a unique set of conditions that are not found anywhere else. We are located on the 43rd latitude, placing us at the same latitude as northern California and more southerly than Burgundy, which is on the 47th latitude. With an average annual heat summation of 1,426 growing degree days, the Niagara Peninsula falls into the category of cool climate, like Burgundy, Germany, Oregon, and New Zealand. I believe Niagara is ideally suited for the growing of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling, as well as the making of icewines. As you know, wines from cooler climates are characteristically higher in acids and highly aromatic. These acids result in wines that have longer natural-aging potential and provide excellent balance in general and for our outstanding icewine in particular. The extremely high acid balances the high sugar created by the natural freezing process.
We also have both a maritime influence and a continental climate. The annual rainfall is approximately 700-800 millimeters (28-31 inches), and the area can experience unpredictable September and October rains. The flowering generally occurs from about June 10-18. What is really critical is the moderating effect of Lake Ontario. Together with the Niagara Escarpment, which is actually what created the world-renowned Niagara Falls, the lake creates a unique microclimate that allows for the growing of Vitis vinifera . Otherwise, we’d still be working with hybrids.
Tell me more about the escarpment.
The Niagara Peninsula is a distinct geological region in southern Ontario that is bounded on the north by Lake Ontario, on the south by the shores of Lake Erie, and on the east by the Niagara River. The backbone of the peninsula is the Niagara Escarpment, a cuesta (“ridge”) 30-50 meters high. This escarpment extends along the entire Niagara Peninsula and influences the soil and creates microclimates. North of the escarpment is a flat plain, the result of deposits of lacustrine clays, sands, and gravel, whose original source was the bottom of the old Lake Iroquois. Lake Iroquois was a single lake that existed before the last Ice Age, which caused the formation of the existing five Great Lakes. In some places, the soil is modified by river-valley alluvium, mostly sand and gravel. It is only in this area below the escarpment, and on the first bench, where the confluence of the escarpment and the lake favor the growing of premium grapes.
The types of rock found in the bedrock of the escarpment are siliceous sandstones, ferruginous sandstones, limestones, and dolomites of Devonian age. Since the escarpment was, at one time, the shoreline of Lake Iroquois, the deposited soil is composed of many different types (clay, clay-loam, loam, sand, etc.) and changes frequently. The soils are generally deep and obtain a considerable quantity of mineral material from the different types of bedrock. All these rock types contribute material to the soils and ultimately influence the nutrition of the vineyards.
So you can both fully ripen vinifera and reliably press for icewine at below freezing every year? That really sounds like extreme winemaking!
Yes, well, I guess you could say I have a reputation for living on the edge. Extreme winemaking, extreme skiing, and if I knew how to drive better, I would take my seat in a Formula One race car, which has always been a passion. It is important to point out that the most critical aspect of the growth cycle is that our growth between bloom (June 10-18) and harvest (October-November) has approximately the same ripening period as in other wine regions throughout the world—100-112 days—so we are really similar to other great growing regions. Due to our unique geographic location between the Great Lakes and in the interior of the North American continent, this critical period is warmer than in regions such as Alsace and Champagne, allowing us to fully ripen the fruit. The cold winter temperatures in Niagara, which allow for the production of icewine in December and January, generally will not affect the vines because they are in their dormant state, while providing the sudden and sharp temperature drops that crystallize the water in the fruit to create authentic icewine.
How important was it for Canada to set up quality standards for its appellations?
Very important. I was founding chairman of the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), Canada’s appellation system, which was a voluntary system based on the appellation systems of France, Italy, Germany, and the USA. In 1999, the VQA was passed into law, and enforcement is now monitored by the VQAO (Ontario). In addition to establishing standards, the VQA allowed the consumer to identify 100%-Canadian-grown wines. We looked to the world market, realized the importance of recognizing the concept of appellations, and painstakingly worked to develop our own standards and harmonize them with the international standards set by the Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV).
I am extremely proud of this, because it allowed the consumer to identify those standards which the vintner adheres to in producing wines to our best ability and reflecting the terroir of our regions. With the VQA system, Canada joins other leading wine-producing countries in developing a body of regulations and setting high standards for its finest wines. In Ontario, the VQA officially started in 1988. In 1990, British Columbia adopted a similar VQA system, with adjustments to reflect their unique characteristics and appellations. Each region maintains several unique rules and regulations that are specific to it, just as Burgundy and Bordeaux do. As in the centuries-old wine regions of Burgundy and Chianti, refinements to the existing regulations within the VQA are continually being made.
What is important for sommeliers to know about Canadian wine law and the appellation system?
The sommeliers should note that there are two distinct wine-growing regions in Canada—the provinces of Ontario in the east and British Columbia in the west. The VQA recognizes within Ontario four Designated Viticultural Areas (DVAs): Niagara Peninsula, Pelee Island, Lake Erie North Shore, and Prince Edward County. In British Columbia, the VQA also recognizes four DVAs: Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley, and Vancouver Island.
A stringent code of regulations governs the right of vintners to use these highly specific geographic designations on their labels. Only Vitis vinifera varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling can be used in the DVAs. The wine must be produced from 100% Canadian-grown grapes. For varietals, 85% of the wine must be made from the variety named on the label, and it must exhibit the predominant character of that variety. If a vintner wishes to designate the vineyard from which the wine was made, the site must be within a recognized viticultural area, and 100% of the grapes must come from that vineyard. Wines are evaluated by an independent panel of experts. Only those wines that meet or exceed the production and appellation standards are awarded VQA status and are entitled to display the VQA medallion. In 2005, a Wine Authority was created in British Columbia to regulate the VQA, similar to the VQAO in Ontario. In 2007, the Niagara Peninsula was also subdivided into 10 subappellations.
Why was it important to recognize “natural” icewine production?
Otherwise, anyone with a refrigerator could make icewine. Natural or authentic icewine must be made by picking grapes “naturally frozen on the vine” at –8ºC (17.6ºF). There are very stringent rules now that govern the production of icewine, including the policing of the harvest in order to ensure that the minimum temperatures are adhered to (see box). VQA authorities also randomly sample and analyze must, juice, and wine to ensure the standards are being met. These third-party inspectors are sometimes referred to as the “icewine police.”
Making icewine naturally also allowed us to present and showcase our wine to the international marketplace; the OIV prohibits wines made from artificially frozen grapes from being called icewine, vin de glace , or Eiswein . We are now recognized as one of the top dessert wines in the world. Is that awesome or what—truly Canadian!
At Inniskillin, you worked with Georg Riedel to develop a special glass for icewine. How did the process work?
On Oct. 18, 1999, Georg Riedel, Karl Kaiser, and I conducted an icewine atelier/workshop to create the ultimate icewine glass. We came up with a prototype glass and assembled 16 experts who tasted four icewines from 13 glasses pre-selected by Georg. We argued for six hours, and then Georg took the three finalists. From this, an exquisite vessel emerged—the Vinum Extreme Icewine glass—from which, I believe, the ultimate experience of icewine for the palate is delivered. As you know, the wine glass performs a very important function. It is the vehicle by which we experience a wine’s complexity and personality through our sense of smell, taste, and aftertaste. The wine glass plays a vital role in shaping our experience and, therefore, our opinions and memories of a particular icewine.
Temperature also plays an important role in the service of all wines. Important as the shape of a glass is, it cannot function properly unless the wine is served at the correct temperature and in the right serving quantities. As sommeliers know quite well, a cold temperature mutes aromas and flavors, while a warmer temperature often enhances them. Icewine served at a very cold temperature, for example, will possess “closed” or subtle rather than robust aromas; its taste will seem less sweet and more astringent. If this same icewine is served at a slightly warmer temperature, its aromas can be full, bold, and rich and its palate full and luscious. Low temperatures temper the intensity, whereas high temperatures promote mainly alcoholic fumes and heavier aromas with high molecular weight, such as vanillin.
Let’s look at this from a scientific viewpoint. The effects of temperature on the sweetness of sucrose have the most practical significance at relatively low concentrations of sucrose. In our studies, we learned that the sweetness of sucrose increases by 40% as the temperature increases from 4ºC (39.2ºF, about refrigerator temperature) to 36ºC (96.8ºF, about body temperature). On the other hand, the sweetness of a lower sucrose concentration, like the sucrose equivalent of 2 teaspoons of sugar in a cup of coffee, increases by 92%—in other words, the sweetness nearly doubles—as the temperature increases from 4 to 36ºC. Sugars are the primary natural stimulus for the sweet taste in nature. Love of sugar is virtually universal among mammals. And the sugar molecule that is most important biologically is glucose. This molecule serves as an important energy source in the body and is the only energy source that can be utilized by the brain. This may explain our great love for icewine.
What made you look to the Okanagan Valley?
We found that the Okanagan Valley climatic region was much drier than Niagara and therefore unique as a grape-growing region in western Canada. It is a semi-arid desert, while the Niagara region is more similar to Burgundy. The valley is at the same latitude as the Rhine Valley in Germany and the Champagne region of France. It stretches for 130 kilometers (81 miles), from Osoyoos Lake, on the 49º north latitude just north of the Canada-U.S. border, to the northern tip of Okanagan Lake. The lakes moderate the temperatures throughout the year. Intense sunlight and minimal rainfall allow the grapes to ripen to their full maturity, while cool nights help them to retain high acidity. These climatic conditions, along with a unique soil structure, produce wines that have the potential to be full-bodied and highly flavored, with good acidity.
The southern Okanagan Valley is positioned at the northernmost tip of the Sonoran Desert, starting in Mexico and extending through North America as the Great Basin, with ancient origins probably dating back 10,000 years. The valley provides the hot, dry summers and mild winters characteristic of the arid antelope-brush ecosystem. This entire area is basically an extension of the area in which much of the Washington state viticultural area is located. Annual precipitation is about 25 centimeters (10 inches). Moisture from precipitation travels quickly through the sandy or gravelly soils, so few plants can grow in these soils in arid areas. The low available water-storage capacity of the soils therefore requires irrigation in order to grow grapevines in these otherwise desert conditions. On the east side of the Okanagan Valley are moderately sloping terraces and the Osoyoos Lake Bench, which lie between the northeast side of Osoyoos Lake and the steep Rocky Mountain slopes to the east. Inkameep and Mica creeks, passing westward through the area, provide the main drainage. The soil of this area is derived from windblown sands and gravels deposited by the meltwaters of the Ice Age glaciers.
Inniskillin Okanagan commenced as a partnership between Inniskillin and the local Inkameep Indian Band of the Okanaquen Tribe. Inniskillin established an estate winery in the Okanagan in 1994, and, inspired by the label designed by a local artist, we named the estate vineyard Dark Horse. We took great care to ensure that the labels reflected the Native heritage.
What’s the future of table wines in Canada?
Specialization. As in many of the Old World wine-growing regions, each terroir will begin to reflect its best wines. Once we know more about our wine styles, the microclimates, and the terroir, each winemaker will become more focused on certain varieties. But my theory is do what you do best and focus all your attention on that as a winemaker.
Which grape varieties show particular promise?
In the Niagara region with its continental climate, Pinot Noir is a variety to watch. Riesling has a natural affinity to our cool-climate region and is also very promising, as the market is increasing dramatically in its acceptance of Riesling table wines. One of the surprising reds is Syrah, and, of course, the Cabernet Franc table wines with their characteristic “sauvage” show very well. In Okanagan, the Bordeaux varietals are doing extremely well because, as we mentioned, the region is a semi-arid desert. Global warming may also afford us greater flexibility in better ripening of red varietals.
What would you pick as the next outstanding growing area?
I'd say Prince Edward County in Ontario, which juts into Lake Ontario and is well known for apples.
What are some lesser-known Canadian candidates for listing in American restaurants?
Dry whites and reds from Gray Monk and Mission Hill in the Okanagan are available in at least 10 states, Texas being one of them. Dry reds and whites from Cave Spring Cellars are available in New York; Washington, D.C.; Maryland; Virginia; and Colorado. You can find dry whites and reds from Henry of Pelham and Pillitteri Estates, both Niagara wineries, mainly in the border states. There is a web retailer, www.thecuvee.com, who advertises sales of Canadian wines such as Reif Estate for delivery in the States. Of course, it all depends on whether the destination state allows direct sales.
How can sommeliers make better use of icewine in particular?
First of all, you will need to bring attention to it by featuring it on your menu and keeping it on the radar of your servers. Icewine has established itself as a unique international Canadian icon and is one of the world’s great dessert wines. In 1991, the Inniskillin 1989 Icewine won the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo in Bordeaux. Since that moment, icewine has established itself as a luxury brand in the premium-wine market. Icewine can be found on wine lists all over the world and is very visible at Duty Free stores.
Secondly, if you don’t have the Riedel Extreme Icewine glass, use something equally as stunning and visually striking to serve icewine. Offer a 3-ounce pour at a reasonable price. Since icewine is technically categorized as a dessert wine, it is rarely thought of as a wine to pair with savory courses. But if you have ever sipped icewine after a delicious bite of foie gras, you’ll know what I am talking about. You’ll never call it a dessert wine again. However, don’t let that stop you from experimenting with the many joys that can be had from using icewine as you see fit and with what you would like to pair it with. I really like dark chocolate with Cabernet Franc icewine. The ultimate nightclub experience is an Icewine Martini—shaken, not stirred! Get creative, and don’t be afraid to use your selling skills. Look to my book, Icewine: Extreme Winemaking (Key Porter Books), for more recipes and pairing ideas. There are also several recipes for the Icewine Martini.
You’re also known for your outdoor and charity activities. Do you strive for a balanced lifestyle?
Balance is important; however, living life to the extreme is also. I am very proud of the work that I and my company have given in support of Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute. In recognition of our commitment, the facility is named Inniskillin Hall. Additionally, I was capital campaign chair, and we assisted in the construction of the Niagara College Culinary Tourism Institute, which opened in June 2004—an initiative to provide education in the indigenous culinary arts and a complement to our Canadian wines. Both support future generations with advanced research and education facilities as we invest in the potential of both Canadian wine and food and young Canadians.
What made you decide to sell Inniskillin?
In 1992, Inniskillin merged with Cartier Wines. The combined company merged with T.G. Bright in 1993 to form Vincor, a publicly listed company that was then taken over by Constellation Brands in June 2006.
What have you been doing since then?
I am currently volunteer chair of Vineland Research and Innovation Center. Vineland’s vision is to be a world-class research institution and international hub for horticulture and floriculture research, innovation, and commercial activity, with a focus on grapes, tender fruit, mushrooms, greenhouse floriculture, and ornamentals.