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The Ice-Wine Man Cometh, Again

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 7, 2009 11:53am ET

After a two-year hiatus from the wine industry, Donald Ziraldo, formerly of Inniskillin Wines in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, is back in business with an ice wine. "There's just too much in the industry that kind of sucks you back in again," he said.

I first met Ziraldo in 1986, while living and working in Toronto. Eleven years earlier, he cofounded Inniskillin, the first Ontario winery to receive a license since Prohibition ended in 1929. Thus began the rejuvenation of the Canadian wine industry.

Over the years, he expanded into British Columbia with Inniskillin Okanagan, and purchased a vineyard in Napa Valley. Inniskillin eventually merged with Cartier Wines and Beverages and, after acquiring T.G. Bright & Co. in 1993, changed the name to Vincor International. In 2006, Vincor was swallowed up by Constellation Brands.

Ziraldo was seduced by some ice wine juice from the 2007 vintage. "A buddy of mine up the road in Vineland, [John Howard], who used to own Vineland Estates, had a little extra ice wine so I was going to help him sell it," he explained. "I tasted it and loved the stuff. It was Riesling and it had that beautiful peach aroma that I only ever saw in the Okanagan [British Columbia], where it's much hotter. 2007 [in Niagara] was a really hot vintage."

After two deals fell through, Ziraldo played with the packaging (designed by Max Kaiser, the son of Ziraldo's former partner and longtime Inniskillin winemaker Karl Kaiser) and decided to register the brand himself.

"I felt bad for John [Howard] because I said I would sell it so I said to him you know what, I'll put my name on it and sell it bottle by bottle."

Donald Ziraldo is back in the ice wine game, with style.  
The inaugural Ziraldo Riesling Niagara Peninsula Ice Wine 2007 will cost $59 for a 375ml bottle. The initial release consists of two hundred six-packs. Ziraldo hopes to continue the brand in the future. Currently, he has distribution in Canada, France and Hong Kong and hopes to eventually export the dessert wine to the United States.

Ice Wine is a specialty of the Niagara region. The grapes, usually Riesling or Vidal (a French hybrid), must be frozen on the vines before harvesting. When they are pressed, the ice is discarded, leaving a concentrated juice to be fermented into ice wine. In 1991, Inniskillin was awarded the Grand Prix d'Honneur for its 1989 Vidal Ice Wine.

Ziraldo had retired in November 2006, shortly after Vincor was sold to Constellation Brands. For the past two years, he's served as voluntary chairman of Vineland Research and Innovation Center, a 100-year-old federal and provincial government facility. He was instrumental in reviving the center, which was about to be closed, as a catalyst for horticultural research for the Niagara Peninsula.

Not content with a little ice wine to sell, Ziraldo is also planting an experimental Riesling vineyard this spring on the site of the original Inniskillin property. He's cleared a 2-acre cherry orchard and plans to develop an authentic research block with five clones and four rootstocks.

"I spent last year putting in drainage, an irrigation pond and preparing all the land. I'm going to do it organic and biodynamic so it will all be part of the research block," he said.

The goal is to work with the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) at Brock University in the region to document the research on Riesling and ice wine.

"As I went around collecting clones, it was interesting how little [plant] material is recorded, especially in the early days when we brought material in,” he continued. “Also, part of the reason is to get more focus on clonal selection as we do more and more selection of [plant] material for our terroir and climatic conditions, which we have to do because we are in a more marginal area."

Andrew Bernardo
Halifax, Nova Scotia —  May 8, 2009 4:21pm ET
Bruce, thanks for this, always great to hear about wineries close to home. How many Canadian Icewines did you review this year?-AB
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  May 8, 2009 4:50pm ET
Andrew, I recently tasted 14. There may be a few more before the year is out. All the latest reviews are available on our ratings search.
Ian Tarrant
Ontario, Canada —  May 10, 2009 9:46pm ET
Bruce,Any chance WS will do a front page feature on Niagara wines? Surely with stunning Chards, Pinot Noirs and Reislings it's high time?On another note, Le Clos Jordanne's Chard just beat out a bunch of burgs, etc. in a 'Judgement of Montreal' tasting..Very exciting developments for Niagara for sure!
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  May 11, 2009 9:17am ET
Ian, In the May 15, 2008 issue, we did a feature on Niagara ("Niagara Rises"), about travel to the region, with some wine coverage. We taste about 50-60 Canadian wines each year, mostly from Niagara. The problem is the extremely limited availability of the wines in the United States.I visited Le Clos Jordanne in 2007 and was very impressed with the wines Thomas Bachelder is making there.
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  May 12, 2009 12:36pm ET
Bruce:We live right across the river. Since it won't be sold in the US, do you know whether and/or where Ziraldo Ice Wine will be sold at retail outlets in Niagara-on-the-Lake or Vineland?

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