The Don of Canadian Winemaking
By Alexis Beltrami
Fine wines from Canada? This is not the punchline to a joke,
nor is it some unexpected upside to global warming. Canada is now producing
excellent wines that are earning international respect. The two primary
grape-growing areas are both in relatively warm, sheltered, lakeshore
locations--southern Ontario and British Columbia's Okanagan Valley.
While the Okanagan Valley is a very promising newcomer, southern Ontario--in
particular, the Niagara Peninsula--is better established and
Much of the credit for Canada's international repute goes to Donald
Ziraldo, co-founder of the pacesetting Inniskillin Winery on the Niagara
Peninsula. Ziraldo and his partner, Karl Kaiser, founded Inniskillin
in 1975 and dedicated themselves to producing high-quality estate-bottled
wines. Today, Inniskillen's portfolio covers a broad range of varietals,
from Riesling, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay to Pinot Noir and Cabernet
Franc. Ziraldo subsequently founded the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA),
a standards-setting body with rigorous requirements that is the Canadian
equivalent of France's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system
and Italy's Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).
Ziraldo is currently Founding Chairman of the VQA.
Ziraldo's background as a nurseryman helped him meet the challenges
of the vineyard. While winters, even in southern Ontario, can be bitterly
cold, Ziraldo and Kaiser have developed viticultural practices that
protect the vines from winter injury. It is important, also, to remember
that grape vines are dormant during the winter. Much more crucial is
the growing season climate, and here the Niagara Peninsula, nestled
between lakes Erie and Ontario and sheltered by the Niagara Escarpment,
compares favorably with such cool-climate growing areas as Champagne,
Germany, Oregon, and New Zealand. The Old-World region whose climate
is closest to Niagara's, according to Ziraldo, is Burgundy, with similar
growing-season temperatures and rainfall, and some of the same continental,
as opposed to maritime, characteristics.
Contrary to popular conceptions, cool climates actually have some distinct
advantages for winemaking. Cool-climate wines are typically lighter
and fruitier than warm-climate wines, with bracing acidity and expressive
aromas. The high acidity levels create a palate-cleansing effect that
suits most foods, and in white wines this acidity acts as a preservative,
enabling longer aging.
Canada's cold winters, in fact, have one very special benefit--they
of icewine, one of wine's greatest thrills. Icewines are traditionally
made in Germany and Austria, and winemaker Kaiser, a native of Austria,
has a particularly deft touch with them. For icewine production, ripe
grapes (usually white) are left hanging on the vine months beyond the
normal harvest, until December or January, when the dehydrated grapes
are picked in a frozen state. The grapes are kept frozen during pressing,
separating the water crystals from the sweet grape juices. Only a few
drops of precious nectar are collected from each grape, so icewines
are never cheap. After fermentation, the resulting wine should be incredibly
sweet but balanced by searing acidity, with very ripe flavors of pineapple
and other tropical fruits. Icewines are great sipped by themselves,
and also match beautifully with fruit-based desserts.
Tasting one of Inniskillin's icewines, such as the 1997 Vidal Icewine
Pearl Label, is a riveting, unforgettable experience. Wine lovers around
the world ought to raise a glass and toast Ziraldo's hard and passionate
work. A votre santé, Donald Ziraldo!
For more information on Donald Ziraldo and Inniskillin, please visit