wine Features

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 dominates production.

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 enable production 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

more wine features