by Malcolm Jolley
Donald Ziraldo points at a dilapidated shack of a building on the family property he’s planted fifteen new rows of Riesling vines, and tells me, “You’re looking at the original Inniskillin winery.” Then, he unsentimentally explains that the shed needs to be torn down, but he’s not sure exactly he’ll put up in its place. This is clearly not a man hung up on the past, although he turned out willing to share a few stories when pressed.
The Niagara native founded Inniskillin in 1974 with winemaker and Austrian immigrant Karl Kaiser. In 1975 they received the first winery licence in Ontario since 1929 and they kick-started the good wine revolution in Canada by planting European-sourced vinifera grapes and competing confidently with regions of the world. Ziraldo explains there big break came in 1989 at Vinexpo in Bordeaux, not only did their Vidal icewine win a gold medal but they serendipitously opened up a very important market. “That was the peak of the Japanese economy,” Ziraldo explains, “and they were buying up assets around the world. They hoped to buy some of the big chateaus, although the French wouldn’t let them.” Inniskillin (and by extension, Niagara icewine’s) big win caught the attention of the frustrated businessmen and their accompanying press at the show. Pretty soon after Ziraldo was chartering buses from Niagara Falls to pick-up Japanese tourists to bring them to the winery and Inniskillin was dominating the Asian market for dessert wine within years.
Icewine became Niagara’s flagship product in the 1990s, and Ziraldo its main champion. He tells me about the moment of truth when he tried to sell a Manhattan wine shop a case of Inniskillin Chardonnay, which he considered their strongest brand. “The guy pointed at his shelves and said ‘I’ve got 400 Chardonnays and 200 are from Burgundy, so why would I need one from Canada?'” When Ziraldo returned with the icewine he made the sale, and so a global phenomenon was born.
Meanwhile Inniskillin had grown, merged and permutated into Vincor and then sold to Constellation brands, leaving Ziraldo free to do wha the liked, save for a non-compete clause that was to keep him away from the wine business. For the past few years he has thrown himself into reviving the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre by accepting its chairmanship and fighting to help the agricultural sector survive and flourish on the Niagara peninsula. An agressive campaign to save the 100 year old research facility has brought renewed interest and architect Jack Diamond has been brought in to design new facilities on the beautiful campus by Lake Ontario. It was at Vineland that Ziraldo helped form the VQA, serving as its Founding Chairman. When he is not otherwise giving back to his beloved region by raising money for Niagara College’s Teaching Winery or Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, he relaxes on extreme skiing trips to the Rocky Mountains. And just recently, as it turns out, has decided to get back to making a little wine.
There are only 400 cases made of the 2007 Ziraldo Riesling Icewine, and when asked Donald Ziraldo doubts he’ll ever make much more. He’s planted enough Reisling at the old family property to cover about that much, though the grapes won’t come into production for a few more years. In the mean time he is happy to play the role of negociant and source frozen grapes from around the peninsula. Ziraldo tells me he was goaded into getting back into making and selling wine when his friend John Howard of Megalomaniac Wines offered him his surplus icewine just as his non-compete was about to expire. Ziraldo asked Karl Kaiser to supervise the vinification and the master winemaker created a premium wine that Ziraldo is offering a $60 for a standard half bottle. The wine exhibits an altogether appropriate peachiness, with a refreshing mago twang. Sitting in Ziraldo’s living room on a dull November morning, the wine’s more lemony acidic note kept me sipping until my glass was empty. Luckily at 8% alcohol by volume the effects of the glass were minimal – could this be the perfect breakfast wine? In all seriousness, it is light and playful enough – without being overly sweet – to be an aperitif. It is also, of course, a highly sophisticated dessert wine.
The 2007 Ziraldo Riesling Icewine is available at select LCBO Vintages stores. (You can check which stores by clicking here, but it may be worth calling ahead to ensure stock, since the LCBO’s inventory system is famously unreliable.) Look for the distinctive art deco designed box, which draws from Ziraldo’s collection and the Charles Comfort’s designs at the old Toronto Stock Exchange. You can also find out more about Ziraldo Wines and where tog et them at www.ziraldo.ca.
Malcolm Jolley is the editor of Good Food Revolution