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Off the Vine

Creating a wine alliance
The VQA sets the standards for Canadian wineries

Members of Canada's wine industry established the Vintners Quality Alliance of Canada in June, 1999.

The VQA regulates the quality standards of premium wine which has been 100 per cent produced in Canada. Another of the group's initial goals was to allow Canadian wineries to import their product into wine producing countries in the European Union, the U.S., and Asia. For example, Canadian wineries were limited to shipping 1,000 hectolitres of wine a year to the EU, where European producers have unlimited access to the Canadian market, making more than $300-million in wine sales a year.

Its rules and regulations mean that only premium wines can earn the VQA stamp. It is to Canadian wineries what the AOC is to France, the DOCG to Italy and QmP to Germany. The VQA rules state what kind of grapes can be used, where they must be cultivated, the taste of the finished wine and labeling on the bottle.

One of the VQA's biggest battles was to allow the sale of Canadian icewine in the European Union.

After years of being smuggled like an illicit drug or sold surreptitiously by risk-taking merchants, Canadian icewine finally went legal in the European Union in May. The specialty Canadian product, made with grapes that remain on the vine in winter and are picked when frozen, has been forbidden in the EU for 20 years under strict regulations governing wine production.

Despite the ban, icewine had been shipped in for fairs in Europe, garnering major prizes. It has been imported by wine merchants and Canadian embassies for tastings and other events.

As icewine developed a following, a quiet parallel market emerged, said Donald Ziraldo, president of Inniskillin Wines, a Niagara producer.

A couple of French wine merchants quietly stocked the product illegally and an Italian distributor brought in his stock from Switzerland, which isn't part of the EU, and has been selling it to 60 or 70 restaurants. In Britain, people buy it over the Internet.

But after years of tough negotiations with Canadian officials, who pointedly noted that Canada imports about $500-million of wine a year from Europe against the less than $400,000 of Canadian wine exported to Europe, the ban was finally lifted, effective May, 2001.

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