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Off the Vine

The icewine cometh to Europe
Peculiar Canadian treat of the frozen vine now available to fussier Euro palates
By ALAN FREEMAN, The Globe and Mail
Friday, May 18, 2001

LONDON -- 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 yesterday.

"I want you to raise your glass and drink to the success of icewine in Western Europe," Charles Metcalfe, one of Britain's best-known wine critics, told a group of about 100 aficionados as they sipped from a Southbrook Farm 1998 Vidal Icewine at a tasting session at Canada House last night.

Mr. Metcalfe, editor of the influential magazine Wine, was full of praise for Canadian icewine, calling it "this absolute nectar. . . . It's got this wonderful opulence. It's mangoes and peaches. It's sensational."

The rest of the audience also seemed impressed, although their sampling of three whites and three reds first may have inclined them positively.

"I think it's terrific," said James Blaney, a Web designer and amateur wine lover who admitted to not usually being a fan of sweet wine. "This is an extremely strong taste but it's vibrant. It's exciting."

The event, organized by the Covent Garden Opera Festival, coincided with the official opening of the 15-member European Union to legal sales of Canadian icewine.

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 has 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 yesterday.

"We've been talking wines and spirits with the [European] Commission for many, many years," Victor Jarjour, agriculture counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Brussels, said.

"I think it's terrific that this ridiculous piece of legislation has been overturned," Mr. Metcalfe, the wine critic, said.

Canadian producers think so too. Mr. Ziraldo said Inniskillin, one of about 40 or 50 Ontario and B.C. vintners that produce icewine, has shipped a couple hundred cases to Italy, Germany and other European markets in anticipation of the end of the ban.

"It's a great opportunity for us," said Mr. Ziraldo, adding, "The fact it took 20 years made it somewhat anticlimactic."

Mr. Ziraldo said icewine is the key export product for Canadian winemakers.

"Not very many people in Italy are going to buy red table wine from Canada," he said.

Jan Critchley-Salmanson, associate director of wine importer Avery's of Bristol, said he doesn't expect to sell huge volumes of the product, which will range as high as 40 ($90) for a 375-millilitre bottle.

"It's a niche wine. It's not going to sell huge volumes but it will create some prestige, he said, adding: "We've been waiting for it a long time."

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