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February 6, 2011

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Ice wine in peril

FRAUD, Mother Nature and economics have caused havoc for icewine producers, reducing quantities and increasing prices for the sweet wines that Germans created and Canadians perfected.

"This year's amount of icewine will be below average … Not many vintners took the risk," said Monika Reule, the managing director of Deutsche Weininstitut, in Mainz, Germany, adding that the overall 2010 wine harvest in the country was smaller than average.

Wineries in Canada and the Wine Council of Ontario have cut back production of the dessert wine, but producers say the problem was not the size or quality of the 2010 harvest. Instead it is oversupply and competition from fake icewines.

Eiswein, as it is known in Germany and Austria, is traditionally made by harvesting grapes in the dead of winter. Waiting until subfreezing temperatures strike to harvest the grapes concentrates the sugars and results in intense flavors and almost nectar-like wine.

It also carries the risk that the grapes might rot while hanging on the vines for so long. Consequently, the price for a traditionally made icewine can be US$50 or more for a half-bottle.

"Sales of luxury items are the first to suffer in an economic downturn," said Deborah Pratt of Inniskillin, one of Canada's largest icewine producers which introduced smaller bottles for the tough economy.

Tim Reilly, winemaker for the smaller Colio estate, who usually uses the Vidal grape for his award-winning icewines, didn't make any at all in 2009 or 2010.

"I still have bottles from 2007 on the shelves and haven't released any 2008s. It's very expensive to have two vintages in stock," he explained.

Reilly blamed not only the downturn in the economy but also fake icewine for the slow sales.

Fakes have plagued the market, especially in China, according to Bill Ross, head of the Canadian Vintners Association.

The fraud has ranged from harvesting the grapes early and throwing them in a freezer, to using bulk ice wine juice from Canadian growers that didn't measure up to the strictly regulated standards, to putting a low-grade sweet wine with added sugar and a little food coloring in a bottle and counterfeiting labels from well-known producers.

"It's just horrible stuff and the problem is rampant in China," Ross said, referring to the country where the wine is often given as a New Year's gift.

But some are hoping for a turnaround as the economy improves and producers are hoping that this month's Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine Festival will give an added boost to sales.


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