Ontario has seen a dramatic decline in ice wine production over the past 5 years

Jamie Slingerland, winery owner in Niagara-on-the-Lake, is optimistic that ice wine production and revenue will slowly return to pre-pandemic levels.  (Submitted by Pillitteri Estates Winery - photo credit)

Jamie Slingerland, winery owner in Niagara-on-the-Lake, is optimistic that ice wine production and revenue will slowly return to pre-pandemic levels. (Submitted by Pillitteri Estates Winery – photo credit)

Ice wine production in Ontario has declined steadily over the past five years, with dramatic declines in 2019 and 2022, according to the VQA Ontario – the body that regulates the wine industry in the province.

According to the latest VQA Ontario report, the amount of ice wine produced in Ontario has dropped from 502,082 liters in 2021 to 111,614 liters in 2022.

In 2018, ice wine made up about three percent of wine produced in Ontario, but has fallen to less than half a percent of wine produced in 2022.

Katherina Radcliffe, director of communications and wine standards at VQA Ontario, said the number of approved producers of ice wine has fallen from 41 producers in 2019 to 10 producers for 2020 and 2021.

She said that during those years fewer wineries decided to make ice wine and there were few applications to become an approved producer.

Ice Wine Production in Ontario, 2018-2022

Despite the drop in production, however, a Niagara winery owner is optimistic that this year’s poor grape harvest will produce higher-quality ice wine, which in turn will help the product regain popularity in international markets.

According to Jamie Slingerland, director of viticulture at Pillitteri Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, unpredictable climate patterns will likely result in a smaller harvest this winter, but he expects the quality of this year’s icewine vintage to remain the same of higher quality.

“You get a lot more intensity”

Slingerland said the unexpected cold fronts, snowstorms and warm days have dried out a significant percentage of vines while making harvest more difficult to plan.

Icewine grapes are typically harvested in January — later than other grapes that are harvested in the fall — and are more susceptible to changing weather patterns.

“I think what happened is the dehydration in the grapes that left concentrated sugars and you get a lot more intense,” Slingerland told CBC Hamilton.

“In terms of quality, I think it will be exceptional.”

Submitted by Pillitteri Estates Winery

Submitted by Pillitteri Estates Winery

Slingerland believes “it’s been a stellar year in terms of quality” even though quantity has been drastically reduced.

He said the grape harvest is expected to be one of the smallest in 20 years.

But it was still a good year for ice wine production, he said.

Slingerland said it saw sales fall 90 percent during the COVID-19 lockdowns, but he expects a slow return to pre-pandemic revenue as icewine quality improves.

Icewine produce high risk: Niagara Vineyard

While Slingerland is optimistic about the future of ice wine, Niagara-based Cool Vineyards owner Dustin Gill is significantly less optimistic.

Gill told CBC-Hamilton on Tuesday that he had been growing and harvesting icewine grapes for a decade before deciding against it in 2023.

Submitted by Dustin Gil

Submitted by Dustin Gil

He said demand for ice wine in the international market is much lower than in previous years and the COVID-19 lockdowns have severely impacted his revenue.

“It’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition,” he said. “Typically the risk is only weather and time dependent, but it appears that the risk in recent years has been what governments have been open about during the pandemic.”

Decrease in sales from Asian countries

Gill said the majority of icewine revenue comes from international sales, where the “dessert wine” is often given as gifts. He said when lockdowns began in 2020, revenue from Asian countries like China and Vietnam plummeted.

Slingerland is now one of Ontario’s 10 remaining licensed ice wine producers, and said production and sales are directly linked to Ontario’s tourism state.

He said Niagara’s vineyards are popular tourist attractions and 50 percent of his sales are from walk-in customers. Slingerland said when lockdowns began and Asian countries imposed tighter import restrictions, its ice wine revenue fell significantly.

Richard Linley, president of Ontario Craft Wineries, told CBC Hamilton that icewine sales at the Ontario Liquor Control Board (LCBO) have since recovered, although buying behavior has changed during the pandemic.

“We’re back on track,” he said.


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