Meet the Friend: Donald Ziraldo

Donald Ziraldo needs no introduction to most wine writers around the world as one of the most influential figures in Canadian wine. After starting his career with a vine nursery, he became involved in winemaking with the founding of Inniskillin in 1974, remaining there until 2006, and later moved on to create his own independent label Ziraldo, planting his own vineyard in 2007. As a Friend of the Circle, Amanda Barnes interviews him for our monthly Meet the Friend interview and Donald shares exciting professional news as well as his impressions of the challenges and changes ahead for the Canadian wine industry in the face of climate change and more. This is an abridged version of the full interview, which can be watched on the Circle’s Instagram account, and at the end of which Circle members are given a secret passcode access to his book, Icewine: Extreme Winemaking.


Donald, please do tell me about your exciting news!

It’s been a rather long story with COVID, like everything else in this world. Last September when the Teacher’s Pensions Fund of Canada purchased back Inniskillin from Constellation Brands, they asked me to come back and assist with Inniskillin. And so the big announcement is that Ziraldo is returning to his roots! I’m going to go back, and we’ll be making Ziraldo Wine there under the guidance of Marco Piccoli, a young man from Friuli. And [this news is] being announced to the Circle of Wine Writers first!


That’s very exciting news. So your vintage 2021 of Ziraldo Wines will be made there?

Well actually 2020, because we start with the vintage before [not counting the harvest as after the New Year]. This year we only had half the crop, because we had a drought last year and a really long hang time with winter temperatures that reached -17 degrees c! But, it’s an amazing vintage… I tasted it last week and it blew me away! We have 300.08 grams/litre of residual sugar which is normally too much but because we got this concentration of acidity too you have this explosion of sugar with a balance of acidity — it’s pretty magnificent! I will have to send some for the experts [CWW] to taste!


I’m sure the Circle would love that tasting! Can you tell me a bit about your experience of making ice wine. Am I right in thinking you’ve been making it for 45 years now?

When Inniskillin started in 1975, it was the first wine licence issued since prohibition. We applied, with Karl Kaiser, who was Austrian and had married a Canadian and didn’t want to make wines with that ‘Canadian taste’. This was at the time when Canadian wines were made with Vitis labrusca and had that foxy taste — I mean negative foxy, not positive foxy, which we used to be able to say!

The first vintage, in 1983, Karl came to me and said “I would like to leave some grapes on the vine to freeze.” And I told him he’d probably been drinking too many of his own wines! But we left the last 13 rows of Vidal, which is a hybrid — a crossing between Vitis rupestris and Trebbiano. It’s an interesting cross because if you look at what Trebbiano, Ugni Blanc, is used for, they concentrate it by fire to make Cognac. So [with] Vidal, its offspring, we freeze it to make ice wine. Which is an interesting analogy!

In that 1983 vintage, on 3rd December, he came back from a conference in the US and told me off, saying “I told you not to pick those grapes!” I said, “I didn’t, I thought you did!” That morning when we arrived there, there was half a metre of snow which covered the vineyard and all the seeds that the birds normally eat — so they started eating the grapes… They ate all of them! So from the next year we started putting netting. So, 1984 was our first vintage!

There’s always been a lot of experimentation in the vineyard since. After about five years, the machine harvest started. The romance of picking grapes in the normal harvest with people singing and the little raffia basket with people eating lunch etc, it’s just not like that… It’s wet, it’s cold, and it’s a lot of labour. Ice wine is that and it’s -10 degrees c! It’s cold. A machine is part of the technology that’s been added to the equation. Over the years we’ve become more expert at it, but like any vintage it is variable depending on mother nature.


Do you think that machine harvesting makes a significant difference to the taste of the ice wines versus hand harvesting?

That’s a great debate which we should take up with the Circle of Wine Writers and see if we can taste any difference between the hand harvested and machine harvested. Personally I don’t think so!


Has climate change impacted ice wine production or has it put the category at risk at all?

The whole climate change discussion is very very complicated and I think its more the extremes that are happening. The extremes in our summers can be very hot, and are causing wild fires and drought. But we also get the extremes of our winters, like this year getting to -17 degrees c! At -20 degrees c the vines start to get damaged, so that’s really a concern.

The red wines are getting better here [with climate change]. In the 2020 vintage we have some fantastic red wines – the Cabernet Franc is really fantastic!


Are there any other regions that you have your eye on for dessert wines?

The one that’s dear to my heart, is Friuli. Back in 2004 I was given an honorary citizenship where my family came from, Fagagna. At the celebration, the President of the region said to me, ‘Ziraldo you really ought to do something to pay tribute to your family and the 1,200 men that migrated to Canada’. (My Dad had left in 1923 at 15 years old and landed here as a stowaway I found out.)

I found out that my family were making Picolit here. It’s an indigenous variety and, not only that, but to Fagagna, my mum and dad’s home town. And the Count in his archives had a book with very detailed instructions on how to grow the Picolit. And so I thought we could resurrect it on this hillside which the Count has, and make wine from it. The only problem I had was that 6 years later, I could not get the DOC for Picolit… So after trying everything conceivable, we called it Bianco de Fagagna. It’s a dessert wine, which is very close to my heart.


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