Inniskillin – A Winery Profile

The Ontario pioneer led by the winemaking and viticultural team of Bruce Nicholson and Gerald Klose continues to lead the way
By Michael Godel

This feature was commissioned by Arterra Wines Canada

Never forget where you’ve come from and who helped to get you here. Such are words that connect to the truth, as a recent conversation with Inniskillin winemaker Bruce Nicholson confirms. Nicholson was first hired in Niagara late in 1985, began his career in 1986 and, at the request of Allan Jackson, a year later headed west to work at the Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Valley estate. “The changes I’ve seen are actually incredible,” he begins, “first with free trade in 88/89. It was a tough time for the Canadian wine industry and you didn’t know where you were going. Here I am 34 years later.” The giants he then mentions are the shoulders on which he continues to stand. Allan Jackson, Don Triggs, Karl Kaiser, Donald Ziraldo, Harry McWatters. “These people had vision, they are the reason we are here, they worked hard and they believed in the Canadian wine industry. They put themselves out there. The improvement in quality, the practices in the vineyard, all the changes are incredible. And there’s still a ton of growth potential.”

(Editor’s Note: Here is a recently released movie trailer-style video showing Inniskillin’s origins way back at the beginning. This is definitely not your average winery video!)

INNISKILLIN | The Original Startup from Bensimon Byrne on Vimeo.

Bruce remembers how he asked Karl for work, willingly and for free, thinking (rightfully) that Kaiser was the most knowledgeable person and “indeed he was.” He got the job at the time for what was the Chateau Gai Wine Company where Château de Charmes founder Paul Bosc Sr. also worked. “They hired me because they just wanted me to stop bothering them,” tells Nicholson. The rest is as they say, is history.

Nicholson headed and remained out west with Jackson-Triggs for 20 years, coming back in 2006 and taking over winemaking duties from Kaiser in 2007. “No one replaces Karl,” he insists and in fact Kaiser remained a confidante, mentor and friend for 10 more years right up until suffering a stroke and then passing away on November 22nd, 2017. On January 7th, 2007 Inniskillin had the 2006 pick coming in for Icewine. “My first task was to decide what to do with 300,000 litres of juice, to maintain the quality and reputation that proceeded me.”

When they won a trophy at VinItaly in 1991, Karl Kaiser was the reason partly because he was such an innovator as well. He introduced Sparkling vidal, loved sauvignon blanc and planted viognier in 2000. Just as he did with Bruce, so does Bruce do for the next generation. A top priority is to take in students from Niagara College and Brock University. These graduates are the protégés for Nicholson to teach and sculpt into Niagara’s future pioneers.

Instrumental in the Inniskillin success story is Deborah Pratt who in the late 1970s decided to leave the teaching profession and work for Inniskillin full time. Pratt was the marketing face of Inniskillin until her retirement in 2014. The Niagara-on-the-Lake native was recently honoured at the Women in Business Awards for her 40-plus years of achievement in the wine industry. Pratt was, alongside Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser, a pioneer in the development of the Niagara, Ontario and Canadian wine industries and is a recipient of the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Bruce Nicholson

Inniskillin is Canada’s original estate winery and has been producing wines from grapes grown in Canada for over 35 years. One brand, two wineries, VQA table wines and Icewines from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario and the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia. The company falls under the umbrella of ownership by Arterra Wines Canada, the company that produces wines under the Jackson-Triggs label, also in Ontario and B.C., plus Sumac Ridge, See Ya Later Ranch, NK’Mip, Steller’s Jay and Laughing Stock in B.C. It also acts as the importer for two international icons, Robert Mondavi of California and Kim Crawford of New Zealand.

Arterra is Canada’s founding wine company, opening in 1874 as the Niagara Falls Wine Company then changing its name to T.G. Bright. It became Vincor Canada after the merger with Inniskillin under the watch of Donald Triggs and Allan Jackson in 1994. In 2006 it was purchased by New York-based Constellation Brands, the world’s largest wine company. The reclamation return as a Canadian-owned company occurred when the Canadian sector of Constellation was purchased by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan in 2016, followed by the name change to Arterra Wines Canada.

Selective Timeline

1973 … Donald Ziraldo plants Inniskillin’s first vinifera vineyard of riesling, chardonnay and gamay.

1975 … Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser found Inniskillin Wines Inc. and are granted the first winery license since 1929 from General George Kitching, head of the LCBO. Ziraldo Nurseries is the original winery site is on Colonel Cooper’s 1800’s farm named for his Irish Regiment, the Inniskilling Fusiliers. These first true “premium grapes” grown in the Niagara Peninsula are harvested in 1977.

1978 … The 30 acre, Line 3 vineyard site situated across from the existing winery is purchased by Albrecht Seeger who today, with his family, continues to own and operate it.

1978 … Inniskillin Wines moves to the Brae Burn Estate, Gaelic for “hill stream,” referencing the Niagara Escarpment and the Niagara River.

Karl Kaiser and Donald Ziraldo

1983 … Karl Kaiser is in England for the December London Wine Fair when Ontario starlings decide to gorge on the late hanging, sweet and unprotected grapes in his vineyard. The change in Ontario’s wine landscape has to wait one more year.

1984 … Inniskillin winemaker, Karl Kaiser harvests the first Icewine from Vidal grapes frozen naturally on the vine at the winery site (Brae Burn Vineyard) with the help of strategically installed netting

1988 … VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) is established as an appellation of origin and standards system led by founding chair Donald Ziraldo. This system secures credibility one year ahead of the ratification of the North American Free Trade agreement for future export initiatives.

1991 … Inniskillin receives the most prestigious award in the wine world at Vin Expo, France – the Grand Prix d’Honneur for Karl’s 1989 Vidal Icewine.  This marks a major turning point thrusting Inniskillin into the international limelight clearly establishing major credibility as a serious wine producer as well as lifting the profile of Canadian wines at the same time.

2006 – Co-founders Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser leave Inniskillin.

2007 – Bruce Nicholson joins Inniskillin as Winemaker after a stellar career at Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate Winery, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia.

Which brings us to a November 21st Q & A with winemaker Bruce Nicholson

WineAlign: Beginning in 2007, what was the first significant change, strategy or some sort of profound shift that you implemented as winemaker?

Bruce Nicholson: I spent some capital, a new press from France, heating technology to bring grapes up to temperature for fermentation. Also a safety program implementation.

WineAlign: Let’s talk about your team. Tell us about who, what and how makes it happen for a pretty sizeable operation.

Bruce Nicholson: We have very good graduates from the Niagara College viticulture program. Nick Gizuk has been with us for six years and “I have no doubt he will continue the legacy of Inniskillin. I’ve got a great team here; Chris Canavan, Sidney Agbay, Sheila Powell. You don’t succeed, you don’t get things done on your own, that’s for sure. A total team effort. I don’t care who you are.”

WineAlign: Niagara is fortunate to be a wine growing region with plenty of experienced contractors. Tell me about the relationships with growers and the companies that you partner with for vineyard management, maintenance and picking.

Bruce Nicholson: We grow most of our own grapes and Gerald manages the vineyards. We also have an extended group of contract growers, like Albrecht Seeger and the Van de Laars. They are experts in what they do.

WineAlign: Is harvest done?

Bruce Nicholson: We just finished on Tuesday (November 19th), amazingly enough.

WineAlign: What is it like to have such an early snowfall, freezing temperatures and see others picking for Icewine with grapes destined for table wines still hanging on the vines?

Bruce Nicholson: Something in 34 years I’ve never experienced. We had a late start and it was the first time not picking anything in September, other than for Sparkling wines. We were looking for some final ripening. The last two varieties to come in were syrah and cabernet franc. You have to take what you’re given. You can’t change that. I’m optimistic overall. I like to hang vinifera a little longer and I like to bring it in under my terms.

WineAlign: How obsessed are you with the weather?

Bruce Nicholson: Very obsessed. I make use of three apps on my phone and my computer.

WineAlign: What about cabernet sauvignon?

Bruce Nicholson: Our viticulturist Gerald Klose has been with Inniskillin for over 40 years. I convinced him in 2017 to keep the small cabernet sauvignon for Icewine. It didn’t work out in 2018 but we’re hoping to make one from 2019.

WineAlign: In your tenure what is the most significant shift or alteration you’ve exercised or seen in how vineyards are cared for, vines are treated and grapes are grown?

Bruce Nicholson: Sustainability is what we look at the most, including pest control, fertilization and irrigation. Any new plantings are no longer a case of what happens to be available and then lets just stick it here. You have to be very selective in what you grow. Gerald as I said has been doing this for 40 years. You can’t put a value on that kind of knowledge.

WineAlign: Can you talk about the evolution of the wines, but also about specific wines or cuvées. Specifics like Montague Vineyard, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Icewines?

Bruce Nicholson: Get to know the history of your vineyard and never ask it to give you more than what it can. Karl (Kaiser) made some great pinot noir off of that (Montague) vineyard and he still would if he were here today. Montague is my favourite.

WineAlign: Generally speaking, not too long ago Icewine was either Riesling or Vidal but you and many others are now making many different varietal Icewines; from cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and gewürztraminer. It seems Inniskillin and Stratus are at the head of this new age. Can you comment on when the skies opened up and why?

Bruce Nicholson: It was Karl’s idea to use cabernet franc for Icewine in 2003 or 2004. That’s the beginning and the innovation. He also did vidal in French oak. He introduced sparkling for the new millenium. He said there was going to be a shortage of sparkling wine so made it in 1998 to be released in 2000. I came and wanted to expand on these possibilities. Let’s introduce Canadian oak barrels to riesling and chardonnay, let’s make sparkling cabernet franc. I did it in 2012 and it was the most difficult wine I ever made. If I’m a consumer I want to know what can I get at this winery that I can’t get anywhere else. That’s what the consumer wants and looks for. Something different. It’s all about the consumer.

WineAlign: What do you view as the most significant effect on farming caused by a changing climate and perhaps even more so, the changing or time-shifting of seasons?

Bruce Nicholson: There was this year! I’ve never not harvested in September, until 2019 but the reality about all of this is that we really don’t know. A few years ago I picked on August 31st, which was the earliest by a month. You have to be prepared either way. We were ready this year on September 1st and we started on October 1st. You just have to deal with it.

WineAlign: Are you ever worried you won’t be able to pick Icewine?

Bruce Nicholson: It always gets cold. We’ll always be able to.

WineAlign: How do you look at your work today as being a champion of their legacies?

Bruce Nicholson: You try to always do something new, to keep the legacy of being innovative. I’ve done this with botrytis-affected viognier. I’ve done it twice now but conditions have to be ripe. Inniskillin is the most recognized name as a Canadian winery because of what Donald and Karl were able to do.

The WineAlign team recently sat down together to taste through 12 wines from Inniskillin’s impressive, premium portfolio. We had a tough time choosing a handful of favourites because there was so much consensus in finding quality across the board. Nevertheless here are the critics’ picks.

WineAlign Critics’ Inniskillin Picks

Inniskillin P3 Discovery Series Reserve 2017, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($20.95)
David Lawrason -This is halfway to orange wine – pouring fairly deep coppery orange thanks to some skin contact with the pinot noir portion (which is 58%). Pinot gris and pinot blanc comprise the remainder. It has a clean, intriguing nose of persimmon, herbs and spice. Comes together very well, in a style that is indeed for those liking discovery.
Michael Godel – Winemaker Bruce Nicholson’s “white blend” could be discussed in terms of an orange wine but it’s not. P3 is simply delicious and who could not love a glass alongside a mess of smoked wings with a couple of bi-coloured dipping sauces.

Inniskillin 2017 Reserve Chardonnay 2017, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($20.95)
John Szabo – Inniskillin delivers a well-priced, well-balanced Ontario chardonnay here, lively and driven by bright acids on the palate with only a touch of caramel-wood on the finish. It should appeal broadly.
Sara d’Amato – A premium quality chardonnay at an entry level price. Concentrated with fruit laced with just the right touch of oak. Its fleshy texture is cut by acid and a notable minerality. Holiday table ready.
Michael Godel – Fruit. Check. Wood. Check. Structure. Check. It’s really that simple and ultimately pretty engaging with inside skill and expert trading from a team with the acumen to make it all happen. Not so much buttery as oleaginous with wood spice, peppery shakes and mineral edging. Good work from a challenging vintage.

Inniskillin P3 Discovery Series Reserve 2017  Inniskillin Reserve Chardonnay 2017

Inniskillin Niagara Reserve Cabernet Franc 2017, Niagara Peninsula ($25.95)
David Lawrason – This is a quite fine and genuine cab franc with a pretty nose of raspberry, violets, gentle oak spice and tobacco. Quite classic. It is medium-full bodied, a bit soft and quite warm, with a dry, dusty finish. The length is very good.

Inniskillin Montague Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017, VQA Four Mile Creek, Niagara Peninsula ($30.95)
David Lawrason – This is a quite elegant pinot from a very good pinot vintage. I really like the smoothness, fine acidity and tannin structure. It also has very good to excellent length. The however does overshadow the sour cherry fruit. The length is excellent.
Sara d’Amato – Offering excellent length and structure, this single vineyard pinot noir is sourced from a long-standing, premium site for the variety in the sub-appellation of Four Mile Creek. Complex notes of red cherry, cranberry, licorice, tree bark, tobacco and even a hint of hibiscus liven the palate. Good value.
Michael Godel – From a vintage both turned on and stood on its head which means strawberry like you’ve never noted before. Not like Montague’s past perhaps but great fun nonetheless.

Inniskillin Discovery Series Botrytis Affected Viognier 2018, VQA Niagara Peninsula, 375ml ($44.95)
David Lawrason – This is from a single, small inland, block of viognier near the Niagara-on-the-Lake airport that often is affected by botrytis. It has a lovely, lifted nose starfruit, apricot, pepper, lemon and daffodil-like florality. It is full bodied, medium sweet, rich and quite vibrant as well.
Sara d’Amato – Viognier shines in this Botrytis affected version with voluptuous body, generous floral aromas and fresh acidity. A youthful wine that has plenty of time to develop ahead.
Michael Godel – From a vineyard planted in 2000 and a rare opportunity for Gerald Close and Bruce Nicholson to make a sweet wine from a vintage that allowed for this to happen. Great use of viognier. One of Niagara’s rarest and most curious wines.

Inniskillin Niagara Reserve Cabernet Franc 2017   Inniskillin Montague Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017  Inniskillin Discovery Series Botrytis Affected Viognier 2018

Inniskillin Vidal Sparkling Icewine 2017, Charmat Method, VQA Niagara Peninsula, 375ml ($75.95)
Sara d’Amato – Sparkling Icewine is a style that takes extreme patience to produce but yields exciting results. Vidal’s unctuous nature is pleasantly cut by the texture of the bubbles a freshness on the palate. If you don’t have a sweet tooth, try this before you swear off Icewine.

Inniskillin 2018 Cabernet Franc Icewine, VQA Niagara Peninsula, 375 mL ($99.95)
John Szabo – While Icewines produced from red grapes are still very much a rarity, it’s no secret at this stage that cabernet franc is the most successful among them. The variety has the fresh acids and lighter structure that works well in the frozen genre, remaining buoyant and lively even at high sugar levels. Plus, the grape has such a lovely perfume, which turns to strawberry-raspberry jam. Inniskillin’s rendition is sweet and concentrated to be sure, but also balanced, genuinely good wine.
Michael Godel – Icewine as cabernet franc is shy and protected indicating the lowest and slowest of a decade plus of potential development. The palate confirms what the mind conjures because there’s density, glycerin texture and the great possibility of complexity. Perfectly terrific use of cabernet franc for all the right dessert styling reasons. Drink 2019-2025. Tasted November 2019.

Inniskillin Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2017, Niagara Peninsula, 375ml ($124.95)
Sara d’Amato – One of the most memorable of red Icewines on the market, the exuberant aromatics make for a striking first impression. Sourced from the Klose vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake, this mouth-filling wine is balanced by just enough acidity to keep it from feeling cloying. Expect notes of fresh fig, ripe red plum, violet candies and a liquorice.
Michael Godel – Why, is the $100,000 question posed to partners Gerald Klose and Bruce Nicholson. Ask the latter and he will tell you that the grape variety (in the right vintage) is simply best employed this way. If this is or is not Canada’s most concentrated and refined Icewine I cannot say but surely the purity and the elegance here are on full and prominent display.

Inniskillin Vidal Sparkling Icewine 2017     Inniskillin Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2017

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This feature was commissioned by Arterra Wines Canada. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries and wine agents pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.