Here’s a recipe for winemaking success: take a Sicilian couple with a dream to open a winery, add warm summer weather, the frosty chill of a Canadian winter, and mix them together to create a delicious icewine that’s enjoyed around the world!
Gary Pillitteri, who grew up helping his father and grandfather grow and harvest grapes on the family farm in Sicily, hoped he could one day carry on that tradition in Canada.
Pillitteri and his wife Lena bought a farm in 1965 in Ontario’s Niagara-on-the-Lake, nestled below the Niagara Escarpment, and went into business selling fruits and vegetables.
The Pillitteri family at their winery in Ontario’s Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The couple dreamed of opening a winery, so Pillitteri began to experiment with icewine. It’s made from grapes that are left on the vine to freeze naturally at -8 degrees Celsius or lower. Pressed before they thaw, the grapes produce a juice that is high in sugar, acidity and flavour.
When Pillitteri’s wine won a gold medal at a local competition, he knew his dream to establish a winery could become a reality.
“Really, the thing that sparked everything was icewine,” says Pillitteri’s grandson and Vice-President of Sales Richard Slingerland. “It’s what started the whole launch of the winery.”
Pillitteri Estates Winery officially opened in 1993, producing 4,300 cases of wine a year and progressively winning awards in Canada and abroad.
The family’s 170 acres of vineyards and 130 acres of grapes from other Ontario growers support a winemaking capacity that now stands at 125,000 cases a year. The winery has 65 full-time employees and plans to expand to 70 in the next two years.
The award-winning icewine is exported to 35 countries in Asia, Europe, the Americas and Australia.
Canada’s free trade agreements have helped open doors for the winery to new international markets.
The Canada-Korea Free Trade Agreement was the most beneficial trade deal for Pillitteri Estates Winery. Slingerland said icewine sales to Korea rose by around 400% after the trade deal entered into force in 2015.
“It’s huge for us to be able to move that much and have the market opened up,” Slingerland said.
The new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) will also make it easier and cheaper for the winery to export to the Asia-Pacific region as tariffs on icewine are eliminated.
The Asia-Pacific agreement brought a large wave of new business opportunities to the winery, as well as inquires from new markets, such as Vietnam. The winery now has much greater access to Vietnam and other CPTPP countries, which is helping it expand into new markets for long-term business.
Slingerland also credits the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service for helping the winery export to new markets.
Today, those types of connections are putting Canada’s Versace of icewines on the menu in homes and restaurants across new markets.