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Knocking Off Icewine (November 11, 2004)

Icewine, the icon of the Canadian wine industry, has achieved the status of a Prada handbag or a Rolex watch.

The honey-sweet wine is being so widely counterfeited by profiteers in Canada and abroad that it's become a financial headache for the industry. The majority of the phony products end up on wine shelves in Pacific Rim countries. After the United States, Taiwan is Canada's largest market for Icewine. According to Ted Lipman, executive director of the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei, "About 50 per cent of what claims to be Icewine in Taiwan is fake."

Not only are Canadian vintners losing money – because the faux product sells for a lot less than the genuine article – but the quality of the knock-offs is harming the reputation of the wine.

Ontario's Pillitteri Estates is one of the world's largest exporters of Icewine, with nearly 75 per cent of its production going to Asian markets. Its exasperated proprietor, Charlie Pillitteri, says, "Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but people are making Icewine in their garage and selling it in China. It's ridiculous."

The counterfeiters try to make the label and the package look like a VQA product, but their sense of geography sometimes leaves much to be desired. Bill Ross, president of the Canadian Vintners Association, points out that "You have counterfeit Icewine bottles with 'Chilliwacko, Ontario' instead of Chilliwack, British Columbia, or 'Elixir of the Gods, Torontow' with a picture of Whistler, BC, in the background and maple leafs festooned all over."

When I was in China two years ago I saw several fake Icewines on the shelves of Guangzhou wine stores. The couple I got to taste were, to put it mildly... disgusting.

The Ontario industry exports 75 per cent of its Icewine production (in 2003 the wineries made a total of 387,097 litres) and it is very concerned about these forgeries. CCOVI, the Cool Climate Oenological and Viticultural Institute at Brock University, the VQA and the LCBO are all working to solve the problem.

CCOVI is concentrating on the sensory aspect of the product, while the LCBO has come up with a sophisticated chemical analysis to determine if the wine was grown in Ontario and contains the right balance of fruit sugars and alcohol that would comply with VQA regulations. "We look at a number of variables," says Dr. George Soleas, Vice President of the LCBO's Quality Assurance Department. "First the package. If it doesn't say VQA on it we know that potentially this could be a contraband product. Then we look at the liquid. We smell and taste the product and that's an indication whether the product is authentic. But most importantly we look at the chemistry, particularly the isotopic ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12."

All alcohols contain a small portion of carbon. The carbon in alcohol has three isotopes, carbon 12, 13 and 14. Carbon 14 is the isotope that is radioactive and is used for carbon dating. Different alcohols (derived from different sources) have different ratios of carbon 13 to carbon 12.

"All Icewines are tested for the isotopic ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12 and we do it with an instrument we call GC/IR/MS – Gas Chromatograph interfaced to an Isotopic Ratio Mass Spectrometer," Soleas told me.

There is also a test the LCBO has developed which determines whether the alcohol in the wine came from grapes that were processed the same way as a legitimate Icewine and that there were no additions of high-fructose corn syrup, concentrate, pear juice or synthetic alcohol. "If someone is blending wines from Chile or Argentina, the isotopic ratio of oxygen 18 to oxygen 16 would be significantly different than if the grapes were grown in Ontario," says Soleas. "You can tell this way if the grapes are not grown in Ontario."

It's one thing to detect forgeries, quite another to protect the product.

One concept the industry might look at is to standardize the 375 mL bottle VQA Icewine is sold in. If all the producers got together and decided to use a bottle embossed with a specially designed Canadian Icewine logo (similar to the embossed bottle the vintners of Châteauneuf-du-Pape use) they could jointly promote this package as the only authentic Icewine. It would be too expensive for the counterfeiters to have a mould made,; and the cost to the industry would be amortized over a few years with bulk purchases of the designated bottle.

In the meantime, an educated consumer is the best defense against such illicit products. The governments of those Far East countries might be more inclined to take action against the importers of fake Icewine if we had a national wine standard in place. So first we have to put our own house in order.




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