As part of my ongoing Icewine Festival coverage, here is an exclusive interview with Daniel Speck, VP of Marketing for the esteemed Henry of Pelham Estates. Our own Bob Hudak considers them one of the top two dessert wine makers in North America. In this interview, Daniel and I talk about their approach to not only their icewines but their other sweet wines, the challenges of making and selling sweet wines, and even his thoughts on Bob’s comment regarding them. Enjoy.
First off, congratulations to you and your brothers on the winery and all your success. How was the late harvest and icewine harvest earlier this year? Did the cold winter we just had help or hinder?
DS: Thanks. It’s hard to believe that we’ve been making wine for almost 25 years (the anniversary is 2013). The last winter was very cold which generally is a boon for icewine. There were a number of days when we could pick, but it doesn’t always work that way, which is part of the high cost of making this wine. But last year was easier than some.
When did you first decide to start making icewines? Did the Late Harvest wines come before or after?
DS: Our first Icewine was in 1989. Icewine preceded Late Harvest production by and large although we’d experimented with a few one-off wines in and around that time.
You have the unique distinction of having the only Riesling icewine in the entire LCBO Vintages Essentials collection. While several Vidal icewines were accepted into the line, no other Riesling icewine has been. This speaks to how highly the LCBO thinks of it. How did this distinction come about? Does it place any additional pressure on you knowing you’re a part of that Essentials program?
DS: It is much more challenging to produce Riesling Icewine than any of the other main varieties. To begin with, it’s much more expensive fruit. From a vineyard perspective, the skins are thinner and more prone to rot than the thick skinned Vidal. This means that location and viticulture matter much more with Riesling – locations that get an early winter frost (further back from Lake Ontario) are advantaged as they get less lake effect at the critical time for the icewine harvest, meaning that we can pick the Riesling earlier and thus fresher and with less breakdown.
Viticulture also matters. Every wine we make, including still and sparkling wines, has the fruit grown for it specifically and with price point in mind too. What that means for dessert wines is that we tend to leave more fruit per vine, the same as you would for sparkling wine, so that we hold back the ripening process. This keeps the acids high and the sugars relatively low in each grape (counterintuitively). The benefit of this is that the grapes are again less prone to rotting, and because they have to hang so long on the vine that’s important. The downside is that we typically have to press more fruit (and at colder temperatures than -8C) than some in order get the same small quantity of juice.
But it’s worth the effort and shows in the wines which have natural acidity, clear-as-a-bell fruit flavours, and a nice amount of complexity from the hang time.
There are many styles of icewine, and terroir matters (as I just described). Because Riesling poses so many unique challenges you don’t see as much of it produced. But it is completely viable and we’ve made it a specialty, cultivating a small niche at the highest end of icewine. Ironically they sell for the same price as many Vidals. So there’s extreme value in our Riesling.
The LCBO also carries your Late Harvest Vidal, Late Harvest Riesling, and Cabernet Franc icewine. With the exception of the Vidal icewine, they carry pretty much your entire line of sweet wines! How beneficial has this arrangement been for you?
DS: For the independent wineries, like us, Vintages is the only channel for Icewine in Ontario (Icewine is not sold in the LCBO and we don’t have access to the private retail store monopoly owned by 2 wineries in the main). [Note: I believe Daniel is referring to the Wine Rack stores jointly owned by Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs, all of which are in turn owned by ConstellatioN Brands.] So it’s hugely important to us. It’s also a very good channel and we have a long relationship that goes back to our earliest days. We see them as partners.
The LCBO has also been a great channel and partner for our late harvest wines and we continue to grow this business all these years on.
Let’s talk about your excellent Late Harvest wines. I’m not sure that many customers and readers are aware of just how high quality these wines are. You actually wait until the grapes freeze to -8 Celsius and press them the same way you do your icewine grapes. To my knowledge, only two other wineries in Canada (Jackson-Triggs and Mission Hill) take such a high-quality approach to making late harvest wine. Why did you and your brothers decide to make your late harvests this way? Isn’t it a lot riskier?
How do you feel about the end results?
DS: It’s a great question. I can’t speak to what the other wineries are doing, but yes, we harvest this wine under very similar conditions to Icewine. I’m simplifying a bit, but with Icewine the grapes must come in at -8 C and be 36 Brix. Anything below 36 Brix is Late Harvest. We’re not limited by temperature when we make a Late Harvest wine, but our practice is to bring the fruit in at 32 Brix or higher, making it a Special Select Late Harvest (there are three levels: Late Harvest, Select Late Harvest and Special Select Late Harvest. We do the last which is the highest standard in the category). It should be noted that the Icewine standards are extremely high in Canada. A wine of 32 Brix made in Europe would actually be considered an Icewine. So for $20 to $25 you can get a 375 mL Late Harvest from Henry of Pelham that is really shooting into icewine territory were it from Europe.
We’re very happy with the results. My brother Matt, our viticulturist, was pouring Icewine in a liquor store years ago and kept getting the feedback from people that they liked dessert wines that were less sweet. So that got us started down that road. (It’s also the reason we make Riesling Icewine primarily – there’s nice natural acidity to offset the sweetness. Our dessert wines are not cloying).
An American WineBeserkers board member told me he considers Henry of Pelham one of THE top two dessert wine makers in all of North America! How does hearing that praise from an American make you feel? Are you surprised your dessert wines are so well-regarded south of the border?
DS: Clearly this man has fine taste
Yes, it’s always nice to be recognised for what we do. It’s very specialised end of the wine business.
I know for a fact that your icewines can be bought as far down south as Redwood City, California. How important are other markets like the US to you?
DS: Every market matters, and it’s also good for the brand if Canadians can see the wines selling south of the border.
How did you come up with the Icewine Mojito you showed off with Kevin Brauch at last year’s Food and Wine Expo? Brilliant drink recipe, far better than the standard icewine vodka martini. Was this your creation?
DS: I was speaking with Toronto chef Jamie Kennedy about an event he was doing at the Brickworks and the idea came into my head. Paul, Matt and I made about 300 of them in an hour!
A number of smaller wineries informed me they have halted icewine production this year out of concerns that Canadians aren’t buying it as much and they cannot afford to reach out to other markets like Asia like larger wineries can afford to. How have your dessert wine sales been this year?
Has the prominent featuring by the LCBO helped? Do you reach out to Asia as well?
DS: China has started pulling nicely but some other asian markets are flat or down. Overall our icewine business has weathered the storm in the economy but like all expensive wines it’s hard work.
In the past, you’ve made a rare botrytis-affected dessert wine and are one of only 3 wineries in Ontario that have done so in the past and/or do so presently (Keint-He and Reif being the others). However, you have only had two vintages in the last 15 years (98 and 05). What made you decide to make one? How hard is it to do so in Niagara? Will you be making another in the foreseeable future?
DS: BA wines are not something we set out to do – they happen to us. When the conditions are right we isolate the BA from our icewine grapes to save that crop. But then we have this marvelous BA fruit, so we make wine! We’ll make it again when the conditions are right.
Will you and your brothers be making any new dessert wines from other varietals?
DS: Never say never, but we don’t have plans for that at the moment. But we do have new wines coming out in general.
Lastly, I know it’s impossible for a father to choose his favourite amongst his own children but… what’s your own personal favourite icewine?
DS: While I like the Vidal and I very much enjoy the Cabernet Franc (especially in a Kir Royal) there’s no question for me: our Riesling Icewine. It’s elegant and it ages beautifully. The '04 is fantastic right now.
Having had a bottle of the 04 Henry of Pelham Riesling icewine myself, I can vouch for that. Thanks very much for your time.