Pillitteri Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake is the largest estate maker of ice wine in the world and it wants to keep growing.
Canada has a lock on ice wine, producing 85 to 90 per cent of the ice wine made globally.
The third-generation winery produces a little more than 30 per cent of Canada’s ice wine, according to Richard Slingerland, vice-president of sales.
He also heads up Chinese exports, a rapidly growing market for Pillitteri’s products.
China now accounts for 40 per cent of total sales. Pillitteri started seeking markets abroad just a couple of years after opening in 1993.
“It was difficult to sell wine in Ontario. The LCBO wasn’t interested in anyone’s products. And the wine region and the wine route was not in existence. Canadian wines were not well known.”
So Slingerland’s uncle, Charlie Pillitteri, started travelling to Europe, Taiwan, Japan and then to China. Pillitteri now has several distributors in China, as well as a dozen franchised stores, and restaurant sales. The stores carry a range of Canadian products, including maple syrup and Saskatoon berries, along with products from three other Niagara wineries.
“We aren’t competing with the wineries down the street, it’s about making a name as a wine industry in Canada. Our competition is French, German and Italian.”
Emerging wine nations — Australia, Chile, South Africa — are investing lots of money in supporting and branding their homegrown industry, says Slingerland.
Only five per cent of Chinese drink wine, but with a population of 1.4 billion, it’s a huge market.
For rich Chinese, sipping on Canadian ice wine is a sign of status, so much so, that raising prices actually boosted sales. The middle class is also gravitating to wine, says Slingerland.
“But they’ll buy a few bottles. The upper class buys case loads.”
China may be the giant, but the Pillitteris, who employ 50 people full time, are growing sales of ice wine and reds and whites across Europe, Asia and the U.S.
Last year’s bitterly cold winter was a boon for the winery, which counts on ice wine for 60 per cent of its sales. At 350 tonnes of seven varietals of grapes, it was the largest harvest in the 21-year history of the vineyard.
Pillitteri also bought 890 tonnes of grapes to produce about 600,000 375 mL bottles.
About 40 per cent of the winery’s ice wine is sold in Canada.
The business was founded by Slingerland’s grandparents, Gary and Lena Pillitteri. The couple’s three children are executives, with Slingerland’s mother handling finance and his father managing the vineyard.