ice wine inniskillin

Ice Wine's Asian appeal

24 August, 2021

Sometimes accidents breed innovation. In 1928 Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by chance, having thrown away a bacteria sample he thought was spent.

Ice wine was similarly stumbled across in Germany in the 1700s when a local winemaker decided to press and ferment grapes which had been caught in a frost, and the result was a concentrated, sweet wine.

Moving on 300 years and Canada is well known for its production of ice wine. However, while Canada sits at the top of the global category, China is fast becoming a key player.

China is the biggest export market for Canadian ice wine, which in 2016 was valued at US$6.5 million, according to Wine Growers Canada. This figure will have risen significantly over the past five years and even through Covid the demand from China hasn’t wavered.


Inniskillin is one of the biggest names in Canadian ice wine. Randy Dufour, vice president of exports & travel retail at brand owner Arterra Wines, says the Chinese market has been a godsend throughout the pandemic.

“Our Canadian business absolutely flourished during the pandemic but our exports business struggled,” says Dufour. “Prior to Covid 50% of our sales were in the duty free channel and a significant chunk of the other 50% were in high-end restaurants, so it was a tough year.” 

US beverage company Constellation Brands, which previously owned Inniskillin, sold its Canadian business to Arterra Wines’ parent company Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan in 2016. But the winery’s contract with Constellation’s distribution arm ended March 1, 2020, just as the pandemic was taking hold.

Dufour adds: “Just as they were giving us back full control of our distribution Covid hit. So we lost a lot of our global distribution which we’d spent the previous 17 months rebuilding. But now we have a strategy to be aligned with the best importers in all the major markets, and in China it’s ASC Fine Wine.” 

As Joe Bates reports in his GTR analysis (page 16), China’s Hainan Island is playing a key role in the duty free sector in Asia and for Inniskillin the tropical island has provided a lifeline. 

Dufour adds: “In the last year our sales are up 300% in China just from focus and dedication and we’ve done a great job with duty free there. We’re now the leading wine brand in Hainan Island and they’re keeping our duty free business alive. They’re buying thousands and thousands of cases of ice wine at a price point which starts at USD$80 for a half bottle.”

According to Dufour, Inniskillin first gained interest from Asia through Japanese tourists visiting Niagara Falls who wanted to take back a piece of Canada, which was either maple syrup or ice wine. “We targeted the Japanese and then the Koreans and then it was the Chinese who got interested,” says Dufour. 

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