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A drink with… Bruce Nicholson

Bruce Nicholson recently decided to retire as head winemaker at Canada's Inniskillin winery. He talks to Sara d'Amato about his long career and handing over the reins to his successor Nick Gizuk.

Bruce Nicholson has spent over 34 years crafting wine in Canada’s British Columbia and Niagara regions at both Jackson Triggs British Columbia and Inniskillin Niagara wineries. As head winemaker of two of the country’s leading icewine producers, he has a lot to say about Canada’s most revered wine export, however his early inspiration was anything but icewine…

I was at a wine festival out west 35 years ago and I tried a Chardonnay from the Okanagan that was the real deal. It really inspired me and is certainly one of my favourite varieties to work with to this day.’

I like to try different vintages of my own wine to see how they’re progressing and where they’re heading and, did I make some of the right decisions along the way?’ Apparently so because the 2019 vintage of Nicholson’s prized Inniskillin’s Montague Vineyard grown Chardonnay was recently awarded a gold medal at the National Wine Awards of Canada.

Nicholson has decided to retire this year. One of the proudest moments of my career was winning the inaugural Karl Kaiser Canadian Winemaking Award in 2018, in memoriam of somebody who I admired, and it was where I was able to finally thank my wife for all her patience and support over the years.’

Karl Kaiser’s influence on the burgeoning Canadian wine industry in the 1970s had a profound effect on Nicholson. It’s people like Donald Ziraldo, Karl Kaiser and Allan Jackson, Don Triggs, these people are the reason we are here. This is why there is a Canadian wine industry. These were the pioneers. Many people today, yesterday and in the future can thank them for their vision.’

Nicholson is confident in his successor, Nick Gizuk. Inniskillin has been very fortunate to have Nick. In all my years, it’s very rewarding and special to have someone who is as passionate and dedicated as he is. To be a winemaker, you have to be all in. You can’t be 85%, you have to be 100% in all aspects of the process, and he is like that.’

Making icewine

Having overseen over three decades of winemaking, Nicholson has not experienced a single year where the conditions for icewine production did not materialise. But he admits there are still some challenges. In all the years that I’ve lived, growing was good. I mean, it’s going to get to -8°C, -10°C. There’s no doubt about it.’

Wherever you are in the world’s wine-producing regions, you have a pretty good idea of when you’re going to pick those grapes. It might be a week one way or the other. But with icewine, it can happen in parts of November, December, or in January and sometimes as late as February or even March. The later it becomes, the more nervous the winemaker and the grower become, because the elements can take a hold of the vineyard… Wildlife, birds, the dehydration process or the wind that will knock the grapes off the vine.’

The sweet spot for icewine is not a soaring high sugar levels, according to Nicholson. When I started at Innniskillin, I thought higher Brix would make better icewine. While it’s legal to have grapes at a lower sugar level and at much higher sugar levels, I have a smaller window… It’s a challenge finding the night that’s going to stay cold enough to get the grapes into the winery and pressed at the levels you want. I don’t like to pick Vidal on a first pick, unlike the vinifera which I like to pick at the very first opportunity. First the Riesling and then the thicker-skinned Cabernet Franc. I like the freezing to be thawing a bit.’

Over the years, Nicholson has learned to manage the prevalence of volatile acidity in sweet wines and icewines. If you get a high VA in a delicate Riesling, Pinot Grigio or even Chardonnay, it becomes obvious and a fault. But you can have amazingly high VA [in icewine] as a result of the osmotic pressure that the yeast is responding to from the high sugar. It has a tendency to go up fairly quickly and then it levels off. That’s part of the profile. If it’s your first time [making icewine] you may get awful nervous when the VA starts to rise. It’s a response to the high viscosity, high sugar. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like my Brix too high.’

Sparkling success

Sparkling icewine is a rarely exported Canadian delicacy that Nicholson continues to champion. It’s a Charmat method, it’s got to be because once you’ve stopped a fermentation, it is impossible to get it to start again. If there was one wine that I had to take to the Queen of England or to a high dignitary in the world, I would take a sparkling icewine. At the London Wine Fair in 2007, people came from all over the world and said: “We have to try your sparkling icewine and I’ve been told we have to buy your sparkling wine.’”

Finding the right time to open a bottle of icewine may prove as agonising for consumers as the process of making icewine is for winemakers. So Nicholson has some words of advice: The right occasion is any occasion. It’s a small bottle and it’s a high price, and rightfully so because I know the process of making it. But if you can get together, particularly nowadays when we haven’t been with family and friends – the whole world – for almost two years, then go down to your cellar and have that bottle of wine.’

Some of my earliest memories are spending time with friends and family. I missed spending Christmas Day with my family [last year]. I enjoy having my daughter and my son here, all together, and sharing good food and great wine with the people that mean the most to you. With my daughter getting married, I now have a son-in-law, which is just going to add to the memories and enjoyment of the holidays.’

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