Giant kilns once used to dry out tobacco leaves are the new winemaking tools of choice at a Niagara-on-the-Lake winery.
In an upcoming research experiment, Reif Estate Winery will try using these two humidity and temperature-controlled sheds to make unique wines and expand their product lineup.
Winery officials plan to take these used tools from the dying tobacco industry in Essex County and give it them new life in Niagara’s wine business.
“The idea was let’s try and see if we can get some of these kilns and transfer that technology and all that research that they did to see if we can convert it to grapes,” Reif winemaker Roberto DiDomenico said.
On Tuesday, the Niagara Parkway winery’s research projects got a boost when it received $196,000 from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program.
The money will be used to help support staffing and consulting costs needed to complete three Reif projects:
• The first kiln will be used to dry out grapes to produce a style of richer wine with more sugar concentration, called passito or Amarone-style wine.
Other producers in Niagara are already successfully making wines of this style — to positive reviews — by naturally drying out grapes in racks, which can take up to six weeks.
Reif hopes to reduce the drying time to two weeks, allowing the winery to possibly produce three batches of passito each vintage.
• The second kiln will blast humidity to purposely taint grapes with a fungus called botrytis cinera, which can, in the right conditions, produce beautifully sweet wine.
Most botrytis-affected wines on the market are accidents of nature, not intentionally produced.
• In another project, the winery plans to use a new cross-flow filtration system to improve the quality and speed of its icewine production.
Klaus Reif, the winery’s president and chief executive officer, said the winery could not afford to do the research without the help of the federal government-run research council.
Reif has spent more than $108,000 to buy equipment, including the filtration system and two 12-metre by three-metre kilns.
The projects are a necessary part of the evolution of the Ontario wine industry and the results can be shared with other wineries, Reif said.
“Here in Ontario, we can’t mass produce wines,” Reif said.
“People can buy cheaper wines from anywhere in the world. What we have to do here in Ontario is to be very specialized and to produce wines which are unique and appeal to a niche market.”
To his knowledge, no other winery is using old tobacco kilns in winemaking.
Winery staff will spend time experimenting with the kilns this fall to try to find the best way of drying out grapes and creating the desirable fungus.
Wines made with the new techniques will likely not be available to consumers until 2011.
Niagara Falls MP Rob Nicholson said the grape and wine industry is important to the region and needs to be supported through research dollars.
“We know we can’t stand still,” said Nicholson, the minister of justice and the attorney general of Canada, who made the funding announcement Tuesday at the winery.
“We have to continue to develop this industry and innovate, and this is a part of that process.”
The National Research Council of Canada Research Assistance Program provides technical and business advice services to small- and medium-sized businesses.
Since 1989, Reif and the research council have collaborated on 14 projects.
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