By: Adrienne Roman
Globally recognized as the world’s largest estate producer of Icewine, Pillitteri Estates Winery in Niagara-On-The-Lake has provided excellence in viticulture since opening in 1993. Their premium V.Q.A award-winning ice and table wines are widely distributed to local events, businesses, and markets, and are currently being exported to International clientele in 39 countries.
The Niagara Peninsula is situated between two of the Great Lakes, Ontario to the North, and Erie to the South. The region is the largest wine producer in Ontario, with primary varietals of Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Vidal. With the protection of the Niagara Escarpment, and the moderating climate of the Lakes, the region’s temperature is similar to prime grape producing regions in France. The cool climate sub-appellation terroirs allow for the development of diverse root character, complex grape flavours, and a number of new varietals.
“ We bought a wonderful piece of land, ” said Charles Pillitteri, C.E.O and President of Pillitteri Estates Winery. Pillitteri’s cherished Sicilian heritage remains at the forefront of every aspect of the family business. Working alongside his two sisters, his sharp business acumen is focused on ensuring the winery forges forward for generations to come.
A single glance of the majestic ten foot tall stainless steel doors leading into the Pillitteri’s press house and cellar reveals the imagination of blacksmith Ken Robertson’s unique vision. Carefully designed linear lines on the ground visually direct the visitor inside where they’re transported on an aesthetic adventure. Both natural and synthetic elements juxtapose together seamlessly to produce a truly imaginative space. Ceramics, composites, polyurethane and steel tell the elegant story of natural growth, culminating in Robertson’s striking sculpture of the stages of grapes on the vine at the center of the atrium, depicting the flower, to veraison, and finally maturity. Intricately carved vine detail adorns the newel posts of the majestic staircase as you travel downwards and encounter the monolithic, Neo-Norman, and Roman influenced oak barrel cellar.
Designed by close friend and Niagara architect Frank Wieler, a monumental 500-inch terrazzo top concrete table spans the length of the room, with 23 carved stainless steel chairs cleverly mounted on the adjacent walls representing the number that has significance to the family history. Each chair has it’s own designated position at the table, represented by a smaller carved triangle in the stainless steel denoting where it should be placed among the others. The unique chairs were commissioned by Pillitteri’s parents to tell the symbolic story of the winery.
Red wines are separate from the whites in the cellar, where the French and American oak barrels work to increase oxygen interaction, enrich development, and further flavour. The press house is no less impressive, with its large-scale open concept glass viewing station and colossal pressing machines that utilize pulse air technology to set the grapes in motion while ensuring the pressure remains gentle.
“Volume isn’t an issue for us, we’re a declassification house and we wait for the next great vintage. We’re all about quality and sustainability, it’s definitely our priority,” said Pillitteri.“ I’ve done a lot of method research and I’ve found that the carbon footprint can be remarkably higher with many types of organic farming. Copper doesn’t break down and can kill the insects that work to help the vines. We need to keep the vines as healthy as possible. “
Their innovation excellence in grape and wine research was recognized in 2011 with an Ontario Premier’s Award for their work on the Verona Appassimento Project. The family developed techniques now utilized by other wineries in the production of Appassimento wines. They planted the first Verona varietals in Ontario, and laid the foundation for their Riserva Famiglia series. Grapes produced during the Verona project were used to make their 2010 Riserva Famiglia Cabernet Franc, which won Red Wine of The Year and Gold at the Ontario Wine Awards in 2015. These reserve wines are hand crafted in the classic Appassimento style, as it was previously done for generations in Italy.
The chosen grapes are harvested by hand and dry naturally in racks over weeks or even months in order to concentrate the sugars. “ We follow French rules when it comes to making reserve. I look to classification when choosing quality wines, an intense richness with our cabernet’s, elegant and not too tannic. Our reserve fruit definitely helps our baselines,“ said Pillitteri.
It all started with one Black Tartarian cherry tree and a flash of entrepreneurial spirit.
After settling in Niagara-On-The-Lake in 1965, Pillitteri’s parents Gary and Lena recruited their three children to sell the cherries on the roadside of their Niagara Stone Road property. Their small fruit stand on the farm soon flourished and they opened “Gary’s Fruit Market” in 1973. In 1988 they decided to focus on the grapes, and the Pillitteri Estates Winery was born. The cherry orchard remains, as does their very first muse, that century-old Tartarian tree. Today, the first thing that appears on the fruit stand in the morning when the winery opens is a plump basket of cherries for sale.
The Pillitteri passion for wine can be traced back to the region of Racalmuto in Sicily, where grandfather and father worked together grafting and tending to the vines. Gary, now 83 years young, remembers the oppression as though it were yesterday. The widespread hunger in Italy in the 1940’s instilled in him a social consciousness as a six-year-old child that brings tears to his eyes as he recounts a poignant story that changed his outlook on life at a very young age. Gary’s father Calogero asked him to give his shoes to another little boy who was barefoot, his first life lesson about the importance of giving to those less fortunate. Gary has lived his life echoing those same values, working in farming and politics with the hopes of eliminating discrimination and promoting greater equality among his fellow men. “ My life is a dream,” he said with a smile. Currently building a tree house for his grandchild, there’s definitely no slowing down in sight for this hardy yet hospitable Pillitteri gentleman.
As official supplier and private label for Team Canada, Tokyo 2020, and the Paris Olympics 2024, the Pillitteri family are honoured to support the Olympic foundation with proceeds from their sales while helping to further expand the rapid growth of the Ontario’s wine industry.
The true jewel in the crown for the Pillitteri family is their cherished Icewine. With the Niagara climate moving rapidly into colder temperatures after the summer season, it’s perfectly suited for the icewine grapes that like to go hot and cold, picked at just the right time when they are golden and endorphins are at their highest. It’s been an evolution since their first Icewine developed in 1988, with 13 styles now available. Pillitteri decided early on that he needed to take an assertive stand in the promotion and showcasing of Canadian wines, setting his sights on the Asian wine market, and making lasting connections in Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.
The Pillitteri’s understand that not every season will be what they had hoped. Luckily with a world-famous Reserve Vidal, and a Canadian trophy for Best Dessert Wine with their 2013 Reisling Icewine at the Six Nations Wine Challenge, the winery has the freedom to study, explore, and create.
With over 1000 awards from top competitions, and 200 000 visitors a year, Pillitteri Estate Winery’s dedication to perfecting the art of making Canadian wine is evident. Each creatively designed wine label tells a story that follows the installations that came before. The Pillitteri logo is a representation of their treasured family Carretto, a hand-painted Sicilian cart, traditionally used to bring wares to the market, and personally brought to Canada in 1952 by Pillitteri’s grandmother.
Wine bias of the past is waning in favour of a new set of rules, discerning clientele who look for quality and taste, and appreciate the progressive innovation of, “ old world meets new world “ experimentation.
Pillitteri’s winemaker Aleksandar Kolundzic returns to Europe regularly to explore traditional methods, yet always keeping up to date on the latest practices to bring back to share with the winery.
The Pillitteri story exemplifies the Canadian dream. With reverence for the past, fierce determination, and three generations of family strength, the Pillitteri’s are moving forward with their expanding collections, presenting Canadian wines to the world that are truly worthy of the award-winning recognition they so deserve.
Chi si volta, e chi si gira, sempre a casa va finire.
No matter where you go or turn, you’ll always end up at home.
For more information contact:
Pillitteri Estates Winery
1696 Niagara Stone Road