As an emerging market with a strong taste for luxury Western goods, China is a natural fit for Canadian icewine. Exports surged in the middle of the decade, climbing eight-fold in only two years.
But counterfeiters apparently noticed, and Canadian vintners are cringing at the fakes appearing on the market.
"Well over 50 per cent of icewine in China is fake from what I've seen and heard," said Allan Schmidt, president of Vineland Estates, which has quit the market entirely. "If it was 80 per cent … I wouldn't be surprised."
His company's newest product, a ready-to-drink vodka and icewine beverage called Vice, won't be released in mainland China. But Mr. Schmidt, who said it will come out in Japan and Hong Kong by the end of the year, sounded resigned about the chances of preventing counterfeiting.
"If it is successful in Hong Kong, I have no doubt it'll turn up in China," he said Wednesday.
The legitimate Chinese market for Canadian icewine has grown rapidly, which the industry attributes to a burgeoning middle class and the desire to give exotic gifts. It rose to $2.16-million in 2007 from $270,000 in 2005. The market sagged in 2008, but was worth $1.2-million in the first half of this year.
"It's our most important flagship wine produced," said Bob Keyes, vice-president of economic and government affairs with the Canadian Vintners Association. "These fakes, somebody tastes this and says: 'Yuck, that's what Canadian icewine is all about?' "
The damage to the product's status is an ever-present worry for the industry. But a bigger concern is the potential human and business catastrophe of a poisoning incident.
"You can just imagine the headlines if someone gets sick drinking what they think is Canadian icewine," Mr. Keyes said. "If there was a highly publicized case, people ... wouldn't think 'fake or real?' They'll think Canadian icewine. And you're screwed."
The most egregious examples on the market are the outright knockoffs. Mr. Schmidt said his Vineland Estates icewine packaging was copied and, when he tried to fight in the Chinese courts, was told the case couldn't be heard until 2011.
"In the meantime, this company gets to continue to use this brand," he said.
Also for sale in China are products that began as bulk exports of wine or juice from Canada. They are finished and bottled in China and in some cases may legally be labelled as products of Canada. But they don't necessarily meet the standards practised by Canadian vintners.
Mr. Keyes said the industry is going after the problem in multiple ways. Among them are attempts to trademark the words "ice wine" and "icewine," and a long-range goal of bringing China into the World Wine Trade Group, which would regulate the type of product that could be sold there as icewine.
Some counterfeit bottles boast to be from the "Niagare" region of Canada
The Vintners Quality Alliance stamp is also under dispute in China, with the Canadian industry struggling in court to prevent Chinese individuals from registering "VQA" as a trademark. The federal government is helping with that fight and is also trying to educate Chinese consumers about real icewine.
"People spend a lot of time and money developing brands and building reputations," said Randy Dufour, director of exports for Vincor. "If we don't protect this unique product what are we going to be known for? They're going to be knocking off and screwing up maple syrup before you know it."