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From Turkey to Niagara wine country, Icellars’ incredible journey against all odds

By Rick VanSickle

Adnan Icel, his wife Elif and their family immigrated to Canada just 12 years ago from Turkey with no wine experience to speak of — either drinking or making — and today crafts some of the most exciting new wines in Niagara.

Let that sink in for a moment.

“I didn’t even know Canada made wine,” Icel tells me as I settle in to taste a full complement of wines crafted by this self-taught winemaker, grape grower and chief bottle washer.

What he did bring with him was an MBA degree and his career as a mechanical engineer that he parlayed into a successful company building pre-engineered steel residential and commercial buildings as CEO of Trimetal Engineering Inc., a company he founded and owned in Turkey and then moved it to Oakville when he and his family came to Canada in 2006. He “semi” retied from his business shortly after he moved to Oakville with a dream to try something completely different — farming.

Niagara wine
Adnan and Elif Icel.

It was Niagara’s beauty that caught his eye and after searching for farmland, came upon the property he ended up purchasing on Concession 5 Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake, right beside the now closed Coyote’s Run winery (he ended up buying the bulk of its winemaking equipment, tanks and barrels).

It was a 60-acre farm with nothing but fallow fields and plenty of potential. His thoughts turned to his ancestors in his homeland of Anatolia, now present day Turkey. The early civilization of Hittites founded their empire on those fertile lands over 4,000 years ago and are credited for founding modern day winemaking techniques.

So, Icel, below and very top, did what any successful mechanical engineer would do. He would build a 20,000 square foot winery, based on the steel buildings he had constructed so many times before, plant grapes and teach himself how to make wine.

The first wine Icel made was in 2011 after reading a how-to book on winemaking. Though his wine drinking, or any drinking at all, was limited to the odd white wine from Turkey and, of course, raki, otherwise known as Lion’s Milk — the Turkish national drink made from twice-distilled grapes and aniseed. The first wine he made he described as “excellent,” which prompted Icel to attend “hundreds” of winemaking seminars, reading “hundreds” of books on the subject and a journey of discovery to the great wines regions of the world to taste as many wines as he could to learn what it was he liked and wanted to emulate from his patch of Niagara. He fell in love with Napa Valley after tasting some of the best wines the region has to offer — Opus One, Shafer, Robert Mondavi, up and down the Silverado Trail and Highway 29, tasting after tasting.

The wines of Mondavi, especially those crafted from the famed To-Kalon Vineyard, had a particular impact on Icel and the founder of the winery, Robert Mondavi, became a hero of sorts. To this day, he keeps a particular passage from Mondavi’s book Harvests of Joy close at hand as it relates to the vineyard Icel planted from scratch.

“The more tasting I did, the more I came to understand the importance of climate and proper soil content and drainage,” the late Mondavi wrote. “I found that the cooler the climate, the more flavour and character you get in the grapes; this is true with almost every fruit. So I came up with an axiom to guide us: The cooler the climate — but still warm enough to bring the grapes to full maturity — the finer the grapes. And the finer the grapes, the finer the wine. In our tastings, we studied how we could best match different grape varietals to the different microclimates and soil types on our properties and those of the Napa Valley growers who supplied us.”

Icel and his family turned the 60-acre farm into 17 acres of estate fruit to start, then planted another 23 acres and plans to plant 10 more to get to 40 acres under vine and a case production of 10,000 from the 4,000 they now produce.

The production is 90% estate fruit from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petite Verdot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are sourced from Craig Wismer and the vines are tended to by Glen Elgin Vineyard Management.

All the wines are made by Adnan Icel with careful onsite consultation from Peter Gamble.

The winery building was designed and built on the principles of having everything under one roof, creating a simple yet functional space. Small lot wines are processed separately by gravity flow in an environmentally friendly design. The simplicity of the architectural design is echoed by offering limited production wines for sale in a practical but cosy tasting room that adjoins the massive working winery.

The family’s Turkish heritage is incorporated in the label design that captures the icons of an ancient life and the roots of the family’s heritage. The stag design is inspired by the wine drinking vessels used by the Hittites of Anatolia (depicted in above photos). Blended into the label is the Hittite sun disk – a symbol of prosperity, fertility and celebration.

While Icel self-taught himself to make all the wines at the estate, with advice from Gamble, it is not something he wants to do forever. “If you let me I can go 24 hours a day. I did punch downs in my slippers,” he said. Hiring a winemaker is something he plans on doing in the near future.

Considering all this, where Icel and his family have come since arriving in Canada only 12 years ago with no winemaking experience, and producing such exciting wines, there is no telling what’s in store for Icellars. The future is certainly bright.

Here’s what I liked from tasting through the Icellars portfolio.

The Rosé

Icellars Cabernet Franc Rosé 2017 ($25, 88 points) — The fruit is sourced from Wismer Foxcroft on the Twenty Mile Bench with only 45 minutes of skin contact, fermented to full dryness and finished at 12.5% abv. It shows a pale amber colour in the glass with aromas of fresh red berries and light herbs. It’s wonderfully dry on the palate with notes of bramble raspberries, cherries, earth, brilliant acidity and underlying herbaceous notes.

The Whites

Icellars Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($40, released soon, 91 points) — The previous vintage of this Wismer Homestead Vineyard sourced fruit was built without oak or malo, but Icel decided to flip it around for 2018 and fermented and aged this Savvy in 500 L oak puncheons and applied full malo. It’s a much more complex and elegant style with a deeper colour and enticing nose of grapefruit, guava, pear, gooseberries and integrated spice notes. It’s rich and textured on the palate with grapefruit, pear, gooseberries and a balanced approach to the spices. A lovely wine.

Icellars Chardonnay 2017 ($40, 92 points) — Chardonnay is the only white grape planted on the estate and there’s a reason for that: “My wife loves Chardonnay and I want to make her happy,” says Icel. The grapes are hand-picked, whole cluster pressed, fermented and aged for 12 months in oak puncheons (30% new wood) with full malo and lees stirred weekly. An interesting aside is that half the production of 380 cases is closed with cork, the other half in Stelvin — which he intends to taste over time to see how each develops. The nose is rich and fragrant with overt notes of ripe pear, baked apple and elegant oak spices with just a touch of citrus on the edges. It’s rich and layered on the palate with ripe apple, pineapple, poached pear, cream, buttery oak stylings and decent acidity holding it all together. A robust and bigger style of Chardonnay that stays true to the Niagara-on-the-Lake attributes.

The Reds

Icellars Pinot Noir 2017 ($50, released soon, 90 points) — I tasted this side by side with the 2016 vintage from the much warmer vintage. This is the prettier of the two with a nose of black cherries, brambly raspberries, lovely integrated spice hints of anise and earth. It’s silky smooth and layered on the palate with ripe cherries, cranberries, crunchy raspberries, elegant spice and length through the finish. Cellar 5+ years.

Icellars Cabernet Franc 2016 ($30, 91 points) — Sourced from Wismer Foxcroft Vineyard, aged in American and French oak for 12 months and bottled unfined and unfiltered. A lovely nose of earth and herbs with bright raspberries, anise, dark cherries and spice. A bold offering on the palate with tannic structure in support of earthy red berries, cranberries, anise, licorice, fine oak spice and a vibrant, juicy finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Icellars Arinna 2016 ($42, 92 points) — Named after an ancient winemaking city in the heart of what is now Turkey, this “Right Bank” styled Bordeaux-varietal blend of 50% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc and 4% Melbec, all from estate fruit, is aged in mostly French oak for 12 months. It’s a gorgeous red from the ripe 2016 vintage with an attractive nose of dark cherries, black currants, plums, earth, dried cigar leaf, lovely caramel and vanilla spices. It’s lush, complex and layered on the palate with a range of currants, cassis, anise, hint of pepper, sweet barrel spices and gamy/earthy accents through a long, but balanced finish. Good aging potential here, 7+ years.

Icellars Syrah 2017 ($40, 90 points) — Sourced from the Wismer Edgerock Vineyard and aged for 12 months in French and American oak. It has a gamy/spicy nose of currants, cracked peppercorns, cassis, licorice accents and oak spices. It’s smooth and rich on the palate and takes on more red fruits to go with currants, blackberries, damp earth, rich spice notes, pepper and perky acidity through the finish.

Icellars Wiyana Wanda 2016 ($85, released soon, 93 points) — This is the top wine made at the estate, chosen from the best blocks grown at Icellars and culled from best barrels. The blend is 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc and 6% Malbec all aged separately for 12 months in all French oak, blended together and aged a further 12 months. It’s bottled unfined and unfiltered. Adnan Icell takes great pride in extensive “research” as he embarked on starting a winery with little experience. He travelled to famous wine regions and tasted his way through as many wines as he could at some of the most iconic wineries on the planet. One that had a particularly profound affect on Icel was the famed Opus One winery in Napa Valley. Opus One is the inspiration for this wine. It’s a nice tribute to Icel’s journey to get this far this fast and, frankly, an incredible story of triumph over what would seem the impossible — to make a wine at this level from scratch with limited experience in a country he only arrived in 12 years ago. But here we are, and this wine is a wonder. It’s certainly tight at the moment, but swirl it your glass and the beauty unfolds, the rich black currants, the blackberries and kirsch. The underlying meaty notes and earth, the woodsy spices and depth of aromas that keep coming. It’s bold, rich, thick and loaded with dark fruits on the palate, the kind of ripe dark berries you don’t always see in Niagara Cab-based wines, with notes of earth, wonderful oaky spices all layered and complex and leading to a long, finessed finish. It’s too early to drink this wine with so many moving parts and tannic power, but wait for it, and you will be rewarded to a very nice Niagara cab blend.

Icellars Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2017 ($90 range when released, 92 points) — Icel makes no bones about it — he is a huge fan of Cabernet Sauvignon and is committed to growing and making more of it in the years to come. This is the first “reserve” Cab Sauv culled from the oldest vines (OK, the vines aren’t that old, but these are from the first grapes planted on the estate) and best barrels. The grapes were picked at 25.9 Brix, cold soaked for a week, aged for 24 months in French oak, bottled unfiltered and unfined and finished at nearly 15% abv. It has a lovely, refined nose of currants, cassis, blackberries, caramel/toffee notes, earth, subtle cigar leaf and sweet spices. It’s lush, ripe and loaded with dark berries and spice on the palate with a long, luxurious finish that’s lifted by bright acidity. Can cellar 7+ years and don’t touch for at least two years or decant for two hours to open it up.

The Icewine

Icellars Riesling Icewine 2016 ($48 for 200 mL, 92 points) — After getting frustrated with consumers thinking the name of the winery was related to icewine, Icel finally relented and decided it was time to actually make one to appease those who ventured to Icellars in search of that sweet style of wine. He says he will only make it every three years or so and the 2016 version will be followed by 2019. The grapes are sourced from Wismer on the Twenty Mile Bench and finished at 193 g/l of residual sugar. Such a penetrating nose of rich, layered peach, apricot and tropical fruits. It’s lush, unctuous and decadent on the palate with layers of wild honey, compoted orchard fruits, apricot and decent balancing acidity.