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Ferox roars on to the Niagara wine scene with small, but growing, portfolio: “This is my dream”

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By Rick VanSickle
As the grandson of a Niagara wine legend, Fabian Reis has some big winemaker boots to fill, but he’s up to the challenge with his new Ferox wines.

Reis is the grandson of Herbert Konzelmann, a fourth generation winemaker and proprietor/winemaker at Konzelmann Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Herbert was the first in the family to leave Germany in search of the next perfect location to grow grapes.

In 1984, he discovered an ideal location in Niagara, along the shores of Lake Ontario, a spot that reminded him of Alsace, France. Not because of the scenery, but due to the micro-climate, which is similar to Alsace with a balance of sun, soil, airflow and moisture conditions, ideal for making clean, aromatic, fruity wines.

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Konzelmann has found enormous success in Niagara and Reis, representing the sixth generation winemaker family that dates back to 1893 in Stuttgart, Germany, is following in those footsteps after getting his first taste of Niagara in 1995.

He returned back to Germany for over 5 years to study his winemaking roots from 2006-2011 and attended one of Germany’s prestigious winemaking schools, working alongside wineries that are ranked among Europe’s best.

Since returning to Niagara in 2011, Reis decided to take a chance and leave the shadows of his long established winemaking customs, including a stint working under the guidance of his grandfather at Konzelmann, and set forth to produce his own style of wines alongside sommelier wife Stephanie with their new virtual winery Ferox.

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Reis partnered with Klaus Reif (Reif Winery, left) and grower Erwin Wiens, centre, for the new project that uses fruit from Wiens’ vineyards and winery facilities at Reif.

“I wanted to make my own story, take my own path,” says Reis. “This is my dream.”

Said grower Wiens, who sells the majority of his grapes to Peller Estate and Vineland Estate: “We put aside specific rows (of vines) for Ferox. We decided to do this together from vineyard to bottle, to make site-specific wines.”

Low crop yields, 1.5 to 2 tonnes per acre, late picked fruit from the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation, all wines aged in some sort of wood (oak or acacia), dramatic labeling and white-wax-dipped bottle tops are trademarks of Ferox wines, which is aiming is for 1,000 case production.

The first wines released were: A Merlot-Cabernet (sold out), Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. In barrel now and coming soon are: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, a blend of Merlot, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Syrah and Malbec, and in December, a barrel-fermented Dornfelder Icewine.

Best Niagara wine

Simmering deep in the cellar at Reif, a little surprise is aging in barrel (above) — a Port-style red blend. It’s a huge, fortified sweet red with a big boozy nose and teeming with black fruits, raisins and spices. A cigar wine if I’ve tasted one.

“We want to build demand for our wines and show what we can do for Canada … and how to take it to a global level.”

Those are some lofty goals, for sure.

For now, getting Ferox, a Latin word meaning savage, wines into the hands of consumers is the immediate challenge. The 2015 Merlot-Cabernet, at $55, sold out quickly with dwindling supplies of both the Riesling and Sauvignon blanc.

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One wine writer, Shari Darling of the Peterborough Examiner, declared the Ferox Merlot-Cabernet “the Best Ontario Red Wine of 2017,” while Vines Magazine gave the wine a silver medal through its InterVin awards. On the other hand, WineAlign was not quite as impressed, bestowing an 88-point average rating on the same wine.

I would score it somewhere between Ontario’s best red wine of the year and 88 points, but it’s a sold out wine and you cannot judge for yourself until the next vintage arrives.

The blend is aged in 60% new oak and 40% used oak barrels for 16 months. It has an Old World nose of black currants, cherries, anise, graphite, campfire smoke, earth and savoury spices. It’s highly structured on the palate with firm tannins to go with dark fruits and savoury, meaty notes lifted by high acidity.

Ferox Riesling 2016 ($38, available at Reif, 91 points) — Born of the super hot 2016 vintage, the roots for these vines had to dig deep to find water and in the process stressed the vines, producing smaller, more concentrated berries. I find Niagara Rieslings offer an added mineral component during the hotter vintages, and this is a fine example of that. Half this Riesling spends about 8 months in acacia barrels to add mouthfeel and texture without the oak spices, the other half is aged in stainless steel. It shows lovely lime, grapefruit, peach, minerals and subtle ginger notes on the nose. It has a perfectly dry impression on the palate with a range of grapefruit, apple skin, lime, slate minerality and decent acidity through the finish. A Riesling to drink in the short term because of the heat of the vintage, say, within three or four years.

Ferox Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($46, available at Reif, 88 points) — After the grapes for this wine were hand picked, they were immediately de-stemmed, transferred into press and cold soaked for 20 hours. Fermentation was completed in 50% acacia barrels and 50% stainless steel tanks with constant batonnage during fermentation and up until bottling. I can see this Sauv Blanc pleasing some people and confusing others. It’s a bit of an enigma. The nose shows herbaceous/grassy notes with gooseberry and grapefruit but also mango, pineapple and other ripe tropical fruits. There is an appealing texture on the palate, but again a dichotomy of flavours that seem to want to be both New Zealand-style and a somewhat juicer, riper version with a range of tropical fruits against a background of fresh-cut grass, herbs and even a touch of green pepper. It’s as if there were two picks for this wine, one early to maintain freshness in a hot vintage and one later to blend in riper grapes to take advantage of the heat in 2016.