Six Generations of Winemaking

Written and photographed by Sandra Ozkur

In 2014, Konzelmann Estate Winery, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, will celebrate its 30th anniversary. The owner, Herbert Konzelmann, couldn’t be more pleased as he welcomes his grandson, Fabian, into the family business. Fabian will become the latest in a long line of professional winemakers that stretches back six generations.

Herbert Konzelmann, originally from Uhlbach, Germany, started Konzelmann Winery in 1984. Today, at the spry age of 76, he is still the head master, overseeing the entire production from start to finish. “I just love it,” he says with a huge grin on his face. “When I see those grapes ripening perfectly I get so excited, I can’t wait to see what kind of wine I can make from them. Only 5 years out of a hundred will have similar growing conditions. Each year presents a different challenge, and that is what keeps it interesting,” he says in a voice still tinged with a German accent.

“Right now we have a 2012 Chardonnay aging in oak; you can’t believe the beauty of that wine!” His bright blue eyes light up with pride as he describes the ripeness of the fruit on the palate, the complex aromas, and the full mouth-feel of a robust and mature wine. He invites me to come back later when the wine is finished to taste this prize creation straight from the barrel. “Great wine is only made from excellent grapes, and I am very confident that our wines will turn out well year after year because I know we have healthy vines. And when the vines are healthy the fruit will be beautiful!” He goes on to explain that Konzelmann Winery takes great care in nurturing their vines. Their viticulturist, Romeo Miele, manages the vineyards and is given great credit for introducing sustainable farming methods to re-mineralize and feed the soil.

Niagara produces some of the best wines in the world. Herbert explains, “This land is young and fertile; it is still rich and full of minerals that are perfect for grape growing. In Germany, the land has been farmed for thousands of years, here, only for about 150 years.” With 40 acres of land situated on the shore of Lake Ontario, his vines benefit from the gentle breezes and moderating temperatures that come in from the lake. This prime location is definitely a factor in producing some of the best grapes around. The warming influence of the lake extends the growing period and allows the grapes to hang longer on the vine—the longer they hang, the more complex the flavours become. “When the grapes are ripe, we measure the sugar with instruments, but the final test is still my mouth— it knows best when the grapes are just right for picking,” Herbert laughs.

Herbert descends from a long line of winemakers— his great grandfather started the first Konzelmann Winery in 1893, which his sons eventually took over. Unfortunately, the business was devastated during the Second World War. Production was difficult enough in wartime but then finally halted when the winery was looted. After the war, Herbert’s father, Alfred, wanted to resurrect the business, so he trained as a professional winemaker: he spent years apprenticing in France and Italy before returning home to re-start the winery. As a young boy, Herbert helped his father at the winery and eventually entered a prestigious college where he learned from some of the best winemakers in Europe. At 22 he returned home to help his father improve the winery. He married his sweetheart, Gudrun, and began a family. Herbert was driven to succeed and worked seventy hours a week; he made wine on the weekend, and then traveled the country to sell it during the week. Together with the help of his wife and father, they were able to bring the winery back to its glory days. Things were going well for Herbert: he was happily married with three children and owned a successful business. The only thing missing was a vineyard of his own. He never felt completely satisfied with his wine because he didn’t have control over the growing process. “I had to depend on local growers and co-ops to supply the fruit. I had always wanted my own land, but prices in Germany were out of reach.

Herbert first visited British Columbia in 1981 on a wilderness trip and was enchanted by the expansive land and natural beauty of Canada. He was also amazed to learn that there was a wine industry there. The following year he returned to Canada to check out the wine industry in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where he visited Inniskillin Winery. The original winemaker, Karl Kaiser, now recognized as one of the pioneers of the Canadian wine industry, spoke German. He explained to Herbert that in general only hybrids were grown in Canada because of the cold climate. Hybrids didn’t yield quality wine so Kaiser had experimented with planting some European varietals from which he had made his own wine. Kaiser offered a tasting of his Riesling, which Herbert compared to some Riesling he had brought from Germany. He was amazed that the Canadian Riesling actually had more complexity and minerality than his bottle. Herbert was so impressed that he took half a suitcase of dirt home to have it analyzed. The results were perfect—Niagara has some of the best soil in the world for grape growing! He decided right then and there to move to Canada and make wine.

With the help and support of his wife, Herbert began to look for suitable land in Canada. They found a peach farm that was for sale exactly where Herbert wanted it, next to the lake. He returned home to tell his aging father that he wanted to start a winery in Canada. Although saddened at the prospect of his son leaving the business in Germany, Herbert’s father supported his son’s desire to build the Konzelmann name abroad.

At the age of 47, and without speaking a word of English, Herbert moved his wife and family to Niagara-on-the-Lake where they converted the 40 acre peach orchard to a working vineyard. Herbert planted thirteen varietals of Vitis vinifera grapes from Europe. The winery now boasts some of the oldest noble grape vines in the region. Over the years, more family members have joined the winery and Konzelmann Estate Winery has built a reputation for quality wines, friendly service, and affordable prices.

Although Icewine (Eiswein) originated in Germany, Canada’s climate is more suited to consistently producing Icewine year after year. Canadian wineries now have the reputation for producing the best Icewine in the world. Konzelmann Estate Winery is one of the wineries that have helped put Canada on the map as the number one producer of Icewine. Konzelmann Winery has received many prestigious awards for its Icewines, which include: a Gold at the International Wine and Spirit competition in the UK, Grand Gold at VinItaly International Wine Competition, and Best of Golds at Vinexpo-Challenge International, France. Konzelmann is also the first Canadian winery to have had its Icewine included on the Wine Spectator Magazine’s Top 100 List. Visitors from all over the world come to the winery every year to enjoy this rare wine.

Herbert is very pleased with how the winery has grown from its early days as a husband and wife operation, to the large family business that it is today. Herbert had planned to hand the winery down to his son, Matthias. Sadly, Matthias passed away at the young age of 29. But the family line continues: Herbert now finds great joy in having his grandson, Fabian, join the family business to help him in the cellar. Fabian is working hard to fill the shoes as the next head winemaker in a long succession of family professionals. He is fortunate in that, through his grandfather, he has access to six generations of accumulated knowledge. Although Fabian may feel the pressure of his family’s expectations to carry the winery forward, he is confident because he shares the same passion as his grandfather for the craft.

Fabian spent most of his childhood in Canada, but returned to Germany, where the wine industry is centuries old, to study oenology and viticulture. He spent 5 years at Staatsweingut Weinsberg earning his degree. Although he loved living in his homeland, he never doubted that he would return to Canada to join the family business. This year Fabian began working under the watchful eyes of his grandfather, learning all that he can from Herbert’s 54 years in the wine industry. “I want to continue to produce the fine wines that my grandfather makes, but I also would like to add my own touch by developing some new products.” Fabian’s focus will be on wine and viticulture. He explains, “The land is a living, breathing entity, which needs to be respected and cared for. The soil is what imparts the flavors in the fruit of the vine, and the fruit imparts the essence or notes into the finished wine.”

Fabian continues, “From my exposure to European wines while living abroad, I now know for certain that Canada can hold its own against any world-class wine. We have a unique taste profile and I want to show the world what Canada is capable of producing!” Fabian plans to use old world methods together with modern technology to refine Konzelmann’s wines. He has classmates from all over the world whom he can call upon for advice. That gives him the confidence and knowledge to take Canadian wines to another level. “With time I will learn the business side of things too, so we can keep this family business running for future generations,” he said.

2014 will be a landmark year for the Konzelmann family; it marks 120 years since the winery was established, the Canadian winery’s 30th anniversary and also the year of Fabian’s upcoming wedding. With a marriage on the horizon, the future looks very promising for another generation of young winemakers.

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