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30 Days of Ontario Wine – Day 27 – Stratus Red and White – Then & Now

Stratus Red and White –  Then & Now –

By Mike Di Caro, Spotlight Toronto:

From the outset Stratus has always dared to be different. While being different for the sake of being different can be refreshing, it’s combining that desire with ambition that really results profound impact.

From day one Stratus understood a winery’s connection to the land, so it took action to minimise its environmental footprint and became the world’s first winery to achieve full Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Its retail boutique with touches like premium stemware, a marble-topped tasting bar, floor-to-celling library-style shelving and black-and-white colour palette has a chic feel that was unlike anything in Niagara that came before or anything that has opened since. The production area is uncompromisingly built on two levels with the winemaking process in mind and outfitted with the best technology. Its 63 acre property is planted with 18 vinifera varieties to give winemaker J-L Groux an orchestra to work with so he can translate the symphony he sees in the vineyard, into something you can experience in your glass. Even its business model of a flagship Stratus Red and Stratus White is something your rarely see outside of a first growth Bordeaux chateaux.

Each one of those could have had a significant impact on the local wine scene, but when you combine them, the result is profound. All you have to do is look at the Niagara of eight years ago and compare it to today. Since Stratus opened many Ontario wineries have added sustainability to their lexicons and now a small but influential group of them is thriving under organic, biodynamic and LEED certifications. Prior to Stratus, most Niagara tasting rooms were a secondary consideration to the winemaking facilities. Today, you’ll find they have shifted from no frills utility to elegant spaces with customer-first experiences. But the biggest difference is that  there are now more wineries focused on the making small production, high-quality, premium wines than ever before. In short, Stratus has been a leader since it opened and during that time no other Niagara-on-the-Lake winery has left such an indelible mark on the local wine landscape.

Having made, aged, and bottled a decade’s worth of wine, Stratus thought it would be an ideal time to reflect, revisit and compare some of its older wines and to its newest ones. So the winery brought Groux to Toronto and invited a group of wine writers to join him in tasting a vertical of its flagship Stratus Red and White from 2005 through to the soon-to-be-released 2010 vintage.

The concept behind Stratus Red and White is to produce the estate’s best wine possible each year. Since vintages in Ontario are almost always different, the wines are never the same. But Stratus promises those wines will always be high-quality and represent the best of the vineyard that vintage with an intense nose, complexity, a round mouthfeel, good acidity, a long finish and the ability to age. “The grape variety on the bottle isn’t as important as the terroir of the vineyard or maybe the name of the person behind it”, says Groux. He points to grape genetic research, which is showing that grape varieties that we believed were very different, are much more similar than we thought. For him that means the trend should move towards combining them through assemblage in the coming years.

Assemblage, which is like a symphony or an impressionist painting, is all about crafting a final work greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a philosophy Groux first used as a young winemaker in Bordeaux before coming to Ontario. But it’s in Niagara where he honed and mastered this skill crafting the first Trius at Hillebrand (using the red trio of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot) in 1989 and creating many more vintages of that legendary Niagara blend before joining Stratus.

His initial approach has always been the same, treat each grape separately and make the best wine you can from it. Then, through blind tastings, select the best barrels and craft the finest wine you can by blending the components until the wine tastes complete and balanced. But the one thing that has changed for Groux at Stratus is having access to an estate vineyard with seven white and 11 red vinifera varieties (the most in Niagara). At first glance it seems like that many options might hinder the creative process, but tasting through a five year vertical you begin to appreciate how having accesses to a rainbow palette allows an artist to create different, but consistently beautiful pictures.

Still, having a diverse palette hasn’t always made it easy to craft a pretty work in the glass. When Stratus purchased the estate it saw great potential, but the soil was very fertile and vineyard was producing for volume not quality. So Stratus kept only the best older Cabernet and Merlot vines (retraining them for lower volume and better quality fruit), and also replanting using more varieties. The whole process took some time and resulted in a bit of frustration along the way, but in 2008 Groux began to see results for the hard work put into the vineyards. It was during that vintage that Sémillon began to show what it was capable of and allowed him to really change the composition of Stratus White drastically reducing Chardonnay (needed for structure) and eliminating Gewurztraminer (used for aromatics) over the next two vintages. Viognier was also increasingly called on as it began to come into its own.

On the red side, 2008 saw Petit Verdot step-up to play a strong supporting role in the blend and deliver on some of the early promise it had shown as a single varietal. Consulting winemaker Paul Hobbs also gave Stratus vineyard tips on its Syrah and Malbec―Groux credits that with making a big difference in the two grapes which under-performed until recently. That vintage also marked a gradual decline in the amount of new oak used in both Red and White. That wasn’t conscience because Groux makes his blending decisions blind. But it seems to point that the vineyard is now producing fruit with greater natural texture. By the time the warm 2010 vintage emerged the Stratus vineyard had achieved a good natural balance for Groux. Many of the early planting had begun to mature and vineyard team no longer had to crop drastically low to battle vigour and get the flavour ripeness they were after.

This conversion from potential to performance really showed in the glass starting with the 2010 White. Like an artistic gymnastic in a medal-winning floor routine, it commanded attention through stunning power, but won hearts through its graceful delivery. Layers of sugar-dusted orange blossom, fragrant apricot and sun-warmed white peach delighted before wowing with pineapple, guava and a touch of airy whipped cream. The texture is cashmere―soft, plush and lightweight―yet it still manages to feel substantial. The finish is warming, and long with a little oak spice and soft acidity providing just enough contrast to keep things interesting.

It’s a fascinating contrast to the 2006 White, which is the liveliest of the older white vintages. The 2006 is also the most complex white assemblage. Although it starts off a little muted, it delivers when given some patience. With an initial layer of lemon zest, white cherry, and clementine, it coquettishly draws you into the glass to reveal some deeper notes of honey, kiwi, cantaloupe, peach pit and a touch of musky sandalwood. Like well-worn double-knit jersey fabric, it’s comforting in its softness without feeling completely unstructured. It finishes on a beautiful lingering waxy citrus and honey note and still has the sprightly freshness to last at least a couple more years.

But the standout of the group is the 2009 White.  Chrissy Teigen personified, this is an exotic beauty with some tropical roots and a purely homegrown cool climate heart. The qualities you notice first are its golden apple and yellow peach notes, which have a pure fresh-from-the-farm intensity. They’re followed-up by a gorgeous blend of groundcherry, juicy ruby grapefruit and lush honeydew melon. Then as you move towards what you think is the finish, you’re stunned to find there’s even more with wisps of pineapple, papaya and lychee. Bringing it all home is a pleasantly tart creaminess, reminiscent of crème fraîche, and a subtle, spicy, lingering grains of paradise finish. But the key element that ties it all together is a structure as taught as Teigen’s high cheek bones. And if that wasn’t enough this wine has a texture like raw silk. Irresistibly luxurious, yet balanced by exciting tension and lightness thanks to bright acidity. Although it tastes wonderful now, that tension is the secret to long-term ageing in a white. It has all the qualities needed to go beyond the minimum 7 years of age-ability Stratus aims for in its White.

The reds were equally fascinating. Again the 2010 immediately stood out as one to get excited about. A bottle in hand will make you feel classically smart like a well-tailored suit. It hits all the right notes immediately winning you over with sun-warmed black cherry, black currant, blackberry and black plum. Delve a little deeper and you’ll be greeted by sweet roasted tobacco, cocoa nibs and on the finish hints of nutmeg. There’s some tight grippy youthful tannins that are substantial, but appropriately secondary to the fruit, and should give it a beautiful frame to age. A dash of soft acidity helps keep the rich velvety feel from overwhelming things. But the most impressive quality is its great restraint allowing for some cool climate elegance to show in a warm climate vintage.

The 2009 Red stole my heart while everyone was paying attention to the 2010. That comes as a surprise because 2009 was probably the coolest growing season in Niagara’s young history and it had no business making a red as good as it did here. Stratus’ team took advantage of the warm autumn and began harvest about mid-November while managing to successfully play chicken with Jack Frost for another month. Groux is a firm believer that you aren’t stuck with undesirable green flavours even if autumn’s chill causes the vine’s leaves fall off. He believes that without the leaves the grapes won’t really build much more sugar. But even leafless the sun will continue to help ripen the flavours in the berries, while the cooler autumn temperatures retain acidity. The result is cool climate wine with plenty of character, depth and flavour―precisely what the 2009 Stratus Red delivers. The top notes are an elegant combination of perfumed Tellicherry peppercorn (thank you Syrah), boysenberry, and fresh strawberry. Lying underneath is bass note depth with damsons, wild blueberry, a smokey-gamey nuance (Syrah again) and chicory-tinged coffee grounds on the finish. Like a weather-worn leather jacket this one is a little lighter in weight than expected, but it more than makes up for it with character thanks to chewy tannins and a contrasting edge courtesy of its bright acidity. Give it another year or two to let the edges mellow and open it alongside some partridge, venison or duck and some special company.

Combining the best qualities of the 2010 and 2009 was the 2005 Red. Like Bruce Lee there’s some serious power in a lightweight package that’s ready to surprise you. There’s some beautiful fresh fruit flavours with wild strawberry, ripe black cherry and raspberry, as well as some powerful earthier flavours like cigar box and cocoa-dusted black raspberry. But what’s really compelling about its current state is how successfully those youthful notes have combined with hints mature flavours like dried black currant, Mission fig, and prune. It also surprises on the textural front with a beautiful softness and an underlying slubby edge that evokes the feeling of touching suede. There’s also a youthful verve to this wine with a some lively tannins and a nervy acidity, so there’s no doubt it will easily make it beyond Groux promise of at least a decade-long lifespan. The only current downside to this wine is that the limited yields of that tough growing season mean that even the library re-release is long gone. So if there isn’t one in your cellar, now’s the time to make friends with some who has one.

Post-tasting Stratus staff poured two other long sold out library wines, the 2002 Stratus White and 2001 Stratus Red, to pair with a lunch by chef Albert Ponzo and his team at Le Select Bistro. The 2001 Red, which was made of the two Cabernets, Merlot and Gamay, was beautifully bright with a finesse and subtle spice that paired perfectly with the duck confit. The brilliant lunch served as a reminder that alongside side a great meal is really where these wines shine.

The most promising take away from the tasting is just how well the 2009 Red and White performed in the line-up and back-to-back against the 2010 vintage. As much as the last decade was about proving Ontario can produce brilliant wines, this decade will be about whether it can do so consistently. Based on this tasting, it’s looking like Stratus has the elements to succeed at that in spite of inconsistent growing seasons. If can deliver on that promise it will be a very exciting decade for Ontario wine lovers.

Wines Tasted

2010 Stratus White
Price: $44
Availability: Winery. Available as a Futures release in October for $38.

2006 Stratus White
Price: $44
Availability: Winery (Limited availability)

2009 Stratus White
Price: $44
Availability: Winery or LCBO Vintages 660704

2010 Stratus Red
Price: $44
Availability: Winery Available as a Futures release in October for $38 before being released in Vintages in Nov.

2009 Stratus Red
Price: $44
Availability: Winery or LCBO Vintages 131037

2005 Stratus Red
Price: N/A
Availability: N/A

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