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Niagara Uncorked: The Guardian of Stratus

NIAGARA UNCORKED: The Guardian of Stratus

Bob Tymczyszyn

By Bob Tymczyszyn, Standard Staff

Hmm. Where to start?

How do you take a one-hour interview and wine tasting with one of Niagara’s best winemakers and crunch it into 600 words?

You can barely touch on the fact that Jean Laurent (J.L) Groux is one of the pioneers of quality wines being made here.

When I asked him about his back-story, the Loire Valley, France, native says he was in the travelling stage of his youth and fell in love with the potential he saw here in Niagara. Having studied in Bordeaux and Burgundy, he would stop somewhere to do a harvest, working 12 hours a day until done and then continue his journey to places such as Africa and the Middle East.“I was here in ’81 and ’86. You could see the evolution in Niagara and the very fast pace of movement.”

He was, in fact, travelling abroad when a colleague asked if he was interested in a winemaker assistant position back in Canada.

He seized the chance and soon took over as head winemaker and continued when Stratus opened its doors officially in 2005.Groux and Stratus have been a perfect fit ever since.

We sit in one of the tasting rooms at the Niagara Stone Road winery, itself an homage to the importance of quality design, and we talk of Gamay, his relationship with the wine and the future.

Groux wears a smart light blue shirt, his trademark beard a little more salt and pepper now and our conversation is languid, like his wine, it flows easily.

You immediately sense the passion the man has, but you also see that youth, the world traveller, who chose Niagara because there weren’t restrictions here like say France where he says they were more “conservative.”

This was the opportunity for him to push the boundaries, to experiment like he still does today.“People are daring, they’re doing new things.”He praises the fresh crop of locally grown winemakers who bring enthusiasm and knowledge of the climate.

“More than half the staff is younger from Niagara College and Brock University.“I’ve been evolving with this vineyard,” says Groux, who still considers himself the young guy who just arrived in Canada.

But it’s an ongoing journey, he admits.“Now people plant the right wines on the right piece of land, as opposed to just planting because they need the variety.”He says people come and see this fancy winery, but it’s not about the winery. It’s about the vineyard.“And if you want to be selling premium wines you have to be on the cutting edge.”

“We’re starting to develop wines on lees,” says Groulx. “It’s very healthy, and it helps wine’s aging potential.”

He further adds that Stratus is rethinking its intervention of wine.“This winery was built for non-intervention of wine making, the least amount of contact as possible, a more gentle, less touch.

“You can never make 100 per cent of your vineyard premium. It varies from year to year and the amount of wine we make also varies, sometimes it is driven by us, by or by nature.

“There is huge variability; it doesn’t have to be the same as the previous vintage,” he says. “But at the end of the day, you make the best wine of the year.”

Sometimes, Stratus red and white are not made because it is not a good year.

“If it comes out as Stratus, it is going to meet a standard,” says Groux.

As we touch on Gamay, it’s a grape variety that had pretty good run of success in the ’80s and ’90s in Niagara, according to Groux.

In recent years it seems to be making a return with a variety of winemakers embracing it.“We’re treating Gamay like Pinot Noir, keeping it in old French oak, to retain fresh fruit.”

The 2014 Gamay that Groux has created is immediately distinguished by a deep colour and fuller body than you might expect from a Gamay.

He uses low-yield techniques to create intensity and wine with good balance and acidity that will age for at least five years. But it can be enjoyed right now.

In fact, most of the wines at Stratus are designed for longevity. They are premium wines after all.

As we get near to the end, Suzanne Janke, Stratus Vineyards Estate Director, joins us for a tasting of top-level Cabernet Franc Decant in a bottle created by industrial designer Karim Rashid.

It is unique, and if it weren’t Stratus, you might fluff it as just marketing.

The bottle is “deconstructed” and chopped and pieced back together representing the different layers of terroir.

Stunning, the design is only second to the wine inside the bottle.

Groux explains that the design yields a surprising benefit of creating ridges inside that allow for a decanting of the wine as you pour, leaving the lees sediment in the bottle, for the most part.

Lees are the residuals from the yeast fermentation and leaving them in the bottle helps to add texture and flavour to the wine.“We enjoy making because it has great mouthfeel,” says Groux.

Fragrant, you can tell right off the bat this is something special.

Still very young, it boasts black and red fruit and no green-ness some associate with Cabernet Franc.

Perhaps it is the lees aging that also adds that exquisite mouthfeel.The tannins are slightly drying, and the acidity is well-balanced showing that this wine is good now but will improve with another five to 10 years if you can keep your hands off of it.

It comes in at $95, but this is quality. It’s something you put down for a while or gift.

While Stratus made just more than a hundred cases of the wine, the stocks are depleting quickly since its May introduction.

It goes to show how great Niagara wines can be.

In fact, as it sits there, it changes with each sip, showing off it’s complexity.

Brilliant, but Groux is humble in accepting credit.“Flavour is not done by me, it’s done by nature. The wine is the vineyard,” says Groux.

“I am just the keeper or guardian of it.”

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