JL Groux – Stratus Winery
It’s interesting and educational to spend the afternoon with winemaker JL Groux, a man who has been making wine in Ontario for the last 23 years (since 1990) – before that he spent 9 years in France. There’s lots to learn from that kind of experience, especially the part about being in Ontario for such a long time. On a mid-March day I spent a few hours with JL having lunch, tasting wine and getting his thoughts on many of the grape varieties grown here in Ontario. Much of what we discussed were the new releases of Stratus starting with what many would consider the lightest of wines outside Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir. But in the hands of the mad-wine-scientist that is JL Groux Gamay takes on a whole new way of being. At over 14.9% alcohol and almost 2 years in barrel this is not some easy drinking Beaujolais and a far cry from the bubblegum Nouveaus that are prevalent on the market in November. “Gamay is a pleasure but painful variety to make,” says JL. The 2010 Gamay is big and JL considers it underpriced because of the viticultural hoops they have to jump through to make this wine … those are potentially damaging words as far as sales of the wine goes, considering it carries a $29.00 price tag, making it the lowest priced Stratus labeled wine on the shelves. But according to JL Gamay grapes have to hang a long time to get the kind of concentration he likes in Gamay, “to the point of shriveling” he insists. The Gamay comes from some of the oldest vines on the property, planted in 1985; they were on the property when it was purchased.
Many people have poo-pooed the idea of Syrah in Ontario, yours truly included, and JL was in the same boat, “20 years ago I said forget Syrah in Ontario, but now I have great hope for Syrah,” says JL. In fact, 2009 was the first year the Syrah was not declassified and blended away into the flagship Stratus Red. The addition of Paul Hobbs consulting has also made a difference for Syrah, he suggested removing the “high-wings” on the bunches, “we drop 25% of the crop, but it makes for a better, more concentrated wine” … The 2010 Syrah is one of the best wines I have tried from Stratus and one of the best wines in the entire tasting. “The winery’s job is to accept the grapes and process the fruit – wine is truly made in the vineyard,” JL says, repeating a philosophy you undoubtedly have heard a million time before. The next wine tried during the tasting is an Ontario standard, Merlot, and the 2010 Merlot is truly a delicious quaffmade from old block (1985) vines and some younger plantings from 2001. Which brings us to two very interesting single varietal wines: the 2010 Malbec and the 2010 Petit Verdot, neither variety are ones you expect out of Ontario vineyards, nor do you expect them as stand-alone wines. But JL seems enthusiastic about both. “Malbec is a very vigorous vine, even one bunch per shoot will give us 6 tons per acre,” he says; and about the Petit Verdot: “Always a good crop because it grows very quickly – it’s ready around the time of Merlot.” Funny thing about the Petit Verdot, it was never supposed to be part of the vineyard: “we discovered it by mistake, we found out we had planted half a row.” But the Petit Verdot has a special place in JL’s heart, “This is the wine you want for food because the tannins and acidity fight; Petit Verdot has really big acidity.” I can think of only one other winery bottling single varietal Semillon (Rosewood) consistently –
Stratus has now released theirs with the 2010 Semillon. JL recounts how this was not his favourite grape by a long shot, in fact because it was always being declassified he figured they’d dig up their 5 acres and replant to something more appropriate. “We used to pick it first with no results, but now we let it hang and pick it as one of our last whites – it manages to keep it’s acidity but gains flavours and aromatics” … JL is looking forward to the 2012 version which he says has some botrytis on it.
Rounding out the 2010 wines is a Chardonnay and representing the 2011’s is the Gewurztraminer. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the 2009 Cabernet Franc; as many know 2009 was the big acid year in Ontario, perfect for Riesling and Pinot Noir, but not exactly ideal for bigger reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The grapes for the ’09 were harvested December 7 and 8 and JL recalls that he has “never picked [dry table wine] grapes in December in my life.” With close to 2 years in barrel and 47% new wood this Franc was absolutely stellar. If there is one thing you take away from a visit with JL Groux it’s this (well maybe two things): although he’s been kicking Ontario vineyards for 23+ years he’s still amazed each and every vintage; that leads us to the second point, which flies in the face of popular thinking and that is: you can teach an old dog new tricks.