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Some Exciting 2008 New Whites (and Just Released 2007 Reds) from Niagara’s Stratus

Rick VanSickle, Wines in Niagara

Winemaker Jean-Laurent (J.L.) Groux will tell you that the success of any given bottle of wine made at Stratus Vineyards “is not our decision.  It is nature’s decision.”

That is a modest declaration for the veteran Niagara-on-the-Lake winemaker.  What truly goes on in the experimental kitchen that Groux presides over, in the immaculate, LEED-certified, gravity-flow winery, is much more than nature at work.

Oh, nature plays a role.  But it is groux who provides the artistry in the cellar to finish wines, the mixing and matching of hundreds of blocks of fruit, that are made into some of the most complex and interesting wines in Niagara.  It starts in the vineyards, 55 acres of low-yielding (average three tonnes per acre), sustainable, hand-hoed, hand-harvested grapes and carries through the winery and ultimately into the bottle.

The Stratus winery, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, is a beautiful thing to see up close.  It is one of Niagara’s most innovative wineries through a gravity-flow system that eliminates the need for trucks and hard pumping that can adversely affect or damage the grapes.  The process starts on a hand-sorting table before the gently-crushed grapes slowly make their way down through the various levels of the winery to the fermentation tanks and barrels and finally to the all-French oak barrel room.  The finished wines are then sent back to the top of the winery on a smooth-riding elevator for bottling and on to consumers.

The 2007 vintage for Stratus, like most red wine producers in Niagara, turned out exceptional wines, some of the best ever in this region.  The flagship Stratus Red (93 points) was my top red wine of the year in 2010 and it hasn’t even reached its top performance.

Zoom ahead to the 2008 vintage.  It was a wet growing season in Ontario.  grape ripening was a challenge, especially for Bordeaux red varieties.  Only the very best wineries in Niagara, those that reduced yields to ridiculous levels, left grapes out on the vines as long as possible (Groux is notorious for being one of the last to pick grapes in any Niagara vintage), and cut back on the production of top reds (or declassified into lower tier wines) have shown success in the bottle.

But the whites, wow, there have been some sensational (and surprising?) white wines emerge from 2008.  And with the Stratus portfolio, this is where the excitement is coming from after tasting some new releases recently.  Stratus is also releasing a couple of holdovers from the amazing 2007 vintage.

Here’s what I liked from a selection of Stratus wines now available:

Stratus White 2007 ($44, 92 points) – What a thrilling flagship white blend.  The nose shows lemon-lime, honey, star fruit, pineapple, coconut macaroon, integrated spice notes with hints of fresh summer herbs.  Releasing it this late has allowed the wine to integrate beautifully with harmonious oak tones that don’t overpower the fruit.  It shows a melange of fruit on the palate that’s fleshy without being flabby, substantive yet graceful with pleasurable grapefruit, lemon, honey, melon, tropical fruits, spice and cream.  Just a lovely exotic treat.

Stratus Semillon 2008 ($32, 90 points) – This is the first single-varietal bottling of Semillon made at Stratus from a seven-acre parcel of estate vineyards.  It’s late-picked, barrel fermented and barrel aged in a combination of new and old oak.  The nose shows grapefruit, pear, peach, vanilla cream and spice.  It shows texture and complexity on the palate with ripe red grapefruit, stone fruits and spicy pear that reveals itself in layer after layer.  Age up to five years.

Stratus Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($29, 89 points) – The grapes for this second bottling of Sauvignon Blanc were partially barrel fermented and saw 22 months of new and older old French oak barrels.  The complex nose shows gooseberry, pear, tropical fruits, minty herbs, kiwi and minerality.  It’s made in an elegant style but the oak and spice are not dominant in the mouth.  A very different take on this variety.

Stratus Petit Verdot 2007 ($38, 92 points) – I first reviewed this wine in March, 2010, when it showed fairly firm tannins.  it now reveals better intergration and more complexity with a nose of plum, red fruits, cassis, mocha, mature black currants and some savoury smoky notes.  It’s juicy and highly concentrated on the palate with cassis-blackberry compote and a nice bead of eucalyptus.  Save in the cellar for five years or more to bring further intergration.

Stratus Malbec 2008 ($38, 87 points) – The second single-varietal bottling of Malbec from Stratus provides a sriking comparison between how this varietal performs in a warm vintage compared to a wet, cool vintage such as 2008.  The 2007 version wasn’t particularly like any Malbec I have tried and the ’08 is about as lean an example as you will ever taste.  However, despite it’s non-Malbec profile, it still provides interesting drinking.  It’s tightly wound with plum, red berries and earthy-savoury notes.  It’s lighter on the palate (don’t for a second think about Argentina!) with reaspberry, black tea and wild berries.  I’m thinking this is for near-term drinking.

Stratus Merlot 2008 ($32, 88 points) – A nice nose of cassis, black cherry, forest floor, vanilla, wild berries, bramble and black licorice.  Quite firm in the mouth with fruit intensity, bright acidity and a deft touch of oak and resulting spice.  Just a nice enjoyable Merlot froma ho-hum vintage.

Wildass Rose 2009 ($20, 88 points) – Wildass is the cheeky second label from Stratus.  This is an assemblage of Gamay, merlot, Mouvedre, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Semillon and Chardonnay with each variety getting a least some oak age.  it shows Cherry, blueberry, red currants and bramble on the nose.  This is no shrinking violet, with rich red, meaty fruits in the mouth lifted by oak and spice.  a serious and delicious rose.

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