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North American Inns – Luxury/Romance –

I simply have not has enough exposure to the burgeoning wine business on the west coast … and would love to rectify this situation!  I have had the blessing of proximity to Niagara for some time, and my winery visiting experience only continues to evolve, to surprise, and to reveal some absolutely tremendous winemaking.  My story, unfolds from a day spent visiting three very different, yet complimentary wineries.  In the end, for me, the story is in the glass, or the bottle as the case may be.

The truth is:  I am wonderfully content to be sipping interesting wine, from crystal stemware, in a beaten-down shack if I have to.  The experience for me is in that glass.  I do realize that the industry is very cognizant of attracting its clientele and offering a unique sensory experience that stretches to the ceiling of it environs.  Stratus Vineyards, 13th Street winery and Fielding Estate Winery all do this, albiet in their own special styles.

I have heard great things about Stratus, and happily consumed their chardonnay released through Vintages last year…beautiful stuff.  Driving up to Stratus leaves no mistaken impression; this is a place of vision.  The building gives evidence-strictly contemporary, recto-linear design with a stark and imposing facade, which opens into billowy light, surfaces of polished terrazzo, carrara marble, and elegant wood cabinetry.  The interior is airy and stunning, yet inviting.  The walls are either floor to ceiling glass or stacked bottles, each with the Stratus logo, its austerity adding a uniform harmony to the space.  The architecture doesn’t stop at asthetics.  Stratus has been accredited with LEED certification from the Canadian Green Building Council.  Stratus is the first building in Canada – and the only winery worldwide – to attain this standard.  This achievement is no small feat and it is abundantly clear when touring the building.  Both big and small details embody environmental and long-range fiscal soundness- from the overall design, where geothermal energy is used for heating and cooling, to the washrooms, at least my set, which have waterless urinals..most intriguing!

The winery proper exudes a gentle aroma of grapes and yeast.  Fifty-three acres of vines surround the winery, producing 13 predominantly Bordeaux and Rhone vinifera  varietals.  These vines are hand-hoed, and the grapes are hand-picked and sorted.  This is sheer craziness!  It means that every grape in your bottle has been examined by human eyes and chosen for you.  Please don’t visit Stratus looking for that $9 gem – their objective is “super-premium” wines and again it shows.  The winery is designed to use gravity in all aspects of the grape’s journey from crushing to juice flow to eventual barreling.  This avoids any pumping (and any mechanical transit for that matter).  Believe me, these grapes are loved, nortured and cared for in a manner I have never seen before.  Winemaker J.L. Groux has an ideal set-up, and I wouldn’t put it past Stratus that he signs off on each grape…please, allow me a little hyperbole.

There are many more details to all of this process, and I invite you to explore this depth of information through the Stratus website or when you visit them.  But, back to the glass and its contents:  Groux’s top wines are all assemblage in their creation, that is a mix of varieties to meet his heart’s delight.  Director of Marketing and Sales, and creative winemaker in his spare time, Charles Baker sat our party down for an impromptu and exquisite tasting with some artisinal cheeses.  The tasting room certainly has that ‘gentlemen’s club” feel (Interior Design, June 2006) with a rather funky, contemporary edge…quite in keeping with the harmony of the building and not at all distracting from the task at hand.  In fact, though Stratus is exquisitely designed, it’s design never impede’s one’s approach to the wine.

We started with the 2004 Wildass White, a blend of Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc, specifically designed for the restaurant trade and not otherwise available.  This was interesting, young and zippy with an appealing floral nature.  But the next wine our of the gate was unfair competition:  2004 Stratus White ($38), a blend of the same grapes, but what polish – caramel, velvet on the palate, creamy and voluptuous.  The 2000 Stratus White had tremendous integrity, absolutely gorgeous colour and these same qualities, but some character of a sweeter single malt Scotch!  I don’t mean the burning alcohol but the layering of flavours that have melded together over time.  This is a wine to nurture on its own.

Into the reds we plunged, with the 2003 Wildass Red, which was nice and bright with good backbone and rather Gamay-ish.  The 2003 Cabernet Franc ($34) had great mouth feel, lively tannin and seemed young – still somewhat austere, but lovely length.  2003 Stratus Red is a Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and a little Gamay blend.  Delicious with a slightly stronger cheese, this muscular teenager needs time and must be revisited as an adult.  Finally the 2004 Stratus Red – a full Bordeaux blend with Gamay and Syrah from  a ripe vintage- offers gorgeous mouth feel despite its youth and structure with full body and a vroad array of flavours, predominantly spice and dark berries.

So, after all this waxing poetic, what is my take-home message?  Visit Stratus, linger over the marble tasting counter and absorb this new experience.  Then pull out your credit card and take home some fascinating wine from this new horizon in Canadian winemaking!

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