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The Grape Ones

Foodservice and Hospitality – Margaret Swaine –

Ontarios’s winery scene has blossomed with a number of cool, new wineries opening up shop the past few years.  These are wineries with attitude, coaxing the best wines possible from their soils and cellars.  Low-yield wines, gravity-fed processing systems and talented winemakers are just a few tricks of their trade.  Restaurants in the know have added Tawse, Stratus and Fielding to their wine lists already.

Stratus Vineyards

Established in 2000, and dideciated to producing ultra-premium VQA wines in limited quantities, Stratus officially opened its doors in 2005 to much acclaim.  Winemaker J.L. Groux focuses on blending different grape varieties to achieve wine that’s complex and expressive of it origins.  Its 61-acre estate in Niagara-on-the-Lake is composed of 45 blocks (for example, there are six blocks of cabernet Sauvignon) to allow for Groux’s philosophy of ‘diversity for complexity.’  “Our objective is to get out of the box,” says Groux, who has planted 18 different vitis vinifera varieties.  The reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Gamay, Malbec, Merlot, Mouvedre, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Tannat and Petit Verdot.  The whites are Chardonnay, Viognier, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Marsanne and Gewurztraminer.

Stratus coddles its grapes like precious children.  Wine is moved by gravity rather than pumps, which can bruise fragile grapes and introduce unpleasant flavours.  Wine which reaches the bottom is moved back up by elevator tanks.  The mezzanine level, above the tanks and barrels on the main floor, is used to receive the grapes, destem and sort them.  And what a sorting they get.  There are 15 different ways to receive the grapes, including sorting bunches only, sorting berries only, or double-sorting both bunches and berries.

The grapes, which are hand-picked at Stratus are brought in individual 40-pound baskets to the winery, usually arrive in much better condition than at most wineries.  To double-sort they are put on a vibrating sorting table, passing eight hand sorters per table who pick out the malformed bunches.  These are recycled in the vineyards compost.  Next, the berries are separated from their stems by a destemmer.  The berries fall onto a second sorting table where another eight-person team picks out grapes with signs of rot, under ripeness or other problems.  It takes about 25 workers to process on ton of grapes an hour.

Preserving the environment is also a goal at Stratus, which is LEED Canada (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification in time for its June 2005 opening.  The first building in Canada and the first winery worldwide to meet this standard, in order to qualify, it implemented features to minimize any negative impact on the environment.  For example, geothermal technology is used to heat and cool the winery, recycled materials were used in the construction, it has a toxin-free waste management program, a herbicide-free vineyard and organic landscape based on indigenous plants.  “Eighty percent of the heating and cooling in the winery is free,” Groux says of its 22,000 square-foot open-concept building.  (The gas bill is under $40 a month)

Stratus produces several single varietal wines, as well as a late harvest and an icewine, but it’s best known for two blends.  Stratus White 2002(licensee proce #32.42), a blend of six varieties that spends two years on the lees in wood barrels, delivers the five key elements Groux demands in his wines:  intensity, longevity, complexity, mouth-feel and long aftertaste.  This is a complex food wine with bright acidity.  Stratus Red 2002 ($34.22), a blend of seven varieties, has a lovely elegance and balance in a medium body with good intensity, compexity and a lingering finish.  Available only to licensees are the more approachable and affordable Wildass Wines ($15.31), the “second label” for Stratus (Vintages and grapes not good enough for super-premium wines are made into Wildass)

Current production in the winery is 7,000 cases with capacity to go up to about 10,000 using grapes from its surrounding property.  This list of restaurants which serve Stratus is impressive, including Scaramouche, Auberge du Pommier, Canoe and jamie Kennedy in Toronto.  Beckta and Domus in Ottawa, The Old Prune in Stratford, Ont., Buffalo Mountain Lodge and Maple Leaf in Banff, Alta., CinCin and Vij’s in Vancouver, the Saint James in Montreal, Hearth in New York and Tony de Luca in Niagara.

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