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Winemaker Challenges Varietal Boundaries

Christopher Waters, The Standard

Stratus Vineyards winemaker J.L. Groux knows he will continually be petitioned for a break-down of the grape varieties blended to produce the stunning 2002 Stratus Red and 2002 Stratus White, but it’s information he is unlikely to divulge.

“We don’t necessarily say what it is.  I’ll tell them what’s planted in the vineyard,” says Groux, who wishes consumers and critics could see beyond varietal boundaries.  People develop preconceptions about what Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay is or isn’t, he explains.

The philosophy at the Niagara-on-the-Lake winery, which will open its doors to the public for the first time as part of Cuvee 2005 festivities, will challenge those rigid notions with its proprietary blends, Stratus Red and Stratus White.  The flagship red throws together black grapes hailing from Beaujolais, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley, which Groux feels give it more complexity, more depth of flavour, more potential…more everything really.

Similarly, Stratus White is a marriage of Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.  Some of the blend components have been aged in oak, some strictly in stainless steel, resulting in an intriguing and complex wine that’s unlike anything yet produced in Niagara.  The 2002 vintage is wonderfully mouth-filling and rich, while the 2000 wine is, in a word, mesmerizing.

What some cynics might view as wild abandon gives Stratus the freedom to pursue great winemaking without the artificial borders.  The most striking element about the Stratus blends is that these wines are as delicious as they are unique.  They are like the wine equivalent of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, an award winning film that borrowed influences from everywhere under the sun to produce a singular artistic expression, an individual vision.

As Groux explains, there’s only one rationale for what gets into the final blend for Stratus Red or White – it deserves to wear that label.

In addition to the proprietary blends, Stratus’s opening portfolio includes single varietal wines from the 2002 vintage, including an expressive Cabernet Franc and complex Chardonnay and very fine Merlot that will benefit from time in the bottle.  There is also an auxiliary line-up labelled Wildass White and Red, which are produced by Stratus exclusively for the restaurant trade or consignment purchase.

The opening of  Stratus is only part of the excitement afoot during Cuvee 2005’s touring passport program.  Wine lovers can buy a Cuvee en Route passport for only $20, which allows them to participate in special tastings and other events at participating wineries along the wine route.  Passports are available from participating wineries.  More information is available at www.cuvee.ca or by calling 905-684-8688.

Wines of the Week

Stratus Vineyards 2002 Cabernet Franc, Niagara Peninsula $32, 4 out of 5 stars

A limited production Cabernet Franc, this impressive red is marked by a round, concentrated fruit character supported by a good spicy intensity.  Oak respects the rich personality of the concentrated aromas, notably a fresh white pepper note.  The round, well-balanced palate reveals good tannic structure, which is extended by a lingering finish.  This is well intergrated, with solid keeping potential.

Stratus 2002 Red, Niagara Peninsula, $38, 4 out of 5 stars

Blends play a significant role in the portfolio of Stratus Vineyards, the new Niagara-on-the-Lake winery that is sparing no effort or expense in pursuit of quality wine production in Ontario.  This “kitchen sink” vinifera blend combines the usual suspects (Cabernets and Merlots) with rare and exotic varieties, including Gamay Noir and Petit Verdot, which add to the earthy appeal of the aromas and the purity of fruit flavours.  This has a nicely layered texture and lingering finish.  Its concentration and integration add to the wine’s obvious appeal.

Stratus 2002 White, Niagara Peninsula, $38, 4 out of 5 stars

Here’s a wine with huge potential.  Sniffing, swirling and sipping invites a neat mix of associations: a blizzard of fruit, floral, spice and oak elements.  The flavour profile is lush and rich, with an extremely enjoyable plush texture.  This wine will continue to improve over the next four years as all of the elements knit together more seamlessly.

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