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  • J-L Groux looks instinctively to his tastebuds when it comes to blending his wines
  • Stratus 56-acre vineyard is home to an eclectic mix of 18 grape varieties

Habitat Forming

Stratus Vineyards builds flavour block by block

While the original reports about Stratus Vineyards focused on the Niagara-on-the-Lake winery’s assemblage winemaking, environmental practices and exquisitely designed building, winemaker Jean-Laurent Groux and his team toiled to bring the estate vineyard up to the same laudable level.

Groux’s unconventional practices have raised eyebrows around the Niagara wine community. His predilection to let grapes hang long into the season — often picking grapes for Stratus Red as others looked to harvest Icewine — and his interest in auditioning grapes such as heat-loving Tannat and Tempranillo in decidedly cool climate vineyards is written off as folly by traditionalists.

But it’s clear that the Loire Valley native is ultimately driven to make better wine. And, better wine, he says, comes from having a greater understanding of the sizable vineyard located behind the winery.

“Ten years ago, we considered it one vineyard as a whole,” he said. “We treated it all the same. Now, it’s split into little vineyards, like a little Burgundy. A mosaic.

“Each piece has a different life and is treated differently.”
Over the years, Groux has worked with experts from Guelph University and the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, Brock University to research the growing conditions of Stratus’ 56-acre parcel. He has overseen new plantings, expanding the number of varieties cultivated from the original six or seven to the 18 in the ground today. In addition, he has added different clones of established vines.

For instance, Stratus now farms four clones of Syrah, including some top-rated vines from California and France. It started with the one clone that was originally available to Canadian farmers, an inferior version by today’s standards.

Last year, superstar vintner and vineyard consultant Paul Hobbs signed on to the project. Groux clearly enjoys the support. “He brings a different perspective, a different eye, a different nose,” said Groux. “Working with Paul is a pleasure.”

All of this is part of the ongoing effort to build diversity in Stratus’ signature wines, Stratus White and Stratus Red. Both are blends of multiple grape varieties that have undergone long maturation in oak barrels prior to being blended or assembled.

“The early editions of Stratus Red and White are less complex than what they are going to become now,” explained Groux. “It’s not even a varietal thing, the vineyard is starting to produce more diversity of flavours and aromatics, which is going to bring more aromatics and diversity to the wine.”

Groux said the complexion of winemaking at Stratus has changed now that the vineyard is fully producing. In the early days, visitors would be confronted with empty shelves in the tasting room because many wines had sold out and the next vintage was still in barrel.
The 2007 vintage of Stratus Red and Stratus White are being released in October, having enjoyed the benefit of spending the usual two years in barrel and a full year in bottle.

Increased production from the vineyard also means that there is a jump in single varietal wines made under the Stratus label and more declassified barrels to generate the winery’s second labels, Wildass and Tollgate.
Looking ahead to this vintage, Groux is excited to see how Tannat, Tempranillo and the other new additions to his vineyard perform. While saying it’s too early to judge, he believes those varieties are working out nicely.

Sangiovese and Mourvèdre, meanwhile, are said to require more work.

The thing to remember, Groux explained, is that he’s not hoping to make the world’s greatest Tannat or Mourvèdre; he’s looking for different flavours to layer into his blends.
Asked if having additional grape varieties makes blending the red and white wines more challenging, Groux said the final assembly process has never wavered.

“You taste everything and let your palate guide you,” he said. “Some things work, some things don’t and they go out of the blend. It’s not an intellectual thinking, it’s really about your taste buds…

“When you make a varietal wine, you taste Chardonnay and say that tastes good. Let’s make that our Chardonnay. If you say, that’s a great Chardonnay; it’s going to make a great assemblage component, that never works. As I am fond of saying, every year, I put all the best wines together and they never make the best assemblage.”

Star Selections

Stratus Vineyards 2007 Red
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Peninsula $44
Stratus’ flagship red from the 2007 vintage is only starting to reveal its full potential. Medium-bodied and elegant, this has the polished character that marks past Stratus reds, with plenty of juicy red fruit, freshness and structure. It’s vibrant, interesting and concentrated. Exotic spice notes add complexity on the nose and palate. Best 2013-2018. stratuswines.com

Stratus Vineyards 2007 White
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Peninsula $44
Stratus White remains the most compelling and consistent wine in the winery’s portfolio. The style is evident year after year, even as different grape varieties fall in and out of the blend. Captivating and complex on the nose, it offers an appealing mix of spicy, floral and ripe peach and pineapple notes. On the palate, its creamy texture and full flavour make a profound impression. Drink now to 2017. stratuswines.com