The wines of Stratus Vineyards and the cuisine of Momofuku Toronto. On Monday, May 26th and for the second straight year they conspired together in a beautiful collision of mutual beneficence. The single varietal mad science of winemaker J-L Groux and the singular, multifarious snacks of Momofuku Daishō. The food and wine play leaves wine writers satiated, thankful and speechless.
This 2014 media lunch dubbed Stratus, the right to free assemblage forged yet another treat of the highest order, once again with the necessity in participation of Charles Baker, Suzanne Janke and Sarah Walker of Stratus, along with Momofuku Beverage Director Jonathan Gosenhauser, Service Director Steve De Sousa, Assistant FOH Manager Nicholas Papadatos and the Daishō team.
At 13.9 per cent the kitchen sink blend is unwittingly light on its feet, with uplifting floral and stony scents. The patronage seems as though it could be a shot (or more) of an aromatic white addition like Viognier. This ’13 is a new approach to the Wildass Rosé, a metallic meets orange and berry citrus flavour explosion. Will be an August VINTAGES release at this modest and honest tag, certainly more accessible than in years past.
The single varietals
Technically Niagara Lakeshore but labeled Niagara on the Lake, winemaker J-L Groux insists this is the anti-New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a truism to get behind in this ’11’s more tropical style. “Depending on the year we adapt to the climate,” so here J-L’s classic boxwood seeking stands out. The combination of picking time and barrel aging on the lees has everything to do with style. The Stratus hangs (picked October 11th) and hangs out (641 days in French oak). Shows off the most metal mineral that Niagara can give to the variety, from a season with a totally rainy spring and fall but a torrid summer in between. “On whites it was certainly a better year to work with,” though the lack of acidity is due to a wet fall. It’s high-octane, “I’m not running after alcohol. I’m picking on aromatics. If I’m making barrel aged Sauvignon, I have to be patient, otherwise it’s not worth putting in barrel.” Nutty, toasty and full. The middle reaches for the end in an elastic and stretched full chain and connection. Rounder as opposed to acidic, it’s character comes by way of a periodic, numbers game in aromas. Zero hay, high phenols, very ripe.
A change in direction is duly noted with J-L Groux’s 2012 Chardonnay, from fruit picked six weeks earlier than in 2010. The program is scaled back and the wine is more “typical” of the region, in weight, in barrel effect and in alcohol. Still quite defined by natural yeasts that “sometimes go a bit wild, but I’m getting better at it,” concedes the clinician of vinous letters. Those feisty microbes are difficult to work with, like dealing with a wine that lacks natural clarity. “You have to shut down the bacteria, teach the yeast to stop stealing the lees. In 2013 I really got it.” The ’12’s altered course is welcome and encouraged and the world should wait with bated breath for what ’13 will bring. Here the complexity of aromatics is matched only by the intensity of tropical fruit. Has balance and a soft, round feel. Again, more texture and aromatics than natural acidity. Classic J-L style. “It’s not about trying to imitate anyone. It’s about making the most interesting and most complex Chardonnay in Niagara.”
The warmth of those July and August days has brought a combination of grapefruit and honey to the 2011 Sémillon, a highly aromatic vintage. Typically you don’t have very high acidity with this variety and though this was a difficult vintage to work with, here it teases late harvest, straight from the hip. The in-glass progression scales back and walks the wire with semi-high (6.9) acidity. “With illusions of someday, cast in a golden light,” the ’11 Sémillon will need time to marshal the erudition of (627 days) in barrel. At present the tragically declared fact that 24.6 brix equates to 11.6 per cent alcohol might just be lauded as another conversion rate, ahead by a century.
A variety that can be picked much earlier than others, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Do the aromatics do Sangiovese? Yes, but in a mutated, concentrated and highly floral, expressive way. Clean, clear and embossed by surprising freshness and purity. The notes of typicity involve red fruits and a scorch of the earth. Handsome Sangiovese actually, anything but rustic and of a middle fleshing that threshes to mulct a citrus note on the end. This effort shows the most promise of the three expatriates (along with Tempranillo and Tannat) vying for J-L Groux’s new slang, varietal attention.
Were Rioja to come and take over Niagara this introduction would succeed in fulfilling expectations but not necessarily dreams. I will confess that it functions in ways California (where it’s simply too warm in places like Paso Robles and Santa Barbara) does not. Likewise Australian takes (“cool” Victoria and New South Wales) have yet to convince. Niagara’s climate is not such a stretch (though in most vintages too wet), but in 2010 the conditions were ripe for this experiment. The wine is admittedly lumbering, backward and chunky. It has that dusty, nearly funky nose, but it should be extolled in the name of character. High on vineyard aromatics and the density of wood, in ways so much more defined than the Sangiovese. Strangely Riojan and tasted blind would make for a curious ringer. Not huge by any stretch and blessed with good acidity and persistence.
The wooden slumber (555 days) in 50 per cent new oak is just what the dark-skinned grape doctor ordered for the Niagara debut. You know it will be pitchy and tannic but the goal is to be looking for some striking acidity and balance of concentration. Violets are prominent in the highly floral aromatics. There is certain density and fine structure and so while Tannat is an integral Stratus assemblage variety it shows here that it can be very expressive and long on its own. Perhaps the equal of Malbec for Niagara and with great potential.
If the Stratus 2010 Malbec’s blue note belted out Philly Soul, the delicacy and structure of the ’11 plays a softer sound, a Stax, Memphis Soul. Stylish, funky and uptown without conceding to pop. Active but with less brawn and higher acidity than previous years. An and now aromatic session of so much tobacco and even more cigar box, in wafts, waves, puffs, billows and club clouds of smoke. A soul jam of black fruit, Booker T. finger roll acidity and tannin.
Some white pepper dust, not too much mind you, works with the sun “and that’s what makes Cabernet Franc find its ripeness.” That it has in spades here in ’10, giving it fullness without raisins, density without being plugged in. A rich and near berry chalk sample but finely judged. This is one of the best SV’s J-L has made. Incredible aromatics. From my earlier April 2014 note: “Patient as ever with the cool-climate, slow and low ripening Cabernet Franc, winemaker J-L Groux stuck with belief, regardless of the warm 2010 vintage. The Stratus single varietal space and time continuum of let it hang (though not to December), 20ish months of aging, nearly half in French oak barrels, has brought forth the most dense and luxe Cabernet Franc to date. “It’s never old school, all brand new,” with Groux so this red swells in wholly pure black currant fruit and is as big as it gets for J-L, which is saying something. This beastie boy will age over a 20-year period. Style is the thing, and yes, the aromatics.”
The declared alcohol on this is 14.6 per cent but to all of me, that is really hard to believe. Really elegant, 100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, perfectly unabridged in phenolic ripeness but in such fine rhythm and blues. Were it a score it would be euphonious without encumbrance and void of splinters. The most subtle and gentle J-L Groux crafted red wine I’ve yet to encounter, with a back palate combination of mushroom and citrus to follow pure red fruit. Resoundingly circular with curves, no hard edges and “perfect imperfections.” This Cabernet goes at it with Graves character and poise. It will be a Niagara legend.
Early harvested and vinified with the least amount of winemaker intervention, this is Gewürztraminer left to find its own way. In 2012 the natural sugars speak in clear and clean tones without needing too much attention. Has the most off-dry sensibility yet. It’s very floral, nearly medicinal and tacking. A zigging and zagging Gewürz, wavering, weaving, oscillating between its personalities, on one hand new and progressive, on the other, a nod to Alsace. There is really nothing dry about it. Dense on the palate, this Stratus single white varietal is textured and quickly making friends.
The 2010 was the first and only one made at the time. When asked if he would make one again, J-L Groux replied “perhaps.” Well, three years later the 2013 enters considerably drier than that ’10 but full of stone tree fruit. The profile here is so different, now Gewürztraminer (78 per cent) dominated, with less residual assistance from Riesling (17) and Sémillon (5). The aromatics are medicinal and ashen before the attack turns so palate sweet, in marmalade and with a finish of noble bitterness.
Botrytis Affected Sémillon Late Harvest 2012, Niagara On The Lake, Ontario
Tasted blind this non-clarified sticky is high on grapefruit for sure, smells (for a fleeting moment) a bit like cat pee, is decidedly smoky and once again, is grapefruit all in. Stony sauternes, Niagara style. This can be used to great advantage. With 70 plus g/L of residual sugar and 7.9 of total acidity the sugar-acid continuum is expertly lucky. The grapes were picked on December 14th, causing another exclamation of WTF? Really delicious. Really.
Following the single-varietal tasting, Momofuku Daisho rolled out eight signature dishes.
Spring Radish Salad, sherry vinegar, chive, crispy yuba
Snap Pea Salad, horseradish, jowl bacon, lily bulbs
Agnolotti, asparagus, ricotta, black truffle
Whole Speckled Trout (Kolapore, ON), morels, ramps, smoked buttermilk
Stratus White 2010, VQA Niagara On The Lake, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, (660704, $44.00, WineAlign)
From my September 2013 note: “Sends me immediately towards Bordeaux, in neo-marmalade, but also buoyed in perfume and body by 25 percent Viognier. “This variety worked so well in the vineyard in 2010,” notes Groux. Niagara honey and near-botrytis via Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc void of grass, full of vigor. A sharp note, neither metallic nor mineral, but a combination of the two is present in this so very concentrated ’10. Of a warm vintage (self-explanatory) fully picked by October 23. Though loaded with early Spring maple sap, foie gras and appley terpines, its sharp and framed by “tannic” tang and protracted length.” Last tasted May 2014
Beef Brisket (McGee Farms, ON), steamed buns, crab mayonnaise, green papaya slaw
Broccoli, lap cheong, black vinegar, tea egg
Nugget Potatoes, togarashi, kewpie, spiced ham
Tasted again, I do declare this to be the reigning bomb of Ontario red blends. Showing even better than I judged it two weeks ago. Intense ruby meets claret in every facet of its make-up. Rouge tomate, fresh and racy at the same time, with just enough chalk to lengthen the chain. You can actually imagine the hum in the clang and rhythm of its magic. Fleet of foot, mac-nanimously rendered red blend. “Chain keep us together, running in the shadow.” From my earlier note: “A study in restrained, gilt-edged use of only 15 per cent new oak during assemblage, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon in the lead and so prudent considering the extreme warmth of the vintage. Cabernet Franc imparts simple but intense spice. Red talented, fresh finesse, the oak in support as a James Dean, cherry stained leather jacket. De facto fresh, with just enough trenchant acidity.” Last tasted May 2014
Tart, ricotta, honey apricots
Good to go!