Master of assemblage and varietal maître J-L Groux sits at the head of the underground table while a busy lunch crowd fills in overhead at The Chase Restaurant in Toronto. Highly apropos not just because the Stratus winemaker is over-qualified to preside over the Niagara winery’s 10th anniversary tasting and dissertation on his wines. No, it’s because the posit perfectly illustrates the writer’s yet unspoken epiphany. Groux’s work under the Stratus Vineyards and its offshoot labels have made for some of Ontario’s great food matching wines.
Related – The Stratus-Momofuku continuum
It may not be obvious to most but Godello is not much of a food and wine pairing guy. Chef is a fan of great wine and food compatibility but not when generalities need define the directive and the prose. When it comes to the wines of Stratus, a pattern is emerging with incredible clarity. Momofuku, Select Bistro, The Chase. Three Toronto food destinations with high quotients of quality and progressive gastronomy. Three connections with Stratus. Three hits.
The wines are repeatedly discussed and assessed with assemblage and varietal tendency in mind. I have worked through the portfolio or a representative cross-section no fewer than six times in the past three years and yet for the first time the sound was one of a culinary vernacular, a voice heard out of ingredient and mise en place, a dawning of purpose.
The Chase tasting was presented by the Stratus team of Groux, Charles Baker, Suzanne Janke and Nadia Skorupski. The exceptional lunch was prepared at the hands of Nigel Finley. Here are the notes on 18 wines poured.
Stratus White 2012, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario (660704, $44.20, WineAlign)
In magnified aromatic persistence, on and over top of even two months earlier, in such a hyper-grapey way with terrific dry extract chained to tannin and humid minerality. The many months of leave in gentle oak is stating its technically procured, quote unquote de-classified case.
From my earlier note of April 2015:
In 2012 the blend is Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Viognier was left out because according to winemaker J-L Groux “it did not work in blending trials.” The vintage has laid the foundation for the most density, and unctuous fruit for the Stratus White in what must be, ever. At the high aromatic end there is peppery beeswax, reverberating and echoing in scales and arpeggios. Like an open string singing warmly, the vintage, extraction and residuum combine for texture in mottled unction. Sapid lemon, more beeswax and lanolin mark the palate and then the White drifts into spaces occupied by smoky, back beats and bites. This has great pitch with a knowledge of the path to pleasure. Drink 2017-2025
Last tasted June 2015
Stratus White 2005, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario (660704, $44.20, WineAlign)
The blend of Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, and Sémillon with a not necessarily before announced whisper of Viognier was culled from vines “getting older, staying true to our technique,” recalls J-L Groux. The grapes were growing at the bottom of the vines which “made for a challenging wine.” The Gewurz acts in upwards accent to the others, its far-easter flavours speaking with scrunch. Concentration is in compression without density to soft spoken. The most unusual bunch location certainly had something to do with my aforementioned “whiff of terroir that blew away” and according to Groux “the year was very nice.” The Stratus White 2005, tasted again, as well.
From my earlier note of September 2013:
‘Twas a deadly vintage (worst frost in Niagara on the Lake) and the only one with smacking aromas from the vineyard floor. “A zoo growing season,” notes Groux, “with grapes hanging high and low.” Chardonnay leads the troops in ’05, in elevated acidity and earthiness from grapes picked “in a different type of environment, near to the earth.” Highly textured and mature, leggy fruit. Though its best years are behind (because the fruit will no longer support the oak), the Groux seven-year ageing goal has easily been reached. The whiff of terroir does blow away and the honey liniment and rose emerges. So much consistency, so rapidly developed. Amazing. Witness here the winemaking acumen out of an atypical vintage and confounding result.
Last tasted June 2015
Stratus Chardonnay 2012, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario (Winery, $48.00, WineAlign)
As per the house promulgation, in Chardonnay, “still an assemblage process,” insists Groux, “no matter what we do.” Some grapes grown for Sparkling were added back in, for acidity, complexity and ultimately balance. That and though notably barrel burdened (a good, hard burden to bare) leading to a bargain, “the best I ever had.” Major key of whose who of Niagara fruit, power acoustic chords and 12-string harmonics. Drink 2015-2022.
From my earlier note of May 2014:
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.”
Las tasted June 2015
Stratus Chardonnay Reserve 2002, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario (Winery, $48.00, WineAlign)
Even now its wick seems lit, a febrile wicker thatch of reed, bamboo and rattan, a little wicked even. Versatile like vin jaune, of oxidative rushwork, a product of a time when the regimen was all new oak. Preserved lemon and wax, late bitters within reason and with thanks, surprising freshness. Though the oak was overdone at the time, the slow food preservation has rendered the fat and left behind sharpness, even at 13 years of age. Drink 2015-2017. Tasted June 2015
Stratus Viognier 2012, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario (Winery, $48.00)
The most tropical unction of seemingly all Viognier known to human kind, Stratus issue or not, at the hands of J-L Groux or any other aromatic junkie in the winemaking world. Hung like an ancient painting on a modernist gallery’s bright white walls. A pepper-laced, creamy white paste cuts through the similarly positioned texture. A quench of peach, apricot and nectarine sits on the palate, like an August fruit cup from Ontario trees, with a cut of nut pith. And lemon too. Drink 2015-2019. Tasted June 2015
The Stratus Red 2012 resides both in a virtuoso’s hollow and in a pantheon inhabited by some of Niagara’s great reds. The fact that such ripe phenology can anticipate and foretell to balance and freedom in the byplace of the blending process is nothing short of amazing. Sinuous and exact, of berries so indefatigable, layering raspberry over blackberry atop strawberry. Cedar and red citrus compound, without jamming the fluidity, but certainly accentuating the Fragaria vesca. Confident and fluid in movement, the ’12 neither shakes nor stirs and its acidity is flat out terrific. At this early point in its evolution it is showing as well as could be expected, or hoped for. Its core of fraises du bois will always be there. Time will be kind, gentle and patient. Drink 2015-2024. Tasted April and June 2015
Tasted from two bottles. The blend was Cabernet Franc (40 per cent), Merlot (37), Cabernet Sauvignon (16) and Gamay (5)…roughly. Gremlins from a closet in a funky way, in causation by time though for every thought of flaw there are 10 in depth and layering. The second pour is brighter and popping but if a master of time, partially, arguably so is considered, then the years have had their say. Both palates are alive, tense, terse and resonant in deep horns, where fog meets contrabass. The specs are interesting to note; 7.2 total acidity, pH at 3.19 and sugar (brix), 22.3. Says J-L Groux “we would never pick at that number today.” High acidity keeps it alive, this mix of fruit that is oxidized, nearing the suggestion of maderized and whiffing like 55-day, dry-aged beef. Only the second bottle offers up true savour and cooler instincts. Fascinating. Drink 2015-2016. Tasted June 2015
A Cabernet Franc of settled, harmonious tones, of oak that sets sights and heights to heah, now integrated at such an early age. The grape succeeds and bleeds an exemplary, stalwart varietal suspension within the Stratus pantheon, a sanctuary where fiddles are yet played by other outfits across the region. Cabernet Franc will increase in the Stratus Red, for good measure and reason. This ’12 is simply smothered in an embarrasment of red fruit, smoky from raspy reds to plugged in currants. It is of a favour in flavour that reminds of Swedish berries, in modulated hög, though not in sweetness. Drink 2015-2021. Tasted June 2015
Of a bygone era, an older style. Thicket or copse, but of a green, verdant, newby character. Like a shell, membrane or rim of shellac on an expressly full-bodied corpse. Smells like a grandfather’s old pipe, comforting and parched. Flavours have left piquant behind, settling with senectitude into orange and clove. Alive if well-aged and evolved. A push-pull of warmth and cool elasticity, humidity and savour. Drink 2015-2016. Tasted June 2015
Few varietal Cabernet Sauvignon in Niagara stand out, firm and yet back from the pack. The Stratus is anything but “six and one, half dozen the other.” This prochaine exit strategy to the NSOR 2010 is an admirable follow, of dusty fill and grind of pepper, a touch of brine and “a cup of rhyme.” Structurally it is like a swan, elongated, muscular and elastic. It is elegant within a markedly rigid frame. It also flies freely, like a hummingbird. “You can crop it higher and it’s going to make good quality,” notes J-L. Hurrah. Another varietal success for Life’s Rich Paegent. Let it catch some R.E.M. to settle its tannins. Drink 2017-2022. Tasted June 2015
Stratus Petit Verdot 2012, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario (142638), $30.75, WineAlign)
Picked at nearly the same time as the ’12 Gamay and with prudent acidity preserving fashion – early. A variety that travels with happy expedience into sugar (26 brix) and maintains that aforesaid acidity without intrusion. A tightly spun PV, in need of five years easy to unwind and hopefully recoil. The wall of rigidity is woven in chalk and grain, the lift round, all-in, immediate and lingering. Then it comes back around again, ever-increasing the high tones of the wine. So very metagrobilizing genera, this ’12 Petit Verdot. Drink 2019-2024. Tasted June 2015
“We try to treat Gamay as a noble variety,” says J-L Groux. This is the child of a short (three weeks) Stratus maceration. Today the nose indicates concentrated strawberry compote. Gamay of the most hue, tone and texture. “We don’t want to go back to the light years of Gamay.” This futuristic vintage (of two years in oak and high, high brix) sees to that concern. Subsequent vintages will scale back but won’t be “light, easy and breezy,” though they will shed the weight of raisin and fig.
From my earlier note of May 2015:
Esteem elevated by structure, matched in poise and presence mottled in smears of darker, richer black cherry. If a slight absence of brightness is sensed due to the syrupy compression, like New World, west coast Pinot Noir, the gleaning from acidity and tannin times perfectly the effluent escape.
From my earlier note of April 2015:
It may not be the most idiosyncratic Gamay in Niagara but the Stratus 2012 is without a doubt the most advanced and complex. Gamay fusion is on display, at once a bottle of Niagara’s finest pulchritudinous veneer and then a charcuterie board laid ample with cured bovine parts and sun-dried grapes. Maximum ripeness and then even later picking, to no one’s surprise, have led to this. Two years of ageing in neutral oak barrels has brought about a humid roundness and yet the centre is controlled by Oz-like mint and eucalyptus notes. The jam is gelid, as opposed to temperate. Rarely does Gamay go to such depths, of blackberry, chalk and grain, with an overlord of tannin. Quite serious stuff. Drink 2017-2020.
Last tasted April 2015
With no true recognition of, for or in cohort conscious decision to align with a clone, of Montalcino, Montepulciano or Chianti, this Stratus take on Sangiovese must go it alone. That said, so much modernity links it to some Tuscan brethren. “We have Italian winters that tell us our Sangiovese is not a crazy one,” explains J-L Groux. Nothing in this ’12 speaks of lightness, beets or simple, red fruit. Two years in French oak, blah, blah, blah leads to a Riserva style. This is not about making CC, simulating CCR, mimicking Gentile or copying Grosso. It’s about leaving a wine for two years to develop aromatic complexity and structure. “It’s a curiosity,” adds Suzanne Janke. Nail’s head, hit. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted June 2015
In 2012 the J-L Groux take on the expatriate Spaniard is warm, rich, cake-driven and yet balanced in ways the 2010 was unable to exhort. This vintage appeases Groux’s ends of the earth search for aromatics, picking on them, executing vinification to encourage them and barrel-aging for the purpose of cementing them. The 2012 is an aromatic success. It exudes red fruit, flowers, baker’s kitchens and wet Niagara on the Lake earth. This is a clean and jerk Tempranillo, a bouquet to success. The palate, mouthfeel and mellow finish return the favour of 2010 when it was noted that the variety in this place is a stretch, overweening perhaps, certainly self-effacing if admittedly short of contumelious behaviour. Drink 2015-2019. Tasted June 2015
“To me this is one of the most successful new varieties we are planting,” exclaims J-L Groux. In similar ways with Stratus varietal cousin Petit Verdot, acidity rules the roost. Smells like a just sliced open bag of organic earth, freshly neutral, funkless and emptying into a (first use) terra cotta pot. A rich, looking straight ahead expression. What it hides in fruit is lost to the brilliance of balance though plum is the operative hidden flesh and it will make a clearer impression when it steps clear of the tar and the tannin. This is pitchy sagacity, with poise and length. Drink 2016-2022. Tasted June 2015
Once again, the tone climbs and hangs in the upper reaches, where structure lurks, preceded with intent by four plus weeks of maceration, followed by (sic) two years in oak. Some new, some old, to be technical and precise. Will be some time before this is able to shed the bathetic, syrupy aromatics and meaty, eat that soup with a fork texture. The concentration it treated and tempered with a pantomime shred of elegance. Not as Rhoneish as some other vintages (contemporarily not a bad thing) but this combines worlds in copacetic ways. Tomato and herbs crisped in good olive oil make for good gastronomy in this consumer-friendly, balanced Syrah. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted June 2015.
Unexpectedly floral, perhaps more than any other Stratus varietal red. That aroma bite strikes me as cool. Just a hint of fennel and coriander seed offer up an herbal hand of complexity. The texture advances to integrated, coming about with a softer red in tow, with less severe acidity than the others. More bitters on the finish as well. Less attitude, more fat, though decidedly rich. Drink 2015-2017. Tasted June 2015
A blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot with some Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling added for lift and what J-L Groux admits is rendered “for the consumer.” This essentially marks the twain between sweet and dry, if not quite halfway then pretty darn close. Plenty of herbs and citrus nail the aromas on the proverbial head with more than a grapefruit or two on the half circle. A highly approachable, end-user friendly blush. Drink 2015-2016. Tasted April and June 2015
Good to go!