It was planned as a big chill weekend, set aside months before because if you don’t dot the calendar you will never find the time. It was a meeting of old friends who rarely see one another, coming from different cities and countries to gather in Niagara for reasons unknown. It was more than an important impromptu tasting at Stratus Vineyards on a blustery October Sunday. Thanks so much Ben, for the hospitality and new revelations.
I pack my case, I check my face
I look a little bit older
I look a little bit colder
With one deep breath, and one big step
I move a little bit closer, I move a little bit closer
For reasons unknown
Related – Chase food pairings with Stratus
I’ve written about Stratus Vineyards before, about Yoda of assemblage and varietal maître winemaker J-L Groux. Ben Nicks is the winery’s hospitality master, mentor and guiding light. It’s no coincidence that Ben set us up with six current releases in the tasting board room with a tease of three local cheeses and a morsel of Mario Pingue’s salumi. A subtle arrangement this micro-pairing, seemingly inconsequential but oh so very poignant and perfect.
Related – The Stratus-Momofuku continuum
Ben leads us through the inner workings of Stratus and you should know that this behind-the scenes tour is no ordinary junket nor is what goes on back there any accident. Sustainability is key, planned to a T, in particular with respect to water use. We pass by the hydrosieve, a simple stainless box used to aerate wines during fermentation and Ben explains the great ozonator, to clean and preserve sterility in the winery. When ozone gas is introduced to an environment with bacteria, mold or any other organic material, it readily donates one of the oxygen atoms to oxidize or destroy that material. The ozonator is highly effective in controlling Brettanomyces populations.
In the boardroom we set about tasting with the saturated vineyards as our backdrop. Grapes continue to hang though there is no surprise in that. Stratus is known to wait out the rest of the Peninsula in search of more phenolic ripeness and infinite aromatic possibilities. Here are the seven wines tasted on Sunday, October 28th.
Stratus Vineyards White 2014, VQA Niagara Lakeshore, Ontario (660704, $38.00, WineAlign)
So what is White ’14’s status in late October 2018? Still pronouncing struck flinty with a capital F and elevated into the air on a pillow of fine smoulder. What is duly noted at this stage is the pause, at calm, unaffected by gravity and then, the length. In other words, a perfectly drinkable state. Last tasted October 2018
White assemblage under the Stratus label is not like spinning a single record, it’s like Rock ‘n Roll radio. Opening a bottle brings great excitement and anticipation, with a sense of wonder. What songs am I going to hear or more to the point, which grape varieties am I going to taste, in which percentages and in what order? In 2014 it’s a medley of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viognier, sémillon and gewürztraminer. The blend spent 21 months in (15 per cent) new oak. The fruits are varied and each one (or mélange of several) represented a hit in their own right. Tutti frutti, orange blossom special, little green apples, the lemon song, kiwi, peach, tangerine and forbidden fruit. In the end I heard it through the grapevine, by way of a conduit provided by great and necessary acidity. A top quality Stratus White, worthy of repeat plays. Drink 2018-2025. Tasted twice, May and June 2018
This Stratus is the year of the utmost natural chardonnay, the one where knuckling down and waiting with great patience leads to the most ambient of varietal wines. Not that the indigenous yeast plan is new (it dates back to ’09) but it is unfiltered and the aromatics are wonderfully nostalgic. This too (like the White) has that uncanny and unmistakeable flinty smokiness but in the realm of chardonnay it’s surprisingly delicate and finessed. ’Twas a warm vintage and so there must be an initialization of richness and the lush contextual accession will continue to develop but for now its tighter and sitting in a pool of quietude. Revisits in two and three years will tell the wine’s story. Drink 2019-2026. Tasted October 2018
The plantings are Clone 47, one of two from Alsace (along with 48) that are often used in Ontario. There are few regional equals like this one of subtle floral expression in lemon waxy spray, yellow rose fragrance and citrus oil incumbency. The acidity is buoyant, unaggressive and supportive and so the residual sugar number is probably higher than expected, perhaps in the mid to upper teens. Works the derivative volatile aroma compounds drawn from flowers, fruits, leaves, and stems to great aromatic effect. In any case it’s a health affirming gewürztraminer by essential oil and through the act of sumptuous behaviour. Drink 2018-2022. Tasted October 2018
Stratus Vineyards Red 2015, VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario (131037, $48.00, WineAlign)
Harvested over a week’s time in mid to late November from a warm if unremarkable vintage that followed a polar vortex winter, the just released 2015 Red is the five-headed Bordelais made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. If indeed perception is conceived to occur through five senses then all are needed to feel the fingers and toes of this assemblage. It’s also a matter of mathematical relevance, especially if you’ve tasted a few vintages of this most consistent appellative blend. And so standard deviation is relevant in assessment. From one Stratus Red to another we are looking at two sets of five different numbers that have the same mean but different standard deviations and it can be argued (because of the methodology), the same standard deviation but different means. If only J-L Groux knows the answer to the mean and standard of each Red set we can still look at this ’15 and note how it’s quite dusty and high-toned in its youth, with a richness that will eventually bring it all down to earth. It’s a chewy Red with some dried, leathery fruit, as per the mean, equal and opposing to the fresh and friendly, as per the standard deviation. As a matter of assemblage it’s as classic and recognizable as any in the accumulative history and also reminiscent of the past, like ’07, ’10 and ’12, to name just a few. With cabernet sauvignon at the head it tells us that ripeness is the virtue and comfort the result. By the way, the varietal breakdown of 40, 24, 23, 11 and 2 equates to a mean of 20 and a standard deviation of 14.40. For what it’s worth. Drink 2019-2026. Tasted October 2018
Stratus Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2015, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario (412759, $38.65, WineAlign)
The 2015 cabernet franc of warmth and layering is wise in the ways of fruit. It’s an overt and resolute varietal wine picked at intervals and in succession with on the fly intent. The endeavour is worthy of the ideal and in turn, every moment of our consideration. Here is where you can begin any one of your carefully thought on handful of cabernet franc explorations, not just any mind you but from those that start at the top of the pyramid, from the top down. What is striking about 2015 is the sweet herbal quality, with a bushy tisane in place of hard to ascertain, high-toned pyrazine. What you will find is actually quite simple; cabernet franc grown, raised and fashioned by winemaker J-L Groux at Stratus. I just love this fruit. These chips have fallen where they may. Drink 2020-2038. Tasted October 2018
Stratus turns back time and into varietal subtleties so that sniffs and sips of this ’14 are met with pauses. This iambic syrah is indeed something other, with dusty peppery notes and an unforced extraction that does little (at first) to challenge or demand that you work for your sips. The floral aromas form the crux of the unstressed syllables and are followed by strong flavours, a.k.a. the stressed syllables. The poetic feel is one of clause, pause and punctuation, with acidity strong but also fine and the even ripening from the grapes is a matter of obvious clarity. I suggest that the winemaking is more hands off than before and the wine needed little to no clutter to reach this goal. The richness is subdued and the balance as bountiful as it is beautiful. The drinker must read-render this syrah stanza so that it is both comprehended and appreciated. There may be some potential tension in doing so because you need to know how to seek out the stressors but also where to find the metrical pauses. Unearthing all the elements will help to pair with food that reads the same, like a seared duck breast, rare and sliced, or a lean piece of beef, carved tagliata style. Drink 2019-2025. Tasted October 2018
Stratus Vineyards Sémillon Botrytis Affected 2016, VQA Niagara On The Lake (Winery, $38.00, WineAlign)
One of the most unique dessert wines in Ontario this is neither late-harvest nor Icewine in origin. Only the third time it has been made, the 2016 sémillon launches with a smoky beginning, as expected and yet, is always appreciated. Some of the fruit is harvested early, but other bunches in the same vineyard are some of the last to be harvested. This low alcohol anti-sticky is from the warm vintage and from the same spot in the vineyard, vintage in vintage out. Most interesting is how these pristine botrytis affected grapes are picked ahead of the rest of the clean fruit used for the dry sémillon. It’s a very vinous sém with distinct apricot and longan notes. Great acids in 2016. Has still retained some waxiness and found some tropical fruit despite the early pick. All of the counterintuitive ideals tell us that the warm vintages can make for top quality dessert wine. This is the masquerade party wine made by the Way Outs band. “That’s where the fun is, way out, WAY OUT!” Drink 2019-2028. Tasted October 2018
Good to go!