Imagine this scene. It’s the year 2000 and all of the Stratus single varietal wines have been bottled. J-L (Jean-Laurent) Groux and partner in wine at the time Peter Gamble are discussing the vintage and the merits of the individual varieties. “Something’s missing,” is the thought. “We can do better.” They decide to pour them out and reconstruct by blending whites into riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas. They did what? They poured out Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, to reform the varieties by fractional assemblage? Crazy but true. History was made.
J-L Groux is the winemaker at Stratus Vineyards, steward and maître d‘ to Niagara assemblage, the “art of combining several varieties to create a single wine.” The Stratus Red and White wines define that noble practice for Ontario. Groux’s M.O. is to select the best grapes from a single growing season, age them in oak barrels and then combine the SV’s for the purpose of achieving exceptional aromatics, a long aftertaste, vintage consistency and ageability. If any doubt has been cast over the idea of or the success of Groux’s methodology, upon his insistence that “there is no recipe for assemblage, only a goal,” the back-vintage vertical tasting at Le Sélect Bistro answered the multi-variety bell.
So what has changed in the past 13 years? Most notable is the wisdom, experience and maturity of the vines and the winemaker. The wines and their maker have developed a symbiotic relationship with their environments. The oak barrels are crucial to the refinement of the Stratus signature wines. Cooperage time, though perpetually in oscillation, has generally increased over the years but levels of new oak have decreased. Groux’s declaration that it takes time to get the pyrazine (green character) out of the red grapes (especially Cabernet Sauvignon) indicates that oak must support but never lead. The Stratus Red vintage eversion is testament to a barrel program that is just getting better and better.
Rigorous vineyard management, including adjustments in fruit-thinning and maintaining fundamental, biological order have been key. “The vineyard is way more balanced due to all the hard work we have done,” boasts Groux. In 2010 they discovered it was no longer necessary to over-thin, but to concentrate on maintaining the organic matter needed. “We used to thin by two-thirds. 2010 was the hitching point.” Grape quality has never been better. “All these varieties are now making concentrated wine,” concludes Groux.
Re-thinking specific variety usage has seen a constant progression. Reds that used to rely on a categorical Bordeaux model (the three main grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot) have seen additions of Gamay, Syrah and Tannat over the years. In 2010, the archetype is again Bordeaux, with Petit Verdot in the mix. Malbec can’t be too far behind. My personal preference would be to see the beacon Gamay in grounding support. The grape really ties the room together. Whites once lead by Chardonnay have also angled Bordeaux. “We discovered in 2008 that Semillon can make great wine in Ontario.” This was a pivotal turning point in the Stratus white evolution.
Gewürztraminer was also eliminated around this time, to ‘thin’ away a level of terpenes and to adjust the flavour profile towards more balance. “People would begin to say I smell Gewürz. Dammit!” J.L. would say, “that’s not what I want them to smell. I want them to notice complexity. We want when people put their nose in this they say, this is serious.” Going forward, more Chardonnay will join the assemblage, moving towards more complexity, a less dry style.
The Select-Stratus tasting and lunch was hosted by J-L Groux and team: Charles Baker, Ben Nicks, Suzanne Janke and Sarah Walker. Chef Ponzo’s stoic, elegant plates prove that simplicity leads to good design as they ratify the sine qua non of Bistro cuisine.
Stratus Red and White Vertical
Tuesday September 24, 2013
Le Sélect Bistro, 432 Wellington Street West (416) 596-6405
Chef Albert Ponzo, @AlbertPonzo
2010 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. 92
2009 is a vintage you will notice a great similitude in that the Sauvignon Blanc and the Semillon number is consistent with ’10. This was a not preconceived plan insists J-L. Here the acidity level is so much higher, not as terpenic and veering citrus. Late picked UV’s on the berries are to thank but still the apples are there along with some pith. The Gewürztraminer glycerin, nutty aftertaste used to be there but now seems to have dissipated. This ’09 comes from a very small crop so the price “makes very little business sense, but you can’t win them all.” With time in the glass it dilates and modulates, becomes tropical, in pineapple and melon. This from 25 brix Sauvignon Blanc and to a lesser extent 23 brix Semillon. More stony and stark than the ’10. 89
2008 is formatively led by Chardonnay and certainly leans Chablis in a cool year. The highly aromatic grapes, at first mute, begin to emerge as the wine warms. This is the prettiest of the three thus far, with more citrus, fine balance and a wine that corroborates J.L ‘s concept; consistency, long aftertaste and ageability. Achieves all three. Keep swirling and the tropical notes make a play. Again consistency. This is effortless. 92
2007 has taken seven years to slow down the Gewürztraminer because the tiger army was so prominent back then, even at only 11 per cent of the mix. A “prisoner of the past and my heart’s dark desire,” with extreme efflorescent, ambrosial white flower and medicinal honey scents. The aromas are likely a residual effect of the Gewürztraminer, like jasmine or dried roses, or the floral aroma of some honey. Even at six years old the Riesling is a distraction. This wine is very, very interesting, but also the hardest to assess. “Dried flowers pressed in pages of faded romance died.” 90
2006 was a “great recovery year,” after the winter damage of ’03, ’04 and ’05. A cool vintage, which required careful picking. The Sauvignon Blanc driven ’06 has the highest melon component, not to mention Boxwood. Yet that rose/floral/honey medicinal note is even stronger. Not over the hill at all and developing a graceful white wine character. Very French with late acidity and verve. Remarkable. Love this one. “This is a style of aged wine where I want to go,” says J-L. Nutty finish. 93
2005 was 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. 90
2010 is 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. 92
2009 is a very different and strange Cabernet animal, driven by Franc, its aromatics in spectacular form. Certainly ringing the bell pepper tocsin in a briny, cool climate and licorice carillon. Quite masculine for cool climate, cool vintage assemblage, assisted in kind that way by Tannat and Petit Verdot. “O Ominous Spiritus!” 88
2008 gives J-L reason to quip, “a cool year so therefore Cab Franc is king.” A smear of tarry black fruit is grounded by the dusty character that cool-climate reds so often display. Pepper, currant and more minerals meet metal aromatics. The ’08 Stratus SV’s collectively charm in special ways so there’s little reason not to be taken in by this assemblage. There’s just something about the vintage. 90
2007 puts a twinkle in Groux’s eye. “Still very enjoyable, agreeable and ageable,” he smiles and I note it’s not candied like it may have once been perceived. A healthy and high 88 per cent dose of new oak but it’s not the encumbrance you might expect. Still quite tight, eking strawberry and plum, and indubitably a unique amalgamation. Will offer up five more years of pleasure. 91
2006 has reached a mellow stage in life, a middle age comfort zone, with no more edgy tannins. J-L is reserved and resolved to say it “has evolved to a nicely aged red wine.” Some sour funk continues to shine in bright acidity, seemingly fresh, though not as mature or concentrated as the others. Some grape leaf here, in a savoury way, like herb and starch stuffed tomato or ground meat in sweet peppers. Complex but not overly chichi. 89
2005 is a wine, according to J-L “you want to keep for a long run.” Laser focus, eagle-eyed cherry bears aloft by lingering acidity and rusticity. The warm vintage and oak aging has elongated the tannin chain. “Its passport for aging,” says Groux. “Can go the distance, we’ll find out in the long run.” That omnipresent dusty mulberry Merlot influence persists, along with black tea, carob, rhubarb and bokser. Herbal, savoury and highly complex. 93
Terrine de Tête et Queue, head to tail, ‘meaty’ pork terrine
Tartare de Saumon, with lemon pearls, caperberries & frisée lettuce
Stratus White 2002 performs a demi-sec act which is not such a stretch, considering the late harvest actualities of the Gewürztraminer and the Riesling within. Could pass for dessert-like, cool-climate French (Jura) though after the chimerical declension it’s still nothing but a Chardonnay-galvanized meritage. Like warm honeycomb buttering steamed crustaceous matter. That Stratus White medicine, in rose potpourri and honey completes the classic scene within the portal. 93
Confit de Canard, duck leg confit with crispy skin, served with vegs from the garden, potatoes au gratin
Joue De Boeuf Bourguignonne, beef cheek braised in red wine, with pork lardons and button mushrooms and a green pea purée
Stratus Red 2001 from two Cabs, Merlot and Gamay is a juicy, funky and earthy glass of vinous compost. Purple verdigris, verging to black and after all these years. Broods on despite memories of a hot “lady-bug” vintage. The NOL equivalent and coalescence between the French garrigue and the Italian animale. There should be nothing declassified about this black beauty. 91
Mousse au Chocolat, made with French dark chocolate
Assiete de Fromage, a selection of Artisan cheeses from Québec; Riopelle, Le Douanier and Bleu Benedictin
Stratus Special Select Late Harvest Cabernet Franc 2012
Good to go!