Stratus at 10 Years Old

Posted by: samy September 1, 2015 No Comments

Straus wall of wineWe just returned from the cottage. A right of passage for Canadians (depending on where you live, you may call your summer wilderness excursion the cabin, camp or cottage but it’s all basically the same thing) this yearly (and for some lucky ducks weekendly) city escape truly brings about Canadian pride, and weirdly current nostalgia of all things Canuck.

So, wrapped in our striped Bay blankets, and diligently heeding the signs warning of charging moose, we got a serious hankering for local wines. Obviously, The Wine Sisters’ summer holidays include a generous selection of Ontario bottles … as do many of our parties, cottage or not.

Other Reading: Our Canada Day Wine Picks

At 148 years old, Canada is considered a youngster as far as countries of the world go – and our wine regions are mere infants when pitted against European vineyards that have been in existence for hundreds of years. We know these vaulted vineyards of Mersault, Rhinegau and Barolo produce wines that can easily age for a few decades, but we have less proof – and maybe even some doubts – of our local wines longevity. Hands up all those who age Ontario wines in your cellars? Hmmm. Maybe this article will change your mind.

Earlier this summer, Stratus hosted its annual media tasting, looking at past and present vintages of select wines.

Stratus Wine Tasting at the Chase in Toronto
Stratus Wine Tasting at the Chase in Toronto

Other Reading: Stratus Throughout the Years 

This year, the Niagara winery marks its 10th anniversary (Stratus opened in 2005, but began making wines in 2002, prior to the official opening). As part of the celebrations, winemaker JL Groux hosted a small group of Toronto wine media at the Chase to show how ’02 and ’05 vintages are fairing against current releases.

chase menu

With the exception of one (the ’02 Stratus Red – more on that below), the 10- and 12-year-old wines were showing exceptionally well, and by comparison, the current releases of the 2012 vintage, though showing lots of promise, needed time to fully develop.

Which is exactly the intention of JL, who is known for late harvests (Picking in November is not unusual in JL’s world, whereas most of his Niagara colleagues are wrapped up around Thanksgiving), extended maceration time (three weeks is short for Stratus), and long barrel aging (an average of two years for every wine – white or red).

The extended time in barrel means younger wines can come off as a bit heavy handed, even unbalanced, when it comes to oak. And that is just fine with JL.

“Oak will help with aging,” he said. “We want wines to age and oak plays an important role, but a supporting role.”

stratus 02 chard

A perfect example of this is Stratus’ Chardonnay. The 2012 – which spent less than a year in French oak, only 18% new – is currently laced with sweet oak spices, a dominant note in the wine. The library release of the ’02 Chard has developed into an exceptional wine with creamy notes of citrus and tree fruit, that’s still fresh and vibrant (see the full review below).

Stratus isn’t the only winery in Niagara making wines built to last, but it is a prime focus of JL and the winery. It’s exciting times for premier wines in Ontario, but don’t take our word for it. Just wait 10 years and see for yourself.

Stratus White, 2012 $38

After spending about 22 months in French oak – 28% of it new, Stratus elected to release this wine a year earlier than normal. A blend of Chardonnay with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, there’s plenty of butterscotch and orange oil notes on the nose with that telltale beeswax element brought on by the Semillon. Rich on the palate with a waxy mouthfeel and flavours that follow through from the nose along with notes of poached apple and pear.

Stratus White, 2005

A field blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurtztraminer, Semillon, and Riesling,  the nose is subtle with fresh herbs, stone fruit and floral notes. Creamy and fresh on the palate, but with considerably less opulence than the ’12.

Chardonnay, 2012 $48

Sweet oak spice, peach and sour citrus aromas. Full bodied and creamy on the palate with fresh acid and flavours of Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apple, butterscotch and vanilla.

Chardonnay, 2002

A library release that’s no longer available for purchase – which is a huge disappointment. Luckily the wine’s availability is the only thing that disappoints as this 13 year old Chard has an interesting nose of creamed corn, lemon, light toast and creme brulee. More cream on the palate with notes of wax, mint, citrus and tree fruit. Uplifting acid that offers surprising freshness with a lively finish. Very, very good.

Viognier, 2012 $38

Another wine that spent nearly two years in oak – but this time all neutral barrels. A mild nose with ginger/cumin spice and citrus notes, and medium bodied palate that echoes the spicy, fruity characteristics.

Stratus Red, 2012 $44

A blend of all five Bordeaux red varietals plus a splash of Tannant, the nose is dense, rich and inviting with dark fruit and menthol aromas. The palate requires some tackling with fine-firm tannin that grow increasingly grippy and flavours of fresh earth and black fruit with a vibrant seam of acidity. This still needs time to mellow out the bold tannins and harmonize all the players on the team, but it should be a gem in another two or three years.

Stratus Red, 2002

Cab Franc, Merlot and Cab Sauv are the main grapes at play here, but there is a pinch of Gamay in this blend. The reason? Who knows, say JL, “If I was reasoning, I’d make poor wines.” Hard to argue with that logic.

This was the most controversial wine of the tasting, with half the group arguing vehemently for it, saying its age and character is reminiscent of Tuscany or Bordeaux. The other half felt it was past its prime … and that’s the camp of this review:

Unfortunately, this wine has seen better days, and after trying two bottles (the second slightly fresher than the first. The first sample had been poured for about an hour before we finally got to trying it where as the second was tried immediately after opening), flavours and aromas were more like a good Bloody Caesar than a fine wine. With notes of Clamato, celery salt, beef bouillon cube and some fig and prune, this Red has had its last laugh.

Cabernet Franc, 2012 $38

One of JL’s favourite wines to make, slightly more than half of this Cab Franc was aged in new French oak. Deep and dark with aromas of fresh blackberry and dark fruits, the palate balances both black and sour cherry flavours with dark earth and subtle smoke. Silky smooth with fine-firm tannin this is a lovely wine that is drinking nicely now but will be sure to richly reward the patient in another 5-7 years.

Cabernet Franc, 2005

Elegant and poised this is a fabulous wine that shows depth, character and thoughtful complexity. Aromas of ripe black cherry, lilac, fresh rosemary and savoury herbs, the palate is full and dense with fine-firm tannin, fresh acid and flavours of clay, blackberry and tart cherry.

Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012 $48

JL told the group, ” We love Cabernet Sauvignon, it makes great wine in Ontario, but only once every three or four years.” 2012 was one of these years. Powerful and rich with a fairly shy nose – but ripe dark berries and menthol are poking through. This, like most of Stratus’ newest vintages, has the promise of a bright and rewarding future. Currently showing dark fruit flavours with firm tannin, give this until at least 2017 to really shine.

Petit Verdot, 2012 $38

A grape we’re more familiar with in blends, Petit Verdot has naturally high acidity and green notes. Still, JL likes working with the grape (it was the very first wine he made as young winemaker in Bordeaux), and sees it as a grape that can thrive in Ontario. “I’m a big believer in Petit Verdot in Ontario, not only because it’s easy to winter, but because it’s consistent year after year.” A mix of crushed peppercorn, cassis and black cherry on the nose, the palate is full and smooth with dark fruit and spice flavours.

Gamay, 2012 $29

Easily one of our favourite wines from Stratus. This is a firmer, denser, darker style of Gamay than many other examples (a style that JL says he will be changing, though “not to light and easy”). Earthy raspberry and bright red fruits with peppery spice on the nose, with a juicy and smooth palate that boasts plenty of fresh acid and flavours of red berries, spice and some black licorice. Great for burgers and grilled summer fare.

Sangiovese, 2012 (release date: October)

Sangiovese is the main grape of Chianti, and you don’t see a lot of it being grown here. However, Stratus feels there is a demand for locally grown Sangiovese. Rose petal and red cherry on the nose, with more red fruit on the palate. Tannins are grippy and a bit fierce at this pre-release stage.

Tempranillo, 2012 (release date: October)

Another experiment with traditionally warm climate European varietals, Tempranillo is the main grape of Rioja and is grown through out Spain. This cool-climate Ontario version is very intriguing, with loads of complexity to dig through. Spicy and savoury with peppercorn, dried bay leaf, and dark cherry notes, and a rich and smooth palate with vibrant acid and fine tannin.

Tannat, 2012 (release date: October)

“Tannat is all about acidity. Even extremely ripe,” JL said at the tasting. “I remember picking it at 28 Brix and it still had too much acidity.” Traditionally the main grape of Madiran in South West France, and also known as the national grape of Uruguay, Tannat typically produces tannic, well structured wines that are a bit tough in their youth.  This shows lots of spice and savoury notes, with fine-firm tannin, and, as JL promised, vibrant acidity.

Syrah, 2012 $48

A northern Rhone styled Syrah, that’s lean and focused with lots of savoury notes like black pepper, bay leaf, wild rosemary and black berry. Smooth and concentrated on the palate with spice and juicy fruit notes. An elegant, yet masculine wine.

Malbec, 2012 $42

The violet incense note that has become a marker of Stratus Malbec for us is toned down in this vintage, and there seems to be a more savoury edge of black pepper spice, and cedar wood. Tannins are quite fine. Try this with sweet ribs or beef kabobs.

Rose, 2014 $29 (sold out)

This is the first time Stratus has made a rose (not including the Wildass label). It’s 100% Cabernet Franc, a blend of five different tanks, the first 5% free run from each. JL wanted a rose with structure and substance, and this is vibrant and fresh with loads of juicy red berry fruit.

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