It was a sunny morning in Niagara when I arrived at Stratus. Having driven by more times than I can count, a visit was long overdue.
Your first steps through the front door will land you in the winery boutique with the grande tasting bar. Sleek lines, dark woods, floor to sky windows facing the vineyards, 35 foot ceilings and hundreds of bottles of wine make a fantastic first impression.
I had the pleasure of being welcomed to Stratus by Director of Hospitality and Retail, Suzanne Janke, and with a glass of crisp 2008 Sauv Blanc in hand, she took me on a journey through Stratus’ history, architecture and wine.
To take advantage of the sun we started out on the back patio. The patio deck is wood and tucked perfectly behind the winery and facing the vines. A few rows of benches and planters surround a glass-encased fireplace and being in that space gave me a sudden desire to throw a sunset cocktail party.
Stratus has 62 acres of vines across Niagara and they grow many different varietals of grapes including some that are, right now, rare in Niagara. One of the (many) unique features of Stratus is that you will find quite the blend of grapes into some of winemaker J.L Groux’s wines. Where most wineries mostly use two grapes in their blends, Stratus blends upwards of three or four grapes into their Stratus White and Stratus Red. This kind of blending – of which I’m sure there is a grandiose french name – adds to the aroma and complexity of the wine.
With the vines so close we headed out to taste the hanging grapes; the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauv were still there in all their plum-coloured glory. I love being invited to taste the grapes in the fall – they are so sweet and perfect and plump and these were no exception. You may not know this, I certainly didn’t, but Stratus is known around Niagara for having their grapes on the vine longer than other wineries. Suzanne bit into the grapes and pulled out the pits explaining that the colour – whether green or brown – lets you know when the grapes are ripe.
LEEDers IN THE FIELD
In 2005 Stratus was the first building in Canada and the first winery in the world to receive LEED accreditation.
The LEED™ (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program was launched in Canada by the Canadian Green Building Council (CGBC). Its aim is to minimize buildings’ environmental impact through sustainable green design and construction.
Some of the features of Stratus that contributed to this accreditation (among many more but I lost count and cannot remember them all — I really should take more notes) are:
- the winery was built on the original site where a farmhouse once stood
- as many materials as possible from the original farmhouse were re-used and/or recycled
- the winery was built in a way that did not encroach on existing vines
- the main structure framing is hot dipped galvanized steel (which avoids paint and accommodates our Niagara humidity)
- inside, in place of a pump system, an 18-ton dual pressure vessel hoists the wine into the barrels
- the facility is heated and cooled by geothermal energy from 24 wells on site
- the winery capitalizes on natural light with their many windows and strategically placed lights
Since Stratus was accredited, other wineries in Ontario and Canada are following suit and it’s obvious that Stratus is proud to be leading the way. Suzanne explained that they are always looking for opportunities to become more environmentally and energy friendly.
Many of the wineries I have visited are designed around people – Stratus is designed around the wine and it becomes obvious to anyone who has seen their Press Alley. There are oak and stainless steel tanks and each are set high in the air. At first glance you cannot really put together why they are so high, but once you learn more about how the winery works it makes much more sense.
Stratus does not use pumps to transport their grapes or wines; they use good old-fashioned gravity. First, the grapes are hand-picked and then hoisted to the top level of the winery where they are sorted by bunch, de-stemmed, sorted by grape and then pressed. The machines that help in this process are mobile and can be setup right over top of the tanks that the wines will ferment in. Once they have fermented and are ready for the barrel, lines are hooked to the bottom of the tanks and 80% of the wine is drained into the cellar (with the other 20% going into a basket press) before finding their way into barrels. The pumace (leftover seeds, skins, pulp and stems) are either put back into the vineyard or sent to be made into Grape Seed Oil. Not much, if anything, goes to waste.
After learning about the vines and the presses and seeing and tasting the grapes, the only thing left to round out my great afternoon at Stratus was to taste their wines. Suzanne and staff had set up the tasting room with three whites, three reds and two icewines; to partner with the wines was a wonderfully appetizing tasting board with cheeses, meats and sweets (I have put a ✪ next to my favourites).
- 2008 Sauv Blanc ✪
- 2009 Stratus White – Futures
- 2008 Stratus White
- 2007 Stratus White ✪
- 2009 Stratus Red – Futures
- 2008 Stratus Red ✪
- 2007 Stratus Red
- 2008 Stratus Icewine White ✪
- 2011 Stratus Icewine Red
I really enjoyed this vertical tasting. Suzanne did a fantastic job of describing the wines and helping to identify some of the really unique combinations of flavours; I can’t say that I’ve ever enjoyed wines with so much complexity before. One of my favourite moments was when Suzanne described the legs of the wine as church-doors – I had not ever heard them described that way before but have plans on always calling them church doors in the future.
It was a pleasure to get to know Suzanne and I enjoyed that she wanted to get to know me – more than just the wineries themselves I find that the people are what really leave a lasting impression even after the finish of the wines are gone. I love that every time Suzanne referred to the winery she called it “The Farm” and appreciate all the hard work that goes into maintaining the high-quality practices that come with showing the utmost care to their grapes.
I will return to Stratus and suggest that you visit as well; plan on a tour and be sure to grace their beautiful and modern tasting bar. It was long after our glasses were drained and tasting boards were empty that I left feeling proud to live in Niagara where so many wineries, like Stratus, are striving to lead the way in the areas of sustainability and innovation.