Stratus Vineyards, an 'Eco-Wonder,' Raises the Bar for Canadian Wineries

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Stratus Vineyards, the world’s first winery to earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, boasts a unique, gravity-based winemaking system (eliminating the need for flavour-diminishing pumps and conveyor belts) and a laborious double-sorting technique to produce ultra-premium "assemblage" wines. The boutique is exclusive Canadian winery retailer of Oenology stemware by famed French crystal maker Baccarat. Stellar designers created the interiors (Burdifilek) and graphics (Michael Vanderbyl).

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario Stratus Vineyards, one of Canada’s newest wineries, is the prototype for sustainable wineries around the world. Stratus is the first building in Canada -- and the world’s first winery -- to earn LEED™ (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, an extremely demanding standard.

The Globe and Mail, the Toronto newspaper, calls Stratus “an eco-wonder” …. “The most ambitious new winery to open in Niagara…. Stratus is already drawing comparisons to the boutique cult wineries of Napa Valley.”

From the “green” architecture by Leslie Andrew to the double sorting of handpicked grapes, every parameter has been optimized at Stratus to foster the creation of the best possible wines in the Niagara Region.

Winemaker J-L Groux’s flagship Stratus Red and Stratus White are made in the assemblage style of winemaking, combining several grape varieties from the herbicide-free, labour-intensive, 53-acre vineyard. These wines have more complexity and aromatic diversity than wines made from a single varietal. Groux describes the signature characteristics of Stratus wines as an intense and complex nose, full mouth feel with a long finish (aftertaste), and an ability to benefit from lengthy cellaring.

The unique, gravity-based winemaking system eliminates the need for pumps and conveyor belts, which can adversely affect quality by prematurely crushing the grapes.

The building showcases environmental sustainability: 24 geothermal wells dug 225 feet deep supply all the energy for heating and cooling needs, recycled materials were used in construction, stones in the parking lot were chosen to reduce light-reflected warmth, workers have bike locks and lockers, and a hybrid, gas-electric Toyota Prius hauls winery deliveries.

An extremely laborious, double-sorting technique ensures that only high-quality grapes from the estate proceed to the winemaking stage. There are over 15 different ways to receive the grapes, including combinations that have never been done internationally, including sorting bunches only, sorting berries only, or double sorting of both the grape bunches and berries.

This grape reception and double-sorting operation is unique because it is done entirely by gravity. “This probably doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Groux says.

In the double-sorting method followed at Stratus, grapes vibrate on the sorting table, passing by the hand sorters who pick out the less-than-perfect bunches. These are returned to the land and recycled in the vineyards as compost.

Next, the bunches go through the destemmer, which separates the berries from the stems.

Then the berries fall onto the second sorting table, where another eight-person team inspects them for translucency (good) and signs of rot (bad). “Sorting tables that vibrate are more efficient and hygienic than (traditional) conveyor belts because as the berries bounce, you get to see them from all sides,” Groux says.

Finally, the grapes go to the crusher, where two rollers lightly crush the berries. From there, they fall into the fermenter.

At no time do pumps play a part in Stratus’s winemaking chain. Pumps can introduce unpleasant, skin and seed flavours. Instead, two elevators lift barrels and pressure vessels from the barrel cellar to the mezzanine level, where the wine can be gravity-fed to the fermenters for further assemblage and, finally, bottling. “Stratus, to the best of our knowledge, is the only winery in the world that can claim to be pump-free,” Groux says.

Stratus wines can be sampled in comparative tasting flights of three wines. The tastings, along with our program of food-and-wine seminars, take place in our chic retail area, created by renowned interior designer Diego Burdi of Burdifilek. The daylight-filled boutique and the mesquite-paneled tasting room adjoin a contemporary-styled terrace with panoramic views of the vineyard.

Currently, the flights comprise a 2002 Riesling, 2000 Stratus White and 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon; and a 2002 Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay, 2001 Cabernet Franc and 2001 Stratus Red. Tasting flights are $10; a fourth tasting of a Riesling Select Late Harvest or Riesling Icewine may be ordered for an additional $5. Reservations are not required.

The boutique has been appointed exclusive Canadian winery retailer of Oenology stemware by famed French crystal maker Baccarat. Serious wine connoisseurs will also appreciate the selection of stemware by Riedel, Spiegelau and Ravenscroft.

Even our graphic design helps convey the message that Stratus Vineyards occupies a high-end niche in the wine market. The company commissioned famed San Francisco designer Michael Vanderbyl to create its distinctive, duotone-printed label portraying a stratus cloud.

Globe and Mail wine critic Beppi Crosariol has written:

"2002 Stratus White ($36 CDN) is an aromatic gem, billowing sexy scents of lychee, pineapple and smoke. On the palate, it is full-bodied, fleshy and round, with hints of mineral and toasty oak lifting the tropical fruit, finishing with vibrant acidity. It reminded me of the California cult white Caymus Conundrum, only the Stratus is completely dry and, to my mind, more elegant.

"2000 Stratus White ($40 CDN) shows mango, honey and smoke on the nose -- and echoed on the creamy, beautifully structured, and still very fresh, palate. The finish is amazingly long, with a kick of lemony acidity at the end.

"I especially liked the 2002 Stratus Merlot ($55 CDN)… remarkably fresh, with hints of blackberry and cedar on a chewy, concentrated base."

Stratus Vineyards produces ultra-premium VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance Ontario) wines on a 62-acre estate in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. The company pursues sustainable viticulture and winemaking in its environmentally friendly facility. In recognition of this achievement, Stratus is the first winery in the world to earn the coveted LEED™ (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Visit us at http://www.stratuswines.com.

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Stratus Vineyards bar and boutiqueStratus Vineyards bar and boutiqueA 13-foot-tall glass cube appended to the main structure contains the retail area and the two tasting rooms. The interiors, by Toronto-based Burdifilek, feature oak ceilings and a marble countertop. Luxurious wall surfaces of textured Venetian plaster alternate with bleached, whitewashed, brushed and sandblasted rift-cut oak. The highly polished concrete floor has (deliberate) little cracks that bestow instant patina. Monumental freestanding shelving breaks down the scale of the large space and displays design books and oenophile stemware as well as Stratus wines.Stratus Vineyards winery facadeStratus Vineyards winery facadeStratus Vineyards boasts the first building in Canada – and the world’s first winery – to earn LEED™ (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Canada certification. Architect Leslie Andrew’s “Zen minimalist” design includes narrow clerestory strip windows on the south and west sides of the building to avoid solar heat gain. Canopies shade the ample glazing in the retail and laboratory areas. Daylight penetrates the building; artificial lighting is switched off on most days. The building incorporates reclaimed wood and steel, locally sourced materials and insulation made from recycled materials. Galvanized steel is used extensively to reduce the need for paint and maintenance. (The cedar cladding is just a shell.)pressing the grapes at Stratus Vineyardspressing the grapes at Stratus VineyardsMassive Grenier oak fermenters are elevated 10 feet off the ground so that the grapes can fall by gravity into the press. “Stratus, to the best of our knowledge, is the only winery in the world that can claim to be pump-free,” says winemaker JL Groux.Stratus's flagship Red and White winesStratus's flagship Red and White winesSan Francisco-based designer Michael Vanderbyl created an elongated, lean, duotone-printed label of a stratus cloud, suggesting layers of complexity, like the flagship Stratus White and Red. To reflect the wine’s understated, high-quality approach, he simplified the label by moving all the appellation and legal clutter to the label on the back of the bottle.Tasting room at Stratus VineyardsTasting room at Stratus VineyardsStratus tasting rooms feature bleached, whitewashed, brushed and sandblasted rift-cut oakTwo-inch squares of end-grain mesquite cover the walls of the tasting room. The airy, spacious room, the subtle lighting and the neutral colour scheme don’t draw attention away from the wine, contributing to the relaxed ambiance. Stratus Vineyard winery and vineyardStratus Vineyard winery and vineyardStratus practices labour-intensive, small-yield viticulture on the 50-acres of planted vineyard. In late October, wind machines resembling windmills pull down the warmer air hovering 70 feet up, adding a week’s ripening time without fear of frost damage.