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A field of dreams, a bottle of hope at Niagara’s Stratus Vineyards

By Rick VanSickle

There seems to be no end to the innovations that Niagara’s Stratus Vineyards won’t tackle to make its winery — and wines — more sustainable.

The benchmark Niagara-on-the-Lake winery is certified sustainable by Sustainable Winegrowing Ontario and attained LEED certification for its full facility years ago. On Earth Day it released a new, super-premium wine in re-used bottles. Stratus believes this “pioneering” project marks the first time a North American winery has re-used their own glass wine bottles, setting “a new benchmark for environmental responsibility in the wine industry,” said estate director Suzanne Janke, below with winemaker Dean Stoyka. “This re-use initiative is the latest step in Stratus Vineyards’ attentiveness to the environment.”

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Valuing both innovation and community, the re-used glass project began when winemaker Dean Stoyka led Stratus’s partnership with environmental students from Niagara College in a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). “The students quickly confirmed that glass was one of the most carbon-intensive aspects, accounting for 39% of the winery’s carbon footprint,” said Janke. “And, according to the Porto Protocol, an industry non-profit dedicated to mitigating climate change, that total is closer to 50-70% when you factor in the energy needed to melt glass and transport it to market and consumers. Moreover, silica sand, a key component in glassmaking, ranks second behind water in terms of the world’s most exploited resource per a 2022 UN report.”

Despite the logical appeal of bottle re-use and its adoption in some smaller European wine regions, it is still not practiced in the Canadian wine landscape. Commonplace in the beer industry, where the largest breweries agreed to a standard bottle, beer drinkers return their “empties” to the Beer Store and the bottles are cleaned and prepared for the next batch of beer.

To explore the possibilities for the wine industry, Stoyka found Circulr, a Kitchener pioneer in the re-use glass movement, particularly in food packaging. Using Stratus wine bottles collected from both consumers and the winery tasting room, Circulr conducted trials for label removal, sterilization, and food safety. These same bottles were returned to Stratus and were released on April 22 (Earth Day). “This is the start of something truly impactful for the Canadian wine industry,” said Tyler DeSousa, co-founder of Circulr. “We’re excited to keep growing this initiative and are fortunate to have found a leader like Stratus that is willing to evoke change.”

The wine selected for the first release of the re-used bottles is also an innovation, but one founded in tradition. It is a “field blend” of three rare varieties in Ontario – Petit Verdot, Malbec and Tannat, all grown at the 55-acre estate – that were co-fermented in a nod to the ancient ways. It’s labelled PVMT (initials of three varieties), on eco-friendly paper with water-soluble glue for easy removal, these varieties were experimental plantings at Stratus – contributing to the winery’s philosophical trademark — “diversity for complexity,” said Janke.

Each bottle is stamped with the original date of bottling and the re-use date, so consumers can see for themselves the lifespan of the glass. Stoyka told Wines in Niagara that Stratus is in the process of collecting used bottles from the tasting/retail facility and has plans to work with wine club members to get bottles returned to the winery, maybe through an “incentive program.” Consumers will also be able to bring back their bottles at some point down the road.

Wines in Niagara sat down with winemaker Stoyka to taste the new PVMT wine along with two new amphora aged “White Label” wines and the latest Stratus Icewine Red. Here’s what I liked:

Stratus PVMT Field Blend 2021 ($75, 93 points) — Stratus chose a crazy vintage to launch this innovative “field blend” in what is believed to be the first re-used wine bottles in Canada. The vintage was frustrating for winemakers, who had to wait on most red grapes to ripen after a gloomy, wet August. Stoyka said that of the 16 varieties planted at Stratus, the three grapes in this blend — Petit Verdot, Malbec and Tannat — are the least impacted by wet, cool weather. “They are kind of a hedge on climate vulnerability,” said Stoyka. The rare blend was co-fermented in a nod to ancient winemaking. Unlike the winery’s flagship “assemblage,” in a field blend, it is the grapes that are picked and blended on the same date before fermentation, not the finished wines. No one knows the exact percentage of each variety other than Petit Verdot has the larger share and Tannat the least. It has an attractive nose of wildflowers, brambly raspberries, blackberries, sweet cherries, purple plums, and subtle spice notes. That floral note carries to the palate offering complexity, some structure from the ripe tannins and layers of brambly red and dark berries, anise/licorice, herbaceous notes, spice box and a bright, lifted finish. Very cool wine with an even cooler story.

Stratus White Label Chardonnay Amphora 2021 ($55, 93 points) — The newest wines in the block-specific, super-premium tier White Label collection at Stratus features Italian amphora as the aging vessel in both the Chardonnay and the Cabernet Franc. These wines were designated at harvest for their quality and suitability to this handmade vessel, styles of which have been used by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians. “By utilizing this evolving ancient technology, we have given ourselves more winemaking options and increased the diversity that contributes to complexity in our wines,” said Stoyka. “Think of it as having more tools in the tool kit.” I had a glimpse of this unique wine, which was sourced from the 4.2-acre Chardonnay parcel in the estate vineyard, planted to Clone 76, in November of 2023. It was aged on its lees in amphora for 340 days and, when first tasted, came across as quite Burgundian, Chablis-like, in its presentation with orchard fruits, creamy notes, lemon tart, nectarine and beeswax with a saline, crisp finish. Retasting with Stoyka for this report, the aromatics were more lifted with lemon curd, fragrant white flowers, poached pear, and yellow apple. On the palate, the lovely chalkiness and profound salinity have developed, and it has become creamier, with weight, viscosity, ripe orchard fruits, citrus zest and lifted finessed on the finish. A real treat for wine lovers.

Stratus White Label Cabernet Franc Amphora 2020 ($65, 92 points) — The White Label Amphora Cabernet Franc is sourced from a 1999 planting of CF from seven rows of a block chosen from the extensive vineyard mapping that began 20 years ago. It was aged for 259 days in amphora. Again, it’s about those lifted aromatics, so floral, chalky, and fresh with a basket of red berries, beautiful herbaceous notes, black currants, and subtle pyrazines adding complexity and interest. It shows firm tannins on the palate with black raspberries, anise, wild blackberries, savoury herbs, black/red peppercorn notes and a fresh, long, and finessed finish. Can cellar to 2030.

Stratus Icewine Red 2023 ($45 for 200 mL, 94 points) — Stoyka is well aware of the struggles icewine has faced in recent years with a diminishing appetite from consumers but he’s not about to give up on it at Stratus where sales of the Canada’s most famous sweet wine have never waned. “I’ll never stop making it, it’s in our DNA,” he said. “I get frustrated when people poo-poo it. For me, I want to make icewine to compete with the best sweet wines in the world. It’s like our forgotten golden goose.” Harvesting icewine at Stratus is not too stressful. It’s picked at the first opportunity and with less brix (sugar) than most icewines in the peninsula. The assemblage is 43% Petit Verdot, 35% Cabernet Franc and 22% Cabernet Sauvignon that was harvest on Jan. 15 with 14% abv, substantially higher than your average bottle of icewine. It has lovely herbaceous notes on the nose with strawberry tart, black raspberries, red currants, and dark cherries. It has a beautiful and luxurious texture, vibrancy, and sweetness, yes, but nicely balanced by the racy acidity, keeping all those sweet cherries, summer strawberries and herbs in balance. Great aging potential here until 2032.