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Stratus Vineyards embracing ancient winemaking method

Winemakers looking to the birthplace of wine and beyond traditional oak barrels for aging wines

Stratus Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake is taking wine connoisseurs on a journey back to 6000 BC, when wine was first mastered by monks in Georgia’s “cradle of wine.”

Inside of the depths of Stratus’ barrel cellar, assistant winemaker, Dean Stoyka, is less a monk and more a quick-talking, mad scientist.

Throughout the cellar sit experimental wine creations — what Stoyka refers to as “research and development.”

Standing out the most, among traditional French oak and shiny stainless steal barrels, is an egg-shaped vessel that looks like it could be destined to rocket wine off to the moon.

But this is no space-age vessel, rather it's reminiscent of a bygone era of winemaking, when pressed grapes were placed into a qvevri — pronounced “kway-vree” — and buried beneath the ground’s surface to ferment and age.

Fashioned from sandstone and cooked at 1,300 degrees Celsius, the imported vessel’s dry, beige interior slowly stained red as the vessel filled with 1,000 litres of this year’s Cabernet Franc.

“When the industrial revolution happened that just moved winemaking so far forward for everyone,” Stoyka said, wearing a shirt that read “crush grapes not dreams.”

“Wines went from being individually unique wines from single vineyards to all the wines from a region would sort of taste similar because the winemaking is so commercialized,” he explained. “We’re going back to the way things were done classically about 8000 years ago.”

Stratus has imported a total of three manufactured vessels — two from Italy and one from France. One is made from a traditional terracotta-like clay, and the other two from sandstone and clay. Each one offers a different “permeability” for the amount of oxygen that can pass through, which affects the structure and flavours of the “breathing” wine inside.

Ranging between $5,000 to $10,000 each, they’re not a cheap investment, especially when Stoyka really has no idea how the vessels will fare.

“Wine has its own soul and its own identity and it does what it wants to do,” Stoyka said.

Going back to traditional methods, he says, is more respectful of the fruit and wine.

“How can we get wine that has the élevage and the mouthfeel and aromatic complexity of an oak barrel without the oak impact?” Stoyka wonders.

The vessels may provide some ancient wisdom.

The Cab Franc, now sealed away, is constantly circulating throughout the vessel thanks to kinetic energy built up from being flushed in and the vessel’s egg shape.

Known for now as BL81, the wine will remain there until next September when it will be tasted and compared to the same wine also being aged in the clay vessel, and oak barrels between three and 10 years-old.

Evolution in winemaking, says Stoyka, happens at a “snail’s pace.” Winemakers get one crack at it each year — it’s a constant cycle of “taste, evolve, taste, evolve,” he said.

Now into their second season with the vessels, Stratus will soon be releasing their 2019 Chardonnay, the first release made partly with wine aged in the vessels.

An “orange” wine, fermented with the grape skins, and presently aging in the terracotta-like vessel, will be bottled next March and released under Stratus’ “Trials” label.

Last year’s Cab Franc was aged in the vessels for 10 months and now sits in “neutral” barrels waiting to be bottled next summer.

Depending on how this year’s Cab Franc turns out, it could end up as its own Trials label release.

But you’ll have to wait until at least 2022 to find out — not so bad for an aging process that’s 8,000 years old.


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