The Unexpected is Growing in Niagara

By: Alyssa Andres

As a cool climate wine region, the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario, Canada, is traditionally known for planting specific grape varietals that thrive in a colder climate. The region is known for its delicate Riesling and Cabernet Franc with a distinct note of green pepper. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are planted widely across the Peninsula and flourish. This is unsurprising since Niagara is situated at the same 43-degree latitude as Burgundy, France. However, that is not all that is being planted in Niagara. Within the region, winemakers and grape growers are experimenting with the unexpected, taking on grape varietals that have never before been grown in Canada.

  It’s true; Niagara is technically a cool climate wine region, but the weather varies dramatically from year-to-year,  just as in Bordeaux. In certain years, temperatures start rising as early as April or May, and early bud bursts allow for an extremely long ripening season. Other years the region can be devastated by frost shortly after temperatures start to rise, and winemakers are at risk of losing entire crops. Summers are warm and even Mediterranean, with days reaching over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Long, sunny periods leading into the winter let even late-ripening grapes become quite juicy in the warmest of vintages and allow winemakers to create single-varietal expressions of grapes typically known to be hot climate varietals.

  J-L (Jean-Laurent) Groux of Stratus Vineyards is one winemaker that began experimenting with warm climate varietals as soon as he started his vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2006. Known for his mastery of the Old World Art of assemblage, when Groux planted his first vines, he included half an acre each of Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Tannat and Mourvedre. He wanted to experiment with what was possible in Ontario, and use this unique combination of grapes to create his Stratus Red blend, an annual release that Groux deems the perfect combination of aromatics, mouthfeel, length and complexity.

  Of the four unexpected varietals, the only one that did not survive the Canadian climate was Mourvedre. Even after being left on the vine until December 21st, the berries were still not ripe enough. However, the other three grapes were successful, including Tannat, which is known to be extremely late-ripening. Traditionally grown in the South of France and now the national grape of Uruguay, Tannat requires excessive heat and sun to avoid being overly acidic and astringent. This means that in Ontario, a lot of maintenance is needed in the vineyard to achieve success with Tannat, and, as a result, it is an expensive varietal to produce.

  All of the leaf removal, pruning, crop thinning and picking of the Tannat is done by hand with the goal of creating the best expression of the grape as possible. Unlike in hot climate wine regions, there is no risk of sunburn for the grapes in Ontario. Pruning must be done early; most of the leaves are removed from the vines in the spring to allow grape clusters complete exposure to the sun. After leaf removal, the crops must undergo a complete adjustment, with the majority of the fruit getting dropped to the ground, reducing yields from approximately six tons an acre down to just two. Yield reduction encourages more quality grapes that are at less risk of being underripe. Frost eliminates most of the leaves by late October or November, but the winter can still see lots of sunshine during the daytime and can lengthen the harvest substantially. The grapes are left on the vine to ripen for as long as possible; most years, Tannat will not be harvested until the second week of November.

  Groux typically uses the Tannat in his Stratus Red Blend to add acidity, tannin and alcohol. If the Tannat is needed for the blend, 100% of harvested grapes will go into it. In some years, however, Groux has been able to produce a single varietal expression of the grape. In 2017, an early budburst and a late harvest meant an amazing yield for Tannat, and Stratus was able to release a 2017 single varietal expression. 2018 brought heavy rainfall during harvest, and, as a result, was a bad vintage for Tannat. However, Stratus managed to produce a 2018 single varietal Petit Verdot that was just bottled this past July. It won’t be until May 2021 that Stratus winemakers decide if the 2019 Tannat grapes will be used in a blend or on their own. This year looks promising for the hot climate grape, with lots of heat and sunshine sweeping across the Niagara-on-the-Lake region so far this summer.

  This year’s weather is also helpful at Ridgepoint Wines in Vineland on the Niagara Escarpment, where winemaker Mauro Scarsellone has been growing Nebbiolo since 1999. The warm weather is a relief for Scarsellone after experiencing harsh winters in Ontario the past couple of years. Cold weather is the biggest issue for Nebbiolo grapes, which need to spend more time on the vine to ripen fully. While the vines can survive the cold, it is challenging to produce a reliable Nebbiolo every year in the Niagara region. To achieve a quality product requires a lot of thought in the vineyard. The yield of the vines will have a significant impact on the wine, so Scarsellone will thin clusters to as few as one or two per shoot. During veraison, if he sees clusters that have not significantly started to ripen, he will drop the fruit to the ground, reducing the yield to as little as one and a half tons per acre. 

  In the hottest years, Ridgepoint can produce single-varietal Nebbiolo that is reminiscent of a Barolo. In cooler vintages, the Nebbiolo starts to resemble a Barbaresco, a softer expression with more elegant, floral notes. The winery is currently offering its 2010 Nebbiolo in the tasting room, a big and bold wine with smooth tannins and a lengthy finish. However, this is not their only unexpected offering.

   Ridgepoint is also offering a sparkling wine made from what could be the only Glera growing in North America. Glera is a Northern Italian grape that is the dominant grape used in Prosecco. By definition, Prosecco must be made using 85% or more Glera and made in the Charmat method. Scarsellone wanted to make his own version of Prosecco from Ontario but could not find Glera vines growing anywhere within the region. He started asking around in British Columbia and even California to no avail. After an intense search, he discovered a grape grower in Stoney Creek, Ontario, whose father was born in Friuli, Italy, and had brought Glera vines over to Canada 20 years prior. Scarsellone bought all the grapes the farmer produced in 2019 to use in his version of Prosecco. The resulting sparkling wine is bright and fruity with notes of mandarin orange, ripe peach and even tropical notes of guava and passionfruit. While technically the wine cannot be bottled under the classification of Prosecco because of labeling laws surrounding the term, it’s an exciting first for the Niagara Peninsula and Ridgepoint Wines. Equally as exciting, 2020 is the first year the winery will grow Glera on-site.

  Scarsellone plans to continue experimenting with classic Italian grapes in his vineyard. He is growing Rondinella and Corvina for use in an authentic style Appassimento, but he says he has to be careful. He currently uses approximately 25% of the vineyard for “sensitive” varieties that run the risk of not making it through to harvest. It’s a balance between an art and a business for him, and each year brings new challenges. This year, he says, he almost put up a “for sale” sign after temperatures dropped and snow hit in mid-May, forcing him to use wind machines to keep frost off the newly budding vines. However, he managed to pull through and is cautiously optimistic about the 2020 vintage. With lots of sunshine, heat and a lack of moisture so far this summer, the berries should be ripe and concentrated as long as there isn’t too much rain throughout harvest. September and October can be tumultuous months for the wine region and can make or break a vintage. 

  Grape growers and winemakers in the Niagara Peninsula can only hold their breath and wait to see what kind of weather the rest of 2020 will bring. Temperatures might rise or fall, and winemakers will have to react accordingly to ensure the quality of their crops. By planting a diverse variety of grapes that thrive well under different circumstances, winemakers can ensure they have a successful harvest each year. From Tannat and Nebbiolo to Corvina, Malbec, Aglianico and Old Vine Foch, it is all growing in Ontario. As this New World wine region continues to grow and blossom, it is becoming more apparent that Niagara is capable of more than just ice wine—it is becoming a world-class wine region for the unexpected.

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