Q&A: Ontario winemaker J-L Groux on the perfect syrah and why being ‘lazy’ is such an important part of his job

Q&A: Ontario winemaker J-L Groux on the perfect syrah and why being ‘lazy’ is such an important part of his job

One of the clichés of winemaking is that “wine is made in the vineyard.” For Stratus winemaker J-L Groux, this is gospel. Groux comes from the Loire Valley region of France, where wine is deeply ingrained in the culture. He learned winemaking while working in Burgundy and Bordeaux. Stratus, which opened to the public in 2005, has epitomized the view that great wines come for sustainable farming practices that strive for total harmony in the vineyards. The 2014 syrah, part of this month’s Toronto Life Wine Club box, is a stunning and complex wine that reflects this attention. We talked to Groux about how his syrah stacks up to other wines, what he likes to drink at the end of a long day, and what single object he always keeps in his pocket.

Toronto Life Wine Club

Why did you decide to become a winemaker?

I was studying agriculture and I had to specialize in something. And I realized that with grapes, people were more interested in quality rather than quantity. People are willing to pay for quality and that makes it a more interesting field to work in.

You grew up in the Loire Valley of France. What did wine mean to you and your family?

Every year we would go with my father to the Chinon, Bourgueil or Vouvray regions and taste wines in the caves. We’d taste a lot of wine. And then we’d find a grower we liked and then choose a barrel and bottle that wine every year. So even as a child when I was not drinking, I was interested in listening and learning.

Syrah is well known in France’s Rhone Valley and in Australia. How does it do in Ontario?

Like many people, I used to think syrah was impossible to make an Ontario, that it’s not the right climate. But in fact it is the right climate. We get more heat units here than in Bordeaux. It needs heat, so Niagara-on-the-Lake is very good, whereas the Escarpment might not be as suitable.

What does your syrah taste like?

Typically with syrah people are looking for that spicy character, which to me is not what is dominating here in this wine. That’s good news. You know, the first syrahs we made in Ontario 15 or 20 years ago were super spicy. But that’s all there was, they were poor syrahs. Now we make syrah with more red fruit and black fruit, and spiciness is just part of the picture. If you have too much spice, that means the grapes were not ripe or it was over-cropped. Proper syrah should have a lot of other qualities to show. Ours has a very soft texture that is nothing like a cabernet sauvignon. It’s a round mouthfeel, which people love, and there’s not too much tannin. That roundess comes from the barrel aging—it’s had two years in oak—but it’s not dominated by oak. The whole point of aging in barrel is about texture. The wine is almost silky.

What do you love about your 2014 Stratus syrah?

I love about it because it was very difficult to do. 2014 was a challenging year. We had some frost, and syrah is very sensitive to winter damage. So I’m just happy to have some wine. We still got some fruit, but not as much as we intended.

Do you consider yourself a farmer?

I’m a great believer that what we do in the winery comes first from the vineyard. I’m famous for not to picking my grapes too early. I pick them late because I am a lazy winemaker and I want nature to do the job for me. And nature does a wonderful job. As you wait, the grapes get better and therefore the wine will be better. I’m not a farmer per se, but having control of the vineyard is most important for making great wine. Now I’m very particular about supervising the vineyard, my office looks out on it, and I bike through the vineyard every morning on my way to work.

What item do you always have with you?

A Swiss army knife with a corkscrew. It never leaves me. It’s not a big knife but it has a corkscrew, and this is important.

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How has the quality of Ontario wine improved since you’ve been making wine here?

The quality has increased drastically, especially for red wines. And we are improving all the time. Our climate is warming up too, which of course is bad for many things in the world, but it’s good for winemaking in Ontario. We have to be competitive with the world because the world is at the LCBO.

Do people complain to you that Ontario wine is expensive?

The fact is that it’s expensive to grow. In Australia or Chile you have a great climate, less disease, you don’t need a wind machine, you don’t suffer with frost…cool-climate wines tend to cost more than warm-climate wines. If you look at Burgundy, Bordeaux and Italy, those are not cheap wines either. We have major expenses. Even at a premium winery like Stratus, it’s not a given that you make a ton of money because you have to have low yields and then nature plays tricks to you. In Australia you can make three times as much wine and sell it for 15 bucks, but for us it’s impossible.

At the end of the night, what do you like better: a brandy or a cold beer?

Scotch. Single-malt scotch. That’s what I would have at the end of the night.

If you could drink any wine right now — no matter the price or scarcity — what would it be?

I could say a 2001 Stratus Red. Or a great cru Burgundy. They’re all fantastic. So how about a Clos Vougeot from a good vintage…1976!

Describe for me your perfect Thanksgiving meal.

Definitely some foie gras with a botrytis-affected semillon. White asparagus with crème fraîche and sauvignon blanc. Smoked salmon, also with the sauvignon blanc. Some kind of roasted red game meat with an old red. And then some cheese—we have great ones from France, Quebec and Ontario. And for dessert, a sorbet made by my wife with fruit from the garden. So that’s an example. It’s not like that every year!

Besides being a great winemaker, what else are you good at?

Not cooking… but renovations. I love working with things, you know, creating things. I love repairing things, fixing things… it’s a pleasure, to be in your yard and improving the landscape and so on. I have a workshop that used to be a bedroom. I just spent three months tidying it up because it was a bit of a zoo in there. Normally I’m very organized, and it just didn’t reflect my personality. So now it’s done.

Do you know any good wine jokes?

Wine jokes? No, not really. People always ask me very intrusive questions about my wine, you know, what is the level of acidity, what is the pH, what percentage of grape varieties are in there. And I like to say “I don’t know, ask my computer, he knows better.” I’m more interested in the harmony of the wine I’m tasting than the values and numbers.