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In the Field: Paul Hobbs returns to Niagara

When you consider that one of the world’s most sought after winemakers grew up in the hamlet of Burt—in the heart of is what is now Niagara wine country (US)—it’s not too hard to imagine that the Niagara wine region’s greatest export might not be fermented grapes.

In a journey that took him off the family farm—a farm still in operation today—Paul Hobbs went on to pioneer modern oak aging at Mondavi, helped turn Opus One into the iconic brand it is today, and put an Argentine grape called Malbec in the glasses of the most discerning wine aficionados.  

Hobbs has now returned to Niagara, this time just across the border at Ontario’s Stratus Vineyards, where he’s working with French-born winemaker Jean-Laurent Groux to bring their ultra-premium wines to the next level in the cool climate, which, in many ways, is miles away from Hobbs’s other projects.

“I felt this would be a particularly interesting challenge when I got a call from J-L [Jean-Laurent] but I was somewhat familiar with what I was stepping into since I had helped my father plant vineyards in Niagara during my late childhood,” says Hobbs with a hint of nostalgia.

To call Hobbs simply a winemaker would understate his involvement in every aspect of growing grapes. His handling of grapes and the aging of the resulting wines is meticulous and thorough. In fact when Hobbs is researching a new region he rarely judges it through its wines; rather, he looks to its vineyards as the true indicator of the quality and potential. This is what brought him to Stratus—as he says: “I could see they were open to experimenting.”

Hobbs’ obvious connection to the region isn’t the whole story behind his role as consulting winemaker to the diverse lineup of wines at Stratus. His passport may read like a world atlas of wine, but his globetrotting resumé won’t let him use a cookie-cutter approach to winemaking and viticulture—especially in Niagara, where vintage variation is extreme and harsh winters dictate a grape’s suitability more than anything else. “There’s not really much I can draw from the other regions I’ve worked with when it comes to working in the Niagara and that’s why it’s exciting for me,” Hobbs says.

While wine enthusiasts who know Hobbs through his profile brand of Paul Hobbs Wines may identify him with cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, or chardonnay, the winemaker’s experience with countless other varieties makes him a perfect fit for a winery that grows eighteen varieties of grapes and promotes assemblage wines such as the Stratus Red and Stratus White.

Jean-Laurent Groux and Hobbs

The relationship between Hobbs and Groux began in 2009, but we are just now seeing the results in the wines crafted from that vintage: the first to be released (last summer) include chardonnay, syrah, and malbec. Small quantities and ravenous demand made quick work of these wines, but Hobbs is humble when describing his influence and the overall potential that remains. “We’ve made some significant improvements,” he says. “The chardonnay is a good example, but the reds are more of a challenge.”

In the vineyard, these changes have been as minute as clipping the wings (smaller clusters of grapes growing on top of the main grape cluster) of red varieties before ripening season or as drastic as completely changing the trellising strategy of a particular grape variety. For some varieties, Hobbs has convinced the winery to move away from the Scott Henry Trellis System (whereby each vine has four fruiting canes trained to grow both up and downward toward the ground) to a standard vertical shoot positioning system (whereby each vine has two canes with new growth trained only upward). Hobbs explains: “The incremental steps we’ve made in the vineyard aren’t as obvious in our current wines as they will be in the wines to be released, but it’ll be another four or five years until we’re really seeing a year to year impact on what J-L and I are doing here.”

And what they are doing here is nothing short of ambitious, including planting such never-before-considered-in-Niagara grape varieties as malbec, syrah, tempranillo, petit verdot, sangiovese, marsanne, and semillon. Combine this category of grapes (almost R&D inspired) with the wild vintage variation of Niagara, and the learning curve can be a slow and unpredictable one. “We’re still fine-tuning things and the vintages of late have been topsy-turvy, so we’ve had to make some radical shifts,” says Hobbs. “If we could get three or four years of more average temperatures, then our growth curve of knowing what we need to do in the vineyard would surely speed up.”

So which grapes in Niagara is Hobbs most impressed with? “Over the course of my experience here I’ve come to believe chardonnay can do really well with great consistency, and although I’m not currently working with pinot noir here, I do ultimately see potential in it,” he says.

In the past few years Hobbs has expressed interest in projects closer to his origins in New York State. While he remains engaged in several international projects (including his latest in Hungary), his brother is doing research on the possibilities of future endeavors in Niagara as well as in the Finger Lakes. There isn’t much debate over what grape he’d prefer to work with in the Finger Lakes. (Riesling!) There’s also no shortage of people asking him when he’s going to come back home and “help the industry.” The day I met with him, he mentioned that a local wine retailer had asked him that question earlier that same day. “If I commit to a project in New York, I have to make sure it’s sustainable where the wines I make are competitive in the global market,” the winemaker responds, adding, “There’s no other region for me that compares to Niagara and I think that may be the strength that will lend itself to distinctive wines.”     




Winemaker and filmmaker Bryan Calandrelli writes regularly on wine for Spree and other publications.

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