At the crush pad behind Vineland Estates Winery, a picture-perfect winery set on the edge or "bench" of the Niagara Escarpment, winemaker Brian Schmidt is already at work as the sun rises over the golden rolling vineyards.
"Sleeping is a luxury this time of the year" says Schmidt, as a few metric tons of sauvignon blanc grapes, picked in the nether regions of 2 a.m., begin the journey from grape to glass.
The first step in the transformation from grape to wine is hand sorting before the bunches tumble into the destemmer. There, the "berries"/grapes are gently jiggled off their stems before going to the crusher. At this time of the year, the ripeness of the grapes rules and the crush pad, redolent with fresh grapey fragrance, is where Schmidt and his team spend most of their waking hours. "We have a 12-hour window when the grapes have a perfect balance of acid and sugar" recounts Schmidt, a third-generation winemaker whose roots are in B.C.'s Okanagan wines.
"Except for hand picking grapes for our line of premium or reserve wines, we machine harvest. It's less expensive but, more important, it's faster, giving us the opportunity to harvest the grapes at their optimum balance." Each bin heaped with grapes weighs a metric ton, and if you're a winemaker like Schmidt, you can visualize that bin's grapes transformed through crushing, fermentation, filtering and aging stages into 900 bottles of award-winning wine. In a year, Vineland Estates Winery bottles about 50,000 bottles of wine.
But this year's finished bottles are still in Schmidt's dreams as he pours a glass of the just-pressed grape juice. "This is called must," recounts the winemaker, tasting the murky green liquid, "and it's a basic element of life. It wants to ferment, there's plenty of natural yeast already on the grapes." But here is where the winemaker's skills and experience take over. He lets the sediment settle, then ferments the clear juice, choosing from dozens of different yeasts and subsequently managing the wine through its various stages making decisions, for example, about barrel aging and tasting as the wine's aromas and bouquet develop. His aim is to make a wine that Vineland customers want to serve, yet he wants to be consistent with the winery's distinct style.
For Schmidt, wine is part of a global experience. "As people gather to enjoy themselves, wine is part of this culture," he says, musing on winemaking in general and picking up on the benefits that machine-harvesting affords the winemaker.
Schmidt states that wine is no longer so inconsistent by virtue of technology and it is also more homogenous because there is so much sharing of information among winemakers, worldwide. "Globally, the quality of wine has increased exponentially over the last 10 years," he adds. "My hobby is searching the LCBO shelves of wine gems under $10." And he smiles as he remembers just how many great finds he's savoured.
The portfolio, that is, the product list from Vineland is made up of 40 per cent Riesling, and depending on the winemaker, the grapes, the location of the vines and the time of harvest, this versatile wine can be made dry, semi-dry (or off-dry), reserve, late harvest and ice wine. Vineland Estates Winery's Riesling is renowned for its clearly defined acidity that distinguishes it from other Rieslings and a mineral crispness that separates it from other white wines. Riesling is a highly recommendable wine to serve with a wide range of food.
Given the vastly improved Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia wine exemplified by the products from Vineland Estates Winery, sipping Canadian wine is no longer a patriotic duty but a pleasure with a big sip of pride.
For a special Thanksgiving menu from Vineland Estates pick up a copy of the October 2004 issue of Canadian Living magazine.