Vineland Estates is the first Canadian winery to benefit from new technology
By Ted McIntyre
A wine is only as good the grapes selected by staff. In a great growing season, those folks could almost work blindfolded and the final product would not suffer terribly. But in an off year, or even an average season, human judgment—and often human error—can play a big part in the quality and, certainly, the consistency of any given batch.
But Ontario’s Vineland Estates Winery has found a way around the hurdle of less-than-ideal growing conditions with the acquisition of Canada’s first optical grape sorter two seasons ago. A modern technological marvel, the nearly $500,000 Pellenc Selectiv’ Process Vision 2 is one of just 48 such sorters worldwide—individually photographing and sorting up to 2,000 grapes a second to ensure only high-quality berries make the grade.
So how did it end up on the Niagara bench? “We received the optical sorter a week before harvest in 2014, which is insane,” recalls Vineland Estates’ ebullient Director of Customer Experience, David Hulley. “It was a big surprise, because they were basically down to their last machine in France and they sold it to us—to this little corner of the world—which was crazy. And it’s because of our winemaker Brian Schmidt. He’d done so much work with them prior that they said, ‘Let’s give it to Schmidt.’ It went ahead of a lot of other orders worldwide.
“This is cutting-edge technology—as good as it gets—and the only one in Canada, which it might be for some time,” Hulley notes. “They’re made in Europe, so the electricity isn’t the same. Normally that machine would have gone to California, got rewired and sent here, but because it was so close to harvest, it was shipped here directly. So we had engineers from France, California and our own electricians all trying to get it rewired and ready for harvest. It was not a pleasant day.”
It didn’t take long to gauge the impact of the winery’s new toy, Hulley explains. “Afterward, I said to Brian, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘I’ll tell you in two weeks.’ I saw him four hours later, and he said, ‘This is the best thing ever!’ I said, ‘Brian, it’s only been four hours!’ And he said, ‘This is game-changer!’ And that’s where we got the name. Imagine: every grape being photographed eight to 10 times, 10 tons and hour, and selected by the parameters we put in! Are you kidding me?! This replaced a 14-foot sorting table and a dozen people, even the most dedicated of whom are bored out of their minds after 90 minutes at trying to sort grapes. That was two tons and hour at about 50% efficiency. This machine runs 10 tons an hour at nearly 100% efficiency! And don’t feel badly for the people who lost their jobs on the sorting line, because they’re didn’t lose their jobs—they’re back out in the vineyard making our wines better.”
While the sorter can optimize the selection of fruits from every harvest in which it’s employed, it pays its biggest dividends in seasons where Mother Nature has not cooperated. “In great years, there are a lot of great grapes. In poor years, there are fewer great grapes, but there are still some great grapes,” Hulley notes. “It’s the poor or average years where the optical sorter is of most value, where grapes are individualized, photographed and sorted with air jets. So it sorts the good from the mediocre, or the great from the good, depending on the settings we use on the side of the machine. We can have it so that the grapes that come out of the machine look like the chefs have prepared them for the table—that’s removing about 25% of poor grapes and MOG (material other than grapes, including stems, leaves, etc.). Generally, we run at about 2%.
“That’s an important 2%, though—not just in quality but consistency,” Hulley adds. “In Ontario in the past 30 to 40 years, the improvement of white wine has been on a nice upward path with small ups and downs. The reds have had bigger swings. The optical sorter takes that red wine swing out of the equation, because we only use the best grapes grown that year for production. We have done side-by-side taste trials (with finished wine from the 2014 harvest) from unsorted grapes, hand sorted grapes and optical sorter sorted grapes. The difference is dramatic.”
While a trio of wines have been produced under the new label—
Game Changer Rosé, Red and White, the 2014 Cabernet Franc, a stud of the winery at just $14.95, was the first red wine released with the benefits of the optical sorter.
The machine, currently wrapped up until harvest, will pay for itself inside of five years, says Hulley, whose winery has shared its use with around 20 other area wineries thus far, including Chateau des Charmes, Featherstone and Fielding. The accompanying fees barely more than cover costs, Hulley notes. “Since we’re not using it 24 hours a day, we want others to use it to improve their wines as well,” he notes.
Nor are Vineland’s customers footing the bill. “There has been no price increase due to the machine,” Hulley declares. “It’s just about adding value, which is what we’re all about.”
|Vineland 2012 Cabernet Franc Reserve ($50)
This is one of the grapes Ontario does best and easily one of Vineland’s marquee wines. Evolving 18 months in French oak, this chewy, complex and well-structured beast has a backbone of 89% Cabernet Franc, balanced by 10% merlot and 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. A deep, purple burgundy in colour, its Cab Franc pepper is augmented with notes of plum, black and red currant, coffee and a little leather. There’s a sense—both in tint and flavour—that it has already cellared for a decade, but it can probably still be easily laid to rest for another 10 years.
|Vineland 2014 Game Changer Red ($14.95)
Nicknamed “The Obstinate,” this first Game Changer vintage to take advantage of Vineland’s optical sorter is among the winery’s great value offerings at $14.95. A blend of 92% Cabernet Franc, 4% Cab Sauv and 4% Merlot, it has benefitted significantly from six months in the bottle, having sampled a bit raw in my first tasting on its initial release, but now popping with ripe, juicy cranberry and dark cherry. A good pairing with spicy sausage and barbecued meats.
|Vineland 2013 Game Changer White ($14.95)
A.K.A. “The Visionary,” this vintage is the winery’s first ‘optical sorter’ white. A roughly 50/50 blend of Chardonnay Musqué and dry Riesling provides a light, clean, crisp summer wine with a floral bouquet of nectarine, with citrusy hints atop the palate.
|Vineland 2015 St. Urban Elevation Riesling ($19.95)
If Vineland were to ever bet the farm on a particular wine, it might well be its St. Urban Riesling. The structure of the star-studded new 2015 vintage continues to benefit from some of Ontario’s oldest vines, 37-year-old Riesling clones branded Weis 21B by the winery’s German founder, Hermann Weis. Although a lovely mesh of green apple, lemon-lime zest, a touch of grapefruit and softer citrus flavours, this new off-dry creation lacks a little bit of the sweetness and fruit-forward punch of the 2014 vintage. Some of that is surely due to the ‘newness’ of the wine, but for those seeking more refreshing wines in the heat of summer, that has been a very good thing for this wonderful new release.Winemaker Brian Schmidt says the 2015 edition “could be our best Elevation Riesling vintage to date,” which is saying an awful lot for Vineland’s most celebrated wine.