Striking Oil in Niagara
The story of Ontario grape seed oil actually begins 11 years ago when Joseph Pohorly (owner and winemaker at Joseph’s Estate Wines) decided that there was perhaps a better way to deal with all of the pomace left over from the winemaking process than carting it off to the dump. He got the ball rolling by devising a way to turn that waste into a delicious product. The years that followed saw him exploring the best method of extracting the tiny bit of oil stored in each seed. He purchased the necessary equipment, and by 2002, was producing and selling grape seed oil on site. Stratus Winery recently followed suit with its own version. Southbrook Winery, too, toyed with the idea. Owner Bill Redelmeier collaborated with Vinifera for Life co-founder Mark Walpole last year to create a very small test-batch of unfiltered oil. “It was incredibly flavourful, really pungent,” says Redelmeier. “It tasted like a cross between olive oil and sesame seed oil.”
With grape seed oil needing, what else: “grapes,” perhaps the biggest roadblock here is the quantity of grapes available. Whereas the wineries of the Niagara region might as a whole produce 45,000 to 50,000 tonnes of grapes per season, that same amount could be generated by one single winery in Italy or France. The low output makes producing the oil a potentially money-losing venture. Winemakers in Europe use the literally hundreds of thousands of tonnes of stems, seeds and skins left after the grapes have been pressed to craft spirits (like grappa), make compost, and, of course, press for oil. For sure, the huge amount of pomace available to them helps keep production costs down, but many European winemakers also save money by sending their seeds to a communal press.
The Niagara region has been working hard to catch up. Many wineries now send their pomace to a central composting site. Some, like Magnotta, create Ice Grappa from the leftover frozen skins of Icewine grapes. Stratus shares Joseph’s press, and the two of them bottle their own oil, pressed from their respective seeds. Suzanne Janke, Director of Retail and Hospitality at Stratus, stresses that sustainability has become a mantra for many wineries around them. She says, “When Stratus learned of the technology, we decided it would be a great way in which to extract even more from our vineyard.” Despite some higher costs, environmental stewardship has resulted in new ways of looking at the bottom line. And grape seed oil might just be the way to go.
Here, then, is the crux of the matter: how does one extract a sufficient amount of oil from a tiny seed? Easy. Well, it’s easy once the pomace has been dried and the seeds have been separated from the skins. Then all one needs is a hefty quantity. According to Janke, “approximately 7 lbs of seeds result in one 100 ml bottle of oil.” From that point there are two ways to squeeze out the goodness — chemical solvent and cold pressing. If you’ve come across oil that’s been expelled by the first method, you’ll notice it lacks considerably in the flavour department. Instead, go ahead and slather some over your body for perfectly soft, silky skin. No, it’s not some new kinky kind of fetish. Much of the world’s grape seed oil extracted chemically is destined for the cosmetics industry, anyway.
Cold-pressed oil, however, is the apple of the foodie’s eye. The droplets of green gold that spill out from that first cold press offer the best quality. Most people might anticipate that the flavour of grape seed oil is completely neutral. Not so. Like a winemaker, a talented oil master can tease out a variety of aromas and tastes depending on the quality of the seeds and how they’re combined. Janke suggests, “The flavours are dependent on the level of ripeness. The riper the grape, the better the oil. However, red grape varieties do tend to provide richer flavours.” Joseph’s, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to blend “all grape seeds, red and white varieties, so all the oil is flavoured similarly.”
Technically speaking, grape seed oil is perfect for frying and baking because it won’t impart much in the way of extra flavours, and it has a very high smoke point (216˚C) — a detail coveted by cooks everywhere. But at $29 a pop at Stratus, $30 at Joseph’s, I’d suggest a more judicious use. Drizzle a bit over a slice of Brie or dress lightly grilled vegetables. Or follow in the footsteps of the Niagara locavores who take a teaspoon everyday for health. Unofficial reports claim that grape seed oil offers huge health benefits. According to the literature, it does everything from easing the pain of arthritis to reducing the risk of heart disease. You be the judge.
The future prospects of grape seed oil in Ontario look good. But for now its current low production rate limits it to the artisanal marketplace. Whether you’re seeking an epicurean eureka or a cure for what ails you, the green-gold liquid produced from our local wineries might be the ticket.
Dr Joseph’s All Natural Cold Pressed Grape Seed Oil ($30/100 ml)
The deep green colour of this grape seed oil is very reminiscent of a good quality extra virgin olive oil. The aroma hits you squarely in the olfactory nerve in the most pleasant of ways, displaying lots of fruit and wood, similar to fine wine vinegar. The oil has a thin viscosity that doesn’t coat your tongue, but does leave you smacking your lips and wanting more. It begins with a hint of sweetness and ends with earthy grappa-like undertones. The oil is sold on site at Joseph’s Estate Wines store or online.
Stratus Grape Seed Oil ($29/100 ml)
Golden in colour, this oil’s aroma is fruity, again like wine vinegar, but with a deeper earthiness. The oil seems to have a thin mouthfeel with very pronounced musty and metallic flavours. Purchase it at the Stratus Winery store, online or at the Cheese Boutique in Toronto.