Thursday, January 2, 2020

Audacity of Thomas G. Bright



Photo: Arterra's idea of what Thomas G. Bright looked like


Thomas G. Bright, one of the pioneers in Canadian wine history, has been revived by Arterra Wines Canada with the label, The Audacity of Thomas G. Bright.

This might be a classic example of what happens when the marketing department creates wines rather than the winemakers.

The printed material with the wines reads:

“The Audacity of Thomas G. Bright is an ode to a place where explorers and mavericks have been defying the odds for generations. When our founder challenged the era’s accepted wisdom and grew some of Europe’s most prestigious grapes right here in Canada, dissenters deemed his strategy too risky – impossible even – but today, we continue the legacy he forged in 1874.”

That may be great copywriting but it is dubious history.

There was indeed a real Thomas G. Bright. He was a lumber merchant in Toronto who, in 1874, teamed up with F.A. Shirriff to start a winery on Toronto’s Front Street. They moved in 1890 to a site on Dorchester Road in Niagara Falls to be close to vineyards.

Shirriff left the partnership to go into jam production. In 1910 W.M. Bright, the founder’s son, took over the business and ran it until 1933, when he sold it to distiller Harry Hatch. The Hatch family ran the Brights winery at least for the next 50 years.

Arterra’s news release this fall credited Thomas G. Bright with the “bold idea” of growing European grapes in Niagara. In fact, he died many years before the winery made a significant commitment to European grapes varieties.

In 1934, the year after the Hatch family took over the business, Brights bought 1,400 acres of land near Niagara Falls for vineyards. Most of the vines, if not all, were North American hybrids like Duchess and Delaware. There were likely also some Concords, the durable American labrusca varietal.

Perhaps the man with audacity was Harry Hatch because he hired a pair of professional winemakers. The most influential of them was Adhémar de Chaunac, a French-born chemist. He convinced Hatch that he could make better wines if Brights planted European varieties including the European hybrids developed by such plant breeders at Albert Seibel, François Baco, Eugene Kuhlmann and J-L Vidal. Those varieties were already planted in New York State.

Brights appears to have planted Seibel 1000 (for rosé) and, in conjunction with Ontario’s Vineland Research Station, was preparing an order for vines from France when World War II broke out. The order, co-ordinated by De Chaunac, finally was placed in 1945. That trial order included 35 French hybrids and four vinifera varieties – Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and a Muscat variety.

Under the ownership of the Hatch family, Brights now made a major commitment to the European varieties, planting 40,000 vines in 1947. Brights also launched prolonged plantings in Ontario and later in British Columbia to prove the viability of vinifera grape varieties.

It is merely romantic to give the credit for all of this to Thomas G. Bright who had long since departed the scene.

Arterra has released both a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Merlot blend (in Ontario as well as in B.C.) The wines are so affordable and easy-drinking that one can forgive the copywriters for taking liberty with history.

Here are notes on the wines.

The Audacity of Thomas G. Bright Chardonnay Sussreserve 2017 ($16.99). This wine was aged nine months in French oak. Sussreserve refers to the technique of adding a little unfermented grape juice just before bottling to tweak the flavors, the perception of sweetness and the voluptuous texture. It has aromas and flavours of pineapple, ripe apple and citrus. 88.

The Audacity of Thomas G. Bright Cabernet Merlot 2017 ($17.90). This wine was aged 14 months in French and American oak and then finished in a whisky barrel, an increasingly fashionable winemaking style. The hint of whisky and barrel smokiness adds a slight impression of sweetness mingled with flavours of black cherries, vanilla and spice. The long, ripe tannins support a long finish. 90.

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