Adventures in Quebec Wines

Beautiful vineyard at Cote de Vaudreuil.

Exploring new wine regions is always interesting. With little or no prior experience with any of the producers, it is almost like I was starting over from scratch with my wine knowledge. This is particularly true if the wine region is very small and if the grapes are very different from the ‘classic’ vinifera grape varieties. It is both exhilarating and humbling at the same time.

Take the province of Quebec. It is the province of my birth but it has been more than 20 years since I have called this place my home. I do recall seeing signs on the highways for wineries but, at the time, I had no interest in local wine at all. The Quebec wine consumer has a strong preference for French wines, particularly the reds from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Beaujolais. The SAQ, the province’s government liquor board (which is not a monopoly), stocks mostly French wines and Italian wines seem to follow up close behind. According to a Globe and Mail article, more Port is sold in Quebec than in all of the USA. Two things happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s that allowed the local wine scene to really get started. Wine’s popularity began to increase (everywhere – this is not unique to Quebec) and the SAQ employees went on strike in late 2004. Suddenly, the coolest place to get wine was right at the wineries’ doors. Quebecois discovered their domestic industry.

Compared to BC, Quebec’s wine industry appears to lag behind some of the developments and trends that we have seen in BC. The labels here are printed often printed on glossy stock and readability beyond a few centimetres is limited, which in my opinion, greatly inhibits brand recognition on the shelf. There are also no wine standards, even on the very basic level that BC and Ontario have with VQA, although there is a certifying body called the Vins du Quebec, which is the Quebec Winegrowers Association. Their round symbol adorns some bottles but not others so it’s hard to see how meaningful this certification really is. This means that all labels are not created equal and reading them at the store can be a bit challenging. The federally-mandated information (abv, bottle size, and winery address) are usually there but sometimes on the front label and sometimes on the back. Some have artwork, some have basic graphics. Some have bilingual labels and some are only in French.

When the grape varieties are listed, they far less familiar because there is more reliance on the hybrid grapes here than in other regions. Vignerons here are a hardy bunch. It takes a lot of bravery to plant a vineyard and start a winery in Quebec when it is not only the climate that is less than hospitable, but also the domestic market itself.

Patio at La Romance du Vin in Rigaud.

For someone seeking a real wine adventure though, Quebec is an awesome place to explore. Forget the fruit-forward Merlots and Pinot Gris of BC or the elegant Pinots and Rieslings of Niagara, Quebec is the currently the wild wild east of the Canadian wine industry. Every winery is a new adventure and every glass will challenge your tastebuds in new ways.

My first experience with Quebec wine was in 2003 at Le Cep d’Argent near Magog so this was not my first taste of wines from this region. I’d also had red wine made with Frontenac on a VIA train some years later. I recall it tasting more like new barrels than fruit but it didn’t turn me off of Quebec wine. Stylistically, the acidity is generally far higher here than in BC or Ontario. Alcohol levels are generally low (~12%) which makes the wines very amenable to food pairings.

Here are some of the wines that I tasted on my recent trip.

Vent D’Ouest Vingoble Saint-Armand 2016, Domaine du Ridge (Saint-Armand)

This wine is made with Seyval Blanc, a grape variety that anecdotally appears to be one of the most popular for growing in Quebec. Stoney, lemon rind, orange blossom, and and light herbal quality make this wine’s aromas very appealing. The wine is crisp and bone dry with a beautiful light body and a wonderful lemony finish. Saint-Armand is right up against the Vermont border just east of the Missisquoi Bay (effectively the northern part of Lake Champlain) and likely receives some moderating influence from it. They are brave enough to bottle by single vineyard and have a full portfolio of wines to choose from, including some reds. (12% abv, sealed with a screw cap)

Cuvée Charlotte 2016, Léon Courville (Lac Brome)

Seyval Blanc and a grape listed only as ‘Geisenheim’ (strangely, since that is the place where many German hybrids and crosses were created). The nose is light with lemon balm, white flowers, and light fresh herbs. Stylistically, it is very similar to the Domaine du Ridge with similar flavours and bright, crisp qualities. This would be an excellent seafood wine. Lac Brome is an easy drive from Montreal and close to the tourist town of Knowlton on the way to the Eastern Townships. (12.5% abv, sealed with conglomerate cork)

Seyval Blanc 2016, Vignoble du Marathonien (Havelock)

Located directly south of Montreal and close to the border of New York State, this wine is also made with Seyval Blanc. This wine shows more grassy / haystack aromas along with the lemons and dried herb aromas that were part of the other wines made with Seyval Blanc. Dry and super-crisp, this wine has a fuller flavour and longer finish than the other wines mentioned thus far. This wine could handle seafood salads and other foods that would require a firmer structure. (12.5% abv, screw cap)

“Le 1535” 2015, Isle de Bacchus (Ile d’Orleans)

Jacques Cartier named the large island in the middle of the St. Laurence River ‘Isle de Bacchus’ (Bacchus’s Island) in 1535 because of the large amount of grapes that were native to the island. It has always been an island that is fiercely proud of its agricultural heritage. This wine is a blend of three grape varieties – Vandal, l’Éona, and l’Acadie – and features light aromas of white peaches, orange blossoms, wool, a Muscat-like grapey quality along with an intriguing light perfumy note. In my limited tasting of Quebec wines, this one ranks as one of the most complex wines I have tasted. It has a medium body and a much longer finish than the other Seyval-based wines tasted so far. It is a very intriguing wine. (12.5%, Nomacorc synthetic)

Frontenac Gris 2015, Cote de Vaudreuil (Vaudreuil-Dorion)

The first of two wineries that I got to actually visit in person on this trip (the other wines were purchased at the local SAQ), owner Serge Primi has created an amazing wine oasis not far off of highway 40 (which becomes the 417 in Ontario – the main highway between Montreal and Ottawa). The vineyards are visible from the main grounds, which attracts the eyes of visitors with a huge assortment of sculptures. Clearly, M. Primi has taken the visitors’ experience in account and made a beautiful space that is welcoming and comfortable.

Frontenac Gris is a pungently aromatic variety that makes for a very full-flavoured wine. This wine has medium intensity aromas of dried hay, pears, tropical fruits, and a great soft spicy character (and colour) that comes from appropriate time spent in barrels. The wine is brightly crisp with a level of acidity that matches its flavour intensity.

While visiting the winery, I was able to try the Côté Plateau White, Pepino Rosé, and the Tango Red. All of them were solid and well-made wines. Serge was extremely hospitable despite eyeing his tractor that was ready to head out for vineyard work (as it had been since 10am that morning) but the constant stream of visitors kept him tied to the wine shop for the whole day. Like most farmers, he took it in stride and noted that it was not a bad problem for a winery to have. I highly recommend stopping here if you are in the area. (13% abv, twin-top cork)

Correspondance Rosé NV, La Romance du Vin Vignoble  (Rigaud, Quebec)

Alain Bellemare has been working hard at making wine in 2 countries for almost two decades. With a wine growing tradition in his family dating back 13 generations, he has eschewed any hybrid grapes in favour of planting vinifera grapes on the basis that he deems the hybrids to make totally inferior wines. Vinifera in Quebec is a challenge, even given that his vineyard’s location, close to the moderating influence of the Ottawa River, seems to be extremely well-chosen. Unfortunately, the 2017 vintage has been less than amenable for Alain and at this point, it looks like he may even be able to harvest anything this year.

This is too bad. The Rosé, made from Cabernet Franc, is a beautifully balanced bowl of sour cherries with a soft spice and a slight tinge of graphite minerality. The wine is beautifully dry and perfect with the pasta dish that we had that night. When I visited (on a miserable rainy day), Alain also had a Riesling and a red blend made from Cabernet Sauvignon among others. Art is a big part of life at La Romance du Vin with everything from the bottle labels to the hand-carved molding around the doors and windows made using the talents of family members. There are lots of things to see here at all resolutions.

(12.5%, Nomacorc synthetic)

The fun part of visiting a region that is so vastly different is that there is often a lot of new things to learn. While I personally don’t have a problem with understanding French, I can see how the language barrier might make some people less comfortable with visiting the wineries. Of the handful of wineries that I have visited in Quebec over the years, I have always been able to converse in English with the people at the tasting bar. Like wineries everywhere that receive visitors from around the world, they are used to talking to people in many different languages and are very accommodating. Even though I can speak French, my use of the language is somewhat limited and in Quebec, it is considered polite to use to the language that is the most comfortable to both parties.

Along with learning something new in another language, there is also a good chance that you will run into grape varieties that you might not have ever experienced. This also means that there will be new flavours in the wines that you might not have ever tasted.

Cote du Vaudreuil

If you are ever in Quebec, or even travelling through, it is worth stopping to to try some of these wines and have a great tasting adventure.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

 

You’ve gotta visit: Synchromesh

IMG_0992Located on McLean Creek Road just east of Okanagan Falls, Synchromesh is on a flat area just behind Peach Cliff (that big rock that you see can towering over the town of Okanagan Falls. It’s about a kilometer out of town and it’s on the left just past Meyer Family Vineyards.

Why you should go there

IMG_0993If you’re going to visit them, you’d better do it quick. On my recent visit, 3 of the Rieslings were sold out and only one red was left. They are not expecting to make it through the summer with any inventory intact so the sooner you get there, the better. Sometimes it’s a race to get to these small producers when they have their best wines available and that’s what boutique wine touring is all about. And the prices are surprisingly reasonable.

What to Expect

IMG_0991Allan Dickinson doesn’t wear shoes while he’s on the job, or at least he wasn’t wearing them when I first met him earlier this spring. Perhaps it keeps him rooted (metaphorically) to the earth that grows his grapes. Perhaps it was just one of those shoe-less days. Either way, he is firmly attached to terra firma and he walks the walk when he talks the talk in the wine shop. You will get an elucidating, convivial tasting experience that borders on a religious experience and is devoid of any of that bland “you will get hints of apples and rosemary…” banter. Alan is down to earth, the real deal, and he talks about his wines that way. He comes by it naturally so if it happens to be Alan’s dad, John, in the wine shop, your experience will be very similar.

The Wines

There is Riesling. A lot of Riesling. Check it out;

IMG_0994Bob Hancock Vineyard Riesling

Thorny Vines Riesling

Four Shadows Vineyard Riesling

Storm Haven Riesling

Riesling (blend of all four vineyards)

Cachola Family Vineyards Cabernet Franc

Turtle Rock Farms Cabernet Franc

Turtle Rock Farms Tertre Rouge (blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot)

Riesling is the big one here and even though they have won a Lieutenant Governor’s Award for one, they certainly aren’t one trick ponies. The reds that I’ve tasted are at the same high level as well. These are seriously amazing, grand cru-level wines (although as per my criteria stated previously, I can’t call them an official grand cru yet…) I have personally witnessed experienced tasters and neophytes all recognize this so I know it’s not just me. Their emphasis is on single-vineyard wines which, confusing as they can sometimes be brand-wise, are a perfect platform to demonstrate Riesling’s (and Cab Franc’s) uniqueness and potential. Want to really understand what the word “terroir” means? Taste all five Rieslings in one sitting and you will never forget it.

The growing number of wineries and wine lovers that are turning their attention towards high-quality Riesling shows that this variety has a promising future in BC. Alan and Synchromesh have almost guaranteed that.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

IMG_0995

Vertical Party – Nota Bene 05-12

DSC_7450These are the bottles from my Nota Bene vertical tasting this past weekend. I’m happy to report that there were no corked bottles and that everything was showing brilliantly. As my regular readers will know, I hate writing (and reading) wine reviews but I was asked a few times on twitter if there were any of these wines that stood out. There were, but Twitter is a difficult place to explain things that require more than a half-baked thought. With only one exception, I was also amazed at how contiguous the whole collection was and thought that this in itself merited a summary here.

If you’ve never heard of a vertical tasting, it is tasting the same wine from many different vintages on one occasion. I would suggest that it requires a minimum of at least 3 vintages to get a fair idea of the wines’ characteristics. The point is not just to have a ton of wine at a party (a nice side-effect) but rather to have lots of wine with slight variations due to the different vintages. All wines will show slight differences although I believe that larger, commercially manufactured wines are by nature designed to minimize these differences. It is an illuminating experience.

As I had worked regularly with the 4 most recent vintages of this wine for 7 months this past year, I became very familiar with its moods. I had tried every vintage here before although never all in one sitting. I’d been building and saving this collection since 2006 with the intention of having it for a special event or occasion and it seemed to me that the time was right.

Nota Bene is always made with only 3 grape varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. With three exceptions since 1999, they have always been in that order. 1999 and 2012 were Merlot-dominant and 2000 was Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, and then Merlot. The only outlier in this particular set was the Merlot-dominant 2012.

For me, the stand outs were the ’07 and the ’10. Here are my thoughts on all of the vintages in the order that I tasted them from oldest to youngest.

2005 – One word – yum. Still got some years left in it if you dare. I can’t because that was my last bottle but I would hold onto at least one for another year or two. It had softened beautifully without getting flabby. It was noticeably more delicate than the others and was covered by some of the more robust food items. Even still, the flavours were beautiful and complex which made this wine a joy to sip.

2006 – The one sore thumb for me was the ’06. It had far more oxidized, prune aromas than any of the other vintages. It wasn’t just that this particular bottle was off because of a failing cork, this is the consistent direction that the wine has been progressing since 2013. This is the vintage that I had the most bottles – a case – that was purchased in the infamous 47-minute online sell-out in 2008. It was brilliant in its youth, a little closed from 3-5 years old, and then it blossomed after that. But it kept blossoming and kind of went over the edge, in a way. The last 3 bottles that I’d opened over the past year indicated that it was headed for an early demise which made me concerned for the condition of the ’05 (needlessly, as it turned out). Let me clear though – it’s not that I didn’t like it, I did. Erin from Vines and Designs tweeted this as one of her 3 preferred vintages that evening. I enjoyed it as well but it stood out because of this very different flavour profile.

20150118-093305.jpg2007 – At just over 7 years of age now, the ’07 was right in that prime target area for where I think NB is most expressive. I think NB shines in the range from 6-9 years of age but that is entirely subjective on my part. It’s what I enjoy most out of it and nothing else. The aromas and flavours were complex and tannins and acidity were present but smooth and rounded. It really was the stand-out for me in this set.

2008 – This wine was the next car in the NB train that is going to get there but isn’t due to pull into the station yet. It’s showing well and is consistent with NB but hasn’t arrived yet. After 24 more hours in a decanter, it was showing beautifully.

2009 – See 2008 above. In the vertical tastings that I lead at Black Hills last year, this was usually the wine favoured by customers. But in my opinion is still only starting on its trip. Like the ’08, it showed better after 24 hours.

2010 – The ’10 was like a more youthful ’07. I thought it had the same complexity and range but was just a little more aggressive. With 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, this was the roughest wine of the 4 that we offered in the Black Hills Wine Experience Centre last summer. No other vintage of NB has ever had that much Cab Sauv. Last summer it was hidden, rough, and was rarely the vintage favoured by customers. I enjoyed its potential though and was really looking forward to trying it in this vertical. It didn’t disappoint at all. This was the only wine that I went back for seconds.

2011 – More closed than a coffee shop in Vancouver at 9pm.

The spread.

The spread.

2012 – Still has the freshness and vigour of a youthful wine but will probably loose that over the next year if it stays consistent with the previous 8 vintages of NB that I’ve experienced. This is only the second Merlot-dominated vintage so it could clear its own path away from the norm. Either way, it will be a fascinating vintage to follow. There is still a little of it left which I plan on trying tonight or tomorrow.

For the wine-nerd record, the bottles were all opened 1-2 hours before being served. The vintages ’05-’08 were decanted, ’09 had a Nuance wine finer, and ’10 and up were not decanted at all.

Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable flight in its proper setting – a dinner party featuring many foods that pair well with a meritage. We had lamb skewers, beef stew, pork ribs, and charcuterie along with an overwhelming set of accompanying tasty dishes. I’ve done vertical tastings before many times before and the clinical nature of the settings tends to focus on aspects of the wine that frankly I find irrelevant. A big part of what I enjoyed about presenting wines at Black Hills last year was that it was a more natural terroir for enjoying wine, a topic that I’ve covered previously on this blog. I’ve never been to a party where everyone sits down with 8 different pizza slices in front them, takes notes, and then compares their thoughts on each one after tasting them in silence. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d want to go to one.

If you haven’t done a vertical tasting at a party, I highly recommend it. Most everyone at my party were involved in the wine industry in some way but it is something that can still be enjoyed by anyone at all. Find a wine you like, save a few years’ worth of it (I suggest a minimum of 3 vintages), find some good food to pair, and away you go. It’s really not that more complicated than that and nor should it be. The point isn’t to show off your wines to your friends, it’s to share it and enjoy it all together.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke