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.
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.
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!