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

 

Restaurants and Wine: A Love Story

I’ve had a few questions about restaurants and the wines that they serve. As this was a study topic for a recent WSET exam, I’ve been doing a lot of research about it lately and have some things to say. That said, I don’t claim to be an expert on anything about the decisions that go into creating a restaurant. I have no interest in doing so but admire those that undertake the complexities of an almost insane amount of decision-making that is required to get a new restaurant off the ground and then to keep it afloat afterwards. I’ve been lucky to have witnessed the start of a number of small and medium sized restaurants over the years. Some of the things that I’ve seen restaurateurs do are nothing short of super-human feats of creativity, mental acuity, and sheer mental strength.

Since this is a wine blog, the most frequent questions I receive about restaurants involve the wine list and those mysterious prices that seem to be marked up to the extreme. So what’s the deal with those exorbitantly marked-up wines on the list?

Le Wine Mark-Up

Here’s a shocking fact that I discovered when I first started studying this topic: Some restaurants don’t actually make any money on their food. To me, this is the most bizarre concept but apparently even for some top Michelin-Starred establishments, this can be the case. How can a restaurant make money serving food when the food doesn’t even pay the bills?

In short – beverages – and wine is a huge part of it.

Let me start this off right away with this; If you think wine mark-ups are high, you should see how much the fountain soda pop is marked up. It makes the wine list seem like a bargain. I would say that if the general public knew how little wine is marked-up relative to other beverages, nobody would complain about wine prices ever again. To stay in business though, restaurants need to be able to make money and if the food isn’t going to doing it, wine and beverages are going to be the most important source of capital.

There are many ways that restaurants can figure out how to price their wines. It’s not rocket science but it can be dangerous for a restaurateur to not pay close attention to it. Putting prices out of what their market can sustain is just bad business and no set of rules will work equally for different markets. The same wine at a high-end restaurant in Penticton won’t be able to go for the same price it could get in Kitsilano. While some of the suggestions for mark-ups border on greed while others are far more practical. If they choose to have even a modest wine list, they need to be able to do it reasonably well and there are extra expenses because of that:

  • Storage – Restaurants need to be sure they have enough wine on hand and that means storing the wine. Food items can be stored in a fridge, freezer, or pantry but wines need something more. Wines require a safe place that is free from vibration, temperature changes, and bright light. It also requires added security to prevent theft. Installing a proper cellar temperature- and humidity-controlled cellar isn’t cheap. Some wines will move more quickly while others will potentially be stored for much longer, sometimes years. All of these needs require investment and that requires money.
  • Staff training – You are now reading a wine blog and so therefore, you are probably knowledgeable and interested about wine to some degree. A lot of service staff are not as knowledgeable or interested, and may even be intimidated by it unless they’ve had the opportunity to work at a restaurant that has encouraged them to learn about wine. Staff training costs money for employee time, opening wines, and possibly food costs if pairings are part of the training. The really lucky staff members get to go on wine tours to wineries. I’ve given tours to many restaurant staff over the years and aside from learning about wine, the team building benefits are also huge.
  • Market demand – If people will pay for it, then why sell it for less? Restaurant are fortunate that they have an extra degree of control over their wine prices that wines stores don’t have.
  • Stemware – This is where a lot of restaurants (and wineries) try to save money. Sometimes they can get away with it if they have a reasonable glass that shows the wines well enough. Buying the cheapest ones at a bulk big-box retailer will not only make the table setting look cheap, but in a worst-case scenario also make the wines taste less than stellar. Quality stemware makes a difference, costs a little extra, and breaks as much as the cheap stuff.
  • Faulty bottles – Faulted wines are annoying for consumers but are expensive for restaurants who have to return the bottle to their sales agent or, more likely, simply write off the bottle and take the loss. Conservative failure rate estimates of wine bottles sealed with a natural cork run at 6% while new studies show 1-2% (for TCA-related faults), screw caps, Nomacorc’s engineered closures, and systems like FreshTAP can be saviours for restaurants who want to know that every ounce of wine will be saleable.

Not all restaurants can afford everything that it takes to sell wine properly and some of them may not even consider wine to be all that important to their bottom line. It depends on the market in their particular location. For some places though, the wine list profits effectively subsidizes the food and sometimes even pays for the staff salaries. Regardless of business plan, the mark-up has to match the restaurant. Toronto Master Sommelier John Szabo, quoted in a great article in the Globe and Mail article, said, “When I do get upset is when I walk into a casual place, the wine is served in a tumbler, it’s the wrong temperature, the server knows nothing about it and it’s still a 300-per-cent markup,” What is that mark-up paying for exactly?

Not staff education, that’s for sure. To me, that is the single biggest variable in making or breaking a profitable wine list and I think it’s also the easiest to fix. No service or sales staff member selling anything anywhere will be able to do it effectively without being confident and knowledgeable about the product that they are selling. I’ve given tours to restaurant staff where most of the staff aren’t familiar with wine tasting and aren’t confident in their own ability to taste. Granted, most of them are younger (early 20’s) and haven’t been truly exposed to wine culture yet. When they learn a little of the basics and experience wine in a fun and casual way, I can see the light bulb go on in their minds. I know that from then on they are going to approach their tables with a new confidence that will make selling wine that much easier. Even a small humble wine list can be made profitable with an educated staff getting behind it.

Le Wine List

The wine list itself is another point of contention with some people. Ok, it’s mostly just me but I think it’s more than just a big deal. Wine lists with wines supplied by only one supplier, such as a corporate winery or importer, are particular irksome, to a point where I simply put the list down on the table and order orange juice. It’s like going to family restaurant and being offered the same menu as a fast-food chain. I call those prefab lists “fast-wine”. I don’t want fast-wine because to me they are boring and the wine quality is never as good. I want wine that suits the uniqueness of the restaurant in which I choose to sit down. I understand why restaurants do this but as a consumer, it puts limits on the choices and very likely won’t match the food properly.

The “fast-wine” lists comes from a common technique that sales agents use to sell their products to the restaurants. I learned about it while taking the Wine Sales course at Okanagan College years ago and winery sales reps I’ve talked to since then have filled in more details since then. The sales agent will offer to build a whole wine list for the restaurant so that restaurateur doesn’t have to. It’s offered as a free ‘value-added’ service that takes that whole process off of the minds of the restaurateur who is probably only too willing to have someone help out with a complex task like that. The sales agent then creates a list (to the best of their abilities) that is suited to the menu (to the best of their knowledge of it) and, voilà – a “fast-wine” list.

Of course when selecting the wines, they will select most if not all from their company’s portfolio of wines that they are selling. The sales agent can offer further volume discounts for being the house wine (the least expensive wines on the list that available by the glass, half-litre, bottle, or litre) which is where the real sales volume is. The sales agent may get added commission for selling a lot of product to one place so the incentive is there to sell as much as possible efficiently. The restaurateur gets a full wine list and a single contact to make all of their wine purchases making re-ordering easy. Win-win right?

I would say that the customer is the one that loses. From my point of view, it’s the easy way out for a restaurant to sublet their wine list to a sales agent. Assuming that the sales agent is good at his or her job, they are probably going to have a lot of restaurants in their portfolio. That means that a Greek restaurant in Salmon Arm is likely to have a similar, if not exactly the same, wine list as the Greek restaurant in Vernon. Worse still is that the Greek restaurant could have the same wines as the Italian restaurant and the American diner in the same town and even on the same street. This wine list homogeneity is particularly visible at big restaurant chains that have multiple locations throughout the province. Obviously the food at chains or franchises is going to be the same no matter where it is, but they are far more likely to have one single wine supplier and have better volume discounts on their wine purchases because of it. Larger wineries that are attached to corporations are going to have the economies of scale and will be able to offer even bigger bulk discounts, incentives, and services than smaller independent wineries.

Occasionally I have found some medium-sized estate wineries as house wines at restaurant lists but it’s fairly rare. Those are the restaurants with the best wine lists and I will always try to buy wine at those places. Sometimes wine lists that seem to be diverse are actually not. Seeing Inniskillin, Woodbridge, Monkey Bay, Hogue Cellars, Ruffino, and Mouton-Cadet on the same list seems like a pretty good selection and there is a lot of choice for sure. Except all of these wineries are owned or distributed by one company and it’s very unlikely that there will also be any independent estate wineries on the list.

That’s really where it’s at. A restaurant that makes their own wine list for itself (nobody knows their food better) has put a lot of effort into it and it will always show. Very likely, they will have also put that much effort into other areas of their business – the head chef and kitchen staff, kitchen appliances, staff training, quality ingredients, tableware, stemware, décor, etc – and that will all be far more visible than the wine list. It may not be the easier way but the result will very likely be a better overall dining experience. When I see an estate winery as the house wine on a list, I will always order a wine at that restaurant because I know that if they made the effort with wine, the food is probably worth it as well. If they haven’t made the effort, then all I can say is, “Yes, I will have fries with that.”

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke