Quebec: Canada's Undiscovered Wine Region (November 27, 2009)
The impulse for Quebecers to make wine must have some ancestral root in their French heritage. Why do they even try? Shut your eyes and think of a vineyard scene: What do you see? Rows of plump clusters of purple grapes nestling in green leaves? The sun beating down from a cloudless sky? Napa Valley? The gentle slopes of Burgundy? Chianti's terra-cotta-tiled hilltop towns?
Now think Quebec City, where the mercury can drop to –40°C in winter – too cold even for Icewine because, at those polar temperatures, the grape bunches simply disintegrate. Yet there are forty-six wineries in the province of Quebec, not counting fruit wineries and ciderie, and they stretch in a large arc from west of Montreal to the Eastern Townships (Cantons-de-l'Est) to northeast of Quebec City. And more are poised to open.
While Prince Edward County in Ontario loses vines during the winter, that region's climate is positively balmy compared to Quebec's. On June 3, 1986, a surprise frost killed 90 percent of the fruiting buds in the Dunham vineyard of Vignoble L'Orpailleur. In the mid-1990s, when Roland Harnois planted his first vines at Domaine Royarnois in Saint-Joachim, near Ste. Anne-de-Beaupré, he lost two-thirds of the plants because the roots froze. Yet, like the owners of L'Orpailleur, he persevered and replanted his vineyard with hardier varieties that would survive the cold. Now he has a flourishing vineyard.
But don't look for homegrown Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz from Quebec's wineries, bar a few eccentric exceptions – Vignoble Les Pervenches, for example, makes a stunning barrel-aged Chardonnay/Seyval blend. Quebec vintners have no choice but to make wine from winter-hardy vines that they can keep alive from one year to the next. They grow varieties you may never have heard of – Frontenac, Sabrevois, Elmer Swenson 517, Vandal-Cliche, and Ste-Croix – grapes that can withstand winter temperatures down to –35°C. And the flavour profiles are not what you may be used to. A wine drinker will probably find these wines lean and tart compared to those of British Columbia and Ontario, but they work well if you carefully select your accompanying dishes.
In the 1860s, when Ontario's wine industry became a commercial enterprise with the founding of Vin Villa on Pelee Island, southern Quebec already had thirty vineyards spread over 100 acres of land planted to old American hybrids. But these vineyards didn't last long. By the end of the nineteenth century the vines were slowly wiped out by the cold. When Canada started importing inexpensive European wines before and after Prohibition, the effort and expense to keep the vineyards alive was too great. By 1935, only 5 acres remained in "la belle province."
During the 1980s, national pride dictated that Quebec needed a wine industry and, today, more than 600 acres are cultivated in the province's five major growing regions. While the language may be French and the winemakers look to France for their inspiration, there is nothing conservative and traditional about the way Quebec vignerons go about their business. They grow several varieties in their vineyards to determine which will do best in their particular soil and microclimate. And, since the grape harvests are small (most wineries are boutique operations making a few hundred to a couple of thousand cases a year), they have to blend these different grapes. That means you will find wines labelled with proprietary names – Domaine La Bauge's La Patriarche, Vignoble Île de Bacchus' Le 1535, or Les Blancs Coteaux' La Vieille Grange – but rarely will you find the grape variety on the label unless it's a Seyval Blanc. Many
of these wineries also grow apples for cider as well as grapes for wine; and one product, Iced Apple Wine (Ice Cider), rivals English Canada's Icewine not only in quality but in price as well.
Naturally, politics in Quebec is never far from the surface in any enterprise. Quebec's winemakers are a highly individual lot, willing to express an opinion about their endeavours when asked – or even when not asked. Two main lines of thought became evident to me during my travels through the province: one school thinks that Quebec should grow authentic, original wine grapes unique to the province (Sabrevois and Frontenac); the other school believes that growers should plant grapes that are also grown in Ontario, such as Baco Noir and Vidal, the rationale being that, if the crop is destroyed during a calamitous winter, winemakers can always buy in these varieties so they will have some wine to sell. But then, this attitude is similar to the dual mindset in Ontario's Prince Edward County, whose winters are almost as severe as they are in Quebec.
The major problem with Quebec wines, according to Gilles Benoît, proprietor of Vignoble des Pins and the most progressive of Quebec's winemakers, is that his fellow Quebecers are not drinking them. "It's the tourists who buy the wines," he says. If that sounds like Ontario ten years ago, Quebec's future is rosy, because sales will happen thanks to the critical mass of wineries that stimulates growth in agri-tourism.
Quebec's wineries are concentrated in five main regions – a configuration that makes touring easy in the sense that you can concentrate on one area at a time and follow its wine route. A day trip out of Montreal will allow you to visit the three wineries in Basses-Laurentides, a lovely mountainous region with forests and lakes. Montérégie, a rich agricultural area divided by the Richelieu River, close to whose banks you'll find many of the wineries and cideries, is probably the most promising region in Quebec because it enjoys the most temperate climate – if any part of Quebec could claim to be temperate. The wineries in Montérégie are spread out, off the main roads, and therefore require the attention of a good navigator. The major concentration of Quebec wineries is in the Eastern Townships (Cantons-de-l'Est), divided between those clustered around the picturesque town of Dunham and those in Magog-Sherbrooke,
an area of gently rolling hills, cornfields, and orchards. The most recently developed wine region is Lanaudière, situated along the north shore of the St. Lawrence as you drive from Montreal towards Quebec City. Finally there is Quebec City itself, the most unlikely of wine regions and, in my opinion, the most interesting from a tourism point of view. Here you have at your disposal the history and heritage of French North America which calls to you from every church spire and cobblestone.
My favorite spot here is Île d'Orléans. This perfect little island across the river from Montmorency Falls is perhaps better known for its cideries than its wineries. Sixty-seven kilometers around, it's chock full of nineteenth-century churches, restaurants serving traditional Quebec dishes, roadside fruit stands, sugar bushes and orchards, chocolate factories and cheese producers. Île d'Orléans, where the Vandal-Cliche grape was first propagated, also boasts the most northerly red-oak stand on the continent, Canada's oldest golf course (1868), and its oldest chapel. A bridge at the eastern end of Quebec City takes you onto the island. All the wineries are located along one road so they're easy to find.