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Battling the Elements: A History of Wine In Quebec (April 4, 2013)

While the Ontario wine industry basks in international attention, in Quebec it's still a provincial affair – even though winemaking in "la belle province" stretches back well before Ontario's.

On September 7, 1535, Jacques Cartier dropped anchor off what he described as "a great island" in the St. Lawrence. There he found masses of wild riparia grapes growing up the trees. He called the island Isle de Bacchus, but, on reflection – thinking that might be too frivolous a title for his masters in Paris – he renamed it Isle d'Orléans as a tribute to Charles, duc d'Orléans, the third son of his monarch, François I.

The Jesuit missionaries who followed in Cartier's footsteps brought with them barrels of sacramental wine and, when they ran out, they tried to make wine from native wild grapes. The wine they produced was tolerable enough to be sipped at mass, but not to be quaffed by the early settlers in quantities capable of warming their hearts during the long winters in New France.

Voltaire, the French satirist and the embodiment of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, referred famously to New France as quelques arpents de neige (a few acres of snow), not the most hospitable environment in which to plant vineyards. At that time the French upper classes imported their red wine from France or Spain, while the underclass was reduced to brewing a drink from fir branches which they called "spruce beer."

Quebec City is almost on the same latitude as Burgundy's Côte d'Or, so the new arrivals dreamed of recreating the wine scene they remembered from France in their adopted homeland. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they made various attempts to establish a wine industry in Lower Canada, but most were abandoned because of the severity of the climate. However, winemakers are a persistent lot and, by the 1860s, some thirty vineyards south of Montreal covered around 100 acres. Most of the religious orders had their own plots, thanks to the pioneering efforts of a French nobleman, Count Justin de Courtenay, who was convinced that Lower Canada could produce wines that would outperform their Burgundian model.

In 1864, de Courtenay pulled up stakes and moved to Ontario, where he purchased Clair House, the vineyard originally planted by Johann Schiller, the nomial Father of Canadian wine. But de Courtenay's legacy lived on as other growers struggled to keep their vineyards alive with winter-hardy labrusca varieties imported from the United States. The most notable was the Beaconsfield Vineyard at Pointe Claire, planted in 1877 by a Mr. Menzies, who joined forces with one George Gallagher two years later. But the growing temperance movement had a stifling effect on would-be vintners. Unlike Ontario, where winemaking thrived after the introduction of Prohibition, the vineyards of Quebec languished. By the 1930s, only about 5 acres of vines remained.

The soldiers who returned from Europe in 1945 brought with them a taste for European wine. The waves of European immigrants who followed had the knowledge and the experience to grow grapes and vinify them, if only on a hobby basis. But still the problem of climate bedevilled postwar efforts in Quebec to kickstart a commercial wine industry using home-grown grapes.

Ice can split the trunk of a vine stock, and even the hardiest labrusca varieties are susceptible to winter kill. Most vines can survive temperatures down to –25°C, but in Quebec the mercury can drop to as low as –41°C. The vine shuts down to protect itself and will become active only when the temperature finally reaches a consistent 10°C. A certain number of heat units is required during the growing season for grapes to ripen. The total average heat units during this season in Quebec is less than 1,000, although certain favoured sites enjoy higher readings because of their microclimates. Iberville, Quebec, gets 1,410 heat units, compared to 1,566 in Vineland in the Niagara Peninsula and 1,629 in Oliver, BC. (By contrast, the Médoc region of Bordeaux has 1,472 heat units; Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, has 1,583; and Napa Valley, California, has 2,118.)

Quebec has highly localized microclimates, especially around Dunham and Magog, which allow the hardier vine stocks to thrive. Topographical features such as large bodies of water or well-protected south-facing slopes offer the grower an opportunity to plant carefully selected varietals. But always there is the problem of winter kill. The most radical measure to safeguard the plants is burial, to protect the buds for the following year's growth. The early settlers in the mid-eighteenth century covered their small acreage of vines with horse manure to protect the plants during the winter, a solution as ineffective as it is impractical today. The process used now is called "hilling" – banking earth over the fruiting spurs and the canes by back-plowing between the rows of vines. However, the newly propagated vines from Minnesota, such as Frontenac, Sabrevois and Louise Swenson, don't require burial.

So, maybe we are at the dawn of a rebirth of the Quebec wine industry. And with global warming, all bets are off.




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