In the same that California is no longer exclusively synonymous with wine in the United States, Niagara is no longer the only game in town for Canadian wine. Not that either place is losing its importance. Rather, it’s the growth of viticulture all over North America that is truly remarkable. After all, if Poland can get into the winemaking game, why not Poland, ME – or for that matter, why not Quebec?
That’s what the Regional Wine Week, the kickoff to the Regional Wine Writing Project, brainchild of Dave McIntyre and Jeff Siegel, is all about: getting the word out about all the great wine being produced in lesser-known areas of our continent. A web site, DrinkLocalWine.com, has been set up, and connects you to close to thirty wine writers, bloggers and/or journalists who have come on board.
I found out about the initiative on the Open Wine Consortium, a really great gathering of wine professionals and enthusiasts of all kinds, and quickly volunteered. So here’s my first contribution to the project, with a look at what makes Quebec winemaking tick. I certainly don’t want to go through the whole history of our local vineyards (you can get a sense of it here), but what I can tell you is that it has come a long, long way over the last decade or so.
While patriotic sentiment was often required to drink most wine produced in Quebec, fifteen years ago, there are now many winemakers that are bringing the production to very solid levels, essentially from French and American Hybrids (mainly Vandal-Cliche, Seyval and Vidal for whites, and Maréchal Foch, Sainte-Croix and Frontenac for reds).
Better technique and an improved understanding of the vines, soils and climate certainly play a role in this great improvement, but in my opinion, something more fundamental happened along the way. Winemakers – the best ones, anyway – really started working with the grapes they got.
A taste of their own
What I mean by that is that instead of saying, “that white is really a lot like sauvignon blanc” or “that red is just like a gamay”, and trying to work their hybrid-based wines as if they were made from vitis vinifera varieties, they decided to figure what the desirable character of the hybrids were, and find the best ways to enhance them. This is what has allowed very enjoyable wines to emerge from several vignobles, such as:
- Domaine de l’île Ronde, whose clay soils and warm micro-climate on a small island in the St. Lawrence River allows the production of Saint-Sulpice, a well-structured, serious red from Sainte-Croix that can age well for several years. Port-like fortified wines, especially the rosé, are also quite remarkable.
- Vignoble du Marathonien, in Havelock, right by the US-Canada border, whose award-winning ice wine from Vidal is an explosion of honey, peach, apricot, almonds, spice, with bright acidity, and whose dry whites from seyval blanc (one oaked, one unoaked) are just impeccable, neat and balanced. (Website in French only).
- Domaine Les Brome, in Lac-Brome (Knowlton) in the Eastern Townships, a most ambitious vignoble created by a former president of Quebec’s National Bank, whose off-dry vidal is one of the very best Quebec wines I’ve tasted, with intense aromas of citrus and sweet spice, and which denotes some very clear ideas about winemaking.
- Vignoble Les Pervenches, in Farnham, also in the Eastern Townships, where Michael Marler and Véronique Hupin do some fine, elegant winemaking using organic grapes from their well-protected and carefully-tended vineyards, to produce both quaffable and more serious cuvées of reds (the sunny Solinou and the more brooding Montmollin) and whites (a bright seyval-chardonnay and a deeper, more oaked chardonnay-seval) that have been adopted by many sommeliers in Quebec’s finest restaurants. (web site in French only)
Wait. Did I say chardonnay? Yes, you read right. Les Pervenches actually grows chardonnay, with very convincing results – and thanks to some time-consuming techniques that require the vines to be covered over for the winter, so that the buds won’t freeze at -20° C temperatures. They even had a cuvée called O2, made entirely from a “forgotten” barrel of pure chardonnay that had gently oxydized, an semi-accidental wine which I found to be their best yet.
There are other, limited experiments with vitis vinifera in Quebec vineyards. A bit of riesling here, a patch of gamay there, coming together nicely in warm, sunny years. Le Marathonien’s Jean Joly even has a couple of rows of cabernet franc and merlot, from which he produces a single barrel of wine, in good years. I had the chance of tasting a barrel sample of the 2007 vintage of this Bordeaux blend when I visited the vineyard this summer: a very light wine, nothing like the big Michel-Rolland-driven pomerols, of course, but with clear, distinctive varietal character and reasonably ripe flavors. How’s that for the Great White North, eh?
Ice, ice baby
This being said, wine production in Quebec remains very small (less than a million bottles combined for all wineries), and I’m not sure you can find any beyond the borders of Quebec. If you are outside Quebec and want a taste of what’s produced here, you should try and look for ice cider, the apple-equivalent of ice wine, made from juice pressed from frozen apples (apples left to wilt and freeze on the trees, in the best cases). Neige and Frimas, two excellent cuvées from La Face Cachée de la Pomme, can be found in some US boutiques in NY, CA and NV, as a look at Wine-Searcher.com will confirm. Delicious with cheese or almond/white fruit desserts.
Ice cider has become a signature drink from Quebec, and the diversity of products is impressive, as cidermakers experiment with apple varieties and fermentation and aging techniques. A whole terroir to discover right there.
What about Ontario?
I’ll be back with more on Ontario wines later this week (it may not be the only game in Canada, but it is world-class, that’s for sure). In the meantime, if you want to find out more about Canadian wines, you can sift through my posts in that category, including a few tasting notes about riesling, cabernet franc, etc. from the Niagara, among other things.