Lo and Behold

Isat chatting with CharlesHenri de Coussergues, owner of the Orpailleur winery in Dunham. It had been three years since I last did a tour of the townships wine-growing region, and as I took a sip of his best-known wine, an unoaked white made with the seyval grape, all I could say was, “Why would anyone drink cheapo Muscadet when you can have this?”

When I first did this trip, I was surprised by the quality of some of the wines, but more with the winemaker’s conviction that Quebec can make good wine.

Were the wines great? Well, only a few of the ice wines were really world-class. But that wasn’t the point. I taste enough relatively boring under-$20 wines from France, California and other well-known wine-producing countries that many of our local wines excited me, and if not for their immediate quality then for their potential.

Three years later, I can say that I had good reason to be optimistic. Not only has the overall quality of the wines improved, but there are a number of wines you could drink even without that “let’s support the local industry” attitude.

What’s changed? More investment, more know-how, older vines and better grape-growing. There are still a few hurdles.

Despite the enthusiasm of certain winemakers, I am still not convinced the red wines, made mostly with marechal foch, de chaunac and baco noir, are at a level where they can compete with comparably priced red wines from around the world.

They are much better than they were three years ago, and a few of the wines are surprisingly good. There is evolution here, new techniques of vinification and just plain riper grapes, which have allowed winemakers to eliminate many of the more herbaceous qualities of previous vintages. So, there is hope, something I wouldn’t have said three years ago.

But if you are a fan of white and sweeter, dessert-style wines, the time is now. I visited Orpailleur, Domaine les Bromes, Les Pervenches, Clos Saragnat and Chapelle St. Agnes, and each made wines that impressed.

We must remember that we are witnessing the birth of an industry right now. But even over three years I see signs that it is maturing. What I liked most was that of the five wineries I visited, each seems to have gone in its own direction, specializing in different grapes and different styles of wines. Unlike other newer regions to winemaking, Quebec’s climate is particular: Our winters are cold, our growing season short, and, as a result, our wineries use mostly hybrid grapes. If you are growing pinot noir or sauvignon blanc, there is ample literature and experience that can be drawn from other regions using the same grapes.

But there is little out there for those who grow seyval, marechal foch and st.pepin. Our winemakers learn through trial and sometimes error, but they are the first generation, the pioneers, if you want.

What is still needed are stricter regulations about what qualifies as a Quebec-made wine. De Coussergues is leading a push to create a certification to be called Vin de Quebec. This certification would create certain norms that would deal with how wines are made, environmental considerations and, most important, the provenance of the grapes.

Currently, 15 per cent of the grapes can come from outside of the province, from anywhere in the world for that matter. This is an important issue. Appellation rules are designed to force winemakers to maintain minimum levels of quality and to assure that everyone is on a level playing field. In Europe, importing grapes from a neighbouring region disqualifies a wine from using an appellation's name on the bottle. If Quebec winemakers want to be taken seriously and legitimize the industry, the grapes must eventually all come from the province. This 15-percent allowance is due in part to the fact that there are not enough grapes being grown in Quebec. That’s fine. A number of the bigger wineries are starting to hire and train farmers to convert to grape-growing, another sign of a more mature industry. Bringing in grapes from Ontario, from my perspective, is understandable as long as they are the same grapes the winemaker is using here.

But if winemakers are allowed to bring in grapes from California or Chile, I might as well just drink wines from there.

This new certification will come into effect after the 2009 harvest. Coussergues told me that it will be a gradual move toward eliminating out-ofprovince grapes. If a wine is to qualify for this new certification, all the grapes used for the sweet wines have to come from Quebec, and for dry wines, cannot be sourced from outside of Canada. Within five years, all the grapes must be Quebec-grown. Some wineries are going that route right now.

Mike Marler, from Les Pervenches, has always used his allowed 15 per cent in the past, though this year he is 99-per-cent sure all his wine will be from his vineyards. “We have enough grapes now,” said Marler, “and, anyways, even when we bought from Ontario, our best wines were those that came from our own vineyard.” What to taste

I have the enviable task of not having enough space to talk about all the wines that are worthy. That’s perhaps the best indicator of the quality that’s out there. Here are a few of the very best if you decide to spend a day or two travelling around the Eastern Townships. Unfortunately, most of the wines are available only at the vineyard, not at the SAQ. Vignoble de l’Orpailleur, 1086 Bruce, Rd. 202, Dunham, 450295-2763. Quebec’s oldest and best-known winery. Orpailleur has a great little restaurant and visitor centre, so try to time your visit around lunchtime. CharlesHenri de Coussergues has been instrumental in the development of many aspects of the Quebec wine industry, being a founding member of the Quebec Winemakers Association. L’Orpailleur Blanc, Seyval, Vignoble de l’Orpailleur, Quebec white, $13.75, SAQ # 704221. Lemonyfresh, mineral notes and green apples. Gets richer in the mid-palate and finishes with a note of creamy lime. Not complicated, simply very good. One of the best seyvals I have tasted. Drink now. Food pairing: Apéritif, mussels, tilapia and other light fish. L’Orpailleur Rosé, Vignoble de l’Orpailleur, Quebec rosé, $14. Available at the vineyard. Dry and full of fruit, mostly raspberries and other field berries. Nice herbal touch adds complexity. Drink now. Food pairing: Apéritif, salmon and other lighter fair. Vin de Glace 2007, Vidal, Vignoble de l’Orpailleur, Quebec sweet, $32 (200 mL), SAQ # 10220269 ($29 at the vineyard). Peach, apricot, plum jam, pineapple, honey... I could go on and on. Not as sweet as many of the Ontario ice wines. You don’t need more than a glass, but what a glass it is. Drink now-2012. Food pairing: Foie gras, blue cheese.

Domaine Les Brome, 285 Brome Rd., Ville de Lac Brome, 450-242-2665. Owner Leon Courville believes so much in Quebec’s potential that he has invested massive sums of money in his vineyard, making Domaine Les Bromes the most modern winery in Quebec. The results are in the bottle, and particularly with his semi-dry vidal and St. Pepin. Vidal 2007, Domaine Les Brome, Quebec white, $17, available at the vineyard. Just a hint of sweetness, more exotic notes of pineapple and apricot. Wonderful acidity. One of my favourite Quebec wines and perfect for you classic German riesling fans. Drink now. Food pairing: Apéritif, spicy seafood. St. Pepin 2007, Reserve, Domaine Les Brome, Quebec white, $32, available at the vineyard. Very pretty wine, delicate and rich. A touch of pineapple, a hint of oak. Surprisingly finessed, and very good. For you white Burgundy drinkers. Drink now-2011. Food pairing: Apéritif, salmon and other richer fish dishes. De Chaunac 2006, Reserve, Domaine Les Brome, Quebec red, $19, available at the vineyard. His other red cuvée, Julien, is quite good for $15, but this is really interesting. Very meaty aroma, laced with dark fruits, toast, yet with a delicate texture, reminiscent of pinot noir. Earthy, mineral and juicy. Drink now. Food pairing: osso bucco.

Clos Saragnat, 100 Richford Rd., Frelighsburg, 450-2981444. Owner Christian Barthomeuf was not only the person who invented iced apple cider, but has had a hand in many of Quebec’s best wineries and cider houses. Clos Saragnat is a tiny vineyard where he produces three wines and one iced cider. The cider is spectacular, but I will talk about that when I do an article on apples in September. The man is an artisan in the truest, most noble sense of the word, and his Paille, a wine reminiscent of the famous sweet wines of the Jura, is, simply put, extraordinary. Paille 2007, Quebec sweet, $ 40 (375 mL), available at the vineyard. Geisenheim and vidal, dried on straw mats for more than 90 days, and then slowly fermented for a year and a half. So rich and complex, with notes of mushrooms, caramel, walnuts and exotic fruit. Drink now2014. Food pairing: Blue cheese, digestif instead of dessert. Les Pervenches, 150 Boulais Rd., Farnham, 450-293-8311. Mike Marler is considered by many who are close to the Quebec wine industry to be one of its most innovative and talented winemakers. With his wife, Véronique Hupin, they have made some of the best dry white wines I have tasted from Quebec. Certified organic, they have proven that chardonnay in Quebec is not only a possibility, but can be exceptional. Marler and Barthomeuf are pushing the envelope by testing new grape varietals and new techniques of vinification.

The results are in the glass. Most Pervenches wines are already sold out and come in very limited quantities. The 2008 Chardonnay-Seyval ($20) will be available in September at the vineyard, and there are small quantities of the red wines available at the vineyard. Check the lists of one of Quebec’s better restaurants for his wines Seyval-Chardonnay 2008, Les Pervenches, Quebec white, $15, available at the vineyard. Attack of lime, but transitions quickly to lemon and finishes with a slight caramel and butternut richness and a mineral freshness. Drink now. Food pairing: Apéritif, mussels and other shellfish. Chapelle St. Agnès, 2565 Scenic Rd., Sutton, 450-538-0303. By far the most beautiful vineyard I have visited in Quebec. Its speciality is ice wine, and not only with vidal, but harder-to-grow riesling and gewurztraminer as well. The winemakers were recently awarded a bronze medal from Decanter magazine for their 2005 Cuvée Majorique ice wine. Vin de Glace 2004, Vidal, Chapelle St. Agnès, Quebec sweet, $55 (200 mL), available at the vineyard. Interesting, as it has some of the signs of a well-aged sweet wine. Apricot, peach and cherry on top of a slightly burnt caramel. Very good. Drink now. Food pairing: Foie gras, blue cheese. Chapelle St. Agnes 2008, Chapelle St. Agnès, Quebec white, $12 (500 mL), available at the vineyard. A dry white made with vidal and geisenheim. Dry, aromatic and fresh with lingering notes of apricot, peach and other exotic notes. Drink now. Food pairing: apéritif.

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