Along the Route des Vins

Innovation and cooperation have led to success for Québecois winemakers

Along the Route des Vins

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November 15 , 2016

In the first unpredictable weeks of spring, workers at Québec’s Léon Courville vineyard lay the bones of 1,200 tiny bonfires between the vines. A clear, cold night in March can destroy two years’ harvests, so before the vintners go to sleep, they rig alarms that will sound when temperatures become dangerously cold. If the alarm rings at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, they head into the dark with a lit torch, igniting pyre after pyre to keep the buds from freezing. The blazes lit, they stand guard with fire extinguishers until dawn; there’s little point saving the vines from a late frost if you accidentally burn the vineyard to the ground.

These bonfires are just one way of keeping the vines warm; other Québec vineyards use enormous turbines or helicopters to push warmer layers of air toward the soil. But even if they successfully nurse their vines through the dangerous spring, Québec’s winemakers also face freezing winters, strict distribution laws, and relatively brief experience with wine production compared to their European or American counterparts.

A quick trip along the province’s thriving Route des Vins, however, shows that difficult conditions have helped produce a spirit of cooperation and creativity—along with some remarkably good bottles.

Today’s winemakers may be the most successful in Québec’s history, but they’re not the first. Samuel de Champlain brought root stock from France in the early 17th century, planting vitis vinifera transplants that didn’t survive the winter. After vineyards in the Niagara Falls area became increasingly successful in the mid 19th century, Québec saw a government-sponsored burst of winemaking activity that fell flat by 1870. The modern history of Québec wines didn’t start until 1981, when Christian Bartomeuf planted Marechal Foch, Seyval Blanc, and pinot noir grapes at his Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoise, in Dunham.

As the story goes, Christian went rogue to sell his first bottles in the spring of 1983. Every province in Canada has a government-run alcohol distribution center, and the Société des Alcools du Québec, or SAQ, made no allowances for selling locally made wine. The SAQ was created at the end of Québec’s period of alcohol prohibition, and as in the United States, post-Prohibition laws were created with large-volume producers in mind. SAQ regulations were impossible for small producers to navigate—until Christian poured a pivotal glass of wine. According to Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoise, SAQ’s top brass was invited for a tasting at the illegal vineyard in 1984. Upon sampling Christian’s wine, the laboratory director declared: “Why, it’s drinkable—it’s even sellable!”

That faint praise led to changing laws, but there’s lingering anger in Québec’s wine country about the ongoing struggle with the SAQ. When five vineyards were given permits in 1985, vintners were saddled with taxes of more than 40 percent, and vineyards couldn’t hold on-site tastings. Grapes could not be sold between vineyards, wine could not be shipped, and bottles could not be sold to restaurants.

A second set of laws in 1996 invigorated the wine-growing region of Québec, where 1.5 million bottles are now produced annually across 364 acres and 63 wineries. Within the province, six regions are recognized—the Eastern Townships, Montérégie, Québec, the Basses Laurentides, Lanaudière, and Centre-du-Québec—but 80 percent of the wines are produced in the Eastern Townships and Montérégie, the two warmest, southernmost regions.

More than 30 years after the first vineyard went legal, Québec’s vintners retain an improvisational spirit of trial and error. The first wave of grapes was almost entirely made up of hybrid varieties, such as the cold-hardy grapes developed by the University of Minnesota. Even those, however, struggled to survive, and vineyards made innovative use of geotextiles, swathing the vines in heat-retaining fabric to protect them from the cold.

Wines made with hybrid grapes are still the essence of Québec wine, from the fruity, white St. Pépin to marquette, a robust descendant of pinot noir. According to Yvan Quirion, a winemaker at the Domaine des Saint Jacques and the president of the Québec Winegrowers Association, southern Québec’s growing season resembles that of southern Burgundy, Alsace, and southern New Zealand. Without California’s powerful sunshine, Québec winegrowers will never produce high-alcohol, powerhouse wines like Sonoma County’s big cabernet sauvignons. At best, said Yvan, “Québec wine can be fresh and fruity like the cooler wines of the world, and we tend to make pretty dry wine.”

I recently tasted those fruity, dry wines while on a trip along the Route des Vins (French for “wine route”). There’s no single wine trail in Québec; instead there are clusters of wineries scattered across the province, linked by rolling back roads and an extensive network of cycling trails. The greatest concentration is in the Eastern Townships, a rural swath of low hills and fields that’s easy day-tripping distance from my home in northern Vermont.
On my journey I stopped at a pair of vineyards in the Eastern

Townships—Léon Courville and La Bauge—which use almost exclusively hybrid grapes in their wine production. At Léon Courville, the Réserve St. Pépin 2012 was light and elegant, with a green fruit flavor balanced with minerals. The wines at La Bauge were similarly dry, from the super refreshing Équinøx to Sølyter, a buttery, chardonnay-like wine made exclusively with Seyval Blanc grapes planted 25 years ago.

And with vines, age matters. Traditionally, very young vines are associated with unpredictable acidity, and as the vines mature, their roots reach farther and farther into the soil for water, nutrients, and minerals. The slate-rich soils of Montérégie and the Eastern Townships aren’t naturally very nourishing to grapes, so the plants work hard to grow their root networks: although mature vines may stand just five feet above the ground, their roots can spread 100 feet below the surface of the soil. Not all wine experts agree that deep roots mean a more complex terroir, but mineral flavors were pervasive in the wines I tasted while following the Route des Vins, and local vintners believe these flavors are part of what make Québec’s wine distinctive.

While Québecois grapes are naturally lower in sugar than warm-climate varieties, those cold winter months offer another path to sweetness: ice wine. German vineyards have long made wine by letting the grapes freeze on the vine, which concentrates the fruits’ sugar and produces a syrupy-sweet dessert drink that’s balanced by cold-climate acidity. It’s a natural fit for Québec, and Québec ice wines have racked up awards around the world. At Léon Courville, I sipped a Vin de Glace made from 2013 Vidal grapes, and while it lacked the subtle minerality of the vineyard’s drier options, the wine was full flavored and sweetly intoxicating—it recalled tangy dessert apples like Cox’s Orange Pippin or Ananas Reinette.

Speaking of apples, great lines of apple trees fill the spaces between vineyards along the Route des Vins, and even following 2015’s heavy fruit crop, the trees were heavily laden. Growing apples in this chilly country isn’t quite the uphill struggle that grape production is, and winemakers have made fine use of their local apple crop. Apparently not content to kick off Québec’s modern grape growing era, in 1990 Christian Bartomeuf also invented ice cider, a creative New World answer to traditional ice wine. Some ice ciders are produced by allowing the fruit to freeze on the trees, but in Québec, freshly pressed cider is often left to freeze outside; as the winemakers remove ice from the cider, the remaining juice is concentrated into a sweet nectar prior to fermentation.

On my trip, I noticed that slender bottles of ice cider were lined up alongside a more recent innovation: fire cider. Like ice cider, it’s reduced before fermentation, but uses heat rather than freezing weather. If cold, frosty days are one of Québec’s best tools for creating sweetness, the other must be the maple syrup evaporator: When making fire cider, fresh juice is reduced in a syrup pan, then fermented, and while the resulting drink recalls the sweet-tart flavor of ice cider, it’s deeper, lighter, and less sweet.

The fire cider I tasted at Dunham’s Union Libre Cidre & Vin had an aroma of caramelized apples and a bright, slightly acidic flavor. They’re just one of five producers of fire cider in Québec, and they’ve been playing with their production method in a way that perfectly captures the inventive spirit that I found all along the wine trail. The vintners at Union Libre spike some of their fire cider with apple brandy, then age it in oak barrels for a product that recalls Normandy pommeau, an aged blend of brandy and fresh cider.

Despite all that snow, and those famously cold winters, Québec’s wine trail will likely be transformed by climate change. Scientists in the Canadian government’s agriculture department have released a pair of maps that show Québec’s effective growing degree days in colors that range from a polar-blue to fire-engine red. The baseline, from 1971 to 2000, shows a tiny wedge of red land where Montérégie, the Eastern Townships, and the banks of the Saint Lawrence River basked in more than 1,800 effective growing degree days. In a second projection that spans 2010 to 2039, the red area spreads to Québec City, bleeding across the province into the base of the Gaspé Peninsula. After years of working to create a wine region in Québec’s cold climate, a wine region climate may be coming to Québec.

When French explorer Jacques Cartier sailed up the Saint Lawrence River on a June day in 1534, he saw native grapes growing on what’s now called the Île d’Orléans, just downstream from present-day Québec City. With the wishful thinking of a sailor who has spent long months at sea, he called the island “Île de Bascuz,” a nod to Bacchus, the wild, Roman god of wine and agriculture. The name didn’t stick, but on Québec’s Route des Vins, Jacques vision is finally bearing fruit.

Visiting the Route des Vins

For more information on visiting wineries along Québec’s Route des Vins, including a map, see laroutedesvins.ca.

Car: There are endless routes through the Route des Vins by car, but the most compact stretch is outside Dunham, where a series of wineries (and one very good brewery, the Brasserie Dunham) are located minutes apart.

Bike: The rolling terrain of Québec’s wine country is perfect for bicycles, and the website suggests four rides that range from 30 to 61 miles, with plenty of spots to drink and eat along the way. A “Taxi-Vélo” is available to support one-way bike rides and flagging cyclists (877-766-8356).

Guided tours: Special guided tours of the Route des Vins are available through Kava Tours (laroutedesvins.ca), which offers half-day, full-day, and ice wine options.

Photo by Mathieu Dupuis

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