War is waged on wine in Quebec. If it ever inspires a Hollywood screenplay, audiences will root for allied force generals like Vignoble Carone’s Anthony Carone walking arrogantly through scene after scene of shrapnel hailstorms unfettered by his constant wounds. Mike Marler, “General” of Les Pervenches, would provide hope to audiences with his battle preparedness, intellect, and unwavering grit as he produces small victories in a lopsided contest against unyielding natural forces. And scriptwriters will inject scenes to pause the bloodshed and strife that showcase the flowing gray locks of “General” Christian Barthomeuf of Clos Saragnat who used apples, not grapes, to prove skirmishes waged naturally with wild apples regularly belied enemy weather patterns in true Trojan Horse style; just enough for movie goers to hang onto a thin thread of hope for a sappy, tear filled allied force victory in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
Two years ago, visiting Canada’s Niagara wine region sitting over the US border near Buffalo, a flourishing winemaking community shined as they leaned into their ten+ years of northern terroir experience. They continue to produce enough world class wines to breath easy. In the same 49th Parallel just outside Montreal, I wondered how local winemakers were making out. In one long weekend it was decided; not nearly as well as their Niagara cohorts.” If Niagara’s wineries are battle proven armored personnel carriers, Quebec’s wine generals resemble mountain war lords relying on hometown terrain and local tactics to outsmart relentless opposing power; weather. That’s not to say all the wine made in Quebec is a weak resemblance to world class standard bearers because some of it, especially Mike Marler’s wines, are pleasant enough to drink. The silver lining to a few days in Quebec wine country is not about discovering tanks and barrels of the world’s next great wines. Instead, it is a chance to peek in on determined pioneers; locals in love with wine and the idea of making it on their own terms in their own backyards…no matter how persistently defiant nature’s hurdles loom.
With his late thirties wisdom and naive boyish twenty-something looks, Mike Marler decided most of Les Pervenches‘ tiny three hectares and 16,000 bottle production will be Chardonnay. He has Chardonnay vines as old as twenty two years on the farm he and his wife bought after returning from graduate studies in Europe where he (familiar story?) became hooked on the idea of making wine instead of milking cows and managing timber at his father-in-law’s farm. This year he is planting Pinot Gris. The ongoing debate in Quebec, as in other marginal climate wine regions, is whether early ripening vitis vinifera (wild grapes) like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir are more correct paths than laboratory conceived hybrids like Seyval, Cayuga, or Frontenac. Can the University of Minnesota conquer the world’s inhospitable grape growing climates?
Despite his commitment to vitis vinifera, Marler still farms the Seyval hybrid and uses it handsomely in his blended $18 2012 Seyval-Chardonnay. It was the best grape wine, and the only one you would want to drink a bottle of, I tasted in Quebec. The wine is 85% Seyval and barrel fermented. There is a touch of sweetness on the attack that is accompanied by a restrained grassy and peach aromatic. The wine was never manipulated, lovely and clean with a round mouthfeel and excellent acidity. If I were on a long holiday weekend in Montreal and wanted to drink a local wine in a restaurant, this would be it. While chalking one up for the use of hybrids, Marler is not willing to throw in the towel on vinifera saying, “It is interesting that hybrids coat your tongue while vinifera wines create space between your tongue and the wine, creating an airiness we crave in our fine wines.” He is quite right, and a test I ran conclusively all weekend. Maybe the Seyval-Chardonnay blend speaks to the future of hybrids in Quebec, but Marler’s commitment to Chardonnay is understandable.
Less appealing, but as interesting, was Marler’s $16 2012 Solinou made primarily from Frontenac with touches of Chardonnay and Zweigelt. The wine is macerated carbonically, juice still in the berries and oxygen deprived, producing a grapey fruitiness on the nose along with distinct lavender and herbs. It is a simple wine with its dominantly obvious grapey character, that remains in balance with the right amount of acidity to hold the wine together. Marler relies on carbonic maceration for all his hybrids because “when you crush and destem hybrids,” Marler exhorts, “you extract the greenness living in the skin. With the full berry, non-oxidative, maceration negative factors will not come out.” Since some of these hybrids are best harvested with high acids, “carbonic will also burn off high malic acid and provide lower acid profiles to the resulting wine,” according to Marler. Still, he needs to sometimes manually de-acidify these wines post maceration. The battles rage.
I asked Anthony Carone, who insists he can grow Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo in Quebec, why he puts himself through these lopsided wars. After all, he lost 50%-70% of his crop in this year’s May frost and his fellow growers suggest he might as well just drop the rest of it and wait until 2014. In Quebec, very careful pruning back to the ground is necessary so each vine can be buried in hills of soil following the harvest to protect against winter temperatures that would otherwise bring on merciless death. That means in the spring, each vine needs to be unburied carefully so none of the vines are damaged. Vinifera vines are even harder to protect, and this year’s black frost (buds turn immediately black) killed off 70% of Carone’s vinifera. The amount of protective work is daunting. His answer to my question? “What else am I going to do? I can fill bottles with $30+ vinifera wine or I can fill it with $15 hybrid wine. What would you do? I can’t invest in wind machines or frost protection at $15 a bottle. My wife and I both worked in risk management. The wine business up here completely checked out. The only thing we did not factor in was the frost issue. So, we need something to fall back on and since both my wife and I are entrepreneurs she has another business that keeps us going through years like this one.” The wines we tasted at Carone are unspectacular, from the hybrid Cabernet Severnyi to the varietally incorrect Pinot Noir from an admittedly very weak 2010 vintage, buy the persistence and vision serving as backdrop to challenged vineyards and wines have to be respected.
Is it possible these pioneers will eventually learn enough and invest enough to push winemaking in Quebec closer to the achievements found in Niagara? The ice ciders produced at Clos Saragnat might be a hint to the contrary. Through completely natural processes involving wild apples, local birds and insects, chemical and equipment free farming and subjecting the juice still in the apples to the endemic freezing outdoor winter temperatures, Christian Barthomeuf is producing the most delicious ice ciders that you can expect to taste anywhere in the world. They are magical elixirs that are worth the drive from Boston to Montreal to acquire and taste. Does this successful work with fruit (not grapes) hint at more logical intentions of this local terroir? It is hard to admit to it if you are a local farmer committed to hybrids and vinifera, and even Barthomeuf is taking what he learned with apples and now pushing the envelope with grapes.
Even the bees are spreading hints to hang up the vinifera work. The absolutely single finest beverage I had among 75-100 other locally produced products was the sparkling unfiltered honey mead by Les Ruchers du Troubadour. The fermented honey has a waxiness that foils excessive sweetness. There is earth and herbs, or as my friend Rich pointed out, a certain umami to the wine. Some of the other foodie bloggers in the group all swooned over the clover leaf aromatics. This sparkling wine is astounding, something I could have taken a caseload back over the border. But of course, tricky wine laws prevented the sale of the wines during the grand tasting and the local government controlled stores had none in stock .
Are bees and apples the beginning and end of real long term fermentation success in Quebec? If Champagne, Alsace, and Niagara all sit in the 49th Parallel, then shouldn’t there some hope for Quebec and vinifera? Maybe not if you look at temperature ranges of all these 49th parallel regions and note that Quebec has much lower wintertime temperatures than Niagara and bottom ranges that are not even close to the European 49th parallel regions:
Montreal, Quebec Temperature Range
Niagara-On-The-Lake Temperature Range
Champagne Temperature Range
Alsace Temperature Range
If the 45th parallel is the sweet spot (Bordeaux, Rhone Valley, Willamette, Piedmont) for global wine positioning, does it automatically mean that all 45th parallel regions across the globe (wine growing pieces of Russia, Croatia, China, and Michigan) will fare equally well? If natural winemaking is your thing, and that means man plays little to no role compared to nature, then Quebec is a vinifera longshot. The manipulations in the vineyard, constant pruning, burying of the vines, low training, and everything else that goes on in a place that nature scorns is anything but natural. It is an all out war and all we can do is watch these outgunned generals maneuver against the odds relying on vision, tenacity, and commitment to local lands.