The other undeniable French connection with wine is just over the provincial border in Québec. There is a wonderful relationship between Québec and Bordeaux – I actually learned more about what Québec had to offer after I moved to France, as thanks to a particularly difficult inter-provincial flow of alcohol, there is little to no representation in the local monopoly stores. Frankly, it didn’t occur to me that it was even possible to grow grapes in Québec, as I assumed (as most people do about all of Canada), that it was too cold.

There is a beautiful quote that is often mistakenly attributed to Aubert de Villaine of Domaine Romanée-Conti, perhaps due to how regularly he references it:

“Il n’existe pas de vignoble prédestiné, il n’y a que des entêtements de civilisation.” – Pierre Veilletet

“There are no predestined vineyards, there is only the stubbornness of civilization.”

Aubert de Villaine, standing before the iconic cross of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. As a pioneer in biodynamic viticulture, he understands very well how to be stubborn. What else drives us to grow grapes on steep mountainsides like here in the Mosel, or in hot climates, like here in India?

For me this depicts perfectly the challenge Canadian, and particularly Québec, winemakers have of growing grapes in our northern climate. With this in mind, a trip to Québec to see what’s going on.

Vignoble de l’Orpailleur is probably the best known winery in Québec, having been one of the early adopters, planting vines in 1982. They offer a wide range of wines – red, white, dessert, fortified, and even some styles of winemaking that are completely foreign to me. The icewine is made of 100% Vidal, a cold-hardy variety which appears to be fairly common in Québec, (and not so uncommon in Ontarian icewines). I haven’t spent much time tasting Vidal recently, but I’m enjoying the reunion – half the time I could swear I’m drinking Gewurztraminer thanks to the distinct lychee aromas.

A beautiful day in Québec’s Eastern Townships region – just south-east of Montréal. The glass-enclosed tasting room at Vignoble de l’Orpailleur overlooks sprawling vineyards. This unusual bottle contains Marquise wine – a take on an old Marseille tradition of adding citrus and spices to the wine. Outside, the angel’s share (grape juice with an addition of eau-de-vie) in open carboys proudly waits to be taken by its heavenly consumers, while what’s left after several seasons will be made into La Part des Anges.

Cote d’Ardoise means slopes of chalk in French, and this domaine, the oldest operating vineyard in the province, is named for the specific top layer of soil which creates a microclimate known for its early ripening tendencies. It’s not just the microclimate – in the 36 years since the winery’s inception, they claim to have seen a trend toward more growing days (ie. a longer growing season). Climate change will be incredibly important for wineries like this one, and unlock potential in the rest of Québec.

A charming entrance welcomes visitors at Domaine Côtes d’Ardoise. In the garden outside, guests can enjoy a glass of wine, or a bottle of cider… or tease the cats, whichever tickles their fancy. A guided and very animated tasting… the Québec accent has my translating skills slightly tongue-tied… but we taste a lineup of dry red and white, sweet white wines, and dry and ice ciders (yeah definitely the accent, not the tasting).

Our last visit of the day brings us to Val Caudalies. It’s five minutes to closing time, but I assure the vigneron that we’ll taste very very quickly. In true Quebec fashion, he insists that we taste through the entire lineup, which includes a sparkling apple and grape blend, wine, cider, and even vermouth. Of all the ice ciders we’ve tasted, this one is my favourite, so a bottle manages to find its way home with me.

The entrance to Val Caudalies, where the tiny tasting room sits inside this red barn. Ice ciders and vermouths notwithstanding, the real stunner is this view out back of the Appalachians.

Over dinner (at the incredibly delightful Brouerie in Sutton), we share our wine country adventures with the server, who mentions that a nearby winery is doing some experiments with geothermal heating to lengthen the ripening season for their grapes, the reds in particular. Interest fully piqued, we head off to Vignoble du Ruisseau the following morning. Sure enough, the greenhouses are the first sight greeting visitors, intensifying our curiosity. This vineyard encompasses 7.5 hectares (18.5 acres) of vines, completely protected by geothermal piping. The red grapes remain inside the greenhouses, where the Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as the Burgundy-hailing Pinot Noir) benefit from the added warmth. The hardier white grapes remain outside – Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Riesling and the local hybrid Vidal – where they are covered with blankets in winter and spring to ensure temperatures do not drop below -10°C (14°F).

During the tour, our guide is asked whether the owners tested the geothermal technology before they installed it on all the vines – he tells us that there was a three part test: one section of vines was protected in the greenhouse and with geothermal piping, another was protected only with geothermal piping and blankets, and the final one had no protection at all. The vines with no protection had a survival rate of 1% – well, there’s nowhere to go but up from here!

These greenhouses contain red grape vines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. The white grape vines are housed ex-greenhouse, but with the benefit of geothermal piping to provide heat. Winter and spring blankets come on and off the outdoor vines to preserve the heat and protect against the harsh winter temperatures. Inside, this barrel room houses the 2015 wines, while the shop upstairs has, of course, a large maple section.

**Note for the nerds: while different varieties of grapevines have varying levels of cold-hardiness, there are also stages of loss depending on the status of the grapevine. Over the winter, grapes that typically hail from warmer regions, such as Merlot and Syrah can survive as low as -15°C (5°F), only starting to see primary bud loss around -17 to -19°C (-2 to 1°F). Grapes hailing from traditionally cooler climates, such as Riesling, may not start to see bud loss until -23°C (-9°F). For vitis vinifera, or grapes of European origin, 100% bud loss (and therefore vine death) tends to occur between -22 to -26°C (-8 to -15°F). On the other hand, non-vitis vinifera, or hybrids like Frontenac don’t see any bud loss until -30°C (-22°F, or February for Canadians…), so you can understand why Canadian grape-growers have a vested interest in growing, and trying to create a market for, North American hybrids.

Once the sap has started flowing in the spring, however, the temperatures above no longer apply – as with water flowing up through the vines, the potential for freezing injury increases dramatically. Prior to budbreak, that critical temperature is closer to -4°C (25°F), and once leaves start showing, anything approaching 0°C (32°F) becomes dangerous. When grape growers talk about frost damage, it is typically spring frost rather than early-onset winter frost which is truly worrying – some examples would be the May 2015 frost in Prince Edward County, or the frost in Bordeaux in April of this year. The frost was not limited to Bordeaux at all, in fact early statistics from the French Ministry of Agriculture seem to indicate that this could be the smallest grape harvest for the entire country since 1945. (That’s comparing to post-World War II-ravaged vineyards … so…. that’s pretty bad.)

Frost-damaged vines in Chablis, photo taken after the April 2017 frost attack. (FAQ: Can you make ice wine from vines when there’s a frost attack? No! Frost kills buds, therefore diminishes, if not completely destroys, the grape yield.) Ice wine is made when the growing season is complete and then the temperature plummets.

NB. These temperatures are taken from Ontario data, but I suspect cold is cold is cold, so let’s assume it’ll be roughly the same for the Québec grapes, even if they are more stubborn than their Ontario counterparts. 🙂

Overall, it’s a fascinating experience. Most of the reds are a little too light in tannin and sour in acidity for my taste, but it’ll be interesting to watch how this region evolves in the coming years. The Vignoble du Ruisseau wines are quite young – 2013 was their first vintage, and the Bordeaux varieties were not yet available to taste during our visit. Though the way they grow grapes technically cannot be described as representative of terroir, I have to confess a curiosity about the impact of growing grapes in greenhouse, and by how much that can counteract the effect of (really cold) climate.

The mornings here are already cooling down, I frequently wake up to 10-12°C; the hoodies and sweaters are starting to come out of storage. Winter IS coming… but first, the harvest! Portugal, California, the Languedoc and Alsace (for the crémant) have begun their harvest. Now that we’ve started seeing the colours changing with véraison, our grapes should be ready around the middle of September (also for sparkling). But now we wait.

A week in the life of Pinot Noir: first the green harvest, where we ‘lighten’ the crop load by dropping clusters of unripe grapes. Véraison, the start of ripening, comes all too soon after that. Which is a sign that the netting needs to go up immediately! Birds are aggressive here, and can devastate a vineyard. While we only put up a few nets last year in Alsace, near the forested areas, here, the entire vineyard gets the treatment.

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