Explore Quebec's wine country
When most people think about Canada and wine, the ice wines of Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula and the pinot noirs of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley spring to mind.
But oenophiles may soon be considering the wines from Quebec. Oui, Quebec. About an hour east of Montreal, the Brome-Missisquoi region of the Eastern Townships is home to a growing cluster of wineries producing sparkling wines, rosés and red and whites made from lesser-known-but-no-less-worthy varietals, such as Frontenac, Seyval blanc and Maréchal Foch.
Quebec’s nascent wine industry, not unlike emerging American wine destinations such as Texas and Michigan, remains largely undiscovered beyond its boundaries. I only happened upon this less-traveled wine region -- just over the border from Vermont -- after discovering a Quebec wine on a hotel bar menu in Quebec City.
Wineries can be found in other parts of the province, but a designated wine trail, La Route des Vins, makes it easy to explore about two dozen producers concentrated in the Brome-Missisquoi region, an easy-to-get-to rural retreat for urban-weary Montrealers. The bucolic landscape encourages a slower pace of life, with small town charms, farm-to-table restaurants, artisanal bakeries and confectioners, open roads for biking, an extensive network of hiking trails and downhill ski spots.
Despite its proximity to Montreal, I found Brome-Missisquoi to be free of crowds during my late summer visit, just as some wineries were preparing for harvest. The roads were so free of traffic that one afternoon I rented an e-bike and explored a few wineries on two wheels. For the most part, the wineries are within easy driving distance of one another. They’re generally small, family-owned operations with modest tasting rooms, vineyards open to explore on foot and wine owners and vintners on hand to chat.
“We’re not so well known here because we are still a young industry,” Pierre-Paul Jodoin, owner of Vignoble Clos Ste-Croix, a winery in the village of Dunham, tells me. “Forty years of experience in wine growing and winemaking is nothing. We’re young. Wine has been around a long, long time in other parts of Canada, the United States and the world.”
Winemaking in Quebec can be traced back to colonial French days. Native wild grapes and fruit were used for winemaking; European grapes did not fare so well. The industry took serious root in the early 1980s, when adventurous enthusiasts began cultivating hybrid grapes because of their resistance to winter temperatures and spring freezes, and also learning methods to hasten their growth in the province’s short farming season.
Quebec’s oldest vineyard and winery is Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoise, a must-stop along La Route des Vins. Its hillside vineyard, reminiscent of the south of France, boasts a flower and sculpture garden, just steps outside its tasting room and cafe. The first grapes were planted here around 1980; today, the winery produces more than 50,000 bottles a year.
“We’re not the biggest winery but we’re not the smallest either,” says Lise Lefebvre, tasting room manager and a Montreal transplant who pours generous samples of Seyval, vidal and Maréchal Foch. The hybrids are among 17 varietals grown on the estate.
I find the samplings interesting, and realize I have a growing affinity for Maréchal Foch, a red grape named after a French general and military theorist who served as Supreme Allied Commander during World War I. The wine has hints of black fruit and chocolate. I wonder why these grapes with the unusual names are not better known.
“I am old enough to remember trying the first wines in Quebec,” Lefebvre admits, offering me a clue. “They were horrible. But since about 2010, we can now say we have great quality wine. We’ve learned from oenologists.”
Among them is Barbara Jimenez Herrero, who grew up on her family’s nearly 4,000-acre farm and vineyard in Mendoza. Her father was an oenologist. At the time of my visit, she was winemaker and general manager at Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoise.
“I did make many changes here,” says Herrero, who gives me a tour of the wine-production room, its walls lined with large stainless-steel tanks. “Before I came here, the winery had sweet, semi dry wines. Now, my wines are very dry. I try to make elegant and fine wines. I like wines that are dry and precise.”
Like other Quebec wineries, Herrero is growing Old World grapes, including Chardonnay and Riesling, wine grape varietals more commonly associated with Europe or California.
“We were the first to grow Riesling,” she notes, adding Dry Riesling is the winery’s best-selling still wine. “We were the only winery in Quebec growing Riesling for more than 10 years. The Earth is warming. Wineries here are growing more than hybrids now.”
Another winery experimenting with European vinifera and hybrids is Léon Courville Vigneron, which sits high on a hill overlooking Lake Brome, offering panoramic views of the verdant countryside. That proximity creates a microclimate, helping temper the weather, protecting buds in the spring and extending the days of ripening the fall.
The former farm and apple orchard is home to 100,000 vines (they seem to measure vineyards by vines here), some of them planted in 1995. Léon Courville grows about a dozen varietals, including Chardonnay, De Chaunac, Maréchal Foch, and Seyval noir.
“We’ve learned as we go along,” says Anne-Marie Lemire, the winery’s sales and marketing director and whose husband, Léon Courville, launched the business after retiring from the banking industry.
“It’s worked, quite by accident. It takes a lot of beer to make wine,” she jokes, noting they’re fond of experimenting with grapes, creating new blends or variations of varietals.
She recommends I try the Reserve Riesling and Reserve Rosé, both of which I am surprised to learn have spent time in barrels. The traditional characteristics of Riesling, stone fruit flavors, are evident but I can also taste toast. The rosé, a blend of Seyval noir and De Chaunac, also offers hints of wood; it’s light and easy to drink.
Lemire sees a promising future for Quebec wines, noting more and more tourists, including Americans, are finding their way to La Route des Vins.
“The younger generation is more open. They’re more interested in where food comes from. They want to share something different with their friends,” she says. “The older generation still prefers European wine. The only way they’re going to drink Quebec wine is not to tell them what they’re drinking. You have to blindfold them.”
Like any other up-and-coming wine region, educating consumers is a big part of the business of running a tasting room and selling wine.
That education component is evident at Vignoble de L’Orpailleur, one of Quebec’s biggest wineries and a pioneer in the industry. The winery produces 200,000 bottles each year and its contemporary tasting room includes a gourmet restaurant and a museum chronicling Quebec’s wine history. The tasting room is surrounded by vineyards, open to explore.
“It’s been an education to tell people we can make wine in Quebec,” Édith Ducharme, the winery’s marketing manager, tells me as she pours samples for customers at the bar. “People tend to drink French and European wines. We have good, sunny days, similar to Champagne in France. We make bubbly from Seyval and vidal, grapes that are fundamental in Quebec.”
The first grapes were planted in the early 1980s and today the winery produces about a dozen wines. Winemaker and co-owner Charles-Henri de Coussergues is constantly pushing limits and L’Orpailleur has won countless gold and silver medals in international competitions and its wines are available across Quebec in government-run liquor stores.
“When a Quebec vintner has good wine, all vintners sell more wine,” Ducharme says, adding a little American marketing would improve sales. “Canadians are not as patriotic as Americans. We don’t have ‘Buy Canadian,’ like ‘Buy American’ in America. We don’t have that same strong vibe as Americans do. It’s something we should learn from.”
In the small tasting room at Vignoble Clos Ste-Croix in Dunham, a village of brick and stone structures built more than two centuries ago, the amiable Jodoin tells me he is also experimenting, growing European vinifera. He’s replaced his original St. Croix vines with pinot noir and is eager for his first vintage. He’s also planted Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio.
Jodoin readily admits he was an amateur when he started planting vines on his seven-acre parcel in 1991. The owner of a car security company, his only real expertise in wine was … drinking French and Italian blends and varietals.
“My brother-in-law was French and he would go to France and always bring us back a great bottle of wine,” Jodoin recalls. “He made us believe we could do that ourselves, make our own great wines.”
His winemaking turned serious several years ago. He hired a field manager and a winemaker. Their impact has been noticeable; Clos Ste-Croix has won medals in various Canadian wine competitions.
“We’re still a young industry. We have no traditions, but we are building that tradition right now. I think we’re really favored by global warming,” Jodoin says. “Everyone knows Chardonnay is a wine. It’s easier to sell your wines to a restaurant if you bring them Chardonnay or Pinot Gris. A hybrid might be good but it’s not known.”
Steadfast in his determination to make quality wines and expand Quebec’s reach in the world of wine, Jodoin sees a changing, if not fortuitous, future.
“If I ever have to plant more vines, I will plant vinifera,” he says. “The spring is earlier than it used to be and fall is a little longer than it was before. We can now pick the grapes almost at the same time they do in Europe.”
Jodoin may very well be right. Global warming may firmly plant Quebec on the world wine map. I left La Route des Vins with several bottles of wine in hand, happy to have memories to take home and share with family and friends. I look forward to the day when wines from largely undiscovered regions like Quebec are more readily available across the border.
If you go
Montreal-Trudeau International Airport
There are direct flights from Detroit. It’s an easy hour or so drive to Brome-Missisquoi.
A hotel-spa based at the base of Mount Bromont
Fine dining in the hotel’s Les Quatres Canards
Auberge West Brome
One- and two-bedroom suites, located near the Vermont border
Fine dining in turn-of-the-century farmhouse on the premises
Tourism Eastern Townships