Hot spots on Montreal's wine route to check out — especially if you're into natural wine
Also, what those terms really mean, if you find them as cloudy as the wine itself
Vanya Filipovic, award-winning sommelier and wine importer for Joe Beef, Vin Papillon and Mon Lapin, has watched small wineries across Quebec blossom and flourish first hand.
"Quebec has always been an amazing place to drink wine. The average restaurant wine list is very old world–focused, with a great effort to support small producers, and so it's only logical that Quebec is now becoming an amazing place to make wine."
Many of the province's best wine producers have found a happy home along La Route des Vins Brome-Missisquoi, a plentiful stretch of farms and vineyards in the Eastern Townships. There are more than 21 wineries to explore throughout the 140-kilometre runway of farms, and locals and visitors alike flock to them come summertime to pay a visit to the vines and taste the new vintages.
"Small wineries are supported with great pride, and people who work naturally are championed," says Filipovic. "Combine that with the heroic work behind growing grapes in extreme weather conditions, and it's easy to see why these local winemakers are quickly becoming Quebec's new rockstars."
The trend toward natural wine is one you can expect to continue. "Natural wine is also exploding in Ontario and fills the cities best lists," says Nicole Campbell of Grape Witches, an Ontario-based wine education organization. "Consumer interest is growing fast, with more people seeking these wines by the case and attending events like ours."
Natural wine may be the drink du jour, but a definition of the wine is still largely up in the air due to the lack of regulation and formal certification. In essence, all natural wine is organic wine taken one step further (but keep in mind that not all natural wine is certified organic). Natural winemakers use minimal chemical, technological and human intervention, even down to being mindful of how the grass around the vines gets trimmed or how the wine gets bottled. Think of it as fermented grape juice — one of the oldest and purest ways to produce wine.
The other type of wine that often gets grouped in with natural and organic wine is biodynamic wine. Biodynamic wine, while organic and natural, has winemakers seeing vineyards as one interconnected, living system. Biodynamic practices are inspired by the science and spirituality of Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, and include taking the lunar phases and positioning of the sun and planets into account when harvesting the grapes. True biodynamic wines will have recognition from Demeter International, a major certification organization for biodynamic agriculture.
While natural viticulture seems to be the concept gracing everyone's lips, Filipovic warns that while it's ultimately a good thing that natural wine is flourishing, it's important to avoid getting carried away with pretty labels and cloudy wine. She suggests thinking critically and noting what goes into winemaking, taking care to ensure we're doing our part to promote sustainable drinking, and especially to promote the local wine producers who are doing it carefully and consistently.
Thankfully for Canadians, Quebec has handfuls of natural and biodynamic wineries tucked between the more traditional farms, and many on or in the vicinity of La Route des Vins. Admittedly, their bottles are nearly impossible to find in local wine stores, but they do pop up in high-end restaurants and wine bars thanks to sommeliers like Filipovic, who take care to ensure they're serving their clients delicious and interesting wine. You can also try the vineyards in the meantime — some offer regular tours, while others welcome guests by appointment or only occasionally, so we'd suggest visiting their sites before stopping by.
Vignoble Les Pervenches
What started as Seyval Blanc and Chardonnay–specific venture, with imported Chardonnay plants from France, has turned into one of Quebec's leading natural wine producers. Les Pervenches, run by Véronique Hupin and partner Michael Marler, has been following organic and biodynamic principles across its three-hectare vineyard since 2005.
While the winery has branched out from Seyval Blanc and Chardonnay (with a Pinot Noir being one of its most beloved wines), it prides itself on its unique micro-climate, which happens to be perfect for Chardonnay grapes. The sandy soil offers great natural drainage, while maple forests shield the vines from strong westerly winds. All of these naturally occurring features are important to note as they aid in the vineyard's biodynamic practices, requiring less human intervention.
One of the easiest wineries to visit, Les Pervenches offers a free audio guide for visitors to stream while on site. The winery suggests double-checking its hours and that it still has wine in stock before making the trek (information is available on its website). Les Pervenches also has a tasting room that's open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, where you can sample the latest vintages.
150 Chemin Boulais, Farnham, Que., J2N 2P9
Vignoble Pigeon Hill
Owners Manon Rousseau and Kevin Shufelt have been eco-conscious long before the natural wine boom — and that consciousness is heavily reflected at their winery. Pigeon Hill opened its doors (so to speak) in 2008 and has been gaining prominence in the industry ever since.
The small vineyard is loved by restaurateurs for its permaculture and natural principles — the winery boasts that their product is "alive and vital and brought to you in its purest form" thanks to minimal intervention — and of course, for its mouthwatering wine selection, ranging from a Marquette to a sparkling white.
Totally unpretentious and welcoming, it's not uncommon to find Rousseau or Shufelt serving up samples of their latest wine themselves or striking up conversation with visitors as they explore the grounds. Expect to see an abundance of welcomed wildlife from field mice and deer to wild turkeys — and of course the beloved sheep that have found a happy home among the vines. In exchange for room and board, the sheep help maintain the surrounding grass and flora, which helps further stave off human intervention at the pesticide-free vineyard.
395 Chemin des Érables, Saint-Armand, Que., J0J 1T0
Pinard et Filles
Former wine importer and restaurateur Frédéric Simon walked away from his city life to buy a tiny farm in Magog without huge expectations. A few short years later, that small farm has turned into one of the most coveted natural vineyards in North America, with bottles available in shops from Montreal to New York. Pinard et Filles wines are perpetually hard to come by, and it's not uncommon to see people lining up outside local wine boutiques before opening hours for the chance to purchase a bottle.
Simon prides himself on only putting out the best of the best; if a vintage doesn't make the cut, he refuses any chemical interventions, and instead, takes the loss. Because of its size and infrastructure, the winery is not currently open for visitors. Instead, Simon suggests visiting the stores and restaurants where Pinard et Filles is sold, which have been carefully handpicked. The sellers, sommeliers and servers are always happy to walk curious drinkers through the story of this small but mighty natural vineyard.
1700 Chemin des Pères, Magog, Que., J0B 1B0
Domaine du Nival
Though not at all on the Route des Vins, this small winery may be worth the visit for natural wine enthusiasts. While their winery is not a certified organic or biodynamic establishment, owners Denis and Matthieu Beauchemin pride themselves on eschewing artificial interventions and their use of natural yeasts.
Guests are welcome at Domaine du Nival on the first Saturday of every month between 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., May through to September. Make sure you check out the stock online if you plan on purchasing a few bottles; tastings are always on, but bottles can sell out quickly.
424 Rang du Bord-de-l'Eau Ouest, Saint-Louis, Que., J0G 1K0
Kaitlyn McInnis is an experienced travel writer and lifestyle editor with a penchant for great food and even better wine. Despite being a self-proclaimed introvert, she craves meaningful, late-night conversations and life-altering adventures with friends and strangers alike. Her words have appeared in Travel + Leisure, enRoute, Time Out, AskMen, NUVO magazine and many other publications.