Stained Glass: Northern Exposure | Varyer
An illustrated graphic has stretched black text that reads "vitis vinifera."

Stained Glass: Northern Exposure

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in late February, I invited a small group of fellow Midwestern wine lovers and professionals to gather for an afternoon tasting of Canadian wines. There was no specific goal in mind, rather an intent to surface larger topics and give important regional context to this small pocket of North America. How does it fit into the larger scope of international wine culture?

I put together a lineup of 15 wines from four different producers taken from a personal collection, as well as contributions from importers Vom Boden and Selection Massale. Along with a delightful soundtrack, tourtière (a Québécois warmly spiced meat pie), fresh homemade bread, and good cheese, our conversation meandered in many different directions throughout the afternoon and revealed how our personal connections to the wines come with the responsibility to tell their story, what currently makes them stand out, and what role they will play in the future.

While some of these Canadian wines are essentially arriving right now, and exist in a category of their own with much still to discover, they also reflect certain challenges that exist in other parts of the world, particularly in France, where tradition is under serious pressure in the face of the growing number of difficult vintages. Based on latitude alone, wines from Quebec are tiptoeing along the boundaries of grape-ripening possibilities, especially with the internationally recognized vitis vinifera vines. More resilient, cold-hardy hybrid grapes such as Vidal, Gamaret, and Seyval are also receiving a considerable effort to unearth their potential to create noble wines of terroir, a notion that many have previously doubted.

Phil Ashton, the proud Canadian of our tasting group, and the person responsible for bringing the delicious tourtière, made a really good point about Paris and its wine culture: It’s symbiotic, constantly flowing back and forth between makers, consumers, laborers, and writers. Restaurant workers trekking to the countryside to get involved in wine production are now essential to the dynamic relationships that exist between wine makers and consumers. In chatting with new friends from Toronto and Montreal for this article, and amid loosening travel restrictions coming out of the pandemic, I realize there’s an urgency to visit our neighbors to the north and pay closer attention to all the exciting things happening there.

With 20 years of farming and winemaking under their belts, Mike and Véronique of Vignoble Les Pervenches are the seasoned veterans of Quebec wine. They are also responsible for helping newcomers like Domaine du Nival and Pinard et Filles plant vineyards with confidence, especially considering their marginal climatological conditions. Eight of the 15 wines we tasted were from these three Québécois estates, a distinct contrast to the seven other wines from Pearl Morissette in Ontario. (I personally have no experience tasting wines from western provinces of Canada, but from talking with others, they don’t achieve the same character as the northeast). During the tasting, I gradually realized that these wines don’t speak to a larger Canadian wine identity because it doesn’t really exist. Stephen Bitterolph of Vom Boden Imports in an essay calls the wines from Les Pervenches “intricate puzzles etched on a the head of a pin.” We felt lucky to have so many examples of these wines because they’re coveted by Montreal’s rich wine and food culture, so much that barely any of it shakes loose to the American wine market.

A handwritten tasting notebook.

Neha Chandrachud is a Montreal-based creative director and strategist who has also been a contributing writer for VICE News since 2014. We met while she was dining with a colleague at Parachute Restaurant in Chicago and hit it off instantly. I was stoked to catch up with her and talk about the state of the wine scene in Montreal in light of the pandemic and what she’s looking forward to when things, hopefully, loosen up this summer.

“Montreal hasn't been able to open fully like other major North American cities, leaving our laissez-faire culture kind of stewing in the background,” Chandrachud says. “One of the most magical things about this city is its park culture, which became a social haven when bars and restaurants were either closed or operating at limited capacity. Even compared to Toronto and New York, the park culture here is on another level — when May hits, the entire city congregates in the parks. And unlike other cities, park culture here transcends class. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, Laurier Park is bumping until like 1 AM. I'd love to know how many Montrealers met their soulmates this way, lol.”

“During different phases of lockdown, we transitioned from drinking wine mainly in bars and on terraces to consuming it in the park. Honestly, I think this inspired the average person to become so much more interested in curating and selecting their wine with a new kind of attention. It's so much more intentional — and cheaper — to buy a $30 bottle of pét-nat that you're excited to try and bring it to Parc Lafontaine than it is to simply order something off the menu at a restaurant. The pandemic definitely accelerated the prevalent and forward-thinking wine culture in this city ... for the better!" When I mentioned that I’d visit this coming summer, I asked Neha about some of her favorite spots that she’d take me. “The list is extensive but I’d probably narrow it down to Vin Vin Vin, Mon Lapin, Elena for pizza, Boxermans, Bar St. Denis, and my local favorite Rouge Gorge.

An illustrated graphic has stretched black text that reads "Quebecois."
An illustrated graphic has stretched black text that reads "seyval."

Emily Campeau, sommelier, fellow nomadic winemaker, and native Quebecker still does the wine list at Candide in Montreal while working on her project and living in Germany with her husband. We talked about the complexities of Canadian provincial wine laws and how much wine changes west of Ontario, but I was excited to chat about how she stays connected with the wine list at Candide.

“During the years that I was physically present at Candide full-time,” she says, “the tendency to work close to the heart already had emerged and solidified by the time I moved to Europe. These foundations included: working towards building a list and cellar with an increasing percentage of Quebec wine; keeping our eyes open for interesting things in a smaller radius (such as Ontario, Vermont, and Finger Lakes) while staying true to our beliefs towards the farming,; and when buying wine from further away, trying to do so with a producer we have met or visited.”

Curious about how customers at Candide appreciated cider and if wine lovers were open to it, I asked her to reflect on the restaurant’s fantastic selection, which is almost entirely from Quebec. “Our cider list was double the size before the pandemic,” she says. ”We had to downsize a little, for obvious reasons. I’m gonna speak for Quebec only here, the market for cider is BOOOOOOOMING! It’s incredible. There are many reasons for that: It’s easier to source apples than grapes in Quebec, the interest is there on all fronts (not just from beer drinkers), and many producers have been encouraged to start their own lines by seeing that other small cideries were popping up everywhere. There is a lot of good stuff, lots of co-ferments with other fruits, barrel-aging, coming from Spanish or French tradition, etc. I know Ontario has some good things going as well, but to be honest, I rarely buy cider from outside of Quebec because we have so much good stuff (except La Garagista and certain serious ciders from France).”

An illustrated graphic has stretched black text that reads "vidal."
An illustrated graphic has stretched black, repeating text that reads "booming."

Moving from one charming Canadian to another, I found myself talking with Luc “Bim” Lafontaine from Godspeed Brewery in Toronto. Luc has a pedigree in brewing that goes back more than 20 years, from head brewer at Dieu du Ciel! in Montreal to collaborations with Hill Farmstead Brewery in Vermont. He also travels all around the world, living and brewing in Tokyo and scraping inspiration from pilgrimages to Bamberg, Germany, as well as the Czech Republic.

Godspeed’s “inspiration first” approach intrinsically includes Luc’s autobiography, reflected in its beer, ideas, successes, and failures. Being a young brewery (about five years old), and operating way outside of the box of “craft beer,” I asked him if he felt compelled to brew in a certain way. With every question came an unadulterated response dedicated to a humble acceptance of struggle, hope, excitement, and honesty. It reminded me immediately of the unwavering commitment of the vigneron. “I definitely want my beers to be connected with the wine world,” LaFontaine says. “For some reason, I do not connect (or should I say, less and less) with the “craft” beer world, not to be confused with the entire world of beer.”

Adventure is essentially written into the name of the brewery, so I had to ask him if his customer base was loyal to his experimentation. “I think it is slowly gaining in numbers since the lagers are now trending, but I do not have a lot of fans in the beer-geek realm. Many of them have been discouraged by the fact that I am not releasing the beers they actually want to drink. It’s strange, you’d think they should be appreciative of the finesse, caring, love, and dedication I put into making those beers ... or perhaps they will 10 years from now, who knows? I think most of my customers are people who really understand and care about good beer without more than four ingredients in them. Many customers are beer connoisseurs, old-timers, international fans, and most importantly, local neighborhood supporters.” I was also excited to see that Luc only stocks the wines of Pearl Morisette, which is only about an hour away. “I love François very much, we have a strong connection that we need to develop even more. He’s got that fifth element that not many have.”

An illustrated graphic has stretched black text that reads "gamaret."
An illustrated graphic has stretched black text that reads "pet-nat."

Thoughtful, well-made non-alcoholic beverages have exploded over the past few years. Many of them exist in the form of pre-blended sodas or highly extracted bitters added to seltzer water. In Germany, winemaker Josie Leitz makes surprisingly delicious non-alcoholic wine aided by vacuum distillation that preserves the flavors of his Rieslings, among others. Taking a different approach, Acid League, based out of Toronto, was also born out of a love for fermentation with a bit of food science and they are ultimately blended in a similar way as wine. They’re built from the ground up with vitis vinifera grape juices, local verjus, tea, roots, and botanicals for optimum flavor, topped off with a keen eye for design. Acid League is prolific, making everything from living vinegars to hot sauce, tonics, liquid kimchi, vermouthy things, and most notably its take on wine, “Proxies.” It’s resolute about creating non-alcoholic beverages. “We don’t want Proxies to just try to mimic wine,” states their Head of Proxies, Charlie Friedman, “we want them to be the most interesting drink at the party.” In a short period, Proxies have earned their way into places like The French Laundry, Atelier Crenn, Gramercy Tavern, and Joe Beef. Acid League has also produced a collaboration bottle with celebrity chef Sean Brock of Husk and currently has new editions in the works with notable sommeliers and winemakers. Tasting a lineup of Proxies with chef Johnny Clark at Wherewithall in Chicago forced me to reset my critical wine palette. I knew I couldn’t make any judgements based on a product of place, but it was clear to me that the thoughtful engineering behind Proxies echoed flavors that existed in wine. Sauvage, Zephyr, Niteshade, and Pastiche were all made with a distinct intention to have a loosely familiar wine identity but stand alone as singular beverages to drink slowly and pair with good food and company.

An illustrated graphic has stretched black text that reads "Acid League."

Our community can cross borders Our community can cross borders

Lauren Lee, also part of our tasting group, was excited about the spread of the relatively new spectrum of wine on the table and had some insight that I loved, “We’ve been talking a lot lately about the internal struggle with craving content that feels new, even if not about the wine directly, and finding new ways to contextualize wines that we see on the shelves every day.” She continued to express some worry, in the wake of the Eric Asimov article about the “not enough wine drinkers coming up” dilemma and how everyone is gravitating toward specific flavors of beverages. “We have all the flavors [in wine] and an endless wealth of well, essentially, options.” “So many of the lesser known, remote wine regions like Canada tend to get consumed only one or two bottles at a time, often because of rarity or scarcity, but it feels like the trend is that the consumer isn’t getting enough information or rather isn’t interacting with it in a way that allows them to further pursue some of the things that we’re so passionate about.”

Borders are blurred when viewed through the lens of culture. Broader regions like the Balkans, Basque countryside, and even Alsace all come to mind as rich in character and cultural identity, even though they aren’t strictly nations. From what I’ve gathered, Quebec natives consider themselves Québécois, rather than Canadians, first and foremost. As travel restrictions loosen, it’s worth considering Canada as an overlapping region. Toronto is a four-to-five-hour drive from Cleveland or Detroit. Last week I was in New York and met a charming young couple that drove down from Montreal that morning for a week of eating and drinking.

Relationships between Americans and Canadians codify a sphere of trust that lets us feel at home even when traveling abroad. Such connections provide a feeling of community for wine professionals, but it’s our job to make sure that everyone, such as yourself, gets to experience what is most important to us: preserving the efforts of all people working hard to make a living by making delicious things. The world we live in is huge, so within this little pocket of North America we can champion and protect something within our own reach. Our community can cross borders.

An illustrated graphic has stretched black text that reads "vitis vinifera."