Canada, a land of great wines to discover urgently…

This is a country that I was waiting to visit with some impatience!
Canada has always fascinated me; its culture, its size, its landscapes, the hospitality of its people. And I must say that I wasn’t the only one stamping impatiently : Ludovic, my faithful traveling sidekick, was born in Pointe-Claire (in the province of Quebec) and spent the first eight years of his life in the Montreal suburb. These formative years was a part of his life which Ludo was eager to share with me. Especially because two of his three sisters live there today! A family story.

Painted Rock - British Columbia

Painted Rock – British Columbia


For any wine lover, Canada is essentially synonymous with ice wine… but not only that! From east to west the whole country has shown that it is also a land of great dry wines, as evidenced by the whites of Quebec and the reds of Ontario and British Columbia. En route to a 3-week trip to the land of loggers and maple syrup, which took us from discoveries to nice surprises and from wine encounters to strong friendships.

Quebec, a boutique vineyard that plays in the big leagues

Do you know the wines of Quebec and its fantastic people?

Vignoble de la Chapelle Ste Agnès - Quebec

Vignoble de la Chapelle Ste Agnès – Quebec


Quebec represents 125 producers in an area of 234 hectares of vineyards and some 2 million bottles sold each year. Among them, 73 farmers came together with a shared passion to grow and spread this industry which is said to be refined from vintage to vintage, through the Association des vignerons du Québec (AVQ), established in 1987. And every winemaker welcomes you with open arms. “Here, you are all at home”,  Jean Joly, the owner of Vignoble du Marathonien loved to point out.

The enthusiasm for wine in Quebec goes far beyond the vineyard : it is a passion, a real pride, almost a patriotic enthusiasm. From the Institute of Tourism and Hospitality of Quebec (ITHQ), where we had the pleasure to present the project to student sommeliers , to the very friendly Harvest Festival of Magog(1), to the Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ)(2), through which we had the pleasure of visiting a wine shop, and all the local Media – such as the TVA information channel, which wanted to interview two French globetrotters – they all celebrate Quebec wine with contagious enthusiasm. And we got the virus!

Les Pervenches - Quebec

Les Pervenches – Quebec


Quebec wine is about ice wine, but not only that…

Although it is native from Europe (late 18th century in Austria and Germany), the largest ice wine production in the world is found in Canada(3) – particularly in Ontario. The climate is suitable for production since the grapes for making ice wine are ideally harvested between -8 ° C and -12 ° C (beyond this temperature the sugar crystallizes due to the cold and the juice no longer flows).
The principle is simple: after the fall of the leaves, grapes – mainly Vidal(4) ; sometimes Seyval Blanc(5) – are waiting for the arrival of frost. When sufficient frost is announced (below 7 ° C) the harvest can take place, between late December and late February, often at night and in nets to avoid losses. The production of this precious nectar is so small that each berry counts!

Vignoble du Marathonien - Quebec

Vignoble du Marathonien – Quebec


In Quebec the method is somewhat different from the rest of the country: the grapes are harvested normally and then suspended in nets until the arrival of  frost. This method – which raises (ethical) debates between Ontario and Quebec … – doesn’t change the taste of the final wine and even produce some of the finest sweet wines in the world.

Evidence for this statement was provided with these five wines which we had the chance to taste: Vignoble du Marathonien (2009), Vignoble de l’Orpailleur (2011), Vignoble de la Chapelle Ste Agnès (2010), Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoises (2012) and Domaine de Lavoie (2012).

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Aromas of delicious candied fruit and great balance between high levels of sugar and high acidity offer spectacular wines which are a pure delight for the senses…

But it seems that the future of Quebec lies also in the production of other wines. Because as rightly pointed out by Charles-Henri de Coussergues – pioneer of modern winemaking in Quebec and owner of the Vignoble de l’Orpailleur : “the problem here is the harshness of winter, we have to do in 7-8 months what is done in France in 12 months. And as the grapes maturation cycles are shorter, it is the white grape varieties that give the best results”. It is often even necessary to cover the vines during winter using geotextiles to prevent it from perishing – expensive and time-consuming work.

Japanese beetles

Japanese beetles


We’ve found a few nuggets for you:
Saint-Pépin 2013 from Château de Cartes, a surprising dry white – its owner, Stéphane Lamarre, roast the seeds of this unusual vine(6) before adding them to the tank, “to raise the wine with a nutty taste”. ($20)
Le Couchant 2013 from Les Pervenches, this very tasty 100% Chardonnay vintage demonstrates brilliantly that well mastered vitis vinifera can adapt to this harsh climate. ($32)
Vendanges Tardives 2012 from Vignoble du Marathonien, another great sweet wine, 100% Vidal, which reminded me on the nose of the parfume of quince pate of my childhood ; with aromas of dried fruit and candied apricot on the palate. ($28 for 500ml)
Paille from Clos Saragnat, a nonconformist wine, like its producer, Christian Barthomeuf, a talented winemaker who married Vidal and Geisenheim(7) in a single cuvée aged two years on the lees… an incredible wine with notes of pastry and a velvet mouth.
-and a red wine that is to be highlighted…the Haute-Combe 2012 from Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoises : an unfiltered blend of Gamay, De Chaunac(8) et Chelois(9). A crisp wine, fresh and delicious. ($18)

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And then there are the Quebec ciders… Gastronomic ciders, delicate, with great finesse, like the ice and fire ciders(10) from Union LibreNot to mention the beautiful whites from Léon Courville (Domaine Les Brome) and the bubbles of Jean Paul Scieur (Le Cep d’Argent) that we enjoyed at our conference at the ITHQ.
Go ahead and buy! These productions are small, even confidential. And vine predators such as raccoons, Japanese beetles, deer or bears, love grapes and can also wreak havoc.

Ontario, Canadian Giant

With 6900 hectares of vineyards, a production of 23.4 million liters and a total turnover of 395 million Canadian dollars in 2014(11), Ontario is by far the largest and best-known wine region of Canada. We decided to focus our visits around Niagara-on-the-Lake, a promising area located an hour and a half East of Toronto. Next time we are going to Prince Edward County (further North) : another great place for wine.

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We went to the city of St. Catharines, where we were expected at Henry of Pelham winery. We were received with a glass of sparkling wine (please!) : perfect – since we were celebrating visiting our 100th winery of the project. Cheers! Their Catharine Rosé BrutNV cuvée (70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay) is delicious and full of freshness. We enjoyed the moment with Paul Speck, the president of the family estate. The estate consist of 120 hectares cultivated mainly with international varieties, including Baco Noir(12), a forgotten grape variety which gives interesting wines with hints of blackberry, plum and spices, like the Reserve Baco Noir 2011 from the winery ($25). And best of all, Baco Noir is one of the varieties richest  in resvératrolle in the world. Resvera… what? You know, that famous polyphenol with beneficial health effects. More reason to love it.

Henry of Pelham - Ontario

Henry of Pelham – Ontario


Then we did a quick detour to visit two of the biggest producers in the country, to see a little more closely what these Canadian giants look like: Jackson-Triggs, with 800,000 cases produced annually and Inniskillin, one of the leading ice wine producers, which surprised us with its incredible Asian attendance: full buses of Japanese, Chinese and Koreans who come here to drink sweet wines and then leave the place with dozens of bags and gift boxes under the arms. There is a future for ice wine in Asia, it is a certainty.

We ended our journey at Ontario Lailey Vineyard, one of the (very) few estates in the country to use Canadian oak barrels for aging its wines. The barrels come from the Canadian Oak Cooperage in Ontario, the  last cooperage factory in the country.

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Derek Barnett, the winemaker of the domain, offered us a beautiful and educational comparative tasting of three wines – Chardonnay 2012, Pinot Noir 2010 and Syrah 2012 – to understand the nuances of ageing in Canadian barrels on one side and ageing in French oak barrels on the other side. With hindsight, it seems that the Canadian oak is more discreet aromatically, with very subtle tannins and wines that need more time to open. This is an interesting contribution to the ageing process which clearly highlight the fruitiness of the wine.

On the way back we stopped at the Niagara Falls.  I have conjured up such a picturesque postcard of this place in my imagination… In reality it was a shock to see so much beauty transformed into a tourist attraction park with a clearly stated goal: to make profit detrimental to this wild beauty.

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I stood there to meditate facing these huge waterfalls  cascading into the lake in an endless roar, speechless in front of this gift of nature.

British Columbia, a wine region not to underestimate

True to the image of Canada and to our delight, British Columbia is extremely dynamic when it comes to promoting its wines. Our first step in the province brought us to Vancouver, at the time of the “Colour BC VQA Fall Release“ event, which the British Columbia Wine Institute warmly invited us to attend. It was a great opportunity to meet many producers and to discover their wines. We learned for example that the province has 215 domains in five sub-regions: Vancouver Island, Fraser Valley, Similkameen Valley, Gulf Islands and Okanagan Valley.

Osyoos Larose - British Columbia

Osyoos Larose – British Columbia


It was in the latter sub-region that we were expected at the Osyoos Larose winery. After eight hours by bus up the mountain we arrived in a small corner of paradise: the Okanagan Valley. Nature, lakes, mountains… an idyllic and ideal place for making great wines. We visited the vineyards on quadbikes in the company of the managers, Julie Rapet & Mathieu Mercier, a young couple of French winemakers. We traveled through the rows of vines and we tasted randomly selected grapes to control maturities: harvest was only a few days away! The grapes tasted delicious and  on our way back we met some malicious black-tailed deers eyeing the grapes with lust. Upon returning from our walk we tasted the wines. The Grand Vin 2010, a Bordeaux blend (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc and Malbec) aged for 18 months in barrel was impressive.

The next day we left for Painted Rock, a vineyard nestled on a ledge at the side of the Skaha Lake, worthy of a postcard. Each plot is treated with great care. We improvised a tough climb up the mountain that overlooks the vineyard along with Tyson Archer, the manager, to gain height and better understand the implementation and sunshine of the domain. Having sweated profusely, we finally arrived at the top. What a scenery…

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We toasted to the beauty of the place with the flagship wine of the house, the Red Icon 2012 ($55), another high class Bordeaux-blend. In the evening we dined with Tyson and his companion. He cooked on the grill a wild salmon with a red flesh as we never saw before. So tasty ! The turntable in the lounge playing a frenzied jazz tune. Time just stopped.

We ended our stay at the domain Le Vieux Pin, experts in the art of making Syrah (and northern Rhone varietals in general – Condrieu, Marsanne and Rousanne). Their Equinoxe Syrah 2011 ($85) is divine.  It has hints of violets and black pepper and reminded me of how delicate Syrah can be.

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Canada has made us dream and wine-growing potential is definitely there. And although the country is still a (very) small producer of wine on a global scale, we must not forget that with 4.5 million hectoliters drunk in 2012(13) Canadians are at the gates of the top 10 wine-consuming countries in the world. Canada is not only a country of great wines – both dry and sweet – but also a land of connoisseurs.
Witness the spectacular selection offered by the SAQ cellars in Quebec, home to the largest selection of wine and spirits in the world, with over 20,000 references in their catalog.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA


Thank you to all winemakers, journalists, agents and friends who have received us during our stay; and a special thought to Annabelle and Elodie Pollet and the Chevrier family for hosting two itinerant travelers.

NB : Nova Scotia & the other Atlantic Provinces will be done next time we come back. They also produce great wines that deserve a lot of attention.

 

(1) For more information: Harvest Festival of Magog (Quebec), each beginning of September; a major event initiated by Jean-Paul Scieur, owner of Le Cep d’Argent.
(2) SAQ: the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) is a Crown corporation created in 1921 and has a mandate to trade in alcoholic beverages throughout the territory of Quebec.
(3) Since 2013 Canada owns the words “vin de glace” and “ice wine”.
(4) The Vidal is a white hybrid grape, crossing of Trebbiano and Rayon d’Or (Seibel 4986), created in 1930 by Jean Louis Vidal and very resistant to cold.
(5) The Seyval is a cross of Seibel 5656 x Seibel 4986. The grape is allowed in many departments in France, as well as in Britain, Canada and the United States.
(6) Saint-Pépin is a white hybrid grape variety of Elmer Swenson 114 and Seyval and able to withstand temperatures up to -32 ° C.
(7) Geisenheim is best known as the Rondo. This hybrid grape of Czech origin is a black grape crossing of Zarya Severa x St. Laurent completed in 1964.
(8) De Chaunac is a red hybrid, derived from Seibel 5163 * Seibel 793 and most often used in blends. It is found in Canada, the United States (New York) and France (Ardèche).
(9) Chelois is a black French hybrid, crossing of varieties Seibel 5163 x Seibel 5593. In 1955, the Chelois covered 906 hectares in France. Today there are only a few strains. It is authorized in the United States (New York, 63 hectares) and Canada.
(10) Fire cider is obtained by the fermentation of apple juice that has only heat, reaching a concentration of sugar before fermentation is at least 28 ° Brix and an actual alcoholic strength of more than 9%.
(11)  Source : Wine Country Ontario
 (12) Baco Noir is a French hybrid grown primarily in Canada (since its early maturity) and the United States. Not to be confused with his cousin the white Baco : a little more than 2,100 hectares are cultivated in France for the production of Armagnac.
(13) OIV 2013 (projection).

Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan – do they really make wine there?

About a year ago (late July 2013), Ludo and I were preparing the route for the WINE Explorers’ project. We were gently tearing our hair out trying to fit 92 countries into a 3-year schedule in which we couldn’t see the end. Imagine for a moment having to schedule your trips until June 2017… It felt weird!
I remember it like it was yesterday. Ludo asked me with astonishment: ” Is there is wine in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan? “. “Yes,” I replied hesitantly. According to the research done on these countries – on the Internet and in some old books – traces of  wine production there seemed to be present.

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It only remained for us to go there and see for ourselves.
But first it was still necessary to locate these -stan(1) countries on a world map. Because these destinations don’t spring to mind as holiday destinations. (Wrongly! But let’s talk about this later).

Kyrgyzstan and the anti-alcohol policy of Gorbachev

Upon exiting the plane, we found ourselves in the countryside. The sunshine was dazzling, with a pastel blue sky. It was 41 ° C under a blazing sun.  We were surrounded by fields of freshly cut corn and the mountains with their tops still covered by snow, provided a beautiful backdrop.  One unique road – littered with carts full of fruit and vegetables, hawkers and traditional pottery –  connects the airport to Bishkek, the capital. This scenic beauty reminded me with nostalgia of the countryside of my childhood in Picardy, in northern France.

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We were seeking information. A former Minister of Agriculture agreed to meet us in one of the few wine bars of Almaty. The place was cold and deserted. The decor was virtually  non-existent. “This is normal, he explained, since the importation of wine is very new in the country and most Kyrgyz have neither the means nor the education to drink wine”. Wine was produced here in the twentieth century: 13 cooperatives produced mainly sweet wines and sweet effervescents (230,000 liters of bubbles per year anyway). “But everything was snatched in 1985, in the name of the anti-alcohol policy of Gorbachev’s government, with the aim to eradicate alcoholism in the USSR”. A turning point in the Kyrgyz wine industry…

The revival of Kyrgyz wine is not (yet) for tomorrow

There are a few factors which make investment in the wine industry in Kyrgyzstan unlikely.  First off wine consumption is close to zero,  secondly new vines need several years to produce fruit – it takes a long time before a return on investment can be seen – and lastly the unfortunate instability of the economic situation in Kyrgyzstan – in reference to the two recent revolutions of 2005 and 2010 – which might very well have a detrimental effect on investor confidence.  It seems that the actions of the former Soviet Union still casts a shadow on the wine industry in this country.

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Grain is now exclusively grown for the production of vodka and other brandy. Paradoxically, legislation on certain types of alcohol became very soft and it is not uncommon to find  “homemade” beverages such as bozo (a grain alcohol reaching 30 °C) or kymyz (fermented milk with neutral alcohol) in the mountains. How frustrating… We would have  liked to meet some Kyrgyz winemakers in order to understand their history and their wines. We just arrived 29 years too late…
So as a consolation prize – and on the road to Kazakhstan – we decided to visit the mountains of Karakol and the northern Issyk-Kul lake, traveling by minibus.  As well as a two-day trek in the wilderness. And to top it all, we slept at night in a yurt in the mountains, making friends with some livestock on horseback along the way. Change of scenery guaranteed!

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1500-hectares wineries in Kazakhstan… it’s possible

It was while looking at a map that I realized how big Kazakhstan is! 4,5 times bigger than France. Luckily for us, the vineyards lie in the south of the country, halfway between Almaty and the Kyrgyz border. We didn’t not have to go too far.
One feels immediately upon arriving in Almaty that the country is economically doing better than his Kyrgyz neighbour: the roads are (good), bars and trendy restaurants abound and it is not unusual to see 4×4 and other luxury cars in the city center. Oil helps, doesn’t it?

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From the vineyard side we can not say that Kazakhstan is doing well though. In 1991, Gorbachev, still with the same determination as in the rest of the Soviet Union to stop popular alcoholism, had most of the vineyards in the country removed. Today there are only three formal wineries: Bacchus, Issyk and Turguen. However, it is possible to find some small private estates, between 2 and 3 hectares in size, better maintained and belonging to wealthy Kazakhs who produce wine for their own consumption. Some of these micro private estates even have French consultants  managing their wine.

We were expected at Turguen Winery, a young estate rehabilitated in 2009 and where almost all of the 1,500 hectares of vines are not yet trellised, due to a lack of manpower. Here they produce 11 millions bottles per year with half the grapes coming from the vineyard. The other half is sold as table grapes to supermarkets in the country.

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Both Turguen wines will be bottled within a few weeks. So they are served to us in large carafes. Original! A very shy white aligoté, with hints of almond and quince, followed by a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Saperavi(2) with notes of blackcurrant and dirt, a little bit diluted. Both wines are sold €9 a bottle.

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We got a bit of a fright when we left the estate: the vineyard is located near a military zone where the daily shooting exercises are done with real bullets! But in order to leave the estate to continue our journey we had to go pass through a 2 km stretch of road right in the exercise area. A militant in position asked us to wait 20 minutes until the lunch break, at which time the exercises stop. We followed his advice to the letter, just to avoid a stray bullet …

Extreme temperatures for the vines

Fortunately Globalink(3), our main contact in Kazakhstan, kindly provided a chauffeured car for our travels in the vineyards of the region. Driving on country roads is not a luxury and can quickly become a national sport, as people drive fast and dangerously. As for finding the vineyards (which are not indicated, that would be too easy) it is a real full – scale hunting game – which reminded us of our beautiful troubles in Kenya!

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After a 2-hour drive – due to a stop every 2km to ask our way – we arrived at Issyk Winery, 40 km (only) from Almaty. The estate, which dates back to 1932, produces 700 tonnes/year with its 200 hectares of vineyard. The winery is old and the equipment, dating back to the interwar period, have not been changed, which adds  a certain charm to the place.

We visited the vineyard in 45 °C… It was stunning. Many grapes, still green, were already roasted by the sun.

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This year is particularly dry and drip irrigation is not enough. Therefore the vines are flooded every two weeks. It is extreme but necessary, we were told, otherwise there is a risk of loosing many vines. Despite this soils remain poor and dry and generate an incredible dust in the air. Low temperatures during the winter, it can get to as low as -35 °C in this part of the world, necessitates burrowing  the vines for several months, as in China.

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This gives fresh, rustic, light and very refreshing wines; which are well suited to this type of climate. As their “Riesling Dry 2009“ (about €3.50), the highly aromatic “Muscat Dry 2009“  (about €3.10), the “Sweet White 2011“  (a blend of Chardonnay and Muscat sold at €3.10) or the “Gold of Issyk 2010“, the iconic estate wine (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot aged two years in old oak barrels and sold €6.20).

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It is true that communism  hit Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan hard and we can still find well palpable traces of it. The vine has suffered greatly – where it has managed to survive.

And although these two countries will not be the great wine countries of tomorrow, it is with great pleasure and desire that we invite you to get there, for a week (or a month for the more adventurous explorers) : the hiking trails are breathtaking and numerous. The people are friendly, the food is delicious… and the ticket is not expensive at all! For the fans.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

(1) The suffix -stan means a place or a people in Persian. Kazakhstan thus means the “land of the Kazakhs”, like Kyrgyzstan means the “land of the Kyrgyz”.
(2) The Saperavi is a Georgian grape variety native from the Alazani valley in the mountains of the Greater Caucasus.
(3) Globalink is DB Schenker’s transportation and logistics partner in Central Asia.