A wine tasting tour.
I suspect that the images in your head upon reading those words are taking you pretty far away from the current snowy, freezing cold reality that is Quebec. Sunny vineyards in mid-summer warmth are more like it. Yet, as I learned recently after I was invited to join a group of journalists and bloggers on a winter wine tour courtesy of Kava Tours, you don’t necessarily need to travel very far (or wait until summer) to enjoy a wine tour, especially if there’s suitably heart-warming beverages and campfires involved.
Kava Tours is the only Quebec company offering organized wine tours. They run a half-day summer tour in Montérégie ($89) and full-day summer and winter tours in the Eastern Townships ($129). If you’ve heard anything about Quebec’s wine, you’ve probably heard about its ice wine and ice cider. Although the dry and sparkling wines are coming along, it’s still the sweet stuff that Quebec is best known for, and that’s the focus of Kava’s winter tour.
Early Saturday morning found us at the Place d’Armes metro (one of a few possible departure points) where, after some soul-fortifying caffeine, we hopped on the bus. Each seat was equipped with a reusable wine bottle tote that was conveniently filled with a bottle of water and a few snacks for sustenance through the day.
Nicolas Simard, the co-owner of Kava Tours, proved a charismatic and knowledgeable guide. As we headed toward the Eastern Townships, he gave us an overview of some of the unique challenges facing winemakers in Quebec: extremely cold winter temperatures (when it falls below 20°C, there’s a real risk of damage to vitis vinifera vines), spring frost, and a short summer season. Quebec winemakers have developed various coping mechanisms for these challenges, including the use of hybrid (instead of vinifera) varieties such as Vidal, which is more resistant to winter. (For more on the ongoing vinifera vs. hybrid debate in Quebec, check out Remy Charest’s article for Wine Access).
Our first stop was Domaine Les Brome, who make one of the best Quebec reds I’ve tasted. (I was at a party at Pullman last year where several people expressed surprise upon discovering that the red they’d been drinking all evening was from Quebec.) But that day, the focus was on their ice wine. Anne-Marie Lemire was on hand to give us a tour.
We tried two very different ice wines: a Riesling that had been made in stainless steel, and a Vidal that was aged in oak barrels. The Riesling was fresh with great acidity, and citrus and floral notes – it was obviously sweet, but not too sweet. The Vidal ice wine was richer, with honeyed, nutty, and toasted flavours.
Then came the surprise: we moved to well-supplied bar-tending stations, where we learned how to make ice wine cocktails (perhaps a way to use up that half-empty bottle of ice wine in the fridge following holiday celebrations). We mixed up some really tasty (yet potent) concoctions.
- 1 oz of tequila
- 1 oz of Vidal ice wine
- 3 oz of fruit juice
- 1 teaspoon concentrated cranberry juice
Johnny and Will
- 1.5 oz of Riesling ice wine
- 1 oz of apple juice
- A splash of Chardonnay
- 1 oz of Vidal ice wine
- 1 oz of vodka
- 1 frozen grape
My personal favourite was “Johnny and Will”. By now well fortified against the cold, we got back on the bus to head to our next stop.
At Vignoble de l’Orpailleur, we were (rather festively) greeted with a demo of sabering, which is the act of opening a bottle of bubbly with a sword. Then we took a glass of Orpailleur’s refreshing Brut inside, where we sat down for a (by now much-needed) meal of raclette. Tables was set up with several small grills, and an assortment of cheese, charcuterie, baguette, and salad. After I admitted it was my first time eating raclette (I know), I received various tips – it seems everyone has a different method for achieving the ideal ratio of bread to meat to melted cheese. It was the perfect hearty meal for a winter day in the country.
Back outside, Charles-Henri de Coussergues gave us a demo of how to hand-press frozen grapes (luckily there are now less time-consuming methods for this). We tried a glass of their Vidal ice wine (served in glasses literally made of ice), which was rich and honeyed, with a pleasing blend of citrus-laced acidity and smoky undertones. And then for the grand finale: La Part des Anges, which is made by fortifying unfermented grape juice with vodka, and leaving the mixture outside in glass containers for about six years. It matures and undergoes a slow oxidation. The result was rich and delicious, with notes of prunes, walnuts, caramel, and coffee.
For our last stop of the day, we crossed the street to Union Libre, a relatively new cidery (and eventually winery) established in 2010 by two couples. Anouschka Bouchard took us on a tour of the orchard and cider-making facilities. They use two methods to make two different types of ice cider. Cryoextraction, the more traditional method, involves leaving the apples outside to freeze (the formation of ice allows for the concentration of sugar) until December or January, after which time the frozen apples are pressed and fermented. When using cryoconcentration, on the other hand, the apples are harvested earlier and are then pressed before they are frozen. The resulting juice is left to freeze in vats, and as the must concentrates the water separates out, eventually leaving behind ice that can be removed.
Union Libre also makes another, more unusual type of dessert cider: fire cider (cidre de feu). To make it, the apples are picked and pressed immediately. Instead of being frozen, the must is heated to evaporate the extra water and concentrate the sugar. The must is later fortified with a neutral alcohol or, for the 2010 and following vintages, with apple alcohol.
Returning to sit around an outdoor campfire, we sampled the ciders. We started with a fresh, light sparkling cider made of a blend of four types of apples. Next, an ice cider (this one made using cryoextraction), which was very fresh, with a soft, creamy texture, and flavours of apple, pear, honey, and caramel. The sweetness was nicely balanced by acidity. We later tried the ice cider made using cryoconcentration, which was a bit fresher, and less creamy. And finally, the fire cider, which (being fortified) was stronger and more complex, with toasty, nutty, and caramel flavours, and a pleasing hint of bitterness (like the skin of a walnut). I was really impressed with Union Libre’s products.
In case we hadn’t had enough sugar yet, we finished the day with a variation on the traditional Quebec tire d’érable (maple syrup taffy eaten off the snow) – a tire of fire cider syrup. I felt pretty content relaxing into the warm bus seat as we headed back to Montreal…
Kava will offer this tour every Saturday through the winter months. For a taste of the surprising deliciousness that can come out of Quebec’s winter terroir, I highly recommend it.