Here in Quebec, as in many other parts of the winemaking world, it’s harvest season. I recently had the chance to try my hand at harvesting a few grapes, and so I can confirm what you may already know: it’s back-breaking hard work. But a lot of fun, especially in with the gorgeous late fall weather we’ve been getting in and around Montreal.
I popped a few grapes into my mouth while picking, and it was interesting to taste the difference between grape varieties: some, like the Vandal Cliche I picked, were ripe and sweet, while others were still tart and needed more time on the vine. But even in a single row, some bunches are riper than others.
My grape picking opportunity came courtesy of an invitation from Nadia Dufour, sommelière at Vignoble Rivière du Chêne, a beautiful vineyard about 35 minutes from Montréal in Saint-Eustache, in the lower Laurentians. Their 16.5 hectares of vineyard are mainly planted with hybrid grape varieties (Vandal Cliche, Vidal, St-Pépin, Maréchal Foch, and others). They also recently planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but it will take a few years before these vines produce grapes that can be used for wine.
Originally established in 1998, much of the winery was rebuilt in 2008 following a fire. The results of the rebuild are impressive, especially the sparkling, modern cellar. Speaking with owner Daniel Lalande, his interest in innovative (and sustainable) technology becomes quickly evident. Looking for a way to heat the fermentation tanks but not content with the existing technology, he invested in a type of under-wire heating that works similarly to the way bathroom floors are heated. They will also soon pilot a new vineyard machine that sprays two rows at a time and recycles a portion of the product.
They practice agriculture raisonnée in the vineyard, says Lalande, meaning that they only spray or use chemicals when absolutely necessary. In 2013, which sounds like it’s shaping up to be a disappointing vintage following the much-praised 2012 vintage, it was necessary to spray. And during a spring frost in May, they lost 30-40% of their crop. But at least there’s 2012 vintage, about which I heard the same praise at Rivière du Chêne that I’ve heard from a few other Quebec winemakers. They say it’s an exceptional vintage, one of Quebec’s best.
I also had the chance to taste with winemaker Laetitia Huët, a native of the Loire Valley who came to Rivière du Chêne eight years ago. Her professed preferred style, which was confirmed by what I tasted from the barrels, is elegance and finesse over exuberance. She prefers discreet wines, and is interested in the influence of different types of oak on the wine. With good vintages, she says, you have to find the best way to display the wine, like choosing how to best display a piece of jewellery in a case.
Under her wing, I was treated to a rather rare and fascinating tasting in the cellar: the same grape variety (St-Pépin), the same year (2012), but aged in three different barrels. I would have expected to taste the difference between new and old oak, but tasting the difference between wine aged in two new oak barrels from different forests was instructive. I will be eager to see the results of the final 2012 blends once they are released.
Over in the bright tasting room, I tried a few dessert wines. L’Adélard is a white maple wine that, though sweet, is not as sweet as you might expect, retaining an element of freshness. La Cuvée Glacée des Laurentides is a late harvest wine made of Vidal with a pleasing core of citrus confit, and Monde is their mainly Vidal-based ice wine in which I found concentrated flavours of caramel and strawberry jam.
Visiting Rivière du Chêne and especially tasting those elegant and delicately oaked barrel samples was a good reminder of the potential that exists in Quebec’s wine industry.