Tasting the Townships
Gastronomic Tourism in Quebec's Eastern Townships
The man credited with inventing ice cider is taking a leisurely stroll through his grape vines and apple orchard in Quebec's Eastern Townships with a song in his heart and a large Tibetan mastiff named Nanga bounding about nearby.
That's because Christian Barthomeuf is finally creating his dream vineyard here, just outside the charming historic village of Frelighsburg, nestled in the side of Mount Pinnacle, with a stunning view of Vermont's Mount Washington and Cold Hollow Mountain to the south.
It's a quirky project - more like a mission - in which Barthomeuf is going completely green: no pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals; no tractors or heavy equipment to trample the narrow rows of his grapevines. Horses pull his Amish-made plow at the Clos Saragnat vineyard, and he carefully dresses each grapevine in a felt coat for the winter. He is even contemplating getting a scythe.
It's all in the pursuit of the noblest, finest, most subtle expression of le terroir - which can be loosely translated as "the taste of the place," or perhaps just "bottled earth." Le terroir, you see, is Barthomeuf's calling. "The vine is a philosophy," he says. "It's not corn."
Barthomeuf's winemaking skills, which in January 2008 earned him the international cider industry's highest award - the annual prize of Spain's Fundación de la Sidra - as well as a commendation from Canada's own House of Commons in April 2008, helped spark a viticultural renaissance in Quebec and have drawn attention to the gastronomic jewels of one of the province's prettiest regions: the Eastern Townships.
This 10,000-square-kilometre area of quaint Loyalist-era villages, horse farms and strawberry patches - just an hour's drive southeast of Montreal - is the kind of place where terroir is in the bones of the locals. The Townships have long cultivated a rich tradition of homestead and artisanal farms that have supplied the prized secret ingredients of many of Montreal's most famous chefs and gourmet kitchens.
Visitors to the Townships are going to the source of a lot of that tasty food and drink. Until recently, many of the most interesting gastronomic attractions here have gotten little outside attention. But that is changing.
In 2003, the Townships inaugurated a 132-kilometre Wine Route that allows visitors to sniff, sip and swirl their way through the region's beautiful landscapes while visiting 11 vineyards. They offer guided visits, tastings and, in some cases, fine dining.
Intersecting with the wine tour is a series of other organized routes, including five "agro-tourism" tours that highlight the Townships' artisanal farmers and Quebec's 4,000-kilometre Green Route, which the National Geographic Society named one of the top 10 bike routes in the world.
Missisquoi River Valley
A very cool launching pad to explore the Townships and get into the right relaxed zone is the spectacular Missisquoi River Valley. This otherwordly, little-known area sandwiched between the Sutton mountain range and Vermont's Green Mountains is known as Quebec's Little Switzerland. Townshippers whisper about this magical, quirky valley, which has drawn landscape painters since the 1800s, in reverent tones. "You want to whistle The Sound of Music, its so beautiful here," says local real-estate agent Peter Reindler, who visited from Montreal 30 years ago and never left.
Typical of the offbeat establishments here is the celebrated organic Chapelle Ste. Agnès Vineyard, which Barthomeuf helped set up in 1997. (He still serves as the chapelle's winemaker.) In its first entry in a wine competition in 2006 - London's prestigious International Wine and Spirit Competition - the Ste. Agnès vineyard took silver for its 2002 Gewürztraminer Icewine and bronze for its 2002 Vidal Icewine.
The site also features a striking Roman-esque stone chapel that owner Henrietta Antony had built by European stonemasons in recollection of her native Czech Republic.
Lodging in this neck of the woods is available at the Au Diable Vert Mountain Station, located on the south slope of Mount Sutton, one the area's many ski hills. Said to be one of Quebec's best places to watch the autumn colours, this 200-acre establishment won the 2000 Quebec Tourism Grand Prix for outdoor adventure attractions. It features a breathtaking view of the Appalachians, a fine restaurant, its own organic, milk-fed Highland beef farm, workshops on mushrooms and edible plants, guided snowshoe expeditions and lodging that ranges from prospector tents to luxury suites and winterized treehouses for four, tucked up amid the maples.
From the Missisquoi Valley, it's a five-minute drive to one of the Townships' most celebrated bakeries, Abercorn Boulangerie & Croissanterie. Here, just a breath from the U.S. border, load up on fresh croissants, cookies and breads before heading west 15 kilometres to the Townships' ice cider heartland, around Frelighsburg and Dunham.
Frelighsburg and Dunham
This is where Barthomeuf helped pioneer the region's viticulture industry, opening his first vineyard in 1970 and, in 1989, inventing the current process for making apple ice cider, a product that has exploded into an international phenomenon. Today, the product accounts for 70 per cent of sales in the Quebec liquor board's local products section, and sales growth nationwide is outpacing that of wine and beer.
Barthomeuf has had a hand in the success of some of the most renowned local vineyards - including Frelighsburg's Domaine Pinnacle, Dunham's Domaine des Côtes d'Ardoise and La Face Cachée de la Pomme in Hemmingford.
For Barthomeuf, the secret of the cider invention was listening to the terroir. After growing frustrated with Quebec's poor wine-growing conditions, he had a flash: instead of fighting the terroir, why not enlist the omnipresent apples and even the cold weather to his side?
Ice cider uses late-harvest apples picked only after they have frozen on their trees in winter, in a process similar to that for icewine. The result is "a taste of Quebec in a bottle - warm apple pie and cold winter, all in one," says François Pouliot, founder of La Face Cachée de la Pomme.
Now working for himself with his partner, Louise Dupuis, at his 3,500-vine Clos Saragnat winery, Barthomeuf is trying to get as much of that Quebec taste into the bottle as possible. Hence, his decision to stop using tractors to plow the soil between his grapevines - a growing trend in Europe. The idea is to avoid compacting the soil, which kills beneficial microorganisms and affects the flavour of the final product. It's a little more work, but Barthomeuf says its more fun and relaxing.
"I prefer brushing a horse to changing the oil of a tractor," he says.
In Barthomeuf's Clos Saragnat boutique, he lovingly pours out samples for a tasting - an ice cider, a cider aperitif, an icewine and a straw wine (made from grapes left to dry on straw to concentrate their juice). His hard work with the horses has paid off: the elixirs are divine and complex, each one a pageant of the varied possibilities of the gorgeous land all around.
Where to drink, eat and stay in Quebec's Eastern Townships
Drink in the Eastern Townships
Clos Saragnat: Christian Barthomeuf and his partner, Louise Dupuis's ice cider and icewine outfit near Frelighsburg.
L'Orpailleur: Award-winning Dunham vineyard offers a full range of wines and fine dining on a lovely terrace, featuring renowned local duck.
Eat in the Eastern Townships
La Girondine: Where does viticultural legend Christian Barthomeuf like to dine out? At Frelighsburg's La Girondine restaurant, where exacting owners Sylvie Campbell and François Desautels serve duck, lamb and rabbit from their own farm.
Chiapputo Elk Farm: Pick up insanely delicious elk sausages, steaks and pies to prepare yourself for ultimate gastronomic pleasure, or stop in for a bite at the weekend summer barbecues.
Cabane à Sucre du Pic Boise: Wine isn't the only thing that benefits from terroir. Traditional Brigham syrup producer André Pollender will blow you away with his refined maple syrups and related products (butter, vinaigrette, pie).
Café Massawippi: This charming little fine-dining establishment in the cute village of North Hatley is a must.
Stay in the Eastern Townships
Au Diable Vert: Lodgings here in the breathtaking Missisquoi Valley range from luxurious mountain-view suite to winterized tree house and rustic prospector tent.
Manoir Hovey: This five-star country inn and restaurant is the only property in Eastern Canada to make the Condé Nast Traveller gold list last year.
Quebec's Eastern Townships Ice Cider
While many of Quebec's ice cider producers have limited distribution outside of the province, lucky consumers will find a few fine examples in their local stores. Better yet, consider this a great excuse to travel to la belle province, as if you needed one.
La Face Cachée de la Pomme 2006 Neige
ON $30/375mL, QC $24
Made from 80 per cent McIntosh apples, Neige has pure, vibrant flavours of apples, of course, but also an almost citrus-like tang due to wonderful balancing acidity. Its clean, bright finish makes it perfect with foie gras at the beginning of a meal, as it won't overload your palate with sugar. (Véronique Rivest)
Cidrerie du Minot 2007 Crémant de Glace du Minot
QC $23/375 mL
Crafted by Robert Demoy, who learned his trade in his homeland of Brittany, France. A secondary fermentation in cuve close (charmat process) gives this ice cider extra finesse and freshness. A great balancing act between rich fruit flavors and delicate texture. Original and very tasty when served with chicken liver mousse or even the traditional québécois cretons! (VR)
Clos Saragnat 2004 L'Original
QC $25/200 mL winery
Christian Barthomeuf is the inventor of ice cider and a true believer in terroir. His apple trees are grown organically and he only uses indigenous yeasts. The apples for the ice cider are allowed to freeze on the trees. To top it all off, he releases his ice cider after three years of aging. Like nothing else, this ice cider has very intense and complex aromas of butterscotch, baked apples, dried dates, raisins, caramel and spice. Very pure and luxurious, yet never heavy. A true vino da meditazione. (VR)