Making Terroir with Cow Horns, Manure, and Lunar Rhythms in Quebec
We headed down to Les Pervenches vineyard in Farnham, Quebec with sommelier Emily Campeau, to talk terroir and biodynamic winemaking.
"You have to be absolutely fearless to be a winemaker in Quebec—you have to be fucking ballsy. It's hard to make wine anywhere in the world, but it's especially tough here, with this ridiculous climate."
Emily Campeau does not mince words when she talks about wine, or anything else, for that matter. A native of Sainte-Thècle, a town of 2,500 some 200 kilometers away from Montreal, Campeau was destined for the bright lights of Paris, where she worked in Helene Darroze's Michelin-starred kitchen, and those of New York, where she was chef de cuisine at Racines.
Now, she's back in Montreal and at the helm of Candide's wine list, a job that has allowed her to reconnect with her own racines and rediscover the "terroir" of her native province.
Campeau is bringing us to Farnham, Quebec, to hang with two of the "fucking ballsy" wine producers she mentioned earlier: Mike Marler and Véronique Hupin of Les Pervenches, the first biodynamic winemaking operation in Quebec. But there is more to this visit than getting a little day drunk and geeking out about wine. We have enlisted Campeau, Marler, and Hupin to shed some light on the mystical process of biodynamic winemaking and to understand what, if anything, is meant by Quebec's wine "terroir."
It's easy to talk about terroir when it comes to Quebec's maple syrup, cheese, and honey, all products which have been made here since for centuries, but it gets a little trickier when it comes to wine. Despite already being home to 130 vineyards and 40 grape varietals, Quebec farmers only began experimenting with grapes in the 1970s and the province got it first wine growers association in 1987, meaning that the wine industry is roughly the same age as a Millennial.
"The word 'terroir' is a very loaded word," Campeau explains. "There are so many things like cheese, for example, where you can taste Quebec terroir; where there's actually a thing that tastes like Quebec. But is there something which is translating to wine yet?"
Mike Marler certainly thinks so. "To use the word 'terroir' in a very objective sense—any plot of land is a terroir," he says. "But do we have something unique in our terroir? Will the wines from Quebec be different because of the terroir? I truly believe so."
And while the vines of Quebec may not have the same pedigree as their European counterparts, our soil does have a chronological advantage advantage. "I was speaking to a soil specialist about terroir, and he said that in Quebec, the rock is much older than Europe's. There is a totally different type of flora, fauna, bacteria, and fungus in the soil. That's going to make it completely different [from] any other terroir. So, for sure, there is a terroir to be exploited here. But we need to get the vines older and [to] develop and continue making wine in a certain way to see what that terroir is."
For Marler and Hupin, that means not fucking with the soil or the grape; and the secret weapon in their agricultural arsenal is biodynamics. Developed in 1924 by Austrian philosopher, educator, and esotericist Rudolf Steiner, biodynamism is a holistic take on agriculture that essentially treats a vineyard like a living organism.
To be considered a biodynamic winemaker, grape growers must make use of nine biodynamic preparations and integrate manure (buried inside cow horns), composting, quartz, silica, lunar patterns, an array of medicinal plants, and rigorous clockwise and counterclockwise stirring methods into the winemaking process.
"The reason why Véro and I make organic and biodynamic wine is so that it's a reflection of what we do in the field," Marler says. "I'm just going to do the least possible [interference] to make sure nothing goes wrong in there without adding things to it. So when we put it into the bottle it should showcase this," he says, pointing to the vineyard. "And I think it does; biodynamic wines have so much energy and they're so much fun to drink."
Because of biodynamic wine's esoteric roots, Marler admits that he was a bit reticent at first and wanted to make sure he wasn't joining some sort of pagan cult. "I remember going to France to meet a bunch of biodynamic winemakers and see if they were strange and to see what they do. Like, 'Are they running around looking up at the moon all the time?' But they turned out to be these great people and grape growers. So I said, 'That's what we need to do here in Quebec.' We want to have vibrant, unique wines, and this is a great technique to do it."
Whether it's the cow horns, the medicinal herbs, or just the painstaking attention to detail that comes along with biodynamic agriculture, Les Pervenches stands out among Quebec winemakers. It's one of the few Quebec wines served in Montreal restaurants, a market that Emily Campeau calls one of the most "educated natural and organic wine scenes, probably anywhere in the world."
At Les Pervenches, making wine is about farming and growing grapes—not the luxury product at the end of the line. That respect for their main ingredient and soil is something that, for Campeau, definitely comes across in Les Pervenches' wines.
"They're delicious. The energy that his wines have is different than what you can taste in the rest of the country," she says. "It tastes like Les Pervenches. Mike's wines are very, very particular and speak of a time and a place, and I think that's why we love them so much. "
A big part of that time and place is Quebec's brutal winters, meaning that for Les Pervenches—and winemakers across the province—you have to do everything you can to combat the cold, whose mission it is to kill grapes and vines.
With temperatures fluctuating anywhere between negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and over 90 in summer, it's not exactly the most hospitable climate for more fragile vitis vinifera vines like pinot or chardonnay. That means grape growers in the province often rely on hardier hybrid varietals like frontenac, seyval, and vidal, which were genetically engineered by the University of Minnesota to withstand harsh climates like Quebec's.
"Quebec's climate is an extreme climate; very hot summers, and very, very harsh and cold winters," Campeau laments. "The growing season of the grape is very short, so you need to plant varietals that are going to ripen early. The ripening period is not long enough for cabernet franc or riesling because you would have rieslings with extremely high acidity. You just don't have time to develop the balance between sugar and acidity. That's why we have a lot of hybrids like frontenac and seyval that are hardier and more suited for our climate. They can handle cold weather."
So how do you keep grape vines alive when the thermometer goes below 40? By burying them alive, that's how. Every winter, Marler and Hupin bury their vines under hay and geotextile. But, come spring, the battle is hardly over.
Spring frost is the mortal enemy of the grape vine, and a sudden drop in temperatures can mean losing an entire harvest in mere hours. As a result, giant wind towers are installed to keep the cool air away from the ground and to bring the warmer air down. Some winemakers even rent helicopters to fly over their vineyards for the same effect.
But rather than be intimidated by the frigid temperatures, Marler sees this as a chance to adapt, get better, and make something inherently québécois.
"In Quebec, we have to figure everything out. We're experimenting all the time. I'm so happy to be a grape grower in Quebec. When I started, I didn't think I would. I thought there were going to be limits because of the cold and everything. But now, more than 15 years in, we have pinots growing. I think there is huge potential for Quebec, especially for light whites and reds.
If we don't try to copy, and try to be unique, it's gonna be great."