The Fine Art of Making Natural Wine in Quebec
How a winemaker and an artist collaborated on natural wines that stand up to Quebec's brutal climate.
"I love crazy people, and Fred has made a crazy bet. He was willing to lose everything for this."
Artist Marc Séguin is referring to winemaker Frédéric Simon who has literally bet the farm on natural wine.
Five years ago, Simon sold all of his shares in the Montreal restaurant and wine importing business he owned—not to mention a few valuable paintings—to buy a farm in Magog, Quebec and plant the very first vines at Pinard & Filles vineyard.
"When I had money, I was quite a big art collector," Simon recounts. "Now, I have no more money. But I was really sensible of many artists, and Marc Séguin was one of them. I have a few pieces of Marc's at home, and I really thought it could be cool if I could get an artist—a Quebec artist—to put on the label."
Luckily for Simon, one of Quebec's most popular and respected artists was more than willing to lend his hand to the project, though not in the vineyard. "I don't know how to make wine, but I know how to drink it," Séguin says. "I found out that Fred had been collecting my stuff for years, so when he had this crazy idea of making vitis vinifera in Quebec, I knew that my work was going to be on his bottles."
And so a creative partnership was born between a winemaker and an artist, with Séguin being compensated not in money, but in wine. He would even help choose the name of the vineyard. In return, Simon got some very beautiful and valuable art to slap on his bottles—and a bit of spiritual guidance. "It's about being there and believing in him. I like to think of it as a spiritual influence," Séguin says.
But Fred's allies are not just in the art world. Back in Montreal, at Joe Beef Garden, David McMillan is drinking Pinard & Filles' sparkling wine and tending to the trout pond. "It's so easy to drink. I could drink three bottles of this stuff. It's better than Veuve Clicquot—try drinking three bottles of Veuve Clicquot and see how banged out you get. You'll fucking die."
"They've cracked the code," he says. "I bought them untasted, but when I did taste them, I was literally floored because I was expecting a lot less. I would even go so far as saying their wines are in the top five wines made in Canada, even at five years of age, because they're natural wines."
But McMillan's excitement goes beyond drinkability. The success of vineyards like Pinard & Filles and Les Pervenches, who are making excellent wine with vitis vinifera, is a very good sign for the future of wine in Quebec, which does not currently have the best reputation.
Wine has been made here since the 70s, but the accepted wisdom is that the winter and spring months are far too brutal to accommodate more delicate vitis vinifera—king of grapes—whose progeny includes European classics like pinot noir, chardonnay, and cabernet.
Instead, most winemakers in the province have been relying on hardier hybrid varietals like frontenac, vidal and seyval, which were genetically engineered by the University of Minnesota to withstand cold climates. Quebec's weather also means that human, chemical, and technological intervention can be tempting for winemakers.
"If hybrids were good, we'd know it by now," Simon proclaims. His approach is exactly the opposite of the status quo. He's growing old-school European grapes like pinot noir, gamay, dornfelder, chardonnay, and riesling—and he's doing it with minimal intervention.
"The bar is pretty low in Quebec," McMillan explains. "There are a couple of wineries that do a good job. I think Michael Marler at Les Pervenches has definitely had some breakthroughs over the years. But generally, everybody else is—and no disrespect to them—but, it's a disaster."
Marc Séguin agrees, more or less. "Some whites are good. With reds it's a lot more difficult. It's such a huge investment that they can't age it, because they have to make a return right away, so oftentimes there is way too much oak."
For McMillan, Pinard & Filles' light wines are a perfect fit for his restaurants, whose menus are built around local ingredients and a largely natural wine list. "I want to eat salad that I grow. I want to eat cheese from small farms that are near me, where I can go visit the goats. I want all the wines to be crafted by like-minded individuals as myself. Small restaurant, small gardens, small wineries. Small."
A painter in his own right, he can also appreciate the value of Pinard & Filles being backed by Marc Séguin.
"Marc is a great artist," McMillan says. "He's a friend to the restaurant and the wine people. He's a true son of this city. He's a son of Quebec. He's like the spirit of Jean Paul-Riopelle reincarnated somewhat, in a modernistic kind of fashion. An endorsement by him is a big deal. It's very generous of him. Do you know how much those paintings cost? How much a drawing costs? It's like, forget it! And they gave him a couple of cases of wine? Like, give me a break. Séguin's a mensch."
So, why all the hype? The answer, inevitably, lies in the glass. The idea of a Québécois winemaker and a Québécois artist collaborating (in any way) on natural wine is a romantic one, but it's just that—an idea. And an idea isn't worth a whole lot unless the final product tastes good in your mouth.
Back at the farm, Fred Simon says he knows his wine is good, but he was still surprised at the reception that his first 1,300 bottles got from some of Quebec's leading restaurateurs and sommeliers last year. If his wine has received any attention, he says, it's because of his strict adherence to the minimal intervention of natural winemaking. It's something he gravitated towards when he sold wine for a living and then travelled to France to learn the ropes.
"I really think that we are the only winery in Canada that really really works like the natural wine movement in France," Simon explains. "We do this in Quebec for the love of the game. We hope one day to make money with it, but we're still going to take some risks."
But the warm praise he receives from Montreal restaurants stands in stark contrast to the unforgiving weather that his livelihood now depends on. "You can't talk about making wine in Quebec without talking about climate—especially where vitis vinifera are concerned," Simon says. "The idea is to get the grape as ripe as you can, but you can't control the climate."
In other words, January doesn't give a shit whether the grapes taste good. That means surrendering a certain amount of control, burying vines under hay every winter just to keep them alive, and using a big ol' windmill that brings warm air down and the cold air up and away from his precious vinifera.
"The biggest difference between what we do and what they do in Europe is the work in the field and the reality in the field. I'm going to get frost here every spring so I have prepare."
As traditional as his technique is, it has to be adapted to the local reality. Same goes for the taste of the wine, something he had to address with his wife, Catherine Bélanger, who is a restaurateur and sommelier, as well as his partner in the vineyard operation.
"When we tasted the wine, my wife was like, 'Our pinot is not like a Burgundy,' and I said, 'Yeah, it's not from Burgundy!' She knows what she's talking about, but she was using the reference of the wine she was used to drinking. So I said, 'Forget that. Blank page. Start again.' To respect Quebec terroir is just to respect the fruit we've got and to understand that we cannot ripen as other vineyards can. And we just have to understand that and accept it."
But there is also a freedom within those constraints—the freedom to experiment with a wider palette, both visually and in the mouth. "I plant the grapes and then I decide which style I'm doing with the wine; white, red, bubbles—every vintage tells me what to do."
Simon's wines are ridiculously easy to drink and, in some cases, almost psychedelic or bubblegum pink in appearance, something that really doesn't bother a traditionalist like David McMillan.
"There's no more color! Can you believe that people say, 'Oh, there's only three colors to wine—red, wine, and rosé'?' I have trouble believing that. Just make super easy-to-drink natural wine with low alcohol, no weird oak, no fucking chemicals or weird winemaker games. Make clean juice."
Simon's creativity is not lost on Marc Séguin either.
"I love winemakers because they are farmers, first of all. They are given something by nature and then they make it into some sort of… maybe it's art."