By Michael Minorgan for Curtains Up
I have just returned from a fantastic 36 hour foodie foray into a part of our province that quickly reminded me of one thing that makes Quebec so appealing in spite of all the political and economic morass that sadly hangs over us on an almost daily basis…The Eastern Townships or L’Estrie, with its bounty of artisanal and organic food products, its greatly under appreciated wines, the warm and welcoming locals and of course the pastoral and bucolic countryside landscapes that appear around almost every bend of its gravel roads lined with weather beaten barns and fields alive with a painter’s palette of wild flowers.The historic villages of the Eastern Townships nestled comfortably between the mighty St Lawrence River and the nearby Appalachian Mountains, exhibit some of the last vestiges of its original Empire Loyalist inhabitants. The fertile land of the area has long been a magnet for settlers, mainly from south of the border, seeking refuge and the chance to farm its lands. These original pioneers set the stage for what is now considered to be one the major centres for artisanal and organic food products in the province. Its quaint country inns, food markets and general stores have long been attractions for visitors to the area.
Since 1980 we can add wine making to the list of products produced here when the first recorded winery, Cotes d’ Ardoise planted the first vineyards in 1980 and produced its first vintage in 1985…in total illegality! The government then stepped in and issued the first official artisanal wine production permit in the same year.
However, due to its predictable bureaucratic nature, the government imposed so many restrictions and regulations on this burgeoning industry that further innovation and investment was totally discouraged at the time.
In spite of this short-sighted governmental approach, over the ensuing years the determination and efforts of passionate wine makers finally achieved a product of competitive value and in the process they garnered a well deserved appreciation for its many artisanal wines. The Townships are now proudly home to over 30 wineries, cideries and organic micro breweries producing some of the country’s best wines, ice ciders, ice wines and organic beers
A well focused marketing plan has recently promoted the area with great success. One of its major marketing tools was the creation of a Wine Route or La Route des Vin grouping all the wineries under one umbrella and offering visitors guided tours of their vineyards and wine making facilities accompanied by individual and group wine tastings of their products. They have also organized cooperative culinary events and cooking contests with local chefs to further enhance the exposure of their products.
I personally set out to discover some of the wineries or vignobles that now flourish here. There was no way I could possibly visit all the wineries in one 36 hour period so I selected a representative cross section and have limited my visit to an area known locally as Le Triangle, encompassing Bromont, Dunham, Saint Armand, Frelighsburg and Stanbridge East. In addition to a grouping of more than 10 of the largest and most productive vineyards there are numerous other culinary attractions in Le Triangle including, 2 cider houses, a mead maker, an organic micro brewery, blueberry and small fruit growers, apple orchards, honey makers and all manner of mouth watering artisanal producers of chocolates, breads and cheeses… an irresistible foodies spot with so many things to entice your taste buds and all just a brief 45 minute drive from the city!
Our base of operations was Le St Martin Bromont Hotel nestled against the mountain in the picturesque village of Bromont. It has all the comforts of a country inn, beautifully furnished and all the rooms sporting comfy down filled pillows and comforters…true luxury at a very affordable price, a price that includes a delicious assortment of fresh fruits and artisanal breads and pastries for breakfast.
Our first stop on La Route des Vins was the Vignoble Gaggliano just outside the village of Dunham.As we drove into the area I could have sworn I was in one of France’s famous wine regions looking at rows and rows of grape vines stretching as far as the eye could see. Our guide, Alfonso Gaggliano the owner of the winery, explained that there are basically two types of vines planted in the area, the ‘rustic’ variety and the more popular and hardy ‘semi rustic’ variety that now occupies most the area’s vineyards. The pride and passion of these vintners is apparent in the love and total commitment they impart when talking about their wines. While there we tasted no less than 10 of their products and I was completely blown away by the quality of all of them. I have never considered myself much of a wine connoisseur decrying all the fuss and ceremony around the ‘swishing’ and ‘sniffing’ of bouquets etc etc I can however appreciate what tastes good and these were all excellent. Who would have thought that wines from Quebec could be so good! I had never really given Quebec wines a second look at the SAQ. We ended up buying quite a selection.
On our way back to the hotel we drove through the historic village of Frelighsburg and had lunch on the terrasse at Les 2 Clochers a small cafe overlooking the bubbling waters of La Riviere Brochets surrounded by the perfumes and colors of summer flowers everywhere we looked.
Driving back to Bromont we passed through Mystic, a small village right out of the pages of a Thornton Wilder novel with its wood paneled houses and pillared porches decorated with all manner of overflowing and colorful hanging plants .
For dinner we decided to try one of the Trip Advisor recommended local restaurants. L’Etrier (the Stirrup) located off a country road not far from our hotel. It takes its name from the stables that used to occupy the space. Alas, this was definitely not one of the highlights of our trip. I won’t go into a review of the food, but let it be said that it most assuredly did not live to its expectations. I was most surprised by the lack of local wines on its otherwise large international wine list, only one white and one red were listed, both from the same winery. This seems to be a sin most restaurants in the area are guilty of. There should definitley be more cooperation between the wineries and the restaurants as this is an ideal and obvious way to promote their products. We selected the red wine listed and it thankfully turned out to be the one highlight of our meal.
The next morning, after our delicious continental breakfast at the hotel, we set out on the final fully booked leg of our expedition.
Our first stop was in St Armand where we had reserved a tour of the vineyards at Domaine du Ridge one the largest wineries in the area whose owner Denis Paradis is the current president of l’Associations des Vignobles for Brome Missisquoi. The tour was 21/2 hours and included an excellent commentary by the owner on the area’s wine industry, its wines, vineyards and wine producing methods. It also included an elaborate tasting of some 12 wines and a delicious selection of local artisanal food products, including pates, terrines, smoked meats, relishes and cheeses. The grounds at Domain du Ridge are, simply put, gorgeous and its vineyards stretch over hundreds of acres. They currently produce some 100,000 bottles of wines of various varieties every year. As M Paradis explained, starting out in this business is not easy and requires a tremendous amount of patience. For the first 5 years nothing is harvested and no wine is produced. It takes at least15 years of operation before you can hope to just break even. After tasting all their fabulous wines. ice wines and fortified wines (portos) we again bought some to take home.
Our next stop was to one of the areas only producers of mead that popular medieval wine made from honey. Les Trois Acres is a quaint little place nestled off a small country lane outside Dunham… a honey lovers paradise. The beekeeper and owner gladly showed us around the premises and showed us his many beehives each home to 80,000 bees at any one time! The bee based products he sells are many, including various beeswax based soaps and beauty products, candles and of course honeys. liquid and creamy, produced from spring, summer and autumn blooms.
From here we paid brief visit to Cotes d’Ardoise in Dunham the first winery or vignoble to occupy this area in 1980. Not having time to go on a full tour of the premises nor visit the outdoor sculpture exhibit now on display, we settled with a couple of bottles of their most recent vintages to savour at home.
On our way home we stopped outside Frelighsburg to visit the province’s premier and award winning ciderie Domaine Pinnacle producers of some of the world’s best ice ciders. Like the Domain du Ridge the property at Domaine Pinnacle is vast and lush with orchards laid out over 430 acres. We tasted various products including still and sparkling ciders, ice ciders and a few fortified cider liquors. I was struck by the similarity of their still ciders to dry white wines. At three bottles for $25 who could resist the temptation!
Our relaxing and meandering back roads trip to the city took us through more country roads dotted with farms and fields full of cows, goats, magnificent horses and yes, even several herds of playful and furry llamas, relative newcomers to the area. We stopped at a farmer’s fruit and vegetable stand to stock up on fresh corn, strawberries and just picked blueberries before being rudely snapped back to reality by the traffic clogged highway before the Champlain Bridge where we sat there for almost an hour wishing that our country tour had never ended. If I wasn’t such a ‘city person’ I could easily see myself living in those beautiful country surroundings where the air is so fresh and full of all those wonderful country aromas.
Mark Twain once lamented that ‘Man was made at the end of the week’s work when God was tired’ Well The Eastern Townships were definitely made for us to enjoy and to thankfully rekindle our love for this beautiful province. There is so much more to see and savour, so return I will, many times over!