The Wine Route….Take Two

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By Michael Minorgan for Curtains Up    minorgan@yahoo.ca

Last summer I ventured out to Brome Mississquoi in the Eastern Townships for a couple of days  sampling some of the areas’ wines and artisan foods from the many vignobles and food suppliers.

Wine making is a relatively new art in Quebec starting a mere 33 years ago in 1981 when the first vignoble Domaine Cotes d’Ardoise opened its doors. The Wine Route in this area now boasts some 30 or so wineries all producing excellent wines and many world renowned ice wines and ice ciders. In order to survive our harsh Quebec winters all wineries use hybrid grapes that flourish well in our climate. Each of the wineries I have visited over the past two summers offers a very wide selection of quality products suited to even the most avid wine connoisseur. The two days I spent there last July was barely enough to make a small dent in what that area had to offer so I had to return this year for an extended sojourn in this beautiful countryside and give some of the other wineries their fair due.I have always been partial to The Eastern Townships, finding it somewhat more verdant and pastoral than its cousin the Laurentiens, which  for some reason I  find a bit more commercialized.

Driving along the small country roads around Sutton, Lac Brome,  Dunham, Brigham, Compton and Frelighsburg you are immediately caught up in the serene beauty of the area with countless fields of corn and wild flowers, fresh fruits of all varieties and pastures filled with grazing cows, horses and yes, even some herds of friendly furry llamas may come to greet you over the fence.

This time I chose Sutton as my base of operations staying at a charming condo hotel not far from Mount Sutton called Le Montagnard. It offers  fully contained and equipped studio and larger condo sized apartments with an outdoor swimming pool, Jacuzzi, gorgeous gardens and wonderful vistas of the surrounding mountains. The staff is extremely accommodating and very knowledgeable of the area and all its activities.

“Wine Is Bottled Poetry”……Robert Louis Stevenson

When visiting the area and planning to explore The Wine Route it is a very good idea to plan your daily activities and your route carefully in advance as all wineries don’t have the same schedule for wine tastings and tours and each winery’s tastings may include different options at different prices.

I purchased a Wine Tour Package from the hotel providing tours and tastings at three wineries. I found out later that it is really not necessary to purchase these packages ahead of time as every winery will allow you to sample their products prior to purchasing their products thus leaving the option of taking a guided tour up to you. There is one exception to this though, quite often in the Spring sites such as www.livingsocial.ca or www.groupon.ca will offer all inclusive wine tasting packages for two including many appealing options at extremely reasonable prices, some of them may even include a free bottle of wine.

We arrived in Sutton around 7pm on a Sunday which we quickly found out was not a time to rush out and sample the fare at a local restaurant. You’re in the country, people eat early and kitchens close down by 8pm on Sunday evenings. We ended up at the local Subway for our first meal, not an auspicious beginning!

“Beer is made by men, wine by God“…..Martin Luther

Our first visit was to Domaine Ives Hill in Compton. It is idyllically situated in a valley with fields full of wild flowers alive with nectar hungry bees and lazy grazing cows. Domaine Ives Hill specializes in producing wines, flavored waters and other culinary products  from black currants or ‘cassis’. On our way back to the hotelwe stopped in at Joie de Lavande in Knowlton to purchase some products from their organically grown lavender plants including their lavender scented honey produced from their many beehives on site

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In the evening I was determined this time to leave in time to sample some the village’s local foods and wine. We headed off to the Bistro Pub Sutton located in an old building right in the village center not far from our hotel. Again not a good choice. It was as far from a ‘pub’ as one could imagine, more like a giant recreation hall inside with a small unappealing bar stuck in the corner of the restaurant. It’s a shame considering  the potential the building could offer in the right hands. The menu was equally uninspired to say the least. I chose the The local wine we chose was the best choice of the evening, a young and delightfully fruity local vintage and at $28 a real bargain!

The next day we visited the Domaine Chapelle Ste Agnes in Sutton known principally for its ice wines. The vineyard’s trellises and buildings are perched on a hill over looking a valley.All the buildings reeked of French medieval times. It boasts a number of underground stone wine cellars and vaults built by artisans brought over from Moravia. It was a truly gothic experience that included not only a large stone grotto, but a waterfall……a scene straight out of Phantom of The Opera!. Their ice wines were sublime.

“Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages“…..Louis Pasteur

We completed our day with visits to Domaine Les Bromes in the village of Lac Brome where they produce a number of wines from their over 80,000 vines. In Brigham we visited two wineries, Domaine Vitis where we sampled some wonderful roses (sparkling and still varieties) and an intense and unique red ice wine that was superb with some supplied dark chocolate and blue cheese. Our final visit of the day was spent at Domaine de la Bauge in Brigham where we were regaled with a tasting of eight of their products including a great ‘semi sec’ rose and a fortified red wine, similar to Porto. On the way back to the hotel we took a side trip to the village of Bromont to satisfy my chocolate craving at the privately operated Musee de Chocolat. After visiting the museum I gave in  and purchased a couple of their in house products: a jar of chocolate flavored Dijon mustard and a bar of dark chocolate studded with cranberries.

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In the evening we drove 20 minutes to West Brome for dinner at the Bistro in the Auberge and Spa West Brome. This was undoubtedly the best meal we had on this visit and one of the best I have had in quite along time. The hotel itself is  nestled  in a valley and boasts some tremendously friendly employees who, even as we parked our car, came over and greeted us with a smile and ‘bonsoir‘ a congeniality that was present for the entire time we spent in their dining room.

Our starters of locally sourced smoked duck carpaccio with slivered strips of white asparagus and a poached egg was divine. My starter of thin slices of raw tuna garnished with crunchy fresh green seaweed and a drizzle of ponzu sauce was equally over the top. My main course was an Asian inspired caramelized filet of Atlantic salmon with a medley of perfectly cooked fresh vegetables and a deliciously light and flavorful ginger and lemongrass scented broth. My companions Portuguese style cornish game hen with mashed baby potatoes and caramelized onions was tender juicy and packed full of flavor. We ended our meal with two wonderful concoctions: a coconut cheesecake with candied pineapple

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served in a mason jar and a sinfully rich molten Guayaquil chocolate cake. Superb endings to a fantastic medal in an idyllic countryside setting with amazing service..

“What wine goes with Captain Crunch”……George Carlin

The next day we took things a bit east visiting the Paradis des Fruits in Dunham where you can choose to pick your own raspberries, blueberries or strawberries. Needless to say we stocked up on some of these delicious berries. The rest of the day was spent relaxing by the hotel pool. In the evening and on a local recommendation, we had dinner at what was considered the best the village has to offer, Bistro Les Beaux Lieux. I don’t know if it was the particular night we ate there, the rain and cold outside or what, but I would seriously question those recommendations. The restaurant is located off the main street in an old house with the dining area split into two rooms with a bar at one end and a fairly large wrap around terrasse outside.

We both chose the table d’hote format which included an entrée, main course and dessert. Our entrée of Sweet Potato Soup garnished with niblets of fresh corn was good. My choice for a main course was Pan Seared Quail braised with Fir Honey and Blueberry Compote. It was more of an appetizer portion consisting of just one small partially deboned quail, a small tian of sautéed vegetables and home fries and a rather glutinous brown sauce covering the entire bird. A small portion for the price of $26. My companion’s Quebec Lamb served in a baked phyllo package with figs and goat cheese didn’t fair much better. The phyllo crust was  gummy and under cooked on the bottom and the accompanying vegetables were almost non existent, again hardly living up t its $28 price tag. Service was also a bit perfunctory with no one passing by to pour our wine or enquire how our meal was. The whole meal was a bit lack luster and uninspired. If this is truly the best Sutton has to offer it left me wondering a bit.

“Wine can of their wits the wise beguile, make the sage frolic and the serious smile”…..Homer

Our final two days left us with visits to Domaine du Ridge , a large winery in St Armand producing some ten different wines some of which start out the old fashioned way outside in a large cylindrical wooden vat where the grapes are pressed by foot (see image below). We also paid a visit to Union Cider in Dunham, a small ciderie producing a couple of excellent still and sparkling ciders and ice ciders. We then stopped at one of the many llama farms in the area, Domaine des Nobles Alpagas in Lac Brome. Located deep in the woods and surrounded by its own man made lake we observed these wonderful, furry and friendly animals known world wide for their luxurious fur.  A comprehensive tour of the farm is offered on the weekends.

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On our way back to civilization we stopped in at Domiane Val Caudalies winery in Dunham and just outside Montreal in Hemmingford apple country where we had an amazing two hour tour and tasting at La Face Cachee de la Pomme, the first producer of ice ciders in Quebec whose products have been served to President Obama and Prince William and Kate Middleton on their respective recent visits to Canada Their selection of different ice ciders blew me away.

“I made wine out of raisins so I wouldn’t have to wait for it to age“….Steven Wright

All in all it was an amazing six days sampling some of the best wines Quebec has to offer, all of which could easily compete with those from other more established wine producing countries. I came away with one regret, so few restaurants adequately promote these wines by including them on their wine lists and inexplicably even the government owned SAQ only carries a very small handful of all the wines  produced in the more than 45 wineries province wide.

Complete guide to activities and places to visit in the Eastern Townships

http://www.bonjourquebec.com/qc-en/attractions-directory/eastern-townships/?langue=en&typerecherche=ATTRAITS&seoregion=Eastern+Townships&BQC_REGIONID=3424&seolevel=REGION&num_page=14

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