Adventures in Canadian Wine: Montreal and Québec City

We are just back from a glorious vacation in Québec (Montreal and Québec City). While I would love to talk about the vibrant and historic old city quarters, the influence of explorer Jacques Cartier, the changing of the Guard at the famous Citadel in Québec City, or the 400-year dual culture and language struggle between French and English — I will leave all that for another day. Instead let me share my observations on the buying wine in these cities.

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Before we headed off on our travels, friends remarked on the wonderful selection of French wines that lay ahead in Montreal and Québec. This was indeed true, as French wines account for over 31% of wine sales in the province of Québec. Not terribly surprising, given that French is the main language and the historic relationship with France and all things French. However, what did surprise me was the almost complete absence of Canadian wines on offer in many restaurants we ate in, except for the occasional token ice-wine. More on that further down, but first let's look at how wine retails in Québec.

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Shopping for Wine in Québec

The purchase and sale of wine in Québec is state-controlled, similar to Ontario, as well as to 19 states in the US, such as Pennsylvania (whose Liquor Control Board is the single the largest purchaser of wine in the entire United States), and European counties like Sweden and Finland.

In Québec the control body is the SAQ, which stands for Société des alcools du Québec (Québec Alcohol Corporation). It was established in 1921 and has a legal monopoly on the distribution and sale of all alcoholic beverages. Government owned, the SAQ is an extremely important source of revenue through taxes on alcohol.

The SAQ stores are divided into different types. The main ones that I visited were:

  • SAQ Classique - offering a pretty standard selection of mainstream, popular wines.
  • SAQ Express - offering mainly high-volume top-selling brands.
  • SAQ Sélection - as well as the high-volume brands it offers a wide selection of higher-end, ultra-premium and iconic wines. Also staffed by more wine knowledgeable salespeople.
  • SAQ Signature - the high-end store. I believe there are only two, one in Montreal and one in Québec City. I only found the one in Québec City - lots of top Burgundy and Bordeaux to be found here.

There is also the SAQ.com - the online website.

Before our trip, friends from Montreal advised us to aim for the Sélection stores for the best range and choices.

One of my key observations from the stores was too much sameness. Admittedly I only visited a small number of the hundreds of stores that exist across the province, but they had a supermarket feel to them.

Secondly, having been disappointed in the number of Canadian wines on offer in restaurants, I was hopeful that the SAQ would be different. But alas, I spent about 15 minutes in one Sélection store looking for the Canadian section, to finally find it almost hidden away at the back of the store.

Thirdly, partly due to the poor US to Canadian dollar exchange rate, wine in Québec is expensive compared to the United States. On the positive side, the stores were all well stocked (despite a strike at the port that reputedly was having an effect on wine supplies getting to the stores), bright and well staffed. Maybe it is a Commonwealth thing, but they reminded me a little too much of a UK Tesco supermarket.

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As mentioned above France reigns supreme when it comes to wine sales in Québec, followed by Italy, who between them account for 54% of all wine sales. What is surprising though is that in this region, which definitely seems to have a penchant for old world wines, the United States is in third place and is apparently gaining market share each year. It currently accounts for just over 7% according to SAQ figures. Canadian wines are only in 7th place, accounting for less than 5% of wine sales.

Québec Wines: Grapes and Styles

The climate of Québec — especially the extremely long, cold winters — makes grape growing difficult. As such most vitis vinifera species (all the grape varieties that we know and love belong to this family) will not survive. Hence, the tendency has been to plant what are called hybrids - hardier species that have been cultivated by crossing non-vinifera species of vitis such as vitis rupestris or riparia.

There are two issues here. Firstly, most consumers are not familiar with the grape names such as Seyval Blanc, Marechal Foch or Cayuga. Vidal, which makes fantastic ice-wine, is probably the most widely known. Secondly, the wines from these varieties can tend to have what has been termed a 'foxy' smell - slightly damp and funky. That said, I have tasted many splendid wines from non-vinifera varieties, as they are also widely planted all along the eastern United States.

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The main Québec wines that I encountered during our trip were ice-cider, ice-wine and simple off-dry fruity wines. Domaine Pinnacle's ice cider was one highlight of the trip, and easily the most easy to find. One daring restaurant actually offered a Québec Seyval Blanc from L"Orpailleur by the glass - dry with racy acidity, flavors of Granny Smith apple and pear and a strong boxwood note. Not at all foxy!

Disappointed in the store selection of Québec wines, I tried the online store SAQ.com. Alas, the only ice-wine / dessert wines available to me were either from Ontario or British Columbia. This begs the question, are most local wines only available directly from the wineries? Possibly, as they are typically small volume producers, and I imagine supplying the SAQ means you must meet certain volume criteria.

Ontario and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia are the two most important wine regions in Canada, producing many excellent wines. I wonder why these regions were not better represented, especially in restaurants, where sommeliers can better guide consumers who wish to try Canadian wines?

Perhaps some of our readers might have some insights?

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

Related: Sweet Wines That Are Cool With Ice Cream

(Images: Mary Gorman-McAdams)

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Drinks, Canada, Travel, Wine

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.