How Montreal became the natural-wine capital of Canada

The natural wine salon arrived on the Montreal scene last year with a splash. The 2019 edition adds an extra day and welcomes more local and international winemakers.

Valeriane Pare, left, and Julie Audette of Le Vin dans les Voiles are private wine importers specializing in low-intervention wines. Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

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RAW WINE intends to outdo itself.

The natural wine salon that opened in London in 2012 was a hit when it arrived in Montreal last year. The 2019 edition adds an extra day and welcomes more local and international winemakers to pour samples of hundreds of what RAW founder Isabelle Legeron calls “living wines from living soil.”

The tasting salon takes place in only a handful of cities around the world and has become the highlight of the year for many natural wine lovers, both professional and otherwise, who’ll flock from New York, Quebec City, Boston and Toronto to join locals at Salon Richmond Oct. 24 and 25.

Montreal is the only RAW destination in Canada and among only three in North America — the others are New York and Los Angeles. (Toronto is the only potential future Canadian option, Legeron says.) While large cities like New York and San Francisco sell more natural wine in total, Montreal is the North American capital of natural wine in terms of the total number of restaurants and bars in which to drink it.

Natural wine producers from Legeron’s other fairs tipped her off to Montreal’s booming import scene. Yet she was surprised by how big natural wine is here when she first visited in 2018, at the urging of private wine importer Julie Audette of Le Vin dans les Voiles. Name a recently opened upscale restaurant in Montreal — Vin Mon Lapin, McKiernan, Un po’ di Più, Pastel, Le Mousso, Poincaré, Dandy and Vinvinvin — and it probably has natural wine on the menu.

Legeron was particularly impressed given the SAQ monopoly on wine sales. “I think it tells a lot about people like Julie, who are doing an incredible job. The importers are the real unsung heroes of the Montreal wine scene,” Legeron says.

Montreal Gazette wine columnist Bill Zacharkiw described natural wines last year as low-intervention, meaning winemakers avoid doing anything to change the end result, such as adding enzymes for flavour or using reverse osmosis or spinning cones to increase alcohol concentration. They also adhere to a charter of quality and keep sulphite additions to less than 70 parts per million (ppm), though most stay under 50 ppm, Legeron says. The wines are often biodynamic — a type of farming that follows lunar cycles — and organic, though they aren’t necessarily certified organic. “If they’re not certified, they have to be recommended by people we know and trust,” Legeron says. “And they can only show the wines made with organic grapes” at RAW.

Filmmaker David Eng of the documentary Grand Cru says, “Natural wine is a reaction to highly manipulated industrial winemaking techniques and to the uniformly big, ripe, oaky, high-alcohol style favoured by American critics.” It’s also generally lighter, more food-friendly and more environmentally conscious, he adds, attributes that are attracting different demographics of wine drinkers.

Why are these wines particularly popular in Montreal? Legeron’s theory is that the city has a strong wine culture and general appreciation of gastronomy thanks to its French connection. While wine has long been produced naturally, “natural wine” as a movement started in wine bars in Paris in the 1980s. Now, every Parisian street has a wine bar where you can drink natural wine, Legeron says. Montreal followed the same path. First wine bars, then natural wine bars.

“Growth has been phenomenal in the past couple of years,” says importer Julie Audette, who uses buzzwords including “conscious drinking.” She credits sommeliers and restaurant owners for their curiosity and support, much like those who’ve encouraged sake imports in the province.

The shift is clear, says Audette, especially among younger drinkers. “I think people are interested to try new, adventurous products that are redefining the rules of this industry. They are interested to know more about the winemakers or about grapes they’ve never heard of before. And the wines are so tasty.”

Montrealer Doug Slobod is a recent convert to natural wines. “I don’t think they are overrated. I now tend to shun conventional wine as ‘boring’ in terms of the flavour profiles I have come to find and appreciate in natural wines,” he says.

Montrealers are also particularly open to imported wines, since Quebec’s local production is relatively small, Audette says. “When you go to France, you mostly get wines from France on wine lists. In Montreal, you have everything.”

While Quebec’s Les Pervenches and Domaine Bergeville will be among the Quebec producers at this year’s salon, the majority of winemakers will be from abroad, from established natural-wine-producing areas including France, Spain and Italy, and up-and-coming ones, like Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Georgia and the Czech Republic.

According to sommelier Christopher Sealy of Toronto’s Alobar, a finalist for enRoute Magazine’s Canada’s Best New Restaurants 2019, “Montreal consumers have more advanced experience and awareness of what natural and biodynamic wines are all about.” But Toronto is catching up. A few years ago, there was more resistance and debate among Toronto sommeliers, but now, natural, biodynamic and low-intervention wines are a pre-requisite for new Toronto wine lists, says Sealy, much as they have been in Montreal for a number of years.

While the Toronto options are increasing, Sealy feels the selection in Montreal is greater or at least more focused on quality. Torontonians “will often ask for ‘funky’ wines, which may include some ‘faulted’ wine,” he says. One standard objection to natural wines is that some have a “mousy flavour,” says filmmaker David Eng. “Mousiness” is a flaw, but “earthiness,” which some refer to as a “farm smell,” is not, he adds. “All good wines become earthy when aged properly.” The trick for consumers is to understand the difference, especially when the definition of a flaw can change.

“Bubbles in wine used to be a flaw, but when they learned how to control it in Champagne, it became its own style,” Eng says.

Not everyone’s sold on natural wine yet, especially outside urban centres, Legeron says. The growers who attend RAW often have to export because their local restaurants aren’t interested. “Some people are still very narrow-minded. It’s incredible how many people still want to drink what they think wine is. They’re not really open to different styles. And [the local restaurants] are not prepared necessarily to fight for it,” she says.

Fortunately, here in Montreal, sommeliers no longer need to step into the ring over a natural wine’s place on a list. And should there be any disagreements, they’re more likely to talk it out with a round at the bar, probably over a glass of something juicy, fault-free and maybe a little earthy — something that reflects the terroir and the “living soil” whence it came.

Raw Wine Montreal takes place Oct. 24 and 25, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Salon Richmond 1861, 550 Richmond St. Advance tickets are $70 for one day or $110 for both days.