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Food & Wine Vine to table: Canadian restaurateurs are taking a deep dive into the world of natural wine

At Montreal restaurant Elena, named after trailblazing natural winemaker Elena Pantaleoni, an opportunity to close the gap between vine and table came about when staff were invited to help with harvest at nearby organic and biodynamic winery Les Pervenches.

Dominique Lafond

Wine curiosity is on the up and up. With more variety than ever, it’s a great time to get geeky about what we’re drinking, and chances are it’s natural wine. Sustainably farmed with organic and biodynamic tendencies (biodynamic agriculture is a farming methodology in tune with the rhythm of nature), these are wines that are vinified with minimal intervention. They used to be the exception on Canadian wine lists 10 years ago, but now they’re being served in restaurants all over the country. Even the top three picks from enRoute magazine’s best new Canadian restaurants this past year, The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette in Ontario’s Niagara region, and Montreal’s Vin Mon Lapin and Elena, all favour minimal intervention wine.

Minimal intervention (also called low intervention) means no fining or filtration, no chemistry or chemicals, just grapes, fermented with their natural yeasts, aged and bottled. What makes this so appealing – and exciting – is that no two bottles or vintages are alike. Natural wine is alive: It has a sense of place and time, but also an adventurous and vibrant spirit. This is what makes it so much fun. It’s high risk to make, but high reward when all the elements align.

It’s also giving a growing number of restaurant industry professionals an opportunity to offer a unique beverage that fits in with their farm-to-table ethos: What we’re drinking, where it comes from, how it’s made and what goes into the process is a natural extension of restaurants noting the source of their produce and meats on their menus. People want to know about the individuals involved and the stories behind the product they’re consuming.

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Ryan Gray, co-owner of Montreal restaurants Elena and Nora Gray, says 'Brutal' wines 'aren't perfect, but they're delicious.'

Dominique Lafond

“Just like any chef would want to go visit a farm that grows certain produce he or she favours, we’re visiting the wineries on our list, spending time with the winemakers, learning about their wines and even helping with harvest season,” says Ryan Gray, co-owner of Montreal restaurants Elena and Nora Gray, both natural-wine havens.

For Vanya Filipovic, wine director of Joe Beef in Montreal and co-owner and wine director of its sister restaurants, Mon Lapin and Vin Papillon, this sense of connection between product, producer and consumer is something she’s been invested in since the early days of the pioneering restaurant. Her sense of curiosity, discovery and intuition for what people want to drink, lead her to create Vin Dame-Jeanne, her own wine importation company and a direct reflection of her passion for natural wine.

“Dame-Jeanne has given me such an intimate look at certain producers and regions,” she says. “Today, it represents over 60 domains, a collection of friendships and coup de coeurs collected over the last 10 or so years.”

At Elena, aptly named after trailblazing natural winemaker Elena Pantaleoni of La Stoppa vineyard in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, an opportunity to close the gap between vine and table came about at nearby organic and biodynamic winery Les Pervenches when the staff were invited to help with harvest.

Located in Farnham, Que., about 45 minutes from Montreal, the winery is known for their high-quality, more traditional wines, but owners Michael Marler and Véronique Hupin were also experimenting with more unconventional ones, such as their Deli-5. A combination of all the juice leftover in the bottom of the wine barrels after harvest, Deli-5 was a weird blend in the style of a ‘Brutal’ (which loosely means “hip” or “cool”), a very fashionable, natural, sulphur-free wine that originated in Spain.

The 'Chingón' Cuvee Elena is a funky and unfiltered mix of red and whites.

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“Brutal wines have no set designation or rules. They aren’t perfect, but they’re delicious, and exciting to drink,” Gray says. So when he sampled some of Marler’s juice from last year, Gray had a vision of what it could become: the very first Elena cuvee, and something made with the same approach as the Deli-5.

The end result is a wild, funky, unfiltered mix of whites and reds that fit right in with the profile of the wines at Elena – natural and fun. “We wanted it to reflect us and our spirit and place, something special that both Elena and Les Pervenches could be proud of and share,” Gray says. And so “Chingon” Cuvee Elena, Les Pervenches, 2018 was born, bottled and will be ready to drink come spring.

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This idea of collaboration works both ways. Toronto chef and restaurateur Grant van Gameren, who has his hands in eight restaurants (including Bar Raval, Bar Isabel and Rosalinda) and a catering business, owns a luxury rental property in Prince Edward County, Cressy House. Situated on two and a half hectares of land, it’s also home to about 500 Chardonnay vines, which his friend Jonas Newman, natural sparkling winemaker (also known as pét nats) and owner of Hinterland winery, is helping harvest and transform. “We’re basically doing spontaneous fermentation with neutral barrels, but it’s early days, so we’re still trying to get a sense of the grapes and then make choices based on that,” van Gameren says. And although, he’s just starting to learn about winemaking, van Gameren says he hopes to one day match the quality of this wine to the ones being served at his restaurants.

For Filipovic, this handful of like-minded industry professionals going deeper into the process of selecting, selling, serving and even helping to produce the wines is a positive movement towards a totally different way of considering what we’re drinking. “There’s more want, more wine, and more curiosity and more information than ever before,” he says. “This is a very exciting time.”

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