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Simultaneously embraced by oenophiles who rave about their enhanced drinkability and disparaged by others who can’t stand their rustic flavours, so-called natural wines have become one of the hottest – and more controversial – topics in the food and wine world of late. As divisive as they may be, though, one thing that sommeliers, consultants, critics, importers and other experts do agree on is this: There have never been so many different, interesting and downright and fun wines to try in Montreal.

Outside of Paris, Canada’s second-largest city is one of the few places to have truly embraced les vin naturels, roughly defined as wine made from grapes that are farmed organically or biodynamically and harvested manually. Ideally, the wine should be made without adding or removing anything during the vinification process. The result is wine characterized by its low alcohol content, minuscule amount of sulfates, zero oak flavour, light turbidity and minimalist bottle design.

Alexandre Boily of Ward & Associates, a Montreal-based importer, estimates that such wines have found their way onto the wine lists of at least 125 restaurants across the island. A dozen or so establishments focus more or less exclusively on the category.

Sommelier and partner Vanya Filipovic at Le Vin Papillon/Photos by Christinne Muschi

Throughout human history, the organic/manual way is essentially how wine was made, although today the practice represents only 1.6 per cent of global wine production. The process was largely abandoned during the 1970s, when advances in viticultural science enabled winemakers to consistently meet uniform standards. Consequently, only a few small producers continue to make wine the “traditional” way.

France, Italy, Austria and the Republic of Georgia (considered the birthplace of wine) lead the way in the production and consumption of natural wine. A new generation of Australian and Californian winemakers is slowly stepping into the fold as well. Due to their small output, however, most bars and restaurants on this side of the Atlantic receive only a handful of bottles from the most renowned natural vineyards.

“Not many restaurants work hard on natural wine, but they’re not ignoring it either,” Boily says. “It is starting to be accepted as wine by more and more people – and not just as a philosophical idea.”

Here, if you live in or are visiting Montreal, is where you should start:

Le Vin Papillon

Since opening 16 months ago, Le Vin Papillon has quickly made a name for itself as a wine lover’s go-to. A true “hole in the wall,” the unpretentious wine bar seats only 25 people on a first-come, first-serve basis, meaning you had better get here early if you plan on snagging a table. Located in Little Burgundy, Le Vin Papillon joins Joe Beef and Liverpool House – both only a few doors away – as the latest entry in chefs David McMillan and Fred Morin’s growing empire.

The wine list, compiled by veteran sommelier and partner Vanya Filipovic, emphasizes French wines, but also features an impressive selection from Eastern Europe. “These are vegetarian nerd wines times 10, a true thinking man’s wine,” says McMillan. “It’s what the Romans drank.” For the most part, you won’t recognize a thing, so sit back, relax and let Filipovic lead the way. You’re in very capable hands.

Try: Arbois Pupillin, Chardonnay 2011, Maison Pierre Overnoy

One of Jura’s cult wineries, this wine is nearly impossible to find even in Paris. “Pierre Overnoy is like the Dalai Lama of wine for me and I seek out his wines more than any others,” Filipovic says. “It really embodies the patience of a good natural winemaker – not about trends, not about style, just something you can feel in the glass. It’s hard to describe this wine because it’s so emotional.”

Le Vin Papillon, located at 2519 Notre– Dame Street West, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 3 p.m. to 12 a.m.

Alep

Upon descending into the cellar of Alep, it’s impossible not to feel like Ali Baba stumbling across his legendary den of gold. After all, who might think that a restaurant known for its kebabs and mezze could possess one of the most extensive wine collections in the city, too?

Since taking over the wine program four years ago, sommelier Alain Paillassard has steadily increased the amount of natural wines, which now make up a third of the cellar’s 9,000-bottle capacity. All this space allows Paillassard to age his wines for years. Best of all? Prices are extremely reasonable. A 2005 Ciel Liquide by the well-respected grower Jean– Philippe Padié is available for an astonishingly cheap $13.50 per glass.

Try: Bianco Dell’Emilia IGP, La Bora Lunga 2012, Cinque Campi

An orange wine, La Bora Lunga is produced on a small, family-run winery that has been passed down the generations for more than 200 years. Aged in a 16th-century stone cellar and composed from Spergola grapes – a varietal indigenous to Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy – this medium-bodied wine has notes of melon, prune, orange flower and a touch of damp earth. “The longer skin contact gives the wine very fine tannins,” says Paillassard. “It’s very expressive and fruity. For a white wine, it matches well with meat, especially lamb.”

Alep is located at 199 Jean-Talon Street East and is open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. from Thursdays to Saturdays.

Pullman

Long before natural wines were in vogue (and with a wine list that was politely described as “awkward” within the inner circles of Montreal’s wine scene), there was Pullman. This natural-wine pioneer on the edge of the Plateau recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and attracts a diverse crowd ranging from business parties to first dates. The voluminous wine list features multiple cuvées by the same grower, providing a great overview of a producer’s work. The affordable trios are a fun way to sample particular categories, such as orange wines. The secret to Pullman’s success? Education.

“We often hold seminars between winemakers and our staff so that they can be touched by the energy of the wine and can then make our customers understand the precision of the work,” says owner Véronique Dalle. “In any field, people appreciate something a lot more when they understand the process.”

“This isn’t a classic Burgundy,” says Dalle. “It’s not overextracted and there isn’t a lot of wood. I haven’t tasted a pinot noir that has such tension between minerality and power for a long time. The texture is tight, but round at the same time. Aromatically, it’s still a baby, but on the palate it delivers notes of black tea, ripe cherries and a hint of long pepper. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous wine.”

Try: Saint-Romain, Sous Roche 2012, Domaine de Chassorney

Pullman, located at 3424 Park Avenue, is open from 4:30 p.m. to 12 a.m. from Sundays to Tuesdays and from 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. from Wednesdays to Saturdays.

Natural-wine officianado Simone Chevalot at Buvette Chez Simone

Buvette Chez Simone

As far as wine bars go, the atmosphere at Buvette Chez Simone is surprisingly relaxed. Paint-stripped tavern chairs and dinged-up tables give the place a rustic, chalet-like vibe. Many tables are cut in a T

shape, bringing patrons closer together for an added level of intimacy. The bar, perched like an island in the centre of the room, is flanked by rows upon rows of wine glasses dangling overhead. Refurbished wooden planks line the floor, while two massive chalkboards display the evening’s libations, all chosen by owner and namesake Simone Chevalot. About 20 wines are available by the glass, split evenly between reds and whites, with prices starting at only $6.

Try: Sancerre, Les Culs de Beaujeu 2012, François Cotat

“More people are starting to view wine as a stand-alone drink, so I’ve noticed that whites are becoming more popular,” says Chevalot. This wine, a sauvignon blanc from Sancerre, is noted for it chalky minerality and glycerin-like texture. The nose is sultry and deep, with smoky incense notes. The mouth shows ripe white fruits with lots of citrus influence. It pairs beautifully with oysters.

Buvette Chez Simone, at 4869 Park Avenue, is open seven days a week from 4 p.m. to 3 a.m.

Lawrence

This understated, vaguely retro Brit-centric restaurant is one of a string of natural-wine havens located on St. Laurent Boulevard. Sommelier Lainie Taillefer arrived at the cozy 40– seat establishment after a stint at Antidote Wine Bar in London. She has assembled a wine list that is concise but dense. Describing herself as “super picky,” Taillefer spends much of her free time getting to know natural-wine producers in order to procure the cuvées she wants. On one of her recent trips to France and Germany, she visited 25 vineyards in 25 days.

“I don’t understand how you can be a sommelier and never put two feet on the soil,” she says. “It’s important to meet these people and let them know you’re a fan of their work.”

Try: Murgia IGP, Susumaniello 2012, Cristiano Guttarolo

“This is an amazing wine because it’s so complex. It has a nice acidity, with notes of earth, cherries and dead leaves. Due to its freshness and minerality, it’s one of my go-to wines whenever a group orders widely across the menu,” Taillefer says. The wine is also made from one of the world’s rarest wine grapes, Susumaniello, grown exclusively in Puglia.

Lawrence, located at 5201 St. Laurent Boulevard, is open from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. from Tuesdays to Saturdays and for brunch between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Hotel Herman

This two-year-old venue is where chefs go on their nights off – always a good sign – and you’ll be hard pressed to find a more dynamic wine list anywhere in the city. A rotating cast of five whites and five reds is available by the glass every week, as is the chance to discover rare varietals from unusual origins.

Try: Schilcher Frizzante NV, Strohmeier

Schilcher is a traditional rosé produced in the Styrian region of southern Austria using the red grape Blauer Wildbacher. Fermented using an ancient method known as pétillant naturel – affectionately called “pet nats” by fans – this bottle is not your typical sparkling wine. Easily distinguishable by their crown caps, pet nats are made by bottling the wine before the grapes’ natural sugars have disintegrated. The residual sugar is subsequently fermented a second time within the bottle, forming carbon dioxide. “This wine is wild,” says Marie Joelle Duchesne, Hotel Herman’s acting sommelier. “The Strohmeiers just let the vines grow all over the place. It has a lovely deepcopper colour and is dry, but with a crisp acidity. The nose is minty and on the palate it’s very herbaceous with notes of strawberries, cranberries and licorice. The bubbles aren’t super strong, but they’re persistent. It’s everything a natural wine should be: easy, quaffable and fun!”

Hotel Herman, located at 5171 St. Laurent Boulevard, is open six days a week (it’s closed on Tuesdays) from 5 p.m. to 12 a.m.

Alex Landry serves unfiltered wine at Le Vin Papillon

Le Comptoir Charcuteries et Vins

The premise at this establishment is deceptively simple: counter meats and wine. While the former receives most of the attention, the latter is no less exceptional. Now in its fourth year, Le Comptoir quickly morphed into a neighbourhood favourite and continues to be packed nightly. The decor – a blend of wood, brick and slate – provides a festive yet refined atmosphere.

While almost all the wines served are natural, Le Comptoir operates very much in the 21st century. Active on Facebook and Twitter, it provides customers with regular updates about special events, such as the opportunity to meet winemakers. Last month, for instance, Nicolas Renaud of the southern Rhône region dropped by for a visit.

Try: Côtes Catalanes VDP, Calice 2012, Jean-Philippe Padié

“This is one of the first bottles that introduced me to the world of natural wines and it remains one of my favourites,” says sommelier and co-owner Laurence Michèle Dufour. Grown along the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees, Padié wines are especially known for their freshness. Light-bodied, slightly carbonated and made from Carignan grapes, this one has sweet tannins that lend it depth and grip.

Le Comptoir Charcuteries et Vins, located at 4807 St. Laurent Boulevard, is open seven days a week from 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. (and from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday as well as 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. for brunch on Sunday).

Honourable Mentions

Les Trois Petits Bouchons, Montreal

Le Salle à Manger, Montreal

Le Moine Échanson, Quebec City

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