The team behind Quebec winery Les Pervenches explains how their biodynamic product has succeeded with chardonnay in the province's cold climes
Véronique Hupin and Michael Marler met in the early 1990s as teenagers more interested in beer and chicken wings than wine and cheese. Good thing, too, because they met at 25-cent wing night.
Today, they're not just wine lovers but the married team behind the trailblazing Quebec winery Les Pervenches. Located in Farnham, a small town an hour's drive east of Montreal, their winery is celebrated for its naturally made organic and biodynamic wines, especially its elegant expressions of chardonnay. This is particularly notable because Quebec's cold winters make it difficult to grow traditional wine-making grapes, such as chardonnay. Somehow, Les Pervenches has made it a specialty.
The Globe and Mail recently sat down with Hupin to find out how the couple became unlikely pioneers in Quebec's wine-making scene.
When did you get interested in wine making?
In 1995, Mike was studying agricultural economics at McGill and he went on exchange to Toulouse, France. Before he left, Mike said, "I'm kind of worried, the French always drink wine and I really don't like wine." When I got there a month later, he was in the wine club. From then on, we knew this is what we wanted to do.
How did you choose to make wine in Quebec?
The first plan was not to have a vineyard in Quebec. We went to South America first, but after six months we realized it wasn't going to work. We couldn't even find a job. We were ready to work for free and learn, but nobody wanted to hire us. We came back and decided to look for land near my family's farm in Bromont. I planned to work in Montreal to make money to get the business started while Mike would be slaving on the future vineyard.
My mom came across an ad in the local paper for Les Pervenches and it all happened quickly from there. We signed April 30, 2000, and took possession of the property July 1. Mike worked with the previous owner for the two months in between. After that, we never saw him again.
Where did you learn to make wine?
Lots of books, lots of work. When we started, we basically took over what the previous owner was doing. We used a lot of chemicals on our land. Mike had been to agricultural schools and that's what he had learned. He never learned organic agriculture, but we started getting interested in organics and biodynamics and slowly switched beginning in 2004. Eventually, we switched over entirely and got certified organic in 2007, and biodynamic in 2008.
A couple years later, sommeliers in Montreal started to talk to us about natural wine. They kept pushing us. We almost got upset with them. They pushed us to go further, to research, to go back to France to taste natural wine. We realized natural wines were different. They were lighter and fruitier and just made us say, 'Oh, I can drink more of that.'
Natural wine is booming in Montreal, so why are you one of the few local wine makers working in that style?
It's not that easy. For the wine to be natural, you have to have life on your grapes. If you've been spraying your vineyard all summer long and there's no life in your soil, it wouldn't make sense. I don't see how you'd have the natural yeasts for fermentation.
The trick is to have premium natural grapes and to find the perfect harvest parameters – a balance between acidity, sugar and ripeness. Then it's all about confidence in your grapes and terroir. When we say our wine is natural, it's because there's absolutely nothing added during the wine making.
You also have to like natural wine. If your goal is to sell 50,000 bottles through the Société des alcools du Québec [SAQ, the provincial liquor board], you're not going to go natural. A lot of people are still not used to the taste – they still look for tannins, for stronger, darker, fuller wines.
What's been most challenging about making wine in Quebec?
It's the winter. When we bought the vineyard, the first thing the owner told us was that we'd need to rip out the chardonnay vines since they didn't produce enough fruit. Chardonnay was one of the reasons we bought the vineyard, so we decided to figure out how to get grapes on those vines.
Vines are traditionally buried for winter, but with chardonnay the buds would just rot under the earth. We did a lot of experimenting and changed everything. Eventually, we started using geotextiles, a cloth designed for agriculture that we use jointly with hay in order to to cover the vines in the winter and protect them from the cold. Pretty quickly then, around 2003, we really learned how to grow chardonnay. Chardonnay is what really helped us get started. We like it and everybody likes it. We never have enough.
What other grapes do you work with?
We really wanted to focus on just a few main varietals. Chardonnay for the white, as well as seyval. We planted zweigelt for the red, and more recently pinot noir. We also just planted a bit of pinot gris.
Still, we're always doing new things in the winery. Last year, we tried some slower fermentation in egg-shaped tanks, we used some acacia barrels instead of oak, we did more skin-contact fermentations. We have a bunch of smaller production cuvées, even bubbles.
Is the winery growing?
When we first took over we made about 6,000 to 7,000 bottles a year and now we're at about 17,000. We've increased slowly because we like to do it ourselves, but we're probably moving toward 20,000 bottles.
We always said we'd go to 20,000 and not more, but there's a new law allowing Quebec wineries to sell directly to grocery stores without going through the SAQ. Because of this, when you walk into most grocery stores in Quebec, there's now a big aisle full of local wine. We're not going to jump on that train yet because we don't have enough wine, but it definitely opens another avenue. It's always good to make more wine, but you have to be able to sell it.
Your wines regularly sell out and you're on the list at many of Quebec's best restaurants, so how does it feel to see your wines so well received?
If you had asked us 15 years ago where we'd be today, I don't think we could have imagined. We do what we love, people love what we do, what more could you ask for? I think we have the perfect life.
Of course, some days are not as nice. Today, I'm filing income taxes and Mike's outside picking up hay in the rain, but I'm sure he's still happy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Les Pervenches wines are available for purchase at the winery from mid-June until Thanksgiving. 150 Chemin Boulais, Farnham, Que., 450-293-8311, lespervenches.com.