“Is it open yet?” “I can’t wait to try it.” “I hope it will work!” That’s what the locals said when I told them I had travelled to the Magdalen Islands to visit its first winery, Le Domaine des Salanges. Viticulture is an ambitious new venture for this isolated part of maritime Quebec, known en français as Îles de la Madeleine, an archipelago of eight islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They sit north of Prince Edward Island, and kind of look like it too, with sandy cliffs that tower above 300 kilometres worth of beautiful beaches and the waves of the Atlantic.
It is a tiny part of the province – you can drive from one end to the other of the main land mass in about an hour and 10 minutes – and yet, when many tourists visit, they spend, on average, 10 days here, gallery hopping, cycling, fishing or bird watching. Mostly, they eat and drink, and if Le Domaine des Salanges succeeds, the area’s appeal among epicureans and oenophiles will likely skyrocket.
The food community on the Magdalen Islands is intricately linked. “Some farmers go directly to chefs at restaurants to ask what ingredients they’re looking for and farm accordingly,” says Caroline Jomphe, assistant director of Le Bon goût frais des Îles de la Madeleine, the local association of food producers. Last year marked the 25th anniversary of Le Bon goût frais, and the second season for Saveurs Food Trail, which Jomphe describes as a tour of traditional dishes from the area. The route takes you from end to end visiting 24 producers and eateries.
There’s Le Fumoir d’Antan on Havre-aux-Maisons, a smokehouse that’s run by the Arseneau family and specializes in smoked herring, a craft the clan has perfected over three generations. L’Arbre à Pains, a recently opened bakery with a knack for artisanal breads, delivers fresh baked goods around the islands from its base in Cap-aux-Meules. Baker Guillaume Brochu and pastry chef Anne-Marie Cérat use local ingredients such as beets, zucchini, lavender, dune pepper and blackcurrant in their breads and desserts. And Le Verger Poméloi, on Havre Aubert Island, the islands’ only orchard, makes a collection of ciders, including the semi-dry sparkling L’Escarbille and Le P’tit Bois, a fruity aperitif with hints of maple.
It’s just up the road from the orchard, in Bassin, that you’ll find Le Domaine des Salanges. It’s an unassuming winery, hidden atop a hill on the southern end of the island chain. The terrain here is different than the rest of the archipelago – wooded, hilly, sheltered somewhat from the wind off the water, which in winter can be strong. It is, as its owner, Laurence-Olivier Brossard, has discovered, optimal for planting grapevines. And he is betting that the terroir will produce memorable wine.
During my visit last summer, Brossard, who along with learning wine making in Burgundy has also studied woodworking and horticulture, was in the midst of completing a tasting room for visitors, and putting the finishing touches on a garden area for indigenous plants and vegetables. “My dream is to have an agritourism experience that fills all the senses,” he says. “So visitors can see what les Îles de la Madeleine are about.”
After a soft launch last fall, the winery will welcome visitors for the first time this year. Its first bottles have been 12 years in the making. The land was originally forest that had to be cleared. “The soil was very acidic because of the trees,” Brossard says. He removed all of them himself, clearing the soil and prepping it for grape vines. He then planted 8,000 Baltica vines – “It was a one-shot deal,” he says – a grape he discovered on a trip to Latvia.
Despite being situated in a micro climate on the islands – because of the cover provided by the surrounding trees, the temperature is 4 to 5 degrees higher here than on the coast – Brossard was looking for a vine that could withstand temperatures of -40 C. Baltica is known as a rosé grape, with red skin and white flesh. It’s harvested earlier in the season and is compatible with the light, temperature and soil conditions of this very specific locale.
“I can’t think of a wine region like this anywhere else in the world. Seventy-five per cent of the wind comes from the west,” he says. “But four or five feet down under the soil is clay, so the vines get minerality from that. And there are lots of rocks that keep the vines warm.”
Brossard has already had some notable visitors at the winery, including Bordeaux-trained oenologist Sébastien Vicaire, who’s worked with wineries across Canada, and Élyse Lambert, a Montreal-based master sommelier. It was by chance that Lambert found the winery during her visit last June. Word got out that a sommelier was on the islands and, after a couple of calls, someone drove her out to Le Domaine des Salanges.
When she tasted the wine, she says she felt optimistic. “I’m very careful about giving comments on wine before it is completely finished. But overall I thought it was interesting,” she says. “If you want to grow grapes in that area, you have to grow something that is very robust. I’m talking not about the taste of the grapes but the tree itself, so it’s interesting,” she says. “It was my first time trying it and I think it’s something I would have liked to drink, so of course that’s a good start.”
When it’s time for me to do my own sampling, Brossard steals a small pour from the tank and we sip. It has a peppery initial hit, which softens at the back of the mouth. “You feel it at the side of the tongue. After, it’s a nice vanilla with orange and grapefruit citrus notes at the end,” he says.
There was initially debate about whether the family would go ahead with the winery, and though Brossard is the only one who lives full time on the island, his siblings and parents eventually came around and have helped whenever and wherever they can, travelling from mainland Quebec to tend to the vines, which his father does on summer vacations, or assist with the marketing and business strategy, which his sisters Audrey and Annabelle tackle. In the end though, Le Domaine des Salanges is Brossard’s responsibility.
“It’s family work and everybody is bringing their colour. It’s very nice,” says Brossard. “For sure it was hard at the beginning to have all that on my shoulders, but to do that, and to have the view of les Îles de la Madeleine, is worth it."
Maryam Siddiqi travelled to the Magdalen Islands as a guest of Tourisme Quebec. The organization did not review or approve this article prior to publication.
L’ARBRE A PAINS
This boulangerie and patisserie is located close to the ferry to PEI, so it’s easy to stock up on baguettes and croissants as you arrive (and depart).
AUBERGE CHEZ DENIS A FRANCOIS
To stay close to Le Domaine des Salanges winery, book into this traditional guesthouse with its charming yellow façade.
Room rates start at $100 by calling 418-937-2371.
LA BUTTE RONDE
An old school building has been converted into this quaint bed and breakfast, with five en suite bedrooms and a location close to Pointe-Basse beach.
Room rates start at $120 through labutteronde.com.
LE DOMAINE DES SALANGES
Laurence-Olivier Brossard’s winery is aiming to launch the Magdalen Islands’ wine scene and will also offer agritourism opportunities.
DOMAINE DU VIEUX COUVENT
An old convent has been converted into this landmark hotel, located right on the coast in Havre-aux-Maisons.
Room rates start at $155 through domaineduvieuxcouvent.com.
LE FUMOIR D’ANTAN
A specialty in the islands since the 19th century, smoked herring consumption declined due to overfishing in the 1970s but has since become popular again.
LE VERGER POMÉLOI
Sparkling cider, a form of mead called Chouchen and the brandy blend Poméloi are all offered at this island orchard.
Both Air Canada and regional carrier Pascan fly direct to the Magdalen Islands via Montreal and Quebec City respectively. A car ferry also connects to Souris on Prince Edward Island. For more information, visit tourismeilesdelamadeleine.com.