Sophie's Glass

Last weekend I went to Montréal for the second time. The first time I flew; this time I drove in a silver Mustang convertible, a delightful though unasked for upgrade, up and up interstate 87 into Québec “je me souviens.” The drive to Québec from New York is about six or seven hours, and it takes the driver through the Hudson Valley and the Catskills, then through the Adirondacks, the Champlain Valley, and into Canada. The road opens up as you drive north to reveal the beautiful and unsullied Adirondack Mountains, and in the far reaches of upstate New York, Québecois stations become as frequent as American ones as you spin the radio dial, and “sortie” is printed below “exit” on the road signs.

My love affair with Montréal is about two years old and dates back to the day Martin Labelle walked into the wine store. Martin is a natural wine importer by night and an engineer by day. His company is called “Glou” (after the popular French expression for quaffable natural wines: “glou glou”), and he works with many producers that are familiar to us here in New York: Frank Cornelissen, Philippe Bornard, Angelino Maule, Eric Pfifferling, Thierry Allemand, Bruno Duchene, Jérôme Lenoir, to name just a few. Once I had met Martin, I quickly began to meet others: Cyril (also an importer) Jack (Martin’s partner and owner of Le Comptoir), Xavier (co-owner of Les Trois Petites Bouchons), their respective girlfriends and friends, all great tasters and excellent people.

I began to notice that many wine enthusiasts and industry types from Montréal pop into Chambers Street to pick out a pair of bottles to bring home. Canadian customs allows two bottles per person to cross the border, after which tax (generally 100% of the price of the wine) is applied. Conversations with Québecois wine people at Chambers Street typically turn to lamenting Canada’s strange booze laws, also the inability to create any kind of a market between Montréal and New York. All alcohol sales are state monitored in Québec. In fact my friends who “import” wine there aren’t actually importers, they are representatives. Technically the state is the importer and these intermediaries represent wine growers to the state. Bottles of wine as well as spirits must be purchased through the SAQ, whose outposts are ubiquitous, rarely with anything really good, though there will likely be at least one or two potable bottles on the shelf at the SAQ. Private sales are allowed for clients who have particular tastes, meaning that a customer can buy “direct” from an importer, but the sale must pass through the SAQ for tax purposes… and the client must pick up at their neighborhood SAQ.

In spite of what appear to be clear setbacks to the wine industry courtesy of the government, Montréal has a thriving food and wine scene and, after this recent visit, a notion began to grow within me that, for the way I like to eat and drink, they’re doing it better than we are in New York. It’s my sense that New York (Manhattan is clearly the chief offender) has an obsession with the high end side of dining and wine. Fine dining is a big deal here and you’ve only to scratch the surface of the New York wine business on social media to discover that sommeliers, buyers, bloggers, industry movers and shakers love to tweet and photograph and status update any rare or expensive bottle that comes their way. I’ve done it myself! Around the time of La Paulée of New York, I was on the verge of launching a personal tirade against this event and the pervasiveness of what I call “wine ballin,’” but I decided such a gesture would be an unnecessary act of “hateration” (to quote  Missy Elliot). I’m not complaining; I’m expressing a personal preference. I would like there to be more casual restaurants with really good lists that I can wander in to without a reservation to enjoy food and wine in a non-pretentious fashion with friends. I’d like there to be more than one natural wine bar in New York. Regardless of one’s feelings about “Natural Wines,” Bar à Vin culture, which originated in Paris and now thrives elsewhere, blurs the distinction between bar and restaurant in a way that is supremely lively and vibrant.

Of course New York dwellers tend to think of New York as the center of the universe and the ultimate east coast hub for interesting dining, which perhaps explains why so many Montréalers come to New York, and so few New Yorkers travel to Montréal. I’d like to expose this as an unfair exchange of wine luminaries. If you live in New York and you work in wine, especially euro-centric, “Natural” or natural-ish wine, get your ass up to Montréal and check out what these folks are doing! It’s more than just Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon!For those who haven’t been to Montréal, a quick word about the way the city feels: Montréal fosters a vibe that is at once European and North American. Many people are bilingual and the French spoken in Montréal is often peppered with English. One’s credit card malfunctioning at the super market can, for instance, be “fucké” or, even better “christé” (“christed”).  As I mentioned in my last post, a really special bottle of wine can be “fucking bon.” This melding of languages is apparent in every aspect of the city as one wanders down the Rue Sherbrooke past McGill University, looking at advertisements in French, listening to both languages, spoken with ease and fluency. The architecture of the city is, of course, not as old as that of a European city, and there’s a very North American penchant for exercise in Montéal. At the center of the city is a big park that holds the Mont Royal at its center. This park is ideal for jogging, cycling, etc… At the top, one commands a spectacular view of the city. On an unseasonably warm and windy Friday afternoon, I strolled up the Mont Royal and then spent the afternoon window shopping in the neighborhood called “Le Plateau.” Sadly I do not think Montréal is as advanced as we are in terms of specialty coffee and I had a sad Macchiato in a chess café before reporting to Le Comptoir for wine and food.Le Comptoir is a wine bar and restaurant outfitted in blond wood with its food menu displayed on a chalkboard above one large service station that is at once bar and kitchen. As its name suggests, the restaurant specializes in house made charcuterie, all of which is prepared in the basement of the restaurant. I arrived in advance of my friends, took a seat at the bar, and was at once handed a wine list by the kind and understated Jack Jacob. I pondered the list and Jack poured something in my glass, a rich, vibrant, and smoky Rosato of Primitivo from Guttarolo. It’s a natural feeling yet clean Puglian Rosato that, to my knowledge, has not been sold in New York before. I sipped my wine and bantered with Jack periodically gazing at the list and marveling that there was so much that I wanted to drink: verticals of Jean-Yves Péron both Champ Levat and Cote Pelée. I saw thoughtfully chosen natural wines from France, but also quite a few from the Italy, Spain, and the US. There were multiple cuvées from Clos Saron, for example. I finished my Rosato and Jack poured a taste of 2010 Clemens Busch Vom Roten Schiefer into my glass, as well-balanced and resonant a Riesling as I’ve tried, the red slate presenting itself in a mellow, burnished, and golden tone, buoyed up by a laser-like spine of acid. My friends began to arrive.

I can’t possibly recall everything we drank and ate, but there were some highlights, beginning with Laherte 2008 Autrefois, from old vine Pinot Meunier. This wine is incredibly crisp, crunchy, and long, highlighting the power of the vintage. With it we had a charcuterie platter, the specialité de la maison.There were beautiful salads, one of beets, one of crab. We drank an Australian Riesling served blind. Cyril and I convinced ourselves that it was a white wine from Santorini. As always, blind tasting is humbling. There was a Frantz Saumon “Minèral” Chenin Blanc that was quite lovely in its creamy, herbal, apply way. We had very good lobster and an intriguing dish (in the rear ground of the picture below) featuring ravioli and ceviche on the same plate and the same time. Honestly the wines were very good, the food excellent, but the company was truly superior and I found myself enjoying easy and amusing conversation most of all.We moved on to red wines, amongst them L’Anglore Pierre Chaude Grenache, which was so pure and spicy and succulent, it reminded me why I’d gone to great lengths to make the acquaintance of this shy and inspired vigneron, Eric Pfifferling, from Tavel in the southern Rhône. Martin recounted a story of wooing his girlfriend with Pfifferling on their first date. A wise choice! These wines have such delicate beauty for southern wines and so much overall distinctiveness that the best bottles are truly swoon-worthy. I’d be taken in by a man who opened L’Anglore on a first date and so would several other women I know!Of course our conscientious wine steward made sure to sample all bottles before pouring them for us. We spent a stint with an earthy, savory magnum of 2002 Calabretta Etna Rosso, a wine that smells and tastes of brushy Sicilian terrain, Nerello Mascallese, and old cellars. Since our evening was largely dominated by natural wines: juicy, aromatic, carbonic maceration stuff, this bottle showed a welcome, stately maturity, especially with perfectly prepared pork with baby root vegetables. The evening wore on and the clouds that had been threatening to open up all afternoon finally did, spilling forth their contents onto the street outside Le Comptoir. I found myself in a long conversation with Cyril about the possibility of setting up an exchange program between New York and Montréal wine folks — something along the lines of a small van that would ferry people back and forth between the two cities. What a fabulous idea! I was not, however, sober at the time and in the light of day this plan seemed slightly more difficult to execute than it had during the evening’s festivities.

A bottle of Duroux Patience materialized. This is a producer who is dear to us at Chambers Street Wines. From what I’ve heard, Ducroux is a shy and humble grower in Régnie who has been passionate about biodynamic vine growing and wine making for many years now. Initially I rebelled against the green and herbal flavors of these wines, but as an older drinker, I have come to love this quality as it’s charmingly born out on the palate in a kind of ethereal, green, slightly seedy, dark fruit note. Patience sees more élèvage than the other Ducroux wines and is deeper in color and more serious in structure than the other bottlings. It absolutely sang at Le Comptoir and came to symbolize the exquisite taste of my hosts there. I did learn in Montréal that a brisk walk up a mountain in the snow with a friend and a very happy dog can do much to relieve the sluggishness brought on by a late night of wine drinking. Unlike New York, where one must go to great lengths to find countryside, in Montréal the country is about half an hour outside the city, and it’s deep, satisfying countryside, not New Jersey. The south shore of Montréal is home to quite a few wonderful produits réginaux, ranging from goat cheese to venison pie to Maple Syrup to apple ciders. This was a favorite of mine; the two apple varieties in blend are listed at the bottom of the bottle. The apples have red flesh, which gives color to this sparkling Rosé, which was very lightly sweet along the lines of a Pet-Nat (but undoubtedly containing quite a bit more sulfur). I adore this city, and so will you! I’m standing by to offer recommendations…

7 responses to “Montréal: They’re Doing it Better than We Are!”

  1. Great post! For someone who’s lived in New York and goes there often to eat, I have to admit that we have an amazing food scene up here in Montreal. Next time you’re in town, please check out my map of independent cafés in Montreal, we do have some great ones and there’s no reason not to have a good cup of joe while you’re up here! 🙂

    • Sophie says:

      Hi Maysaam – Thanks for your comment! And good for you for going to Montreal to eat and drink! Do you come to Chambers Street Wines when you’re in NYC? If so, please introduce yourself! And thanks for the notes on cafés in Montreal of interest. Hopefully it won’t take me another year to get back to that great city.

      All the best,


  2. Henry says:

    Hi Sophie,

    I just read your excellent Montreal post. The restaurant and wine scene in this city has improved a great deal in the past 5 years, and much of the credit goes to importers like your friends at Glou. What we really need now is a better selection at the state-run SAQ wine stores. If we could get a fraction of the wines you have at Chambers Street, I would be a happy man.

    And I second Myriade… best coffee in the city!

    As for Joe Beef, Au Pied du Cochon, and that ilk, you’re right to pass them over. They do great business with the tourists, but they are not very interesting restaurants, serving a version of traditional Québécois fare, heavy, greasy, and overpriced.

  3. Francis says:

    Hello Sophie,

    First, let me say how much I am a fan of CSW. Every time I go to NYC, I glad to visit the shop and buy a few gems (Vatan, B. Mascarello, the Cotats, A. Clouet…) that are very difficult to find in Montreal, even through the private import channel.

    Thank you for your wonderfull post about Montreal. It’s true we have a healthy and exciting restaurant scene, which is more accessible (financialy speeking) than New York’s.

    I wanted to bring a different point of view concerning the diversity of wines available in regular SAQ shops around Québec. It is true a lot of good wines from small producers are only available through the private import channel, but there is still nearly 10 000 different wines available as we speak in SAQ stores.

    Just today, if I wanted, I could buy 10 different cuvees from Dönnhoff, 4 from FX Pichler, 3 from Alzinger, 4 from Domaine de Bellivière. I could buy Groleau by Clau de Nell. I could buy a Baudry Chinon, a Vouvray by Philippe Foreau or a Larmandier-Bernier or Egly-Ouriet Champagne! A Pinot Meunier by Françoise Bedel? Sure!

    Of course, all of these products are not available in every outpost, but usually concentrated in a few special ones. You have to know where to shop.

    Hope to see you in one of my next trip to NYC! Cheers!

  4. Henry says:

    I didn’t mean to say we in Montreal are totally devoid of interesting wines from the state monopoly. There are numerous good bottles to be had, as Francis points out, scattered throughout the system (the SAQ’s website is a big help). But the vast majority of the 10,000 wines are, *ahem*, plonk. Using Champagne as an example, it is only recently that Larmandier-Bernier, Egly-Ouriet, Bedel, and Billiot have been available on the SAQ shelves (as of last week we can add Cédric Bouchard to the list). Starting some 30 years ago when I first shopped at the SAQ, until about 5 years ago, it was an endless monotony of Cordon Rouge, Brut Impérial, White Foil, etc. However, I should temper my complaint, in France too most wine shops carry almost exclusively the big Champagne brands. The public gets what the public wants. But the situation improves every year, and much of the credit goes to the importers and restaurants you write about. But I’m an impatient bastard, I want a Chambers Street or a Mi-Fugue Mi-Raisin (a wonderfully weird half wine, half music shop) in Montreal now!

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