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Wine, Deconfined

Vignoble Les Pervenches on winemaking in Quebec and rediscovering centre in uncertain times.

Text — Jonah Campbell
Photos — Eliane Cadieux

A few years ago I found myself at a BYO Cambodian restaurant in Montréal with a couple of wine jerk friends, getting up to the usual wine jerk stuff: dressing oysters with vin jaune, playing Georgian orange wine off fried chicken and beef tendon stew, stumping one another with blinded bottles, and generally making insufferable Instagram menaces of ourselves. One wine, however, stands out for me still.

Poured blind by a friend, it was cloudy and luminescent in the glass, full of red fruits and a wild vitality—unmistakably pinot noir, we all agreed, but elusive, difficult to pin down a geographic origin. Better palates than mine thought of placing it in Burgundy, but it would’ve had to be one of the region’s more unruly natural producers; another suggested a much-beloved, highly-allocated winemaker in Alsace. Wherever it hailed from, it was lovely and wild and fine. I had an inkling, but stayed mum.

The wine, unveiled, turned out to be no declassified outsider Côte-de-nuits or cult Alsatian songbird, but an unlabelled bottle of pinot noir from Vignoble Les Pervenches, not more than an hour’s drive from where we sat.

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Turns out, I had guessed right for maybe the fifth time in my life, and I was dazzled but not dumbfounded, because it was not the first time I had encountered the wine. I had been dazzled before, and would be again.

***

Mike Marler and Véronique Hupin took over Les Pervenches in 1998, at a time when Québec undoubtedly had a wine scene, but not one that could be called particularly distinguished, storied, or exciting.

The province’s long winters and short growing season were not considered felicitous to fine wine production, particularly with vinifera grapes (those European varieties familiar to most wine drinkers, such as chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling, et al). And much of what was planted were so-called “hybrid” grapes, crosses between European and North American varieties, that were hardier yet less known for their elegance or profundity (though this too is beginning to change, owing much to the work of vintners in Vermont and Québec specifically). Indeed, when they first settled on their three-hectare property in Farnham, it was with a mind to treat it as a practice run, to take a few years leaning into the learning curve, hopefully make a bit of money, but ultimately to flip the vineyard and start in earnest elsewhere.

“Basically we wanted to grow grapes in Europe or Chile,” recalls Marler, “At that point in our lives, our dream was to be doing it somewhere else. Grow grapes where we thought they were supposed to be grown.”

Nevertheless, the pair did at least plant the kinds of grapes they wanted to grow—pinot noir, pinot gris, zweigelt, and chardonnay, along with two hybrids, seyval and frontenac—and within a few years they began to rethink their earlier plans. They soon broke from the received wisdom of the time that heavy pesticide use and corrective interventions in both vineyard and cellar were necessary to make good wine:

They obtained organic certification in 2005, biodynamic a couple of years later (an agricultural-philosophical system that can be usefully thought of as a wedding of organics, herbalism, and Goethean mysticism), and shortly thereafter began bottling a portion of each vintage without filtration or added sulfites.

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At the same time, the wine scene in Montreal was experiencing its own stirrings of renewal, a cascade of cris du coeur issuing from a new crop of wine bars and restaurants, that resonated with what was happening in parts of France and Italy and to the south in New York City, as the natural wine “movement” gathered momentum. These were pivotal years for Les Pervenches, as many of these Montréal sommeliers and restaurateurs were eager not only to support the fledgling winery, but to share their own oenological enthusiasm.

Marler recalls: ”A lot of people who were really involved and knew their stuff were like ‘Hey Mike and Véro, you gotta try this, it’s natural, it’s done this way, it’s done biodynamically,’ and everything we tasted was amazing.”

This exchange between city and country (and indeed, between countries, as Marler and Hupin travelled to visit winemakers abroad) provided the basis of a collective, communal redefinition of taste, and helped the couple to envision a new way forward: “I was getting all mixed up in this and realizing that there was a problem in the fields,” Marler says, “and that the wines were way better if they had nothing in them, so I’d better start taking steps toward doing that. Because we just wanted to make better wine, and cleaner wine, healthier wine.”

Since then, Marler and Hupin have established Les Pervenches as a stalwart of Québec’s oenological landscape, although still to some extent a hidden gem. For many wine lovers on either side of the bar, Les Pervenches has long been a source of quiet pride, ready to flame into passion whenever discussion of the possibilities and limitations of winemaking in la belle province is broached. Paradoxically both a sort of secret handshake among drinkers who recognize the worth of what is made so close to home, and an outstretched arm (glass in hand) for those who know that a pleasure shared is a pleasure doubled. But although Les Pervenches hasn’t enjoyed (or endured) the same hypebeast treatment and international attention of, for one, their Pinard et Filles peers, this humbler existence has not necessarily been to their disadvantage.

“This whole rarity thing with the Québec wines at the moment, it drives us nuts,” says Marler, before backtracking somewhat, “Well it doesn’t drive us nuts, because we get a lot of hype off it, but in a certain sense all we want to do is to give as much wine to the people who want the wine as possible. We don’t want to create rarity, we don’t like rarity, we feel that we’re letting people down all the time. But obviously we’re not going to start planting 20 hectares of grapes, that would just defeat the whole purpose.”

For at now just over four hectares of vines that make up the small Eastern Townships plot, which also houses the couple and their daughter, Les Pervenches still reliably sells out each vintage, leaving a few thirsty nerds combing the further-flung boucheries and beer stores for overlooked bottles.

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Indeed, the recent May release of their new 7% abv sparkler, Macbulles, was limited by many shops to one-bottle-per-customer, and still didn’t last through the weekend, pandemic #stayhome exhortations notwithstanding.

“We’ve thought about just for fun just doing one cuvée, just blend the whole vineyard” Hupin adds, laughing, “and then we’d have wine all year long, for all our customers, instead of running out.” The undeniable appeal such a devil-may-care move would hold for field-blend-loving juicehounds, however, it would certainly not do justice to the richness and diversity of the winery’s portfolio, which now includes—along with the sold-out Macbulles and entry-level white (Seyval-Chardo)—a bright, bracing, spring-flinging and rhubarb-singing pét-nat (Bonbonbulles); a beguilingly fresh yet generous pinot noir-zweigelt blend (Pinot-Zweigelt); two orange wines (Macpel and Macpel Seyval); and a trio of chardonnays. Each made from a different tiny parcel of vines—one of which containing some of the oldest chardonnay vines planted in Québec, approaching thirty years—and each offering distinct impressions of their grape refracted through the Townships terroir of Les Pervenches (Le Feu, Les Rosiers, Le Couchant).

Reflecting on the past two decades, Marler sums up the philosophy of Les Pervenches:

“Instead of looking at Québec as being a barrier to what we want, being victims of a climate that wasn’t good enough, we said: “Let’s just go and do it. Biodynamic all the way, really go for natural winemaking, plant the varieties we want.” In this way, the absence of a firmly-rooted local winemaking tradition becomes an opportunity, rather than a hurdle: “It gave us the incentive, the impulse, and really, this space of mental freedom.”

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Now, months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many in Québec and across the globe are feeling keenly the upheaval and uncertainty the virus has wrought. I asked Marler what COVID has meant for Les Pervenches, and he strikes a note of optimism in spite of adversity. As travel restrictions have complicated staffing at a crucial time in the season, this has meant the work of reopening the vineyard has fallen entirely to Marler, Hupin and their teenage daughter.

“COVID came along and we went into the field. We pruned every vine ourselves this Spring, and we’re realizing we have to be the ones doing this every Spring,” explains Marler. For, as the vineyard itself and the demand for their wines has grown, Marler and Hupin, who still run a very small operation, found themselves increasingly occupied with administrative tasks, from accounting to taking orders to managing social media; all necessary duties, but ultimately secondary to the hands-on work of grape-growing.

As Marler puts it: “The whole concept of the vineyard goes into the pruning of the vine,” which is to say that pruning is, in essence, a future-making act. Though most of us are not so lucky as to have at hand such a perfect living metaphor of renewal, commitment, and regeneration, this is nevertheless a time of reflection for many. With the paring back of our habitual, quotidian activities, we are impelled to reconsider what we actually want and need to flourish, where we should actually be putting our energies, what is actually important, and what is ultimately possible.

 

For Marler the answer is simple: “This is what we want to do in life: We chose to be farmers, we want to be farmers. COVID has kind of reminded us that we totally love doing this. I love doing this, I love planting new vines. It’s Sunday morning, it’s sunny. I don’t want to be doing anything else.”

Jonah Campbell is a writer, researcher, and sometimes wine pusher based in Montréal. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, Maisonneuve, enRoute, the National Post, and Social Science & Medicine. He is the author of two volumes of essays, Eaten Back to Life (Invisible, 2017) and Food & Trembling (Invisible, 2011).

“Vital Matters”

Read Jonah Campbell’s essay, “Vital Matters”, on natural wine and microbes, in the latest issue of BESIDE Magazine.

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