French vintner toasts Quebec wines
Charles-Henri de Coussergues crossed ocean to found Eastern Townships winery

Charles-Henri de Coussergues's family owns a 200,000-vine winery in southern France, an area that produces some of the world's best Merlot grapes. So why is he breaking his back to squeeze wine out of the dirt and ice in Quebec's Eastern Townships?

"My father thought I was making a big mistake coming here," said De Coussergues, president of Vignoble de L'Orpailleur, one of the province's biggest wineries. "But Quebec is more laid back than France. Everyone is so friendly and after a few years here I could never go back."

De Coussergues, crossed the Atlantic in 1982 when he was just 23, after a three-year stint learning the wine trade at France's École de Bonne-Terre, at Pezenas, and another three years working in the family vineyard. French producers were going through a tough period during the early eighties and with some financial backing from a partner, Hervé Durand, he set off to make his fortune in the New World.

At first the going was tough. Quebec's harsh climate is hardly suited to grape growing. The winter wreaks havoc on the province's vines. To protect them, each fall growers bury the vines and when spring comes they dig them up again, a huge job when you have 55,000 vines to unearth.

The vineyard's first harvest in 1985 yielded 15,000 bottles of wine, and although production increased steadily each year, de Coussergues and Durand took on two more partners, Frank Furtado and Pierre Rodrigue, to help whether the hard times. The four now own equal shares of the winery, but only de Coussergues works full-time in the business.

It's a common set-up says one industry expert. "The Quebec wine industry has a lot of "gentlemen farmers" in it," said Ed Pahud, president of Le Noble Confrèrie des Vignerons du Québec, an industry group charged with helping domestic producers market their products.

"The number of Quebec wineries has quadrupled to about 40 in the last decade," Pahud said. "But most of the owners have other jobs. The wineries are the main income source for only about three or four of the largest owners."

Although Quebecers are big wine drinkers, only about 400,000 of the 100 million bottles they consume each year are produced from domestically grown grapes. The balance consists of imports and wine produced here from imported grapes. With annual sales of about $1 million, or 100,000 bottles a year, L'Orpailleur accounts for about a quarter of Quebec's domestic wine production.

According to Pahud, local producers have to contend with a number of hurdles. These include the limited name recognition among consumers of the hybrid grapes grown in Quebec, the distinctive taste of domestic wines and the worldwide glut in wine supply.

"Consumers are used to grapes such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc," Pahud said. "But those vines don't grow well in Quebec. Seyval grapes, which most local vineyards grow, produce a good, honest wine. But you have to get people to try it first."

But things are getting better for local producers Pahud said. Although trade agreements restrict governments from favoring domestic wineries, in recent years Quebec has come up with several innovative ways to give them an edge. For example the SAQ has been increasing the number and quantity of cases of Quebec wines that it stocks and is giving them better positioning in its stores.

Domestic producers were also recently given the right to sell their products directly to local restaurants without using the SAQ as an intermediary, and were allowed greater flexibility to market their products.

L'Orpailleur sells about 60 per cent of its production on-site, but the 40 per cent that it sells to the SAQ and to local restaurants has helped De Coussergues diversify his customer base.

Nevertheless attracting visitors to the winery remains De Coussergues biggest marketing challenge, and much of the vineyard's $750,000 investment has been devoted to making the site attractive to tourists and Montrealers looking for a day trip.

The site includes a restaurant, which De Coussergues rents out to a local operator, as well an Economuseum, which features a number of traditional objects linked to grape growing and wine production.

In recent years, L'Orpailleur has been trying to keep up with shifting demand among drinkers from white wines to red, by planting increasing amounts and varieties of the latter grapes such as Maréchal Foch, De Chaunac and Chancellor. Red wines now comprise about 20 per cent of annual production.

For the last five years, like many Quebec producers, De Coussergues has also been producing increasing quantities of ice wine, a desert wine made from Vidal grapes.

"If there is one segment that Quebec wineries should be able to do well in, it's ice wine," said De Coussergues with a wry smile. "We certainly have enough cold weather here."

 

Photo caption: Quebec's harsh climate means that domestic grape growers like Charles-Henri de Coussergues of Vignoble L'Orpailleur must bury their vines underground each fall to protect them from the cold. Each spring they dig them up again for the new season.

Sidebar: Getting ahead

o Charles-Henri de Coussergues came to Quebec to found Vignoble L'Orpailleur in the early 1980s, building his business slowly during the ensuing decades.
o L'Orpailleur sells most of its production on-site. The balance is sold to local restaurants and the SAQ.
o L'Orpailleur's biggest challenge is attracting tourists and Montreal day-trippers to visit the winery. These come to tour the vineyard and visit the wine museum and restaurant that were set-up on-site,
o Quebec's tough winter climate won't accommodate more popular white grapes like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. So most of De Coussergues wines are made using the hybrid Seyval grape, which is more resistant to the cold. The winery is also slowly increasing red wine and ice-wine production.

 

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