Standing in the sun outside Vignoble de l’Orpailleur in Dunham, Québec, Caroline Décoste looked a little nervous when she was handed a metal saber and a bottle of sparkling wine. With one swift move, she ran the weapon along the bottle’s seamed edge until its top cracked off and the wine frothed on the grass. Décoste burst out laughing, and a dozen cameras clicked as her fellow bloggers snapped the sabrage.
Décoste and I were part of a group of 25 or so wine writers and bloggers from around the Northeast taking a recent weekend to sample the riches of Québec’s wineries, breweries and cideries. Soon our glasses were being topped off with the bottle of bubbly Décoste opened — our third — and servers wove around us with trays of pungent local cheeses and warm, velvety Lac Brome foie gras. It was barely past noon, and this was already our second stop of the day.
This was my first year at Taste Camp, an annual sensory tour of a region’s food and drink, some of it offered gratis by wineries such as l’Orpailleur (it means “gold seeker”). Many winery owners welcome visits from wine bloggers, and Taste Camp — conceived by wine editor Lenn Thompson in 2009 — combines opportunities for bloggers to socialize with a weekend-long tour that hits a different Eastern winemaking region each year.
Thompson, who edits the award-winning blog New York Cork Report, conceived Taste Camp while attending a national wine bloggers’ conference in California. “The parts I enjoyed most, and the parts that several of the bloggers I respect enjoyed most, seemed to be the locally focused things like vineyard walks and tastings,” Thompson said. “And it wasn’t just the walks and the tastings themselves. It was the discussions amongst the group on the bus and before [and] after the walks.”
His idea was to entice some of those writers and bloggers to Long Island, where they’d explore the wines and food of his home turf. The following year, Taste Camp was held in the Finger Lakes, then in the Niagara region of Ontario, and then in northern Virginia’s wine country.
Thompson got his first inkling that Québec would make a good destination at a Taste Camp dinner a few years ago, when Julien Marchand, a Québec City food blogger, poured him a sample of ice cider. “I was blown away. It was a category I was completely unfamiliar with,” Thompson recalled. When Rémy Charest, another drinks writer and friend, suggested they bring the event to Québec, it was a done deal.
Unlike the all-expenses-paid junkets that some wine bloggers are invited to, Taste Camp is structured as a pay-your-way weekend of camaraderie. First in our own cars, later on a bus, we hopscotched from vineyard to vineyard in a frenzy of exploration. But the informality didn’t stop wineries such as l’Orpailleur from rolling out the red carpet.
“We have the chance to be covered by a lot of sommeliers and journalists,” said Maryse Blanchard, director of marketing for l’Orpailleur. “But, to be really transparent with you, we are in the first steps to seduce bloggers and, yes, we do take it really seriously. It’s a community so important because of their credibility.”
There were serious chops in this group. On-the-ground organizer Charest is an esteemed Québec City food and wine writer, and his coplanners — Marchand and writer David Santerre — sport impressive lists of publications and contacts. They were hosting wine bloggers from Ontario, Nova Scotia, Vermont and Boston, with thousands and thousands of Twitter followers between them. The tour also included a vineyard owner, a Montréal sommelier and Québec-based Décoste, a copper-haired, effervescent blogger who unabashedly reviews meals on her blog “Je suis snob” (“I Am a Snob”).
Our feast at l’Orpailleur was held in a sleek, brand-new event space with floor-to-ceiling windows and sweeping views of rows of grapevines such as Chardonnay, Seyval Blanc and Frontenac. Two long tables held a three-course meal with wine pairings — a smoked-trout roulade alongside a tart rosé; a sampler plate of grilled sausage, silky pork terrine and curried duck with an earthy l’Orpailleur red.
The visit didn’t end with dessert, which was a slice of Québec’s famous maple pie followed by a glass of the winery’s honeyed Vidal Icewine. A half dozen neighboring wineries, invited here by l’Orpailleur, still ringed the room with tasting stations.
Needless to say, the spit buckets at every stop were well used. Campers needed to keep up their momentum for a weekend that was tightly scripted from start to finish by Charest, Marchand and Santerre, who began planning last winter.
We’d embarked on this odyssey on Friday at Vignoble Carone in Lanoraie. There, innovative winemaker Anthony Carone explained how he coaxes grapes from the chilly soil of the Lanaudière region, about an hour’s drive north of Montréal.
Carone guided us in a tasting of his wines — including one made from an unusual Russian grape called Cabernet Severny — before we headed upstairs to taste libations made and served by his neighbors. They hovered over a half dozen high-top tables doling out samples of strawberry wine, cloudy mead and a host of other cold-climate wines. We paired these with a succession of bite-sized morsels, from a trout gravlax flavored with lavender and maple to an ephemeral goat-cheese cheesecake adorned with a single, pungent “pearl” of raspberry essence.
One might think that spread would last us for hours. But when one in our group caught wind of a nearby poutinerie, our convoy of a dozen cars detoured down the road to check out the goods, overwhelming the proprietress of Chez France with a flurry of orders.
Back in Montréal for the night, we headed to a private Plateau apartment, Loft C, for a scene eerily similar to that at Carone — but with beer. An upstairs room held a half dozen small tables loaded with bottles manned by their brewers. Tattooed beer makers from Microbrasserie Le Trou du Diable (“The Devil’s Hole”) showed off their funky Brett beers (named for a yeast called Brettanomyces), while Marc-André Gauvreau, the owner of Brasseur de Montréal, explained how he translated his passion for home-distilled absinthe into an absinthe-laced beer, Ghosttown Stout. Soon the chefs from Pas d’Cochon dans Mon Salon started doling out paper boats of food such as sweet-and-sour duck wings, which we washed down with even more beer.
The visit to l’Orpailleur anchored our Saturday. Its opulence was balanced by the sobering tenacity of its winemaker, Charles-Henri de Coussergues, who explained in French how he protects his vines from Québec’s harsh winters by covering their roots with sand in November, then painstakingly removing it in April.
In nearby Farnham, Michael Marler of Vignoble Les Pervenches, whose wines sell out quickly upon release, also plays chess with the winter cold. Winemaking in Québec, he told us, “is a blend between how am I going to get enough vigor? [from the vines] versus how am I going to get through the winter?”
Despite the climate’s challenges, Marler grows the grapes biodynamically and relies only on natural yeasts. “There’s a lot of things I’ve learned with biodynamic farming that I’ll use all of my life,” he said, standing in his chilly warehouse. Around him, we sipped and spat splashes of his plummy, spicy Frontenac and barrel samples of his Chardonnay.
A climate that fosters such determination also breeds ingenuity — such as the brainstorm that gave rise to the first-ever ice cider. Back in the early 1980s, Christian Barthomeuf wanted to make wine at his home a few miles north of the Vermont border. But, with the climate decidedly not on his side, he decided instead to harness two things that rural Québec had going for it — freezing weather and apples.
At his place in Frelighsburg, called Clos Saragnat, the graying but still roguish Barthomeuf poured us samples of his cidre de glace — rich, intoxicating wines tasting of butterscotch, nuts and honey. His wife, Louise Dupuis, explained their process. “The apples freeze, they unfreeze,” she told us. The art of making ice cider involves knowing when to pluck the fruit before it falls and disappears into knee-deep snow. “Then they are lost,” Dupuis said with a sigh.
In Hemmingford, a few miles from the New York border, we visited another cidery called La Face Cachée de la Pomme (“The Hidden Side of the Apple”). Cider maker François Pouliot, a former film producer, explained how he bought the orchard at age 29 and began making ice ciders in the basement of the estate’s house.
La Face is as polished as Saragnat is homey, its tasting room bedecked in original artwork and creative bottle displays. Some of its apple trees — such as Northern Spys — are trained onto lines much as grapevines are, “so that the energy of the plant gets concentrated into the fruit,” said Stéphane Rochefort, La Face’s director of sales.
We sampled some of La Face’s signature Neige ice cider, which made for a riot in the mouth when sipped after the cubes of creamy Le Bleu d’Elizabeth cheese set out for us.
Though the weekend’s wining and dining were epic, the spiritual nexus of Taste Camp was the traditional BYO dinner on Saturday night, when the campers kept their own company to pop open bottles from their respective regions and share, sip and debate.
The two long tables inside Montréal’s SAT Foodlab were lined with dozens of bottles, from Niagara sparkling wine to a mini-vertical of Cabernets from Ontario. Everyone was eager to share, and I was pie-faced that I hadn’t remembered to bring a bottle from home. Spitting ceased as the group reveled in the pure sensory bliss of tasting wines from all over the Northeast and beyond, from a 10-year-old, $100 Wölffer Estate Merlot from Long Island to a hot-ticket Dirty and Rowdy Sémillon from California.
Despite the gluttony, half the group didn’t head to bed after dinner. Instead, they trekked across town to Benelux, one of Montréal’s craft breweries.
“That was great,” one of the bleary campers said the next day. “It was the poutine afterward that might have been a mistake.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Sip, Spit, Discuss"