NOTE: THIS ITEM FIRST APPEARED EARLIER TODAY IN POSTMEDIA NEWSPAPER WEBSITES ACROSS CANADA:
LAC BROME, QUEBEC – “I don’t want something that starts big and then goes ‘pfffffttt’ after two seconds. I call that a quickie.”
Leon Courville is pouring some of his wines for me at his pretty, barn-like winery in Quebec’s Eastern Townships and explaining how he emphasizes making wine with structure. His St.-Pepin, a white wine made with a grape that does well in cold climates, starts a bit thin to my taste but finishes with a nice, lingering, chardonnay-like finish I quite like.
“I think people put too much stress on how a wine smells, I think structure is what makes a wine pleasant,” Courville tells me.
Courville was chief operating officer of the National Bank of Canada at one time. He also was a former economics professor at HEC Montreal, so he knows how to present a case and make a persuasive argument, whether it’s about global banking or local grapes.
He pours me a Marechal Foch that’s a bit sharp but would be fine with simple Italian fare and a zingy tomato sauce. He also lets me sip some of his smoky Baco Noir, which is much richer and has more of that structure Courville likes to talk about.
“It will be much better in three or even four years,” he tells me. “Right now, drinking this is like committing infanticide.”
It’s not your average way to talk about wine. But making wine an hour south of Montreal isn’t the average way of doing things, either.
“The weather can be crazy here,” Courville tells me. “In mid-November it can be 26 C one day and minus-15 a couple days later. People don’t like that, and neither do grapes.”
Courville is as engaging and enjoyable a winemaker as I’ve met. Also quite likeable are Marc Theberge and Eve Rainville, a couple who make sparkling wine at Domaine Bergeville. located on a hill just outside the oh-so-pretty village of North Hatley.
“We thought about making ice wine but almost no one in Quebec drinks it,” Theberge tells me as we stand in his vineyards, tiny green grapes just peeking out from behind brilliant leaves in early July. “Our soil is similar in many ways to the soil in the Champagne area of France, and our growing season temperatures are similar, too.”
Domaine Bergeville uses both local and special hybrid grapes to make several varieties of sparkling wine, including one made with red grapes.
Theberge and Rainville (the winery name is a combination of their names) have slightly different tastes. He likes his wine bone dry, while Eve prefers a touch of residual sugar. “For the whites I pick the dosage (basically what’s added to sparkling wine to raise the sweetness and balance the acidity) and for the rose she does it.”
Courville said there are something like two dozen wineries in the Eastern Townships, and that many local products are featured in the township’s many fine restaurants. I was lucky enough to sample several fine places during my three-day visit.
The first stop was Auberge West Brome. Their house-made cannelloni is stuffed with woodsy mushrooms and homemade ricotta cheese and topped with truffles; one of the top pasta dishes I’ve had on the planet. The tasty duck breast was medium rare with a tasty parsnip puree, local bok choy and sweet carrots.
At Ripplecove Lakefront Hotel and Spa in Ayer’s Cliff I dine at Le Riverain restaurant and sit on a covered patio that’s no more than five meters from the lapping, quiet waters of Lake Massawippi. There’s a lovely sunset off to my left and a beautiful meal with lovely lobster, perfectly seared Lac Brome duck and tender hay smoked beef filet.
My final night is at Spa Eastman, a wonderfully restful spot near Mont-Orford that’s celebrating its 40th anniversary. In keeping with their “get-healthy” approach, the restaurant is both gluten-free and dairy-free but serves up a nice piece of roasted lamb with tons of fresh veggies and a flavourful raspberry mouse with small brownie slices.
I also luck into lunch on the patio at Saveurs et Gourmandises in North Hatley, where the views of the north end of Lake Massawippie are fantastic and the tasty corn chowder is packed with leeks, potatoes and onions.
The townships are renowned as a ski area in winter and a bike region in summer. One inventive cycling option is an elevated trip through three treetops down near the Vermont border at a place called Velo Valant, where you pedal yourself about in an open “bicycle” that’s suspended from wires high above the ground. It’s part of the Au Diable Vert complex, where you can hike and kayak and spend the night at one of several unique cottages.
I’m not big on heights so I take the on-the-ground cycling option and borrow a traditional bike from the folks at Ripplecove, wandering about on peaceful roads and soaking in views of pretty lakeside cottages and tall, deep green pines.
Ripplecove also has kayaks you can take out on Lake Massawippi, where you’ll find tall rock formations, scattered cottages and lovely views of the nearby hills.
Not far from Ripplecove is Bleu Lavande. Located near the shores Lac Memphremagog, it’s said to be the largest lavender farm in Canada, and the second largest in North America. A tour guide tells me the painstaking work that goes on to shepherd the plants through a Quebec winter (think lots of tarps and straw and a lot of backbreaking labour) and how different types of lavender plants grow better in various conditions.
It’s a lovely spot for a stroll, with pale blue flowers in abundance in early to mid summer. There’s also a kid’s playground, a nice café, tons of space for picnics, an outdoor concert venue and a large shop selling lavender soaps, oils and other sweet-smelling goodies.
The lavender is intoxicating. But I’m equally enchanted with the rolling hills and lake views and small towns everywhere I go in the townships. On my way from Sutton to Knowlton I drive past a blue tractor parked in a deep green summer field and admire rugged mountains and beautiful homes with brilliant orange tiger lilies in full bloom. I also find a cool covered bridge just a few meters from Bleu Lavande.
The night of my dinner at Ripplecove I take a half-hour drive to the town of Coaticook, where you’ll find an utterly remarkable nighttime attraction called Foresta Lumina at Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook. After crossing a suspension bridge that spans a deep canyon, you wander into a fairyland of twinkling lights and art installations that feature everything from a woman dancing with gold butterflies to animal noises, and animated trees that are seemingly set on fire by cackling devils. There also are interactive musical exhibits you can take part in. The night walk finishes down along a small creek, where what seem like tens of thousands of LED lights send green, blue and red dots dancing in the air; bouncing off people’s shoulders and faces and off the trees and rocks that line the canyon. It’s gobsmackingly beautiful and unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere.
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The last installation before the exit features a film beamed onto a large outcropping of rock that seems to dissolve in a volcanic fury. A young maiden later appears and prances about in front of a beautiful waterfall before suddenly disappearing.
My final afternoon is spent at Spa Eastman, where I receive a Hawaian-style “lomi lomi” massage with long, gentle motions on my back and around my neck and feet, with a hint of lavender at the end. After dinner I try out the various pools and steam rooms. I bake myself a few minutes in the infrared sauna and then hit the hammam steam room, where the scent of eucalyptus wafts through the room and the steam relaxes by tired bones. I briefly cool off in the cold pool (I didn’t go all the way in, not wanting to expose all my body parts to that kind of a shock) and then lie on a lounger in the relaxation room.
I cap off the night with a trip to both hot pools on the patio outside; one of them 96 Fahrenheit and the other a toasty 104 degrees that’s perfect for a cool July night. I wrap myself in a robe and sit by the crackling fireplace, listening to the wood gently snap and pop. High above the spa, deep, dark evergreens are highlighted against a purple and indigo sky.
Auberge West Brome is a lovely spot in a small valley near Lac Brome, with sunny, yellow painted buildings, a cozy lobby and lovely rooms. There’s also a spa and an indoor pool, as well as lush gardens. RIpplecove Resort and Spa has a beautiful, old-time feel and a gorgeous lakefront setting. Pull up a Muskoka chair and watch the sun go down over Lake Massawippi, Spa Eastman features fabulous spa treatments as well as wonderful rooms and a natural setting with lovely views of Mt. Orford. The emphasis is on wellness and relaxation, so there are no TV’s in the room. I was that if a guest leaves their personal devices and laptop at the front desk for 48 hours they’re rewarded with a free spa treatment.
Sutton is a cozy town with a couple of microbreweries and a charming main street filled with galleries, shops and cafes. North Hatley is one of the prettiest towns in Canada, with a lovely bridge on a corner of Lake Massawippi and colourful houses on a river. There’s also a fine chocolate shop and a wild antique store.
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