What they’re drinking in Québec

Natural Wine is the hottest trend in La belle Province. But they represent only a small part of consumption.

Michaela Morris researched what distinguishes Quebeckers and their drinking habits.

Old Quebec City with the famous Chateau Frontenac hotel / Credit: R.M. Nunes – Adobe Stock
Old Quebec City with the famous Chateau Frontenac hotel / Credit: R.M. Nunes – Adobe Stock

Ask anyone in the trade what the hottest trend in Québec is right now and the answer will inevitably be – either with a smile or a sigh – natural wine. This does not mean that the province is awash with low/no sulfite added and orange wines. For all their hype, these remain a small but conspicuous piece of a multifaceted puzzle. 

La belle province, as Québec is affectionally nicknamed, is Canada’s second most populous province. Almost half of its 8.6 million inhabitants live in the trendsetting metropolis of Montréal. Staunch wine drinkers, “Quebeckers buy more wine than the Canadian average and less spirits than other citizens of Canada,” says Sandrine Bourlet. She is vice president of marketing and merchandising at the Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ), the province’s government-owned retail monopoly which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

The French-speaking province has strong ties to its European heritage and wine is primarily associated with the table. “Québec has a longstanding relationship with gastronomy,” says Véronique Rivest, sommelier and owner of Soif wine bar in the city of Gatineau. “We love eating and drinking.”

 

Sandrine Bourlet, vice president of marketing and merchandising at the Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ)

 

It is not surprising that France leads sales across all colours. In the SAQ’s last fiscal year, ending March 2021, French wine boasted 33.1 percent of the market by volume. This represents a two percent increase over the previous year. Italy is in solid second place with 22.8 percent. And while Spain trails behind at 9.6 percent, steady growth has seen it overtake the USA for third place within the last couple of years. “We drink wine from all over the world,” declares Alexandre Perron at the popular Montréal Plaza restaurant, adding that wine education is becoming increasingly popular.

 

Red wine rules

Above all, Quebeckers are enthusiastic red wine drinkers. Bourlet explains that for the last 25 years, red has accounted for more than half of the province’s wine sales. It reached a peak of 77 percent in 2005 before tapering off to its current 58.1 percent. Cabernet Sauvignon is by far the most popular red variety, but sommeliers are seeing a shift. “There is an increasing interest in lighter, easy to drink reds compared to more tannic and structured wines,” states Perron, an assertion echoed by his colleagues.

The erosion of red wine is due in part to the slow but steady rise of white which now accounts for 36.5 percent of still wine sales. This corresponds with the trend of drinking lighter wines in general. Jean-Philippe Lefebvre, founder of Rézin Sélection, also points to an increased consumption of wine outside the meal. “More and more, people are having wine for the apéro or happy hour whereas in the past they would have beer,” he says explaining that white satisfies the desire for something fresh and crisp.

Elias Aoun, VP of sales and marketing at Dandurand

 

White wine catches up

The trifecta of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris/Grigio makes up 60 percent of sales at SAQ stores. Despite the hegemony of France, Québec is seeing “solid growth from Portuguese and Spanish whites as they provide excellent value,” asserts Elias Aoun, VP of sales and marketing at Dandurand. Alain Proteau, COO of Noble Selection Wines and Spirits also notes an interest in lesser-known grapes like Grüner Veltliner when it comes to SAQ’s specialty offerings.  

Now representing 5.4 percent, rosé has also stolen a small slice of market share from red. Provence is driving the category but Eric Deguire, VP of sales and marketing at Trinque, does observe interest in other regions of origin. “People aren’t interested in darker rosé. They want that pale colour,” he emphasizes. And while sales are spilling out beyond the hottest summer months, “it is still very hard to sell rosé in winter when it is -35°C,” states Proteau.

 

Young and natural

Regarding natural wine, the thirst is particularly insatiable in Montréal’s restaurants. Co-owner and sommelier at Le Serpent, Philippe Boisvert points specifically to the younger generation. “They don’t really care about grape variety or where a wine is from; instead, they are curious about strange stuff,” he says. He makes a contrast with experienced wine drinkers who place more importance on wine appellations. 

 

Véronique Rivest, sommelier and owner of Soif wine bar 

 

Nevertheless, the trend has caught on beyond the hipster set. Lefebvre explains that for 90 percent of new tenders, the SAQ is requesting exclusively organic, natural and orange wines. “If the SAQ is demanding these, it is because consumers are asking for them,” says Rivest. In the last year, government stores added 153 natural wines for a total of 425. This is in addition to 2,108 certified organic wine listings. “Montréal was the third city after New York and London to host RAW WINE fair,” mentions Bourlet, emphasizing the strength of the category. She also reports a 29 percent increase in sales volume of organic wine. “Consumers are looking for wines that are better for them,” states Aoun referring as well to products with less sugar and low alcohol.

 

Strong spirits and sparklings

Despite Québec’s long allegiance to wine, the recent cocktail craze is encroaching on wine sales. “Over the last three to five years, there has been significant growth in spirits, particularly gin,” states Bourlet. She also remarks on the increasing popularity of ready-to-drink beverages among millennials. “But it isn’t sweet RTDs,” she adds. “Quebeckers don’t have a sweet taste profile.”

And what about sparkling? Québec’s bon vivant culture surely contributes to the category’s healthy five percent share of the market. “Sparkling wine had been strong for the last five years with double digit growth for both Cava and Prosecco mainly,” says Proteau. At restaurants, Boisvert also identifies Pét-Nat and Lambrusco style wines. “It comes with the natural wine trend,” he says. Finally, Quebeckers’ passion for Champagne is reflected in the extensive selection. “When I started importing 25 years ago, you could only find Champagne from big négociants. Now there are many great small producers represented,” says Lefebvre.

Alas, sparkling wine consumption was turned on its head over the last year. With restaurants and bars closed for eight of the last fiscal’s twelve months, the category was down by nine percent in volume. However, during the same period, Champagne grew by 14 percent. “Those clients who found themselves with extra disposable income treated themselves at home,” says Bourlet. She expects other sparkling wines to bounce back as bars and restaurants reopen.

 

Jean-Philippe Lefebvre, founder of Rézin Sélection

 

Drink local

It is impossible to ignore the COVID-19 factor. One of its positive impacts was a significant increase in supporting local. It may come as a surprise that Québec is one of Canada’s four wine producing provinces. While quality and interest were already on the rise, “consumers have discovered local wine above all since the pandemic,” says Deguire. In the last year, Québec wine achieved a sales volume increase of 43 percent at SAQ stores. Nevertheless, with very limited production, it is not going to upset import wine sales anytime soon. 

The other two-fold response saw many wine drinkers seeking comfort and buying brands they know while others took the opportunity to explore. “Quebeckers have always been very curious,” says Rivest. She also noted an increase in the average per bottle spend both on takeaway purchases and when her restaurant was open last summer. At the SAQ, Bourlet reports that large format such as bag-in-box purchases increased as people looked to limit trips to the liquor store. Furthermore, “online sales were up 130.7 percent by the end of the fiscal, representing 3.3 percent of our sales to consumers,” she says. The SAQ is banking on this trend to stay and will increase the availability of niche products to online buyers.

With restaurants finally starting to reopen and the curfew lifted, it remains to be seen if newly formed habits will remain. One thing is clear though: As devastating as the pandemic has been, it hasn’t defeated the curiosity and joie de vivre that make Québec a dynamic wine market. 

Michaela Morris

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