- Wine is part of a provincial monopoly. The government owned Société des alcohols du Québec (SAQ) is responsible for 58% of alcohol sales.
- Consumer like European wine. It accounts for 76% by value (74.8% by volume) in Québec.
- SAQ stores offer 14,000 wines. Listings are determined through a blind tasting selection process.
- Import agencies act as expert intermediaries and are crucial to navigating the system. Seventy-two agencies represent over 95% of sales at the SAQ.S
- 3,666 closures (out of over 22,000 restaurants and bars) were closed since the start of the pandemic.
- Many skilled sommeliers and well-known wine critics provide consumers with relevant information.
- Natural wine is an important niche. Québec’s enthusiasm for natural wine attracted the likes of RAW WINE fair which first started in 2018.
Drinkers in Québec have firmly European tastes and gravitate strongly to red wine (59.2%). They are trend leaders with a seemingly insatiable thirst for organic, natural and orange wine. As the Québec market continues to mature, it is by no means stagnant.
Provincial Monopoly: Wine Distribution from a Single Source
Who is slaking the thirst and shaping the palates of Québec? The government owned Société des alcohols du Québec (SAQ) is undoubtedly at the core. Unlike other provinces in Canada, beer falls under private distribution in Québec. However, the SAQ is the sole importer of wine and spirits. Besides regulating and collecting revenue, the SAQ wholesales, distributes and retails alcohol. It is also responsible for coordinating shipments into Québec and paying suppliers. As beer accounts for 42% of alcohol consumption, this means that the SAQ accounts for 58% of alcohol sales by volume. Of that, 29% is spirits and 71% is wine. The latter equaled C$2.5 billion in sales in the 2021/2022 fiscal year. While volumes sales are comparable to the previous year (+1.1%), value continues to inch up by 6% as reported by the SAQ.
Managed by Josée Dumas, the SAQ’s buying department is made up of a team of approximately 50. Wine and spirits are divided into four broad portfolios. Gilles Goulet who has been on the SAQ’s buying team for almost 20 years, heads the largest, which is France. Ines Castillo oversees the rest of Europe while Stéphane Denis takes charge of the New World. Finally, Simon Bourbeau supervises celebratory beverages which includes sparkling wine, rosé, spirits and ready-to-drink. Each portfolio is further subdivided among three category managers.
Consumer Taste: Wine from Europe
Speaking on behalf of the SAQ, Goulet explains that European wine accounts for 76% by value (74.8% by volume). “This is very characteristic of the Québec market and contrasts with Western Canada, Ontario and the US,” he asserts, saying that these are weighed more toward New World regions.
Zeroing in further, Goulet singles out France as the leader in Québec with 36.5% of all wines sales by value. “This is historic. But what is incredible is that it isn’t just the biggest category, it also has the largest growth at 10.2%.” France is followed by Italy, Spain, then the US. Furthermore, whereas in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia, homegrown wines top sales; in Québec, Canadian wine places seventh.
Wide Variety: 14,000 Wines on Offer
The SAQ has been working with producers from around the world since its inception in 1921. And, according to Goulet, it has been bringing in top wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux and Tuscany since the 70s. The SAQ currently counts upwards of 14,000 wine references. “We may not have huge volumes, but we have everything,” he says.
Indeed, buyers aren’t necessarily chasing after untapped categories. Instead, filling existing ones is their biggest challenge as climate issues and worldwide demand have squeezed supply. “In Champagne, we are looking for smaller houses to fill the shortfall from the Gran Marques because we have less allocations,” says Bourbeau. This is echoed throughout all wine categories.
Quality Control: Regular Blind Tasting
Rather than strict tenders, a strategic assortment plan is published twice a year. It outlines specific categories with parameters that the SAQ is looking for, along with dates for when they will be reviewed. The SAQ receives approximately 5000 to 6000 offers a year. The selection process includes a blind tasting conducted by four to five persons who also awarded points according to a set of criteria. These range from rating and medals to a wine’s carbon footprint.
“For a high-volume listing, it must absolutely be in lightweight glass.”
“For a high-volume listing, it must absolutely be in lightweight glass,” Goulet emphasizes. However, a wine’s performance in other markets counts less. “We are a pretty particular market here,” Goulet continues. “Even if it works in the province of Alberta, that doesn’t mean it will work in Québec.” He points specifically to extremely structured wines with high alcohol as an example.
When it Has to Go Fast: Ad Hoc Listings
Beyond the formal offer process, the SAQ also permits ad hoc listings. “Our buyers are geeks – they read all the reviews and are on top of trends,” says Goulet. For renown or top scoring wines, the SAQ will circumvent the selection procedure and blind tasting, listing them rapidly.
Furthermore, SAQ’s buyers travel frequently. Rather than participating in organized trips however, they develop their own itineraries hitting major wine shows and visiting potential new and existing suppliers.
As dynamic as the team is at the SAQ, Quebec’s agent community is equally essential. Sourcing products and brands, they act as expert intermediaries and are crucial to navigating the system. Producers appoint one single agency to carry out promotional activities on their behalf. Established in 1969, A3 Québec is an association of alcohol companies boasting 72 agency members which represent over 95% of sales at the SAQ.
For wine, the leading agencies in terms of both value and volume of sales are The Dandurand Group andUnivins and Spirits. The first was founded over 50 years ago in Montréal by Philippe Dundurand. The family run company expanded to include all ten provinces in Canada becoming a national company in 2003. High volume brands such as Georges Duboeuf, Santa Margherita, Chateau Ste Michelle and Errazuriz make up the backbone of the portfolio. In July 2020, Dandurand acquired Univins though the two continue to be managed as separate companies. In the last year, their combined sales (including spirits) exceeded C$644 million of more than 3.5 million cases in Québec alone.
Other large wine agencies are Ontario-based Arterra Wines Canada which owns over 100 brands as well as Sélections Fréchette which moved almost one million cases of wine in the last year. The Mark Anthony Group became a major shareholder in Fréchette in 2019. Another important player, Charton Hobbs has been doing business in Québec since 1925 and works with the likes of LVMH.
Role of Smaller Agencies
Smaller agencies stand out for the distinction of estates in their portfolio as well as the quality of service they offer their clients. “Québec’s import agencies have the ability to establish the reputation of a producer in the market,” says sommelier Pier-Alexis Soulière. He explains that they create a demand, work on allocation and are sometimes even a brand unto themselves with a following for their portfolio in general. Among these are Maître de Chai, known for classic references which are predominantly organic and biodynamic, as well as Vinifera, Rézin and Oenopole.
Despite the name suggesting otherwise, private imports do fall under the jurisdiction of the SAQ. These refer to wines not available in their stores. This is a key channel for restaurants.
Restaurant Wine Buyers: Superstar Appeal
When it comes to restaurant wine buyers, no single name surfaces in terms of sheer purchasing power. Instead, Québec’s top sommeliers are singled out for their superstar appeal and/or the prestigious establishments they own or work for. The talent pool is vast – and it includes many females. Ex-Joe Beef Group, Vanya Filipovic now runs her own restaurant, Vin Mon Lapin as well as an agency, Les Vins Dame-Jeanne both of which champion small, family-owned wineries of the natural ilk. Véronique Dalle was the long-time sommelière at Montréal’s famed wine bar Pullman and has trained a battalion of sommeliers. She now heads the wine program at the stylish Foxy restaurant.
Other names to know are Mario Brossoit, partner and wine buyer at L’express, a Montréal institution and young-gun, super taster Joris Gutierrez Garcia at upmarket Le Club Chasse et Pèche. Garcia placed second after Master Sommelier Pier-Alexis Soulière in 2021’s Best Sommelier of Canada Competition. Soulière manages the wine program at Québec City’s newly opened fine dining restaurant Le Clan.
After Effects of a Long Lockdown
During the pandemic, Québec’s restaurants endured some of the longest lockdown periods across Canada. Except for a brief period in the summer of 2020, establishments did not reopen until the end of May 2021. Owner of Soif wine bar in the small city of Gatineau, Véronique Rivest points to the resilience and creativity of her peers. “Many of the restaurants with great wine programs (those doing private import as opposed to SAQ wines) turned into successful bottle shops,” she says.
Nevertheless, relying solely on takeout business was not enough for all to survive. The Restaurant Association of Québec counts 3666 closures (out of over 22,000 restaurants and bars) since the start of the pandemic. Some significant ones include Bremner (by famous chef Chuck Hughes), Grumman 78, Hambar, House of Jazz, Moishes and Orange Rouge.
While 20 years ago Québec’s wine scene was dominated by just two writers - Jacques Benoit and Michel Phaneuf, today the landscape is diluted with numerous journalists and influencers. By far the most prominent is former sommelier Philippe Lapeyrie. He shares wine recommendations every Saturday on the popular television morning show Salut Bonjour! as well as on the province’s largest commercial radio stations. “When he talks about a wine, you actually see a peak in sales,” says Jean-Philippe Lefebvre, founder of agency Rézin Sélection.
Among traditional print media, Jean Aubry writes for francophone newspaper Le Devoir and Bill Zacharkiw for the Montreal Gazette – one of Québec’s only English-language daily newspapers.
Besides contributing to the province’s most widely circulated newspaper - Journal de Montréal and monthly magazine L’Actualité, Nadia Fournier publishes the most important annual wine guide – her eponymous Guide du Vin.
Montréal daily, La Presse has gone exclusively digital. According to the media monitoring tool Meltwater, contributor Karyne Duplessis Piché has achieved Québec’s highest reach at an estimated 7 million. A highly regarded sommelier, Rivest also writes a weekly wine column for La Presse. She provides bi-monthly reviews on Radio-Canada and has curated the wine selection for Air Canada’s business class since 2016.
Likewise, both Master Sommelier Élyse Lambert and Michelle Bouffard appear regularly on Radio-Canada.The latter is also resident sommelier on Télé-Québec’s Curieux Bégin cooking show and founder of the biennial Tasting Climate Change conference.
“While there are many influencers with a diffused impact, it is in the sphere of natural wine that they are the most active and influential,” says the SAQ’s Bourbeau. Dominating this niche is Vincent Laniel who goes by the name Vincent Sulfite. Sommelier at Montréal’s Candide restaurant, he published a book called Supernaturel in 2020 and collaborated on a documentary television series by the same name.
Fairs and Tastings
Québec’s enthusiasm for natural wine attracted the likes of RAW WINE fair with the first edition in 2018. Nevertheless, Québec’s biggest annual wine show is La Grande Dégustation. Organized by A3 in partnership with the SAQ, the three-day event typically sees 12,000 to 13,000 attendees between trade and consumers. After scaled down online versions in 2020 and 2021, the exhibition will return to its in-person format with over 280 producers from 25 countries. Featuring private importation wine only, Raspipav’s Salon des Vins d’Importation Privée is much smaller by comparison but is effective in moving a substantial amount of wine.
Keeping the Wheels Turning
Between the colossus of the SAQ, a dedicated agent community, skilled sommeliers, a plethora of journalist and influencers along with well-define wine shows, there are plenty of players that keep the wheels of Québec’s vibrant wine market turning.