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The bar just keeps rising at Niagara’s Queylus, just ask Champlain Charest

By Rick VanSickle

He turned 90 years old last year, but just like the greatest wines in the world that he has collected over the decades, Champlain Charest keeps getting better with age.

Sitting across from Charest at Domaine Queylus, high up on the Niagara Escarpment, I am in awe of this man’s palate and his sense of what constitutes a great wine. As the most visible of the Quebec partners that make up the ownership of Queylus, Charest is the spiritual voice of the wines.

Afterall, the man, above, amassed a cellar with a staggering 35,000 bottles of the finest wines in the world in his heyday of collecting. “More than necessary,” deadpanned Charest, 91, in an interview with Wines In Niagara a few years ago. “As soon as I got the disease for wine, I bought more than I could spend or drink.”

It wasn’t just the sheer volume of wine that was impressive, it was the quality of the wine he collected that would send a shiver up the spine of any serious collector. His cellar was deep in First Growth Bordeaux, Château Petrus, Château Cheval Blanc, the great sweet wines from Château d’Yquem (all vintages made since 1929), and every most sought-after wine from any of the best regions you can think of in the top vintages (including a dizzying array of clarets from 1982). He also bought top Italians, Napa cult wines and a small nod to Canadian icewines. But as impressive as all that was, Charest had one of the deepest collections of large format bottles on the planet including 150 methuselahs (six litres or the equivalent of eight bottles) of Domaine de la Romanée Conti and an 18-litre (equivalent of two cases) bottle of Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle (Rhone) 1995, one of only six in the world at the time.

Champlain Charest has exquisite taste and knows full well what he wants in his wines. “More acidity, more freshness,” he says on this day of tasting recently. “A wine I like to drink every day.”

Charest’s famed and long closed restaurant, Bistro à Champlain in the Quebec Laurentians, is where the wine collector kept some of his vast collection of wines, up to 8,000 bottles at any given time. And the rest he kept at home. His cellar has dwindled considerably since that time, much of it sold at auction, but his passion for fine wines has not. A lot of that energy is now directed at the wines of Domaine Queylus, where winemaker Kelly Mason and assistant winemaker Brooke Husband craft the wines.

Niagara wine
Winemaker Kelly Mason, Champlain Charest and assistant winemaker Brooke Husband.

Charest tastes every wine in the portfolio with a critical palate, from the estate Pinot and Chard to the top red cuvée called Summus, but one wine in particular comes under his utmost scrutiny. His nose is deep in the glass as he contemplates the aromas. A long draw of the Domaine Queylus La Grande Réserve Cuvée Champlain 2020 that bears his name, a swish or two in the mouth, and Charest looks quite pleased with the wine he is drinking.

“It is the best we can achieve here,” he declares. “You can see that the wine has been made correctly. It’s a wine I can offer to my friends. People don’t realize that it is coming from Ontario.”

Making the wine that carries the name of Champlain Charest is a daunting task for Mason. Tasting it for the first time with him sitting next her is nerve-racking. “I’m hoping it is the best we can make (at Queylus,” she says before Charest has even had a taste.

After about 10 minutes of tasting, Charest puts Mason’s fears to rest. “I’m very happy,” he says. It’s done in my name, and I could not ask for more.”

The 2020 version of the top Chardonnay in the Domaine Queylus portfolio is the third to bear the name of Charest and the best of the three. It tops a fine collection from the team at Queylus dead set on crafting some of the finest wines in Niagara.

Queylus primarily draws from two key estate vineyards: The Mountainview Vineyard, planted in 2008, is located in the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation. It is 20 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot planted on silty-clay, limestone-laced soils, with sand occurring at the northern end of the vineyard. The Jordan Bench Vineyard, planted in 2002, is nine acres of Pinot Noir located in the Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation. The soil is clay and silty loam planted over limestone bedrock.

All the wines at Queylus are wild fermented and aged in select French oak barrels for 16 to 20 months. The oak barrels are made by coopers who have been hand-selected over the years for their finesse and commitment to quality. The wood comes from forests in the northeast of France known for their tight grain and subtlety of perfume: Allier, Jura, Bourgogne, and the Vosges. These barrels (which are made of wood that has been air-dried for three years) are made by the Burgundian cooperages such as Damy, Master Coopers, Cadus, Billon, etc. To ensure that the terroir is at the forefront of the wine, only 20-30% of the barrels used are new.

Here’s what I liked from the upcoming and current wines. Please understand that Domaine Queylus only releases wines when the winemakers feel they are ready, even if that means releasing them out of order. I can’t tell you when all these wines will be released, so it’s best to either visit the winery or check the website here.

The Champlain cuvée

Domaine Queylus La Grande Réserve Cuvée Champlain 2020 ($60, 95 points) — No new oak is used in aging this extraordinary wine, just second fill and neutral French oak barrels for 24 months. It has such a beguiling nose of flinty stone fruits, fresh salinity, subtle pine cone, and savoury notes, lemon peel and toasted oak nuances. While it’s mouth-filling on the palate, it is still lithe and pristine, with concentrated pear/quince fruit, savoury notes, fresh salinity, elegant spicy notes, citrus zest and a lifted, finessed and extraordinarily long finish. This will cellar nicely for years to come, at least 5+ years. A real treat to taste Chardonnay at this level from Niagara.

The first sparkling wine

Domaine Queylus Blanc de Blancs 2021 (price and release date NA) — The first sparkling wine from Queylus is a 100% Chardonnay from the 2021 vintage that was wild fermented. Mason concedes that making a wild fermented base wine for sparkling “is crazy. To do this with a sparkling wine is very risky.” It makes sense, however, since every wine made at the estate has been wild fermented and that’s how Mason rolls with pretty much every wine she makes from Queylus to her own brand, Mason Vineyard. “Everything is wild here and has been since the beginning.” We won’t see this wine completed for another year or so, but the sample tasted shows great promise with a lovely floral, pear/apple and leesy note on the nose. The dosage is from its own wine and provides a taut, austere, citrusy vibe on the palate with notes of lemon biscuit, fresh pear and crisp apple and developing texture with an electric finish. “My goal is to see people drinking sparkling wine with food,” says Mason. A wine to watch for.

The rest of the Chardonnays

Domaine Queylus Tradition Chardonnay 2020 ($30, 90 points) — The gift that was the 2020 vintage in Ontario keeps on giving, up and down the family of grapes that in normal vintages favours either the Bordeaux varieties or Burgundians, rarely both. What’s good for Merlot, isn’t necessarily good for Chardonnay. But here we are tasting more wines from the 2020 vintage and the evidence continues to pile up that this rare vintage was kind to all grapes. Mason and Husband elected to harvest the Chardonnay grapes early “to keep it restrained,” said Mason. Only 15% new oak was used to produce the final cuvee and aging was in all French oak for 24 months. It is a fulsome Chardonnay on the nose with notes of sweet pear, golden apple, lemon oil, subtle spice, and a floral lift. The stone fruits are dense on the palate with integrated spice notes but there is plenty of freshness to keep all the ripe fruit balanced through a lifted finish. Very nice, near-term Chardonnay.

Domaine Queylus Réserve du Domaine Chardonnay 2020 ($48, 93 points) — Charest calls the reserve Chardo “an amplification of the Tradition.” Mason uses 18% new French oak and 36% second fill barrels for the reserve bottling. The nose is expressive with lovely pear/apple fruits, a certain savouriness, wildflowers, saline minerality and subtle spice notes. It’s generous and flavour packed on the palate with juicy golden apple, baked pear and lemon curd with lovely texture, depth, complexity and a long, lifted, finessed finish. Can cellar 4+ years, but attractive now.

The Pinot Noirs

Domaine Queylus Tradition Pinot Noir 2019 ($35, 90 points) — 18% new oak was used to age this tidy Pinot Noir. It has an expressive nose of dark cherries, black raspberries, violets, light spice notes and a touch of fresh turned soil. It’s generous on the palate with brambly red berries, undergrowth, anise, light tannins and subtle, integrated oak spices that all lead to a smooth delivery with finesse on the finish.

Domaine Queylus Réserve du Domain Pinot Noir 2018 ($50, 93 points) — A much prettier nose than the Tradition with a floral/violet opening note followed by wild red berries, goût de terroir and integrated spice notes from aging in 21% new oak for 18 months. It has a luxurious texture on the palate with smooth tannins, savoury red berries, a touch of anise, fine oak spices and freshness on the long finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Domaine Queylus La Grande Réserve Pinot Noir 2018 ($65, 94 points) — The top estate Pinot Noir sees 24% new French oak for 18 months. Such a lovely nose of perfumed dark cherries, crunchy cranberries, wild raspberries, minty herbs, Muskoka blueberries, a touch of anise and well-integrated baking spices. It brings a sense of structure on the palate with evident — but polished — tannins, red and caressing dark berries, anise, and woodsy/earthy notes, fine oak spice and a long, lifted, finessed finish. Can cellar this developing Pinot for another 7+ years.

The rest of the red wines

Domaine Queylus Réserve du Domaine Cabernet Franc 2020 ($48, 93 points) — Very few winemakers in Ontario are adept with both the delicate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays as well as the Bordeaux varieties, but Mason achieves excellence on both sides of the fence. A tiny bit of Merlot (7%) is added to this Cab Franc and only 15% new oak is employed. Such beautiful aromatics of brambly wild raspberries, earthy dark berries, goût de terroir, savoury notes, subtle herbs, and spice. It’s highly structured and somewhat tight on the palate with firm tannic structure, ripe black fruits, black raspberries, brambly/meaty notes, stewed herbs and then a bright, tangy finish with lift and finesse. Lots of room to age this wine and reap the benefits for years to come.

Domaine Queylus La Grande Réserve Merlot 2020 ($60, 94 points) — The Merlot is infused with 10% Cabernet Franc with only 10% new French oak barrels used in aging. It has a beguiling nose of dark, ripe cherries, cassis, raspberry tart, forest floor and elegant oak spices. The palate reveals rich, dense red berries, anise/cassis, firm, highly structured tannins, depth, complexity, lovely spice notes and a long, finessed finish. This will age nicely for the next 10 years.

Domaine Queylus Summus 2020 ($95 when released years from now) — This was just a preview of the estate’s top red wine, which is a long way from being released. It’s a blend of the best Merlot and Cabernet Franc barrels, in this case 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc with 20% new oak used for aging. It’s powerful yet beautiful on the nose and after plenty of decanting reveals saturated black cherries, cassis, forest floor, light herbs, and integrated spices. It is a big wine on the palate and highly structured with ripe tannins, earthy and dense red and dark berries, and crème de cassis that comes at you in layer after layer. There are lovely spice notes buried under all that fruit and a lot of integration yet to come, but the finesse on the finish bodes well for a blockbuster red wine sometime down the road. One to watch.