Montreal for wine lovers

Montreal

Food, history and a rich culture of local and global wine keep this destination at the top of the list for savvy travellers. See also Quebec for wine lovers, an entry in our 2019 writing competition.

Surrounded by the Saint Lawrence River and built around the triple-peaked hill of Mount Royal, for which it is named, Montreal remains one of North America’s best destinations. Sure, it’s impossibly cold in winter, but its downtown is full of underground tunnels linking shopping to restaurants, and subway stops to avoid the snow. In summer, Montreal becomes a city of festivals. The Jazz Fest in June is its most famous, but there are electronic music festivals, Go Bike get togethers, Grand Prix races, book fairs, wine receptions, Cirque du Soleil exhibitions, and endless walking routes all over the city.

Montreal is ranked one of the world’s most liveable cities. UNESCO named it a City of Design, and Monocle magazine called it Canada’s cultural capital. It has a francophone feel, but its Québécois traditions have blended with cultures from all over the world imported by its wealth of global residents. For English-only speakers, most of the city remains accessible.

Thanks to the love for food that permeates Montreal, an appreciation of drinks culture flows throughout as well. It’s one of Canada’s best cities for beer, cocktails, and, yes, wine, both traditional and trendy. In the last ten years, for example, the natural-wine scene has gained a strong foothold in Montreal too, while wine bars of all sorts have popped up all over the city. It’s remarkable how much interest in wine has increased.

I lived in Montreal full-time for three years, part-time for another three. At the end of June, I returned for a visit and checked in on its many restaurants and wine lists. Following are a few standout wine options from throughout the city.

Liquor laws and wine retail

Liquor laws in Canada are strict and quirky. In Quebec, most alcohol is imported and sold through the local liquor board, Société des alcools du Québec, or SAQ. But there is a special allowance for small-lot private importation that has created a proliferation of small-volume wine agencies bringing in unique options. Many restaurants in Montreal buy only from these. It means there are unique wine lists all over the city.

In addition, for restaurants there are several different kinds of liquor licences. When choosing where you want to eat, it can be smart to check the website or call ahead to confirm what options they have. Some restaurants cannot sell wine at all but allow you to bring your own bottle. Other restaurants can sell wine but can’t allow you to bring your own. And then still others include both. It all depends on their licence.

If you find yourself in need of wine to buy retail, you can get something in most grocery or convenience stores (locally known as the dépanneur), and every SAQ location sells wine as well. But for the best wine retail selection in town, there are two SAQs worth seeking out.

Marché Atwater SAQ has the best wine selection in town with an especially large collection of French options but plenty from around the world. The Atwater location is near other shops as well so you can get your general shopping done in the area while picking up wine. 155 Atwater Ave, Montreal; tel: +1-514-932-2574

If you can’t get over to the Atwater area, then you’ll want to head to Beaubien-St-André SAQ in the La Petite-Patrie part of town. The speciality shop has an area devoted to global wine selections, again with especially good French wine options. 900 Rue Beaubien E, Montreal; tel: +1-514-270-1776

Visiting the Old Port

The oldest intact part of Montreal sits adjacent to its historic port along the Saint Laurence River. The port first opened as a trading post mainly for fur traders in the early 1600s and stretches along a 2-km (1.2-mile) section of water that today serves as a recreation area for residents and tourists alike. (The actual port for transportation and shipment activities was moved east outside the main part of the city in the 1970s.) A bike trail follows the water, as do walking paths (though be sure you’re not walking in the bike lane as you might get run over), and a few quays or piers can be found along the way as well.

At the Jacques Cartier Quay, the Cirque du Soleil has built a performance space from which they operate their current showcase. You can often find their performers practising tricks like spinning from silks, walking on stilts, or slacklining in the numerous city parks. Nearby, the Festival Montréal en Lumière happens in winter. The tallest Ferris wheel in Canada operates at a neighbouring quay, and within a few blocks there are several rooftop bars with lovely views of the water.

Just up the hill slightly from the historic port, the Auberge Saint-Gabriel was built in 1688. Granted on 4 March 1754, the restaurant and bar boasts the oldest liquor licence in North America. They’ve kept the wine list current and today it proves one of the best in the city. On the list are wines from around the world, including, for example, older vintages from Alain Graillot in a range of cuvées.

The building maintains a rustic lodge-type feel while the food keeps the focus on hearty, belly-filling dishes like cheese fondue (a favourite throughout the city), grilled seafood, roasted game hen and rack of lamb. Thanks to its historic importance and friendly atmosphere, Formula 1 racegoers and numerous concertgoers will often use Auberge Saint-Gabriel as their destination for post-event gatherings, so at busier times of year it is worth calling ahead to make a reservation. Like many Montreal restaurants, the chef sources ingredients from as close to the city as possible. 426 St-Gabriel, Montreal; tel: +1-514-878-3561

Also in the old-town area, Garde Manger offers a seafood menu with an impressive range including New Brunswick caviar, Quebecois snow crab, and eastern Canadian oysters. They deliver a range of vegetable sides, as well as black truffles in season, and some unusual selections like venison tartare. For larger dishes, they also have my personal favourite, black cod served with a range of sea greens to bring out umami and sea-fresh flavours.

The wine list is brief and does push a little towards the natural-wine side of things, but there are smart, creative options that are perfect for seafood. And they always have sparkling wine by the glass. They also include a short beer list of options favoured by locals. Reservations recommended. 408 Rue St Francois-Xavier, Montreal; tel: +1-514-678-5044

Griffintown

To the south-west of downtown, the Griffintown neighbourhood has gone through a revitalisation these last ten years that’s made it a must stop for smaller but worthwhile food and wine establishments.

On my last night in Montreal I ate at the restaurant Foxy and fell in love with its cuisine as much as its wine list. They offer a simple one-page menu, but the balance of simplicity with flavour in the dishes I ordered was exceptional. Calling their cooking style ‘new Canadian cuisine’, Foxy source all their ingredients locally, from nearby purveyors.

Foxy wine team Montreal
Wine team at Foxy, Montreal

My favourite dish was the homemade feta with pita. The feta was presented in a small dish as a salad with fresh asparagus, fiddleheads, roasted almonds and parsley, while the pita was wood-fired and sprinkled lightly with salt flakes. The balance of freshness in the salad with the rich savoury quality of the feta, and the absolute lightness of the pita, were impressive.

It turns out they source milk for the feta from Quebec’s Eastern Townships, an agricultural area known for its high-quality dairy. The natural fat content of the area’s milk is slightly higher than typical, lending a richer, creamier quality to the feta. But in addition, the grasses the cows eat give the cheese an incredible flavour any wine lover would have to admit is local terroir.

While there the wine team realised I was curious to taste wine from Quebec so generously brought me a taste of six different local wines, some made from cold-hardy hybrids and others from vinifera. The standout for me was the 2021 Pinot/Zweigelt blend from Les Pervenches. It was fresh, light, finessed and full of flavour. Perfect for the local cuisine. The restaurant is modestly sized so definitely call ahead for a reservation. 1638 Notre-Dame St W, Montreal; tel: +1-514-925-7007

Le Vin Papillon has quickly become a local and tourist favourite. It offers a more rustic selection of foods such as housemade rillettes, grilled fish, seasonal mushrooms, as well as a selection of local and international cheeses. The wine list is short and to the point focusing on options more on the hipster side of things. For a natural-wine lover who also loves farm-sourced or house-made foods, this is a must visit. 2519 Notre-Dame St W, Montreal; tel: +1-514-439-6494

The Griffintown area has become a hotspot for wood-fired pizza, butchers with dry-aged meats, cocktails, and a range of hip new restaurants.

The Plateau

Just off the Plateau, I enjoyed dinner at Le Filet, a seafood restaurant that brings together Parisian and Japanese cuisine with a touch of unexpected, international ingredients. The result is dishes that feel incredibly light on the palate yet burst with flavour and unexpected complexity. I enjoyed a plate of seared halibut delicately seasoned with berbere spice, a traditional Ethiopian blend including cardamom, coriander, cumin, allspice and dried chilli. The fish was placed on a bed of mushroom couscous with a side of steamed turnip and grapefruit. The combination of acidity, earthiness and light heat were well balanced and presented without ever overpowering the halibut.

The wine list offered a good mix of European selections, and I was impressed to see both Chablis and Champagne available by the glass. Le Filet offers a more casual option with lighter fare though reservations are still recommended. I prefer sitting outside on the patio as it is quieter than the very enthusiastic inside. 219 Mont-Royal Ave W, Montreal; tel: +1-514-360-6060

Le Filet is the sister restaurant to Le Club Chasse et Pêche, which is near old Montreal and is considered one of Montreal’s best destination restaurants. It also focuses on seafood, but a much richer style set alongside wild game. Chasse et Pêche is worth visiting but it can be difficult to get a reservation. So, if you are ready for a more casual option, Le Filet is the place.

Without question, the widely accepted classic restaurant for Montreal is L’Express. When I lived in Montreal, I learned to sneak in to L’Express on the very early side of the dinner hour and eat at the bar. (Montreal likes to eat late. Making a 9 pm dinner reservation is entirely common. Making an 11 pm one is also not unheard of.) If I wanted the full dinner experience, then I’d make a reservation well in advance, which is still recommended. L’Express is popular.

The menu is full of long-standing French classics just a little on the rustic side. Their croque-monsieur is a city-wide favourite. There is always a specialty soup on the menu ranging from a blended sorrel to a lighter fish broth, or sometimes a richer creamy potato. In the warmer months it is often a variation of gazpacho. My favourite dish is their bone marrow. You clean the bone yourself then spread the marrow on a side of bread. It’s a perfect late-night meal. And late-night meals is one of the things for which L’Express is known. They stay open until 2 am, though even that late you still probably need a reservation.

The L’Express wine list is one of the best in the city. It always has a nice selection of older vintage wines from Europe. They sold many of them during the pandemic, but on my recent visit I managed to find several older vintages of northern Rhône wines and settled on enjoying one of the younger ones, a 2016 Dom Rostaing La Viallière Côte Rotie. It had a lovely balance of freshness and bottle age. My server that night was the same man who used to wait on me years ago when I lived in Montreal. Pictured below with me, he’s worked there for more than 30 years.

Elaine and server at L'Express in Montreal

The continuity of the waitstaff is just part of what’s kept L’Express a Montreal favourite. They’ve been open 42 years and manage to feel as much like a neighbourhood hang-out as a stalwart classic. If a meal can ever be a love letter to a city and its traditions, that meal is enjoyed late at night at L’Express in devotion to Montreal. 3927 Rue Saint-Denis, Montreal; tel: +1-514-845-5333

Main photo of Montreal by Pat Lauzon on Getty Images.