Lieux Communs: Montreal's first urban winery

Local wine, cider and piquette makers discovering new terroirs out of their hybrid, urban, and nordic laboratory in Ahuntsic-Cartierville.

J.P. Karwacki

J.P. Karwacki

June 19, 2024- Read time: 8 min
Lieux Communs: Montreal's first urban wineryDaniel Gillis, Laurent Noël, Guillaume Laliberté and Thibaud Gagnon of Lieux Communs. | Photograph: Courtesy Lieux Communs / Maude Chauvin, @maude_chauvin

“I really think that we're making wines of our generation.”

Daniel Gillis of Lieux Communs says this over a video call from their plot of land in Oka as he swats at mosquitos, dirt from vine caretaking smeared on his face and under his fingernails.

“If I had to be romantic about it in some ways, I'd say that, as people, we're a product of Montreal, and Montreal has a very unique situation in the wine world.”

Gillis, a working sommelier, is one of the four Montrealer proprietors of the city’s first urban winery alongside locals Thibaud Gagnon (an architect who heads all things design-related), Guillaume Laliberté (also a working sommelier) and Laurent Noël (a marine pilot on the Saint Lawrence).

Their project? A laboratory for wine, cider, and piquettes (‘simple’ wines, aka vinous beverages).

Photograph: Courtesy Lieux Communs / Mathieu Fortin, @mathieufortin

Operating out of a former textile factory space of La Centrale Agricole (the largest urban agriculture cooperative in Quebec) near the outdoor commercial centre Marché Central, they’ve been part of a boom in infamous urban projects growing and purchasing grapes to make highly desired bottles in everything from renovated garages and converted basements to abandoned restaurant spaces.

Apart from collaboration like a Hibiscus piquette with Zamalek or Reisling with snow crab at Wills? Hélicoptère, Candide, Vin Mon Lapin, Joe Beef, and slews of new restaurants with an eye on sporting ambitious wine lists—name a spot you like to drink a good glass, and Lieux Communs is likely there until sold out.

From nomads to a sturdy camp

As an urban winery, Lieux Communs makes urban wine: Following their nomadic and experimental years, their winery’s industrial permit allows them to  make bottles on the island proper instead of on the land where the fruit is grown, as most vineyards have artisanal permits and are zoned agriculturally.

Think of it as instead of winemaking from A to Z in one location, Lieux Communs can skip, hop, and jump through the alphabet to arrive at the final product.

That means Lieux Communs can not only grow their own grapes as they do now in Oka on Domaine Polisson land with regenerative agriculture principles, but also buy other grapes from elsewhere in the province and country. The result is often a collaborative product that take ideas or notions for certain bottles as they might be conventionally understood and push them in new directions.

“We have really high-quality biodynamic Riesling and, very soon, the 2023 Gamay and Chardonnay from Beamsville and Niagara; also some old vines of hybrid grapes that don't really exist in Quebec anymore. De Chaunac, most notably, that was planted in like the sixties, seventies and eighties in Ontario,” Gillis says.

“So that's been an exciting thing, kind of like multi-provincial wines alongside fermenting grapes from all sorts of different parts of Quebec. We've now worked with grapes from Oka, Dunham, Frelighsburg, Lanaudière, Bécancour south of Trois-Rivières.”

Photograph: Courtesy Lieux Communs / Mathieu Fortin, @mathieufortin

Few have worked with that variety of terroirs. A vineyard in Oka here, a chai (wine storeroom) in Montreal there, collaborations with several winemakers elsewhere—it’s a unique formula to take advantage of subtleties in climates, temperatures, soil, sunlight, and all the other factors that make wine sing in different ways.

Of the city, for the city

In many ways, the variety of Lieux Communs offerings, like the city they’re in, reflects cosmopolitanism. “We've made, like, 60 different wines or something crazy like that. An average of 12 to 15 different wines per year,” Gillis says.

“It makes sense that we have this urban aspect because that's really our milieu. We're still in the city, we still live there, we eat there. We're always living our Montreal lives.

“It all comes with a great freedom towards what our wines can be like, and what we can make with them.”

Coming of age during a time when vineyards were pivoting more towards natural wines in 2018, Lieux Communs took on winemaking that not only had a natural style, but also natural fermentations and sulfurs.

“What we have that's interesting is the perspective that we bring to these grapes—mostly hybrid grapes that are growing in a very young and infantile wine region that is Quebec and Ontario to a certain degree—and that kind of perspective allows us to see potentials and potentialities that generations past maybe haven't seen,” Gillis says.

“I think ultimately we're blending terroir—if I can put it that way—and while we're certainly not the only people doing that, at the end of the day, what's in the glass is really the most important thing.”
Photograph: Scott Usheroff / @cravingcurator

Often ironically producing lighter reds and richer whites from fruit grown in Quebec and Ontario “on the northern limits of viticulture”, Lieux Communs ascribes itself to old school natural techniques and aesthetics that use hybrid grapes and budding young vineyards. Then there are its ciders and piquettes that reveal experiments in infusions and co-fermentation with flowers, teas, herbs, berries, honeys and grape skins.

“We don’t do these things for any romantic reason,” Gillis says. “It really is because there are things that we like that grow here, and it’s to have a real product with definition.”

“I think ultimately we're blending terroir—if I can put it that way—and while we're certainly not the only people doing that, at the end of the day, what's in the glass is really the most important thing.”

Fermenting attractions

“We had this idea when we were drinking wine at the height of what was natural wine storm that took over Montreal and Quebec in general in 2017. There was a lot of energy—good energy, young energy, a kind of revolutionary spirit—to the natural wine movement,” Gillis says.

What started with 250 bottles in 2018 in residency at Domaine Le Grand Saint-Charles in Saint-Paul-d'Abbotsford—which quickly found eager buyers—became 1,700 bottles the following year in 2019, and 6,000 after that in 2020, the year the minds behind Lieux Communs decided to go all-in.

The pandemic marked a boom as people began drinking outside and in their homes, and as Gillis and Laliberté are sommeliers by trade—Gillis still works at Damas today while Laliberté works at Le Filet and Wills Bar—they could leverage their friendships and relationships with restaurants. The first bottles they made were found at Joe Beef, for example.

The following year in 2021, they planted their Oka hectare of 5000 vines—Chenin, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Pinot Gris— that marked a big year of independence with 15,000 bottles produced. In the years that followed, they were selling the first wines they made in their own space.

Now, pallets of their work can be found all over the province, from Drummondville and Sherbrooke nearby to Kamouraska and Gaspésie in Quebec as well as Ontario and Nova Scotia. Newfoundland and PEI are in the mix now, as are Massachusetts and California.  

Duty to the wine

“In Montreal, a lot of people are very curious to taste things from off the beaten path regions, be it at wine bars, smaller chef-driven restaurants, or traditional ones. I think that these things that the Montreal consumer really looks for gives us the confidence to make things that are from a path we style ourselves.”

As Gillis says this from the hectare in Oka, he’ll need to get back to work at Damas soon enough—so what keeps him going?

“There’s duty to my partners, to the wines—being hospitable to the fruit and allowing it to express itself the way it wants to, accompanying it rather than manipulating it—and there are so many moving parts we have to be on the ball for.

“There’s also stewardship over the land. We’re in an interesting part of the country with a lot important social history, as the Mohawk have given us guidance on what it means to care for the land, and important geological history with the ancient hills here. And we have a beautiful hectare here to take care of with vines from childhood to adolescence.

“It’s made a more responsible human of me… a better human of me, responding to the attention that this kind of business demands.”

Photograph: Courtesy Lieux Communs / Maude Chauvin, @maude_chauvin

He looks at the dirt under his fingernails.

“This life is very gratifying, and it's beautiful in Oka. I'm looking out onto the Lake of Two Mountains, we can see the Oratory from here, it's gorgeous, smells good, and it does make for somewhat peaceful days. There’s still a lot of spraying copper and organic sulfur treatments at the end of the day, and scrubbing dirt from one’s fingernails to be presentable for restaurant service at night later…”

“…But we've gotten ourselves into a position where we have no choice but to see the thing through. Not just because we need to pay the bills, though. I really believe in what we're doing.”

Photograph: Courtesy Lieux Communs / Mathieu Fortin, @mathieufortin

Explore Lieux Communs here.

Bottoms up.

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