Canada’s first urban rooftop vineyard at the Palais des congrès de Montréal demonstrates the exciting possibilities of viticulture in the city.
The Palais des congrès de Montréal, a convention and exhibition centre, is one of Montréal’s iconic architectural sights. It is immediately recognisable from its distinctive façade: 332 candy-coloured glass panels which, when beamed with sunlight, drench the interior in psychedelic hues.
In recent years, it is the Palais des congrès de Montréal’s sprawling rooftop that has been making headlines. In 2016, it launched the Urban Agriculture Lab, an urban farming project set within a 20,100 sq ft space on the rooftop.
“The purpose of the project was to reduce heat islands in downtown Montréal, and create an international showcase for forward-thinking sustainability practices,” says Renaud Martel-Théorêt, communications and public affairs advisor of the Palais des congrès de Montréal.
The project was rolled in out several phases. It began in 2011 with Cultivert, a 9,200 sq ft container garden of fruits and vegetables like sour cherries, redcurrants, garlic, rhubarb, and kale, as well as ornamental plants like hibiscus and hairgrass. In 2012, two pollinating beehives were added. In 2016, VERTical, a vertical farming on scaffolds, and the first in North America, was set up. AU/LAB, an urban farming laboratory associated with the institute for scientific and environmental studies of the Université du Québec à Montréal, then took over operations after the Urban Agriculture Lab’s launch.
In 2017, Canada’s first urban rooftop vineyard—and the first in a northern climate—was added to the green playground: 80 vines have been planted in geotextile containers, which occupy 2,500 sq ft. The vineyard is overseen by Véronique Lemieux, founder and coordinator of Vignes en ville (Vines in the city), an AU/LAB-supported project that explores the possibilities and benefits of viticulture in urban areas.
Pots and Crushed Glass
The vines on the Palais’ rooftop consist of Frontenac, Frontenac Blanc, Petite Pearl, and Marquette—grape varieties that may even evade the vocabulary of your local sommelier.
Frontenac, a hybrid, dark-skinned grape variety derived from a crossing between Landot Noir and an American Vitis riparia grape, is known for its hardiness in extreme cold and its resistance to mildew. Thus, the grape, along with its white mutation Frontenac Blanc, finds much love in the colder, northern environments of Minnesota in the United States, and Quebec in Canada.
Like Frontenac, Petite Pearl and Marquette—both hybrid dark-skinned grapes developed in the United States—offer excellent cold hardiness. According to Lemieux, more than 50 percent of Quebec’s vineyards are planted with the four aforementioned varieties, a factor that led her to pick them for her rooftop project to “reflect Quebec’s terroir and raise awareness of the grapes found in our local wines”.
As added protection against the cold, the vines are protected by a thermofoil that harnesses the heat emanating from the rooftop during winter. The material is supplied by Vignes en ville’s main business partner, Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ), a government body that sells alcoholic beverages through a retail chain.
An experimental cuvée is planned for 2020 as a lead-up to the first bottling in 2021, a vintage that celebrates the centenary of the SAQ. “I would like to make a funky rosé, but it will depend on what tastes best,” says Lemieux. “We’ll do a few fermentation trials this year to have a better idea of the possibilities.” She adds that they will set up a winemaking facility in the city. Unfortunately, the wines cannot be sold to the public as they are part of a research programme. However, a fundraiser may be organised, allowing people to taste the wine.
The vines are planted in Smart Pots—containers with a breathable membrane made from a thick, resistant felt material. “The breathable membrane allows the roots to grow in a natural way and prevent them from curling and suffocating the plant, a common problem with non-breathable containers,” says Lemieux.
A crushed glass-based soil mix in the pots replaces the need for sand, a common soil type found in many vineyards across the world. For Lemieux, finding a replacement for sand was not only an urgent initiative but also the core of Vigne en ville’s research, which is “aimed at testing crushed glass as substitute for sand in soil mixes for urban agriculture”.
“Sand is a non-renewable natural resource that was depleted with the construction of mega cities like Dubai and Shanghai. Sand extraction threatens marine ecosystems because it is being mined from coastal shores and beaches,” remarks Lemieux. “Given that vines need good drainage, and sand is usually the draining component in a soil mix, testing a crushed glass-based soil mix seemed perfectly logical.”
Deep-sinking, nutrient-seeking roots are desired by many traditional vintners, and, obviously, growing a vine in pot puts a limit on how deep the roots can penetrate. But Lemieux thinks the roots don’t need to grow deep in order to thrive. She cites Californian vineyards with dry soils as an example: the plots receive drip irrigation, and the roots in those circumstances remain near the surface as they don’t need to reach deep for water. However, she acknowledges that a sudden lack of water or proper care will make her vines less resilient.
“We have now completed two years [of vine growth], and the plants have been healthy up to now because we take great care. It is easy to do so because we have 80 vines, and not 80,000 vines,” she says. “We would replant these vines if we have to leave the roof for whatever reason, but I prefer to think they will survive at least another 10 years on the roof. They look amazing in that setting and people from the surrounding buildings can see them every day from their windows.”
Rooftop vineyards elsewhere
Inspired by urban wineries that produce wine with grapes sourced from wine regions, entrepreneur Devin Shomaker decided to go one step further: make wine with grapes grown in the city. In 2015, he set up Rooftop Reds on the roof of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, planting Bordeaux red varieties in 42 boxy planters. The wines are expected to go on sale this year.
In 2017, Says Farm, a winery in Toyama, and Terrace Square, an office building in Tokyo’s Kanda district, launched their joint project—an urban vineyard on the latter’s rooftop. Says Farm has planted 30 Pinot Noir vines in a bed of organic soil on 50 sq m of rooftop space. The cultivation will be managed by Terrace Square, while Shun Tamukai, Says Farm’s winemaker, will visit the plot four times a year to check on its progress. Given the warmer temperatures in Tokyo, Tamukai expects the grapes to ripen about two to three weeks earlier than those in Toyama. The first vintage (only 300 bottles) will be released in 2020.
This article was first published in Wine & Dine May/June 2019: Game-Changing Innovations.