Somewhere in this world you’ve probably found yourself sitting in a small, cozy bar somewhere, surrounded by locals, and enjoyed yourself a bottle of good wine at least once or twice. They are the nights you never forget – which isn’t to say you remember a lot. But you were there, in the moment, and that you will always remember; a beautiful happenstance of good people, great service and a real tasty beverage in front of you.
Toronto’s Chez Nous Wine Bar might not be that far-off place we all like to romanticize about, nor widespread among casual bar goers, but it’s a place nonetheless where you’ll find crazy delicious wines and good people. It’s one of those trendy places people don’t forget about.
Owned and operated by Laura Carr since 2017, it’s located at a lively corner on Queen Street East, in the ever-friendly neighborhood of downtown’s Leslieville. The wine list is 100 percent Ontario focused. And no, that’s not a typo – you’ve read that correctly. They’ve been supporting local since, well, since before it was popular to do so.
Chez Nous is a place that has developed quite a following since its opening but glancing at the wine list and realizing that all the wine is made in Ontario is something many customers actually fail to notice at first. Just recently when I met with Carr, she told me that “part of what I was thinking was, I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. It might just be something you notice after you’ve been here a few times.”
Yet once you do notice, you will find all the notable local classics plus a few surprises on the menu. A marquette from Prince Edward County’s Karlo Estates. A melon de Bourgogne from Malivoire on the Niagara Bench. The best chardonnay, pinot and cabernet franc from some of the best producers Ontario has to offer. Check, check and check.
It all started in Niagara Falls, Ontario where Carr grew up. Her wine education consisted of wines her mother brought home from The Wine Rack, a placed where she worked for a brief period.
“She was always bringing home a random assortment of varietals from the region, says Carr of her mother. “At one point – I can’t even remember who it was, but – someone was producing an auxerrois!”
As Carr got older, she began wandering her way throughout Niagara-on-the-Lake, visiting wineries and discovering a whole new world of grapes and styles. Focusing, not coincidentally, on riesling and gewurztraminer – the beautifully aromatic whites Niagara does so well with.
With her interest in wine properly peaked, Carr left to travel the world. First to France and across Europe, then to New Zealand. It’s where she learned how to appreciate local products, from food to wine, just as the locals did. (Something that Canadians don’t always do so well with.)
She decided to come back to Canada to showcase what she knew best; the wines she grew up drinking – the wines of Niagara. But the wines themselves would need to be more than just a casual local talking point. They would need to be interesting and trendy. Most importantly though, they would need to be good.
In her quest to seek out the best, Carr sources from the best. Small, boutique producers that sweat every detail. It’s something the region as a whole has become very good at doing over the last 20 years or so, with terroir focused producers like Thomas Bachelder, Ilya Senchuk and Maggie Granger leading the way.
It’s a route that more and more bars and restaurants in Toronto are starting to take – not just working with Ontario wine, but single vineyard, terroir wines. They’re adding more of them to their lists every day, training their staff about them and educating their guests. It’s a scene far improved from ten years ago, however there’s only a few of these places that have taken the enormous leap forward in selling them exclusively, just as Chez Nous does.
“Part of what I was thinking was, I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. It might just be something you notice after you’ve been here a few times.” – Laura Carr commenting on her wine list being 100% Ontario made.
Having an Ontario section on your wine list is one thing. Having an Ontario wine list, period, is another thing entirely. After all, Ontario is a young region with an, albeit brief, track record and some lingering prejudices. So, a bit of faith is required. But the tide is turning. More than ever, there’s a growing desire to support local.
COVID-19 – the global pandemic – has brought everything to a standstill. Borders are closed; people are stuck in their homes. Everyone has been forced to look inward – within themselves, their homes, their neighborhoods. What used to be an afterthought for many is now a reality – buying from and supporting local products and businesses. Everyone is adjusting and Laura Carr is no exception.
Like all restaurants and bars in the city, Carr closed her doors to the public in mid March. She quickly shifted to selling via social media, delivering what she could, working by herself with no staff. She adapted. She now uses the side door of her bar as a bottle shop, where people can pick up their favourite bottles, at significantly reduced markdown prices, and have a quick chat (from a distance, of course). And so far, it’s worked! The community support has been strong. Perhaps not a coincidence, they’re supporting a local business that sells local products.
“A good chunk of my customer base was already into supporting local (both me as a small business and the local wine industry), so certainly they have continued to be supportive through the retail side of things,” says Carr appreciatively.
Now nearly three full months into our communal lockdown, people continue to seek out connections with those around them. They’re looking to share experiences, maybe a few laughs, some stories, all things that go well with a delicious bottle of wine. So, even though it might be premature (or even silly) to suggest that anyone is thriving, the spirit of Chez Nous is alive and well.
Out of necessity, habits have shifted. People have become more aware about what they’re eating and drinking and where it comes from. They’re more present and they’re enjoying themselves. And for someone like Laura who opened Chez Nous with that philosophy in mind, that’s a very good thing.
Her bottle shop is usually open from 3 pm to 6 pm on weekends. But check her Instagram feed here for details.
Below is a sampling of some of my favourites that Laura usually has frequently on offer at Chez Nous Wine Bar:
Leaning Post 2017 ‘Foxcroft Vineyard’ Riesling
A perfect expression of a cool year Niagara riesling from the Bench. Soft and delicate, and so lemon/lime freshly satisfying.
Rosehall Run 2017 ‘Hungry Point’ Pinot Noir
Silky smooth and pretty. A lovely (Prince Edward County) pinot full of dried roses, raspberries and a hint of smoke.
Malivoire 2019 Rosé Moira
Refreshingly light with gentle notes of grapefruit and cherries. A dry, 100 percent pinot noir rosé that will surely make you blush.
The Grange of Prince Edward 2018 Ombré Gris
A rewarding skin contact white that’s all about weight and mouthfeel, with traces of marmalade on a saltine cracker.
Ravine Vineyard 2018 ‘Sand & Gravel’ Cabernet Franc
Approachable, smooth, fruity – but not sweet. It’s medium bodied and has that lovely Niagara cabernet franc tobacco finish to it.
Having worked in the food industry across Canada from the age of 16, Louis Papa began studying wine in 2014 to compliment his culinary journey. Now a certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers, and a Canadian Wine Scholar, his focus is to dive deeper into the Niagara wine region and shine a light on the world-class wines it produces. He’s currently the sommelier for Jacobs and Co. Steakhouse in downtown Toronto. Follow his journey on Instagram @my_ontario_wine and his blog at myontariowine.com.