Weekend Warrior

D.D. Leobard Cellars

Premium Prairie Red

D.D. Leobard uses ripe red (and blue) Manitoba berries for award-winning prairie fruit wines.

By Christy Boettcher

The hot July sun beats overhead as field workers spread out across Portage La Prairie’s loamy strawberry fields. They have to work fast to harvest the lush berries at the peak of their ripeness. Many of these juicy fieldberries are destined for a nondescript warehouse building in St. Boniface where they will be magically transformed into the award-winning premium fruit wines of D.D. Leobard Winery.

Wine-makers in a region that does not grow grapes have some serious obstacles to overcome. Despite that, owners Denis d’Eschambault and Leonard Streilein of D.D. Leobard have thrived. They have created an extensive line of excellent fruit wines by focusing on Manitoba’s natural strengths. Their products include pure wines of strawberry, wild blueberry, wild chokecherry and Saskatoon, as well as blended wines using rhubarb, raspberries and other fruit. The company even offers iced fruit dessert wines, while a 100 percent birch sap wine is in the final production stages. For their commitment to sourcing local produce and the resulting premium value-added products, D.D. Leobard has been chosen as the 2005 Ciao! Good Food Manitoba Producer of the Year.

D’Eschambault and Streilein had each been making wine in their homes for over 20 years. By the time they met at a family gathering in the early 90s, they had separately begun to experiment with fruit wine. Discussion turned to their mutual love of wine, and they were soon picking strawberries at Manitoba U-Pick farms to bottle their own off-dry strawberry wine. “We chose to work with strawberries simply because that’s what we grow in Manitoba and they’re most abundant at the farms,” d’Eschambault explains. The wine was so good that friends and family began urging them to sell it publicly. So they started to plan.

D’Eschambault and Streilein spent two years researching the wine business. Then, in 2000 they dived in, producing 700 cases of strawberry wine. This year they will ship 4,000 cases of over 10 varieties. Their focus on local products has continued to grow. As well as sourcing 10,000-12,000 pounds of stawberries annually from Portage la Prairie farmers, D.D. Leobard also buys over 15,000 pounds of other berries from various local producers.

Berry farmers are only one source of product. In the Interlake, they found Bill Kowulchuk, “a guy who just likes to go out and pick berries,” says d’Eschambault. Kowulchuk assembled a group of friends to comb the surrounding forests for chokecherries. An extremely hardy plant, wild chokecherries are built for Manitoba weather. “Bill is the guy who knows where to find them,” d’Eschambault proclaims.

For wild blueberries, the company went to Wabigoon, a community just west of Dryden in Northwest Ontario, which is “about as Manitoban as you can get without actually being here,” laughs d’Eschambault. He likes foraged blueberries because they are smaller than the farmed variety. The small berries are sweeter, as the flavour has nowhere to hide. It produces a very intense wine.

Then there’s the birch wine. “It’s a secret recipe produced from 100 percent birch sap. It’s truly a Canadian and Manitoban product,” d’Eschambault replies when asked exactly how the unique wine is made. The sap, which tastes somewhat like mellow molasses, is collected in the spring just like maple syrup. The company, Boreal Bounty of Flin Flon, is currently developing a food market for birch sap. Meanwhile, D.D. Leobard is perfecting a secret birch sap recipe, made similarly to classic wine. The product, made with Boreal Bounty’s sap, should be available in late fall—just in time to enjoy a glass with a season’s harvest dinner.

The biggest challenge for D.D. Leobard Winery has been in educating the public on the quality of their fruit wines. “People think they’re going to be terribly sweet. They remember that grandma made a horrible fruit wine in the bathtub,” d’Eschambault says. So the first thing to do is get people to taste the wines. “We find that 90 percent of people who sample the wines enjoy them immensely,” d’Eschambault says enthusiastically.

The tasting profile definitely breaks the stereotype of sweet fruit wine. The strawberry wine has a silky finish. Surprisingly, the dessert wines are even less sweet than the grape variety. “Often, you see partially full bottles of ice wine left at restaurant tables—they can’t finish it,” d’Eschambault says. “With our ice wine, you can actually savour a bottle with friends.”

Then there’s the stigma that fruit wine is not considered by some to be a true wine. This is refuted by no less an authority than the Canadian Wine Awards. D.D. Leobard has three categories: fruit on fruit, premium and dessert. Each category has at least one award-winning fruit wine. Their first wine, premium strawberry, won a silver medal in 2004.

Along with new wines for the fall D.D. Leobard looks to open a retail store next year featuring their wines and other local products. “We’d like to give back to the local suppliers,” d’Eschambault says simply.