Across the border from Vermont, a medieval showpiece
SUTTON, Quebec - The road runs parallel to the Vermont border, dipping and rising along the forested hills. At a scenic elevation, a cluster of haphazardly parked cars frames a pair of iron gates. Beyond is an unlikely sight: a cobblestone path leading to a medieval chapel, the sort you might find in Tuscany or Provence. New France's earliest explorers might have built 17th-century structures, but a 13th-century chapel?
A guided tour supplies the answers. The stone-walled building is the creation of a Czech-born antiques dealer, Henrietta Antony. At 77, she radiates energy, welcoming groups in English or French. She acquired the 450 acres piecemeal, she explains, starting in 1959, and slowly transformed them into this Moravian paradise. Her yellow stucco home with its Baroque-style facade, built in 1989, was just the beginning.
Antony went on to create the chapel, a caretaker's house, and a whimsical garden with a grass-roofed "hobbit house," the sort of place Moravian monks might have inhabited in the Middle Ages. In 2000 she completed the vineyard, carving the hillside into a terraced showpiece. Its 7,000 vines now produce a dry white table wine and a prize-winning ice wine made from frozen grapes. Though not the only winery in southern Quebec - the region has at least 18 - for sheer romance, Chapelle St. Agnes is in a class of its own.
On a summer afternoon, Antony guides visitors into the chapel. It is an intimate, musty-smelling place, with close-set pews, mosaic floors, and statues missing arms and noses. After World War II, life was quiet in southern Quebec, she tells us, but there was plenty of wood, and for many, carving became a pastime for the winter months. Some masterful work was produced, but with the advent of television, local woodcarving skills began to die out. Saddened at the loss, she started to collect carvings.
Antony had immigrated to Canada in 1949 and settled in Montreal, where she married, started a family, and launched a business repairing antiques. Every spare cent went to artifacts, including Quebec carvings. Many are displayed in the chapel, alongside European religious artifacts acquired over the years. The lectern dates from the 17th century, the stained-glass windows are early 18th-century German, and the late Gothic statue of St. John the Baptist originated in Bohemia.
Antony prizes the chapel for its beauty as much as its religious significance. "In a way," she says, "building this chapel is my present to the country that adopted me." She christened it St. Agnes in honor of a 13th-century nun who founded a Prague convent. "St. Agnes was the daughter of a Bohemian king who devoted her life to the poor and sick," Antony said. "Why I admire her so much is that she was very practical: She founded a male order to help [the nuns] lift the sick [onto hospital beds]."
Something of the same practicality marks Antony's life. Her repair business grew into Montreal's largest antiques gallery. With prosperity came the urge to mold her own aesthetic. Importing cobblestones from the Czech Republic, she added European-style walkways and terraces. She commissioned tradesmen to carve doors, paint murals, lay mosaics, sculpt, even build a tile heating oven. When an outdoor restroom was called for, she disguised it as an Ottoman military tent, its sides resembling faded tapestries. Responding to a visitor's awe, she says, "Without follies life would be bitter."
To build the vineyard, she called upon Christian Barthomeuf, who pioneered Quebec's development of ice wine in 1989 and continues to make it at Clos Saragnat, an organic vineyard in nearby Frelighsburg. Antony uses many of the same techniques. To create a warming endoclimate, 18 heat-absorbing rock wall terraces were stacked up the hillside like a Roman amphitheater. A pond was dug at the base, and then a four-level cellar complex extending 42 feet down to the bedrock.
Antony opened the heavy wooden door and stepped into the hillside. Along one wall, a window overlooks the fermentation hall, where the gravity-fed nectar collects to ferment. A stairway with a vaulted ceiling took us deeper, to two chandeliered tasting halls, each with arched ceilings. A French-speaking group was sipping wine around an antique banquet table, listening as Antony's son, John, described the wine-making process. The 52-year-old vintner grew so enamored with the vineyard that he left his Montreal accounting job and went to viticulture school. Now he handles the wine end of things, leaving his mother in charge of "bricks and stones."
Dreaming of a wine cellar like those in southern Moravia, she returned to the Czech Republic for guidance. Friends took her to a vineyard in the town of Cejkovice that the Knights Templar had built in 1235 from bricks that had been carried from Italy over the Alps, piece by piece. "If the Templars could bring every brick from Italy," Antony says, "why couldn't I bring this?"
She flew masons in from Burgundy and Moravia, and gradually, her Sutton cellar took shape. It looks like something out of Prague Castle, its massive vaulted ceilings crossed with graceful limestone arcs. A suit of armor stands in a corner by coats of arms and an antique throne. In the adjacent chamber, a shelf displays vintage Bohemian drinking glasses.
"Now you know why I did it," Antony says. "I wanted to be home."
She poured some wine and offered a three-step lesson in ice wine degustation. First, you savor its golden transparency. You swirl it in the goblet a few times for extra lift, then taste just a drop. The goal is to make the flavor linger. It did not disappoint.
Upstairs, work is underway on a reception hall, solarium, and tower. But Antony's most ambitious feat is yet to come. "When I finished the vineyards," she said, "they were so beautiful, I thought, they really deserve a chateau."
Diane Foulds can be reached at dianefoulds@burlingtontele com.net.