France: An Oenological and Culinary Overview

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In the past two weeks I successfully grew my belly with the fruits of French terroir, tasting the wines and foods of Alsace, Lyon, the Rhone, and Provence. That so much variety came from such a tiny corner of Europe resonates far more with personal experience as compared to pouring over the Oxford Wine Atlas. As with most of my experiences on my trip, the visceral and immediate reshaped my book knowledge fundamentally and helped ground my opinions of French wine and food. Over the next several weeks I will write a series of feature articles on each of the producers I visited.

Both the quality and diversity of wine and food was astounding, but the most important insights came from spending time in some of the most storied vineyards and regions in the world and getting a sense of them as a place, without the romance and passion of imagination. The down to earth moments I spent walking through the vineyards and towns, dining at restaurants and talking to producers revealed the most about France when they were not what I expected and when they did not match up with my image of the place. But these insights will await future posts. For now I will present breadth and juxtaposition over depth – a comparison which serves as an excellent primer for the more in depth experiences to follow.

Three Star Dining at Auberge de L’Ill

Ok, so my France experience didn’t begin humbly. The first evening I drove into Alsace, I quickly dropped off my luggage and headed over to Illhaeusern to dine at France’s second oldest three star Michelin restaurant: Auberge de L’Ill (which had held three stars since 1967, a year after France’s longest running three star chef – Paul Bocuse).

Auberge de L’Ill offers classic French dining at its absolute apex. But the apex comes here with subtlety rather than bravado, wow moments or auteur like inspiration. Rather, Auberge is a complete experience. Atmosphere, lighting, service, execution, presentation, wine, timing – each element of the dining experience fit seamlessly into the other and made the three hour experience as close to the most perfect restaurant experience I’ve had. That all of this came without a ‘wow’ moment or one single killer dish made me realize how lacking the other (non-food) elements of the dining experience are in Vancouver.

The 1997 Leon Beyer Les Ecaillers (a Grand Cru, though not labeled as such) served as a perfect introduction to Alsace. Both a nervy dry wine and a stunning example of how well the best Rieslings of Alsace can Age, the Beyer was an exceptional wine: a honeyed waxy and densely mineral thing of beauty. As for the food, here are some of the courses:

At another dinner later in Alsace, enjoyed at Wistub du Sommelier in Bergheim, I also tasted this 1999 Hengst “Samain” Riesling from Josmeyer (their top wine from the Grand Cru Hengst – multiple tries, hand picked and whole bunch pressed) – also an exceptional wine but lacking the same level of finesse as the Beyer. Still, it is clear that the best Rieslings from Alsace age beautifully:

Lyon

After Alsace, I journeyed 3 hours by car to Lyon, the gustatory capital of France. The majority of the meals I had here were outstanding, though classically French insofar as they relied more on dairy fat and heavier cuts of meat for flavour. At Chez Lea I had the world’s best Vinnegar Chicken and Lyonnaise Salade (basically Caesar on steroids), and later at the Michelin starred L’Alexandrin I gorged on a spice focused menu with decidedly experimental touches and a stunning 1998 Volnay (the top vineyards of which I have to mention are sorely underrated).

The consistent theme in Lyon was gargantuan portions. Such portions demanded the considerable digestif qualities of good wine, which I found adequately supplied by Antic Wines in old Lyon. This is one hell of a wine store, with a moldy downstairs cellar complete with a “magnum room” consisting of 20+ year old wines from all across France. Antic supplied me with the following three outstanding wines:

Des Tours is owned by Chateau Rayas, who makes the most renowned Chateauneuf du Pape around. The wine, 10 years old, was still youthful but avoided the over heavyness of the majority of Southern Rhone wines, instead supplying a healthy portion of pretty flowers, light berry fruit and earth.

Described to me as “Selosse but more consistent”, the Brochet Champagne was actually of a very similar level of quality to the storied wines of Selosse (and only 35 Euros). A dense vinous wine it yet had stark minerality and precision to balance out its sumptuous fruit. Someone needs to import this now.

Perhaps the crown jewel of my Antic wine purchases was the top Cornas (old vines) from Mattieu Barret, a self-professed ‘natural wine’ maker. Barret uses no sulpher in his wines sold in France (though adds some for export) and this was a perfectly stored example. I have never had Syrah that tastes like this – exhuberant, pretty, floral, but also deeply animalistic and intensely and obviously Syrah. This wine proved to me that natural wines can in fact be terroir focused and true to their varieties. It is also clear that such wines should be shipped both with a minimal level of sulpher and proper refrigerated conditions.

Provence

Heading down to Provence proved a perfect antidote to the gargantuan portions and rich butter focused cuisine of Alsace and Lyon. Light, Mediterranean dishes focused on the freshness of ingredients, the lightness of vegetables and olive oil rather than butter – Provencal food is more similar to that of Spain than what many associate with traditional French food. Unfortunately, the Southern Rhone has, for the most part, given up on making wines with finesse and balance and instead seeks the easy to achieve fruit and alcohol that certain American critics seem to adore. It became even more clear to me after eating the food in the Southern Rhone and Provence that these wines are not naturally paired with the cuisine and have been distorted. A shame. That said, there are still a few true to life wines here, including this sumptuous but well balanced white:

And this fascinating 1989 Chateauneuf from a producer I’ve never heard of:

Even if not all of the wines were great, the scenery made up for it:

Tain L’Hermitage

After Provence, I headed back up to Hermitage. My wine experience here was amazing, and the producers I visited will be the subject of future articles. However, I feel compelled to report on the superb wine experience offered by Tain’s Le Mangevins restaurant. Food here is simple, well prepared fresh cuisine that is purposefully designed to take a back seat to the brilliant wine list, a page of which you can view here:

I drank two amazing wines at this restaurant. The first, a stunning example of both white Hermitage and the much maligned 2008 vintage, Paul and Vincent Jaboulet’s 2008 Ermitage Blanc was dense minerally and incredibly complex. This is a new venture of the famous Jaboulet family and is clearly already starting to outpace the much more famous Negocient (now owned by an international conglomerate).

I also drank Bernard Faurie’s 2007 Hermitage Rouge, a profound wine, aged in old oak and extremely traditional. This was a restrained hermitage, filled with violets, earth, blackberry and plum, it is a perfect example of what Hermitage is all about but it is not the sort of Syrah that many now associate with the place (a byproduct of the over jammed up wines of Chapoutier and Delas – much loved by Parker et al). I’d rather not say more simply because this wine is already so rare that it is already hard enough for the believers to get this stuff.

The Rest

A quick stop in Lyon as I returned to Germany in preparation for my flight back to Vancouver led to a quick stop at Bernachon, the master of Chocolate:

In Germany I stayed for one day in Bacharach to check out the castles and prettiness. What I found is that the MittelRhine is actually producing some serious wines, including this Grand Cru beauty from Toni Jost:

Oh, and the slate vineyards are as perlious and mind-numbingly steep as they say:

So France, a complex country of many voices. The cuisine and wine are outstanding, but there is a clear sense here of a conflict between tradition and forward thinking, sometimes with the new exciting challenges coming out of certain market failures brought about by too much adherence to tradition. That said, it is, of course, the tradition that has made France so marketable. I think this is a conflicted country, and one which harbours a considerable array of approaches to wine and food that, while they are both regional and the source for so much international inspiration, are also clearly increasingly inspired by reactions from the United States and elsewhere and are begining to develop a fairly strong sense of irony and self-criticism. To me, it was more the conflict between the stark traditionalists and those with a more developed sense of self-awareness that defined my experience than any sort of utopic traditionalism. In this manner, France is clearly on the cusp of something entirely different from what it has been, even as it rediscovers the greatness of its terroirs. In the next several articles, I will take a look at the varied producers that I visited and the conflicts and insights they provided.

Posted in: Features, France 2011

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