The Revival of Haute Cuisine in France (Was it Ever Dead?)

Ever since Michael Steinberger wrote Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, I’ve been on the qui vive for signs of moribundness (is that a word? if not maybe it should be) or liveliness in restaurants in France. In four days in Paris last month, I had a series of innovative meals; Michael’s argument stands insofar as none of them were really classic; a common feature was an emphasis on Asiatic spicing (see New Paris Cuisine is a Challenge for Wine). (In fact, I had some difficulty in finding restaurants that I thought would give an impression of the present state of classic cuisine, as many seemed to have gone overboard for foreign influences.) Those I went to had a subtle interplay of classicism and new influences that I would regard more as reinvigorating their style than abandoning tradition, so in that respect I would take issue with Michael’s conclusions.

In the south of France this month, near Nice, experiences have been mixed, but two restaurants in Nice stand out for modern, innovative style, although the influences are entirely different from those I saw in Paris. They share the feature that a key factor in quality is that there’s only a single tasting menu, with no separate à la carte. Both have styles that are crisp and modern with a wonderful lightness of being. In both, you can watch the chef assembling every dish through a window into the kitchen.

L’Aromate is an amazing jewel of a restaurant, occupying a tiny space in a shop front in the center of Nice. It has a staff of only two: Mickaël Gracieux is the chef; his wife is the front of house. (There’ve been some complaints about slow service on the web, but don’t worry about it: this is not at all a problem). Crab with ginger influences was a terrific starter. The main course of sea bass with a sauce based on basil and truffles was as good as it comes. A tube of chocolate with caramelized hazelnuts was a brilliant finish. Every dish is presented with a challenge to the imagination. The menu changes every quarter.

Restaurant Jan is a little larger, as South African chef Jan Hendrik has an assistant or two in the kitchen, and maintains a style of coruscating brilliance. Salmon marinated with beets was a brilliant starter. Angus beef with beetroot combined a new set of flavors for me. Finally fruits with a sauce of red fruits and roses gave a brilliant combination between influences of fruits and perfume. Two courses on the menu change every fortnight.

Wine is a bit of a challenge at both restaurants, as lists are fairly short (but reasonably priced) and courses are so varied, but at both we settled on a red Sancerre, light enough to go with the starters, but enough weight to match the main courses. If you haven’t had a red Sancerre in the era of global warming, you should try one, as they are light years away from the old image of the near-rosé.

Outside of Nice, my best experience by far was at the Table of Patrick Raingeard at Éze-Bord-de-Mer (a few miles to the East), where one evening à la carte (which is quite extensive), and another with a tasting menu (which changes each week), both showed wonderful precision of cuisine. Cucumber and half-smoked salmon returned to the theme of Asian spices I found in Paris, and a cassoulet of lobster with spices was the most acclaimed main course. Perched in a garden a few yards from the beach, the restaurant has a positively romantic setting.

Classic cuisine, if by that we mean overt use of butter and cream, may have largely died, but new cuisine is alive and well in France. Of course, you can now eat equally well in other countries, and the level of innovation is just as great in, say, London or New York, so France no longer has a monopoly on innovation..

Is Nespresso in France Completely Mad?

It’s only 24 hours since we arrived in the south of France for a month’s vacation and already there has been the first tangle with bureaucracy. The rental house has a Nespresso machine so I try to order some capsules on the web. This is not a new procedure: I have used Nespresso in the U.K. and U.S., without ever having a problem, and I’ve used it in France without (too much) difficulty in previous years.

This year, however, I can add to the stories on the web from people who have ordered Nespresso capsules online and received the infamous code 711, which says that the order cannot be completed without calling Nespresso. The general complaint is that the credit card gets charged, but Nespresso denies charging it and coffee never comes.

The Nespresso site says proudly that service is available 24/7. So I call Nespresso. Well it turns out that 24/7 in France means not on Sundays. So this morning I call the Nespresso phone line. The representative wants my account number and address, but then informs me that the details are incorrect and for security reasons Nespresso cannot not fulfill the order. Security reasons! this is coffee not a bank account.

I point out that I am actually reading the details to him from a screen with my account details on the Nespresso site. This has no effect: the details are wrong, he says. I ask for a supervisor. He refuses and then disconnects. (In the interests of full disclosure I should state that the phone line was not very clear, and the conversation was, of course, in French, which is not my native language.)

So I have a useless machine! Ah, but there may be a solution. The Nespresso site offers two means of ordering coffee: you can pay with a credit card; or you can ask for the coffee to be sent with an invoice. I repeat my order, but instead of actually paying, I promise to pay an invoice. Voila! the site accepts the order.

Is this crazy or is this crazy? There’s a supposed problem with the credit card, a candidate for the most obtuse person employed in France refuses to sort it out (is Nespresso an employer of the last resort?), but they’ll send the coffee anyway on the basis of a promise to pay. Bienvenue à la France! Ah well, we have to see whether it will really come. If not I may be forced to stick to wine.

New Paris Cuisine Is A Challenge for Wine

Four days in Paris last week refuted the idea that haute cuisine in France has run out of steam. Every dinner was different and innovative, but a theme that seemed to run through the evenings was the introduction of Asian spices. This leaves me wondering whether the traditional matches of wine and food still stand up in France or we need to rethink.

This question has struck some producers. François Milo of the producers’ association in Provence says that, “The mondialization of cuisine has benefited rosé. In France there has always been a fixed idea of which wines (red or white) accompany certain stages of the meal. But it’s difficult to pair red wines with international foods. I think that for the future, rosé is a vin de liberté.” I did not go so far as to try rosé – for one thing there aren’t that many rosés with enough flavor interest at this level, and for another choices on restaurant lists are very limited – but I did vary my usual thinking on suitable combinations.

Turbot in coconut sauce was a definite challenge the first evening at restaurant Auguste. In fact, I found the coconut influence a bit too strong for the delicacy of turbot. Overall this seemed to offer a similar challenge to dishes of stronger fishes prepared with vanillin a few years back. Then we had gone for a white Côte de Beaune to match: this time we went for Louis Michel’s Montée de Tonnerre 2012 from Chablis to find a bit more contrast. The Chablis didn’t have quite enough minerality to cut through the coconut, but it resisted well. Actually I liked it better than the Valourent of the same vintage, tasted a few days earlier, which seemed to have a surprising amount of forward fruit: the Montée de Tonnerre at least had intimations of minerality, although I’m not sure how far they will develop with time.

There were two fish dishes at l’Arôme: légine australe on asparagus, and turbot on rhubarb. (The first was unknown to me but tuned out on investigation to be the same as Chilean sea bass, a.k.a. the Patagonian toothfish, except that it apparently comes from waters off Africa.) These were quite strongly flavored dishes, too strong I felt to match white Burgundy, but Jonathan Pabiot’s Pouilly-Fumé Predilection from 2012 provided a brilliant contrast. This is very much the New Pouilly-Fumé, all delicacy and elegance: in fact, the Anima Figure (my companion) described it as ethereal. (The antithesis of New World Sauvignon Blanc, demonstrating wonderful range for the variety, if raising the question of its true typicity.) A course of chicken oysters and gambas was less successful.

Friends in Paris had managed to obtain a table at l’Astrance for the next evening. (This had required 35 phone calls on the day booking opened.) Choosing wine is a little tricky since the menu is a surprise, but on the basis of some hints from the sommelier, we decided that a light red would be most appropriate, and went for Domaine Dujac’s Morey St. Denis 2002. (The wine list at l’Astrance is extraordinarily fairly priced, a big contrast with most other restaurants in Paris, although you can usually find some wine where the sommelier has a special connection and price is more reasonable.) The red proved extremely versatile, going well with the famous cake of fois gras, langoustine with Asiatic influences, and légine australis again. (They were a little put out at l’Astrance to discover we had had the same fish the evening before at l’Arôme: apparently there are only five boats fishing for it, one from France, which presumably supplies both restaurants). Curiously, the final lamb dish which should have been the best match for the wine didn’t quite come to life, although the wine showed a wonderful combination of crystalline brilliance reminiscent of Volnay and femininity of Chambolle Musigny. Fighting well above its communal level, you might say.

Finally abandoning restaurants with names starting with “A”, our last evening was at Jean-François Piégé. The main courses were hommard bleu (cooked in blackcurrant leaves) and turbot in a curry sauce. One of the preceding dishes was asparagus in a sauce in which I thought I also detected curry, but which turned out to be saffron pistils. The wine was a no-brainer as there was a strong selection of Raveneau premier cru Chablis at reasonable prices. We had a Vaillons 2005, which turned out to be noticeably richer than usual for Raveneau, but still showing that characteristic anise and minerality on the back palate. Possibly a leaner year would have been an even better match for the food.

I can hear a cry going up: why no Riesling? It’s a wonderfully versatile grape that matches a wide variety of foods, especially good against Asiatic spicing, and is undervalued. I would concede the principle immediately, but my problem with Riesling is that nowhere – Alsace or Germany or anywhere else in Europe – is the principle accepted that there is an international standard for dry wine: less than 4 g/l of residual sugar. So I am almost never certain enough that a wine will be dry. Producers may argue that it tastes dry if acidity is sufficiently high, but that’s a matter of subjective judgment, and I prefer not to take a risk in a restaurant. (And asking the sommelier has resulted in too many wines which were stated to be dry but on which residual sugar could be tasted.)

I believe l’Astrance started the move in Paris to surprise menus. I was struck by the fact that three evenings out of four we had a surprise in at least some courses. At both l’Arôme and Piégé, you choose your main course(s) – you can choose either one or two from a short list – but the starters and desserts are a surprise from the chef. It’s a neat solution to the difficulties of providing many choices at every course which must simplify issues like food wastage and buying-in for the restaurant. Of course, you have to be a top-line chef to pull this off. A consequence is that it does make it more difficult to find an appropriate wine. Wines by the glass chosen to match the food are offered by most of the restaurants, but my past experience is that this can be a bit erratic in providing interest in the wine.

On the last evening at Piégé, I said to the maitre d’ that a series of interesting dinners seemed to put paid to the idea bruited a few years ago in the Anglo-Saxon press that haute cuisine in France had died a lingering death. “I would have agreed with the idea five years ago,” he said, explaining that the rush of innovation is a revival of the past few years. Granted that there are similar influences, each interpretation is different: I wonder where it will go next.

Cru Bourgeois Show Strengths and Weaknesses in 2012 Vintage

With prices either stratospheric (in good vintages) or simply unreasonable (in poorer vintages) for most of the Grand Cru Classés or their equivalents, and given the trend towards a richer, more alcoholic, international style, it’s a fair question where to turn if your preferences lie towards the old tradition of Bordeaux, meaning wines that have elegance and freshness.

I have felt for some time that the best of the Cru Bourgeois may be a more interesting alternative than the second wines of the great chateaux, as prices have remained reasonable and styles have not been so influenced by fashion. But I may need to rethink this after the New York tasting of Cru Bourgeois from 2012. Granted this was only a relatively small selection of the (almost) 300 Cru Bourgeois, and the most notable were not present (not to mention the fact that the best known chateaux in this category, which had been at the highest level in the old hierarchy, withdrew from the classification when it became a single tier when the new system was introduced).

Each chateau at this tasting brought the 2012 and one previous vintage from one of the last three years. I was generally a little disappointed in the 2012s. They were all well made wines, but seemed to fall into one of two categories. About half seemed to have made efforts to make the wines more approachable, with an initial softness on the palate. The problem here, to my mind, is that this leaves the wines between two stools: neither showing the lush fruits that are in fashion in New World, nor showing the traditional more savory spectrum of Bordeaux. I don’t think immediate gratification is in the DNA of Bordeaux. The wines are quite nicely rounded, but I was left wondering whether they are competitive in today’s market against varietal competitors from the New World. The other half showed more of Bordeaux’s usual asperity when young; but supposing these wines will peak in, say, three years’ time, the question becomes whether consumers will want to buy them now to hold for the future.

I find it difficult to raise much enthusiasm for the 2011 vintage. Most of the wines are tight, with a certain lack of underlying generosity which makes it seem doubtful whether they will open out. There’s a tendency towards green notes. My impression now is less favorable than it was at the introductory tasting of the 2011 vintage a year ago, when the youthful fruits were more in evidence; in the past year, the fruits seem to have lightened, but the tannins have not. I think you just need better terroir than most of the Cru Bourgeois possess in order to have been able to get to a satisfactory degree of ripeness in 2011. (By contrast, I thought the 2011 Grand Cru Classés often managed to show elegance and could be nice restaurant wines–if they were half the price!)

The 2010 and 2009 vintages showed their character through the prism of Cru Bourgeois, with 2010 tending to precision (which sometimes takes the form of tightness in the Cru Bourgeois at this point) and 2009 often nicely rounded (but somehow mostly lacking follow-through on the palate).

Here are some wines that illustrate the character of the 2012 vintage and appellation at this level. The most elegant wine from the Haut Médoc was Clément Pichon, somewhat in the style of the femininity of Margaux just to its north. In Margaux, Haut Breton Larigaudière is still a bit tight, waiting for the elegant fruits to emerge. Illustrating the disappearance of Cru Bourgeois from top appellations, there weren’t any examples of St. Julien or Pauillac. La Haye shows the typical tightness of young St. Estèphe. To the west, Château Lalaudey is a good representation of Moulis, with a lighter take on the style of the great communes. Château Rollan de By is a good illustration of what can be achieved in the Médoc. There are some nice wines in the 2012 Cru Bourgeois–but you do have to look for them.

Does Gran Selezione Really Make A Difference in Chianti Classico?

The new Gran Selezione top tier of Chianti Classico made its first appearance in New York this week. It’s intended to revive Chiantio Classico after years in the doldrums..

Regulations for Gran Selezione are nominally more stringent than for Riserva, but the only practical difference is that maturation must last 30 months rather than 24 months. Grapes must come from an estate’s own vineyards, but the wine can be a blend or selection of lots, and doesn’t have to be from a single vineyard; the restriction just means that it cannot include purchased grapes.

A process for approval should ensure that all wines with the label live up to the demands for a top tier, which was not the case with Riserva, and this may very well be the main difference. About a third of the wines submitted in the initial round were not approved. Gran Selezione is a new name but not a new style or quality level. Virtually all of the first rush of Gran Selezione (89 wines have been approved to date) are the same wines that used to be labeled as Riserva (more or less the very best of the Riserva); there are just a handful of new wines created for the Gran Selezione category, which was approved in 2013. Most of the initial round of Gran Selezione wines are the 2010 vintage, harvested before anyone knew if Gran Selezione would become reality, so it may be too early to see whether new wines will be created for the category.

The regulations for alcohol levels seem like a throwback to a distant era, calling for a minimum of 12% in Chianti Classico, 12.5% in Riserva, and 13% in Gran Selezione. When are the authorities in Europe going to realize that the old equation of alcohol with ripeness is now half a century out of date, and the issue is to restrain, not to encourage, alcohol? Chiantis today are routinely achieving alcohol levels way above the stated limits: in the not particularly warm year of 2010, virtually all the wines are over 14% alcohol (the average for Gran Selezione was 14.2%). That said, perception of alcohol was not evident on the palate, and the relatively high level does not seem to be a problem–but it does not need to be encouraged further.

Generally freshness runs through the 2010 vintage. Some of the wines are plush enough to drink now, others are still rather tight (although none are really what you might call tannic), but the general impression throughout is that these are food wines. Against the background of alcohol levels over 14%, this confirms my view that the problem with high alcohol wines isn’t so much the alcohol level itself as the fact that late harvest and winemaking have accentuated extraction as well as alcohol, and it’s the extract that makes the wines fatiguing (not a problem in Chianti Classico).

It took Chianti Classico an agonizing period to modernize its regulations for grape varieties, by removing the requirement that some white grapes must be included, and allowing 100% Sangiovese. Today, up to 20% of other varieties can be included. Roughly a third of the wines are pure Sangiovese. The others most often include Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but some of the old indigenous varieties such as Malvasia Nero or Colorino are still found. The average proportion of Sangiovese is now over 90%. There’s a slight increase in the average proportion of Sangiovese going from Chianti Classico to Riserva or Gran Selezione (probably not statistically significant), but perhaps more to the point, there’s a tendency for producers to move to 100% Sangiovese for the Gran Selezione. Presumably this reflects selection of the best grapes for Gran Selezione, making inclusion of the other varieties unnecessary.

I have to admit, however, that I could not see any clear effect of grape varieties in tasting, and I would not be confident of identifying wines that are pure Sangiovese, as opposed to wines that have some Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. The characteristics of the individual plot, in particular where it lies on the north-south axis, and its elevation, as well of course as winemaking, are equally important. There are no rules for aging, but most producers are following a similar regime in which the wine is aged in barriques of French oak.

Gran Selezione is supposed to be the best wine coming from a producer, but there’s no formal requirement that it must be (for example) the producer’s highest priced wine. “The problem is that the top wine is often not labeled as Chianti Classico,” says Sergio Zingarelli, the head of the producers’ association. “I planted a new vineyard fifteen years ago to be my top wine, but if there wasn’t Gran Selezione it would have been an IGT. I think the Gran Selezione will be at the same level as the Super Tuscans.” It would be an exaggeration to say that the name of Chianti has been devalued, but it’s true that historic difficulties with the regulations mean that for most producers their top wines are in the informal Super Tuscan category, labeled as the nominally lowly IGT Toscana. Many of these wines could have been labeled as Chianti Classico after the regulations were updated, but I’m not aware of any that have changed. It would be a mark of success for Gran Selezione if Super Tuscans were relabeled, but I would not hold your breath. In fact, the trend is in the other direction. “The problem is that some producers have made a selection from middle of the range, which sends a mixed message to the market as to how much the producer believes in it,” comments Antonio Galloni. Some producers used to make Riserva wines only in better vintages; it remains to be seen if that will be true also for Gran Selezione.

The introduction of Gran Selezione was not universally accepted by producers, although some who were against it are now making wines in the category; probably it will settle down to become accepted as the new top tier of Chianti Classico, even if that does not mean much more than picking out the best of what used to be the Riserva category. “The real need here is to clarify Chianti’s zones and vineyards, which isn’t being done,” says Sebastiano Castiglioni of Querciabella, who is staying out of the system, and focusing on single vineyard wines. So it’s unclear whether the new category will have any effect on recognition of different terroirs in Chianti Classico, which might be a more effective way to gain recognition for the region.

It’s not straightforward to compare Gran Selezione with Riserva directly, because most producers switched the label from one vintage to the next (the other wines being simple Chianti Classico), but there are a few producers who have different cuvées in both categories. In these rare cases, the Gran Selezione is usually just a touch more intense than the Riserva, just as the Riserva is usually a touch more intense than the Chianti Classico, although the difference has narrowed in recent years due to a general improvement in the quality of Chianti Classico. The wines are richer and deeper, often showing a mix of red and black fruits as opposed to the bright red cherries of old, and perhaps the real message is the improvement of quality all round.

All Change in Roussillon: New Approaches but Still Looking for Identity

It was an indication of trends in the region that sweet wines were much less in evidence than dry at the Roussillon tasting in New York (for those statistically inclined, the breakdown was about half dry red and a quarter each of dry white and sweet wines, with a handful of rosés).

Whites have been making progress in the south of France, but it remains a bit of an uphill battle against the sun in Roussillon, the farthest south, driest, and warmest region in France. Whites were in a small minority, and on this showing, are having some difficulty in establishing a balance between becoming overly aromatic and phenolic (and alcoholic) or maintaining freshness (by picking early but at the expense of flavor variety and intensity). Most of the wines are fermented purely in stainless steel, but occasional essays into oak sometimes do bring a touch of greater roundness and complexity.

Getting a bead on the character of the region is not helped by the wide range of varieties, from aromatic Muscat or Viognier to flat Grenache Blanc or Carignan Blanc. In the Languedoc, experiments with more northern varieties, such as Chenin Blanc, have sometimes led to attractive results, but Roussillon seems more to be sticking to its traditional varieties. It’s curious that the difficulties of viticulture in cool climates have resulted in development of grape varieties that do better under marginal conditions (although none has yet produced more than serviceable results), but there do not appear to have been comparable attempts to develop white varieties for warm climates.

Reds show more consistency, although it is hard to identify styles with grape varieties. I don’t think it is so much that terroir trumps cepage as that climate (and winemaking) trump cepage: there’s a certain sameness in high alcohol and extract. It can be hard to see the cepage behind the soft, round, character, especially at entry level. Even 100% Syrah can taste more like Châteauneuf du Pape than like Hermitage. When ripeness verges on over-ripeness, there’s a tendency to convergence, although perhaps Grenache stands out a bit for its overwhelming fruit and tendency to nuttiness on the finish.

Although AOPs must be blends, mostly of traditional varieties, whereas IGPs can be monovarietal and tend to have more “international” varieties, the difference between them is not as marked as you might expect in either style or quality. I do not think that in blind tasting it would be possible to distinguish wines as coming from the AOP Côtes du Roussillon as opposed to the IGP Côtes Catalanes. (Of course, sometimes the differences are blurred by ignoring the rules: that 100% Syrah was in fact an AOP wine.)

Sweet wines run a range from Muscat Rivesaltes, which tends to be a bit dull (why is Muscat considered one of the noble varieties in France?), to the slightly “sticky” impression of many Rivesaltes, and a handful of very concentrated old wines in the ambré category. These can be good, but only the very best achieve the complexity of dessert wines from Sauternes or the Loire; given the expense of production and the limited market, you can see why producers are moving out of the category.

Roussillon is a work in progress. It’s come a long way from the days when the Midi produced cheap bulk wine, but on this showing, it hasn’t yet really found its identity completely in the quality market.

Two Decades of Ducru Beaucaillou Show Supreme Elegance But With Surprises

The Wine Society’s tasting of wines from Ducru Beaucaillou with Bruno Borie was an eye opener into the changing nature of Bordeaux, although the grand vin of Ducru continued to demonstrate its supreme elegance.

Croix de Beaucaillou was introduced as a second wine in 1995 (displacing Lalande Borie to the position of third wine). It’s now not so much a second wine as a separate brand, Bruno explained, coming from vineyards plots farther from the Gironde. This may explain why I could not see much of an obvious relationship between La Croix de Beaucaillou and Ducru Beaucaillou itself. Both come only from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but La Croix tends to have 10-20% more Merlot, and its style is more superficial. It’s round and attractive, but it’s the grand vin of Ducru Beaucaillou that shows the precision that typifies St. Julien. I was surprised by the closeness of style of the 2010 and 2009 La Croix; the difference seems due more to the extra year’s age of the 2009 than to vintage character, as both show fruits before structure.

The youngest Ducru was the 2009, smooth and silky, and just about drinkable now as the tannins are coming into balance with the fruits. “The drinkability of 2009 is evident,” Bruno says. Young Bordeaux from great vintages no longer has punishing tannins, but all the same, the tannins still have grip, and to drink it now is to miss the point, as those subtle, elegant, flavors won’t come out from under for several years. Judging from comments around me about deliciousness, and seeing the empty glasses, it strikes me that there is a willingness on the part of the consumer to accept wines with more tannins and extract then used to be the case. Yes, it’s a plumper version of Ducru’s usual style, but please don’t drink it yet.

I almost never like 2006 left bank wines as I find it hard to get past the flat character of the year, but both La Croix and Ducru showed more aromatics than I usually see in this vintage. Very good results for the year, but all the same, hard to see that they are going anywhere.

The biggest surprise of the tasting for me was the 1999: traditional claret with a light fruit impression that’s as much red as black. It’s very drinkable, what I would call a luncheon claret, and it strikes me that it’s very much what claret used to be, before the grand cru classés started going for more extraction and a deeper, richer, international style.

The next surprise was the 1996 which is simply glorious. I’ve always regarded this as one of the standouts of the vintage, but the last time I tasted it, a delicious counterbalance of herbaceousness was developing to offset the fruits. This bottle (fresh from the Ducru cellars) by contrast did not have any trace of herbaceousness, but tended more to chocolate and sweet tobacco and cedar overtones. It’s not often that I see Bordeaux losing herbaceousness with age and showing clearer fruit character.

Ducru remains the quintessential St. Julien for me, with a terrific ability to pinpoint the character of each vintage, although I tend to prefer “classic” vintages to more “modern” ones..