About Benjamin Lewin

One of 300 Masters of Wine, Benjamin Lewin has published many books, including What Price Bordeaux?, Wine Myths and Reality, In Search of Pinot Noir, Claret & Cabs: the Story of Cabernet Sauvignon, and Wines of France. He is the author of many volumes in the series on classic wine regions, Guides to Wines and Top Vineyards. He also writes the myths and realities column for the World of Fine Wine and has written for Decanter magazine. His books have been shortlisted for the prestigious Andre Simon and Roederer wine book awards. The blog records interesting wines, people, and experiences encountered while writing his books.

Bibi Graetz: Wine in the Hills of Fiesole

Bibi Graetz has a penchant for making wine in unusual places—high up in the hills of Fiesole, overlooking Florence, and on Giglio, a steep and rocky island off the coast of Maremma. Well outside the famous areas, the winery in Fiesole is there because “I was born here. My grandfather bought the house and land, did some farming and made some wine that was sold in bulk. My father planted a 2 ha vineyard here in the 1960s, after talking to the local farmers.” Bibi started making wine in 2000, but “when I started it was not a business, it was all very casual. I remember people coming to the house to buy wine in demi-johns. I threw myself into winemaking and since then it has been my life.”

The medieval castle of Vinciaglata is at a high point overlooking the vineyards. Now empty, it would make a splendid winery.

Bibi sources grapes from vineyards all over the area. Besides the small plot in Fiesole, which has expanded to 4.5 ha and is just across the road from the winery, there are vineyards all over the Chianti area, “like a stripe running through the whole area of Chianti,” Bibi says.

Right from the beginning there have been two wines, Testamatta and Colore, both labeled as super-Tuscans. The approach is the antithesis of the increasing worldwide focus on single vineyards; both wines are blends from multiple sources. “I was in love with old vineyards, so it didn’t make any sense to buy land and plant—I planted my first vineyard only in 2012—so I looked for old vineyards. I still don’t own vineyards, but I have long term contracts; we manage the vineyards but don’t own land. So it doesn’t make sense for us to make a single vineyard wine. Our idea is more like a super-Tuscan than a Burgundy concept.”

We tasted barrel samples of the individual vineyards from 2016. “We are going to taste the vineyards from north to south,” Bibi said. As he described the sources, it became clear that Bibi is in love not only with old vineyards, but also with vineyards at high altitudes. All except one of the vineyards are above 300m. You might say his wines are all high altitude wines. And not only was there a wide spectrum from the different vineyards, from the cool climate impressions of a plot at high elevation above Greve in Chianti, to the more powerfully structured expression of a south-facing vineyard south of Siena, but there was a remarkable difference between barrels of different ages, even though there is no new oak in Testamatta. In the early years, the wines went into 100% new oak, under the advice of an oenologist, but this changed after 2005. “I don’t work with an oenologist any more because I like to do my thing. I worked with an oenologist at first, but they didn’t like my experiments.” Today Bibi’s view is that, “for Testamatta it is important not to use new oak, we wouldn’t have the fruit coming forward. The uniqueness of Testamatta is that we don’t impose a style, you don’t have the oak, you just have the impression of the grapes coming out.” Indeed there is wide vintage variation: 2016 will be a powerful vintage, but 2015 is infinitely elegant.

The family house and small winery buildings are grouped around a courtyatrd, right on the road through Vincigliata.

Testamatta comes from seven plots and is 100% Sangiovese. Colore is a selection of the best lots, from the oldest vineyards, and is about a third each of Canaiolo, Colorino, and Sangiovese. The vineyard plots used for Testamatta are more or less the same each year; there is a little variation in the Sangiovese used for Colore as it always has the best barrels. “Colore has a little new oak, we look for the lots with more structure, so it has a bit more volume.”

Bibi also makes the white wines on the island of Giglio, just off the coast of Maremma. “It’s basically a rock in the middle of the sea, it’s a pretty arid climate—it never rains!” Bibi says, with perhaps a slight exaggeration. “Vineyards go from sea level to 300m. We are planting one at 550m. You can do a big white wine in Giglio, it’s not so easy to find a big white from Tuscany.”

White wine has always been a bit of a problem in Italy, in my view. The paucity of interesting white wines has led me to start meals in Italy by choosing a red wine, irrespective of what food we might choose. There’s a handful of exceptions, starting Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzi, which I love for its savory character, and there are some Chardonnay’s from the north following a more Burgundian model, but it’s hard to argue with the view that white wine is much more difficult than red.

Bibi’s whites have their own character. There is a strong emphasis on Ansonica. Scopeto (named for an area of Giglio) is the entry level, and is a blend of Vermentino and Ansonica. It has 20% fermented with skins for one week “in the old way” and has a slight impression of an orange wine. The other whites are all 100%. Ansonica. Chiozzolo really is an orange wine, fermented on skins for 7 days and aged in new barrels that come from Burgundy. Bugia is more conventional, aged 90% in stainless steel and 10% in wood. Last year Bibi produced a white Testamatta for the first time, just 700 bottles. “For Testamatta I took the best parcels, there’s no skin contact but it’s fermented and aged in 100% new oak. Here I think you go towards a big white wine.” The common feature, whether it comes from the grapes or from skin contact or oak maturation, is a sense of extract and texture to the palate, almost a sense of austerity to restrain the fruits. Powerful would be a misleading description, but these are definitely wines with a strong personality. In the white Testamatta 2016, the oak is already beautifully integrated and is (as it should be) a subtle presence in the background. I suspect it will prove to be just as successful as its famous red brother.

Making wines in three places,Bibi is a busy fellow. White wines are made on Giglio, Testamatta and Colore at the small winery in Fiesole, and the entry level wines, which are part of a negociant activity, under the Casamatta name, are made in rented space at a larger winery. “Our winery is not big enough to do entry level wine,” Bibi explains. It has been difficult to visit or purchase wine at the winery, because it’s basically a small group of buildings extending from the family house. But this may change as Bibi is thinking about moving into larger space, which would relieve the cramped conditions at the winery, and allow there to be a tasting room. Spending a morning with Bibi, I got the impression that it’s not just wine that ferments here: there is a constant ferment of ideas. In the air at the moment are the possibilities of introducing a single vineyard wine or a second wine to Testamatta. This must surely be one of the liveliest wineries in Tuscany.

 

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What to do about Ullaged Wines?

I discovered about a dozen seriously ullaged wines when I was doing a physical inventory of my cellar, which I do every year to check on what’s really there (some bottles get consumed without recording, some get taken to events, some just disappear…) While I’m at it, I check the conditions of the bottles. Although the cellar is temperature- and humidity-controlled, some bottles do develop ullage—corks don’t last for ever, no matter what.

On a previous check, I discovered ullage in most of my bottles of Mouton Rothschild 1970. I asked Mouton what happened, and this was the reply: “In 1970, we used cork of 54 mm length and we had problem due to the size of the cork and not the quality. Today we use cork of 49 mm length and it is much better. When the cork is too long, the space between wine and cork is not enough to absorb temperature variations.” Pity they didn’t do a recall!

This year the ullaged bottles were all one-offs, with vintages ranging from 1948 to 1975. I have been trying to find a way of enjoying them. Their condition really restricts them to being tried at home, they are too unreliable to offer to guests, and the combination means it may be ambitious to have the whole bottle at one sitting.

Coravin seemed like it might be a solution. Use Coravin for the first half of the bottle, so as to protect the rest with nitrogen, and then pull the cork to enjoy the other half a day later. But the corks are too fragile. Turning the bottle up to use the Coravin, wine washes out right around the cork. Another problem is that, as the bottle is turned more towards the horizontal, the sediment gets all stirred up. So Coravin may be great to enjoy pours of young wines, but once a wine is old enough to have any substantial sediment, it creates as many problems as it solves.

Even extracting the corks without getting fragments into the wine is a problem, but assuming the cork can be got out, I have a working solution. Because of the difficulty of extracting the cork, and uncertainty as to whether the wine will be drinkable, the bottle needs to be opened a bit in advance. Once the cork is finally out, I bubble a little nitrogen into the wine to stop any deterioration before we drink it. A little later, we start on the first half of the bottle.

Assuming the wine hasn’t deteriorated in the course of dinner, I then decant the remaining half into a half bottle. This allows the sediment to be filtered out. Then I sparge the bottle with nitrogen. There have been on or two incidents when the sparging was a bit too vigorous, and we lost some wine, but basically this removes any free oxygen. Obviously it can’t reverse any oxidative changes that have occurred in the wine, but it seems to stop any further deterioration. The wine goes back in the cellar over night to keep it as cool as possible. (Yes, I am aware of Dalton’s law of physics, which means that each gas equilibrates independently in a solution, but be that as it may, so far, on the basis of an admittedly statistically insignificant sample, it works; every wine has been enjoyable the day after.) The Lafite 1961 even improved, and was even smoother and silkier the second day.

The staying power of some of these old wines, especially first growths, is remarkable. Mouton 1949 was rich, full, and opulent: every drop a first growth, even though it was only a second growth at the time. In a blind tasting, I suspect I would have mistaken it for an old Latour. Canon 1966 and La Conseillante 1966 showed unexpected precision. Some bottles were, of course, undrinkable, but I still have several more to go.

Please Don’t Change La Conseillante, M. Rolland

Perhaps because it is on the area of the graves right at the border with St. Emilion—one third of the vineyards even extend into over the border—La Conseillante has always been one of my favorite Pomerols. While I sometimes find the openly lush quality of Pomerol to be a bit too rich for my palate, La Conseillante strikes a more restrained note, partly due to a higher proportion of Cabernet Franc.

The secret to restraint is not simply a function of the grape varieties, however, because along the same lines, Château Magdelaine was always one of my favorite St. Emilions. Although in its day it actually had one of the highest proportions of Merlot, it always had a beautiful restraint, in fact, in some vintages I found myself thinking more about the left bank than the right bank in terms of comparisons. It was for me a sad day when Moueix decided to stop producing it as an independent château and combined it with Château Belair-Monange. It never achieved great success in the marketplace, perhaps because of its restraint, which brings me back to the theme of La Conseillante.

La Conseillante has had its ups and downs. It had a great reputation in the fifties and sixties, declined in the seventies, and then came back in the eighties. Until the 1990s, the vineyards were planted with 45% each of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and 10% Malbec. Then in the modern trend, Merlot came to the fore, reaching 65% by the nineties, and 80% by the 2000s. The proportion of Merlot in the grand vin in recent vintages has varied from 81% to 89%.

When I visited La Conseillante a few years ago, winemaker Jean-Michel Laporte summarized the unique character of the property: “La Conseillante is not entirely typical of Pomerol, which is known for power and richness; we are known for elegance and silky tannins. We can mix in one bottle the roundness of Pomerol and Merlot with the elegance of Cabernet Franc. We don’t want to compete for the biggest wine of the vintage, we want to preserve our elegance, and the silky tannins. That’s why we are not considered to be a Parker wine.”

But things are changing. Marielle Cazaux became the estate manager in 2015, and Michel Rolland has been consulting winemaker since 2013. Does this mark a move in a direction of greater plushness to more of an international style? There haven’t been any noticeable changes in winemaking so far, although the tradition at La Conseillante has been to perform malolactic fermentation in the concrete vats, and Michel Rolland is known to be an advocate for MLF in barrique. That would probably bring a softer, lusher impression to reinforce a move to a slightly richer style anyway in recent years, although of course that’s common all over Bordeaux.

At a recent tasting, the 2000 was the standout vintage: just at that tipping point when primary fruits have gone and there are slight signs of development. For me, it is perfection now, partly because it adds intimations of the left bank, with that faintly savory quality, to counterpoise the richness of Pomerol. It’s the perfect moment to see the true character of the wine. The 1990 was an illustration of why I have reservations about hot vintages and rich styles: just a bit too overt for my palate, more of a rustic impression, blurring the palate, compared to the laser-focus of 2000. The 1985 was a bit of a disappointment, with the fruits drying out, leaving a somewhat herbaceous impression with medicinal notes that recalled old Bordeaux. But on a rough count, opinion seemed more or less equally split as to which vintage was preferred, so something for everyone here.

Going back to the previous era, or perhaps more accurately to the beginning of the modern era, the 1982 (tasted later a day later) is very much in the lineage of the 2000, but seems if anything even fresher: that sense of Medocian restraint is there, but the fruits are lusher, smooth and silky, with a fainter herbal counterpoise. To be fair, the 1982 is now a little variable: a previous bottle earlier this year seemed a little tired and would not have compared so favorably with the 2000.

Although somehat ullaged, a bottle of 1966 was something else: incredibly youthful, rich, round, and ripe on opening, and then slowly converging in style with the 1982 and 2000 as a faint herbal counterpoise develops in the glass. I’m not sure that it would be easy to identify as the oldest wine in a blind tasting. Once again, there’s some variation between bottles, as the previous bottle, a few years ago, seemed distinctly more claret-like, where this one seems the most Pomerol-ish of all.

La Conseillante was really doing something absolutely right to produce wines like the 1966, 1982, and 2000: so please don’t change it, M. Rolland.

The Old Guard in Beaujolais: Complete Contrasts

I wound up my week in Beaujolais by visiting two long-time producers, whose approach to making Beaujolais could not be more different, but each of whom typifies the very best of their approach.

I remember Château des Jacques when it was owned by Thorin and produced a single Moulin à Vent, usually (in my view) the best wine in the appellation. (There was also sometimes a vieilles vignes cuvée coming mostly from the lieu-dit of Rochegrès). Thorin were famous for adopting a completely different policy from the semi-carbonic maceration that dominated (and still dominates) Beaujolais. Wines were treated in a Burgundian way and aged in oak barriques, something that was regarded with horror by other winemakers in the region.

Purchased by Jadot in 1996, Château des Jacques has been considerably expanded over the past two decades, from 43 ha solely in Moulin à Vent to more than 80 ha, mostly in Moulin à Vent, Morgon, and Fleurie, but including 9 ha that are used to make a Beaujolais Blanc. Winemaking policy remains unchanged: “Our philosophy is to produce Gamay that is able to age and reflects its terroir, we really want to show that Gamay is like Pinot Noir in reflecting terroir,” says winemaker Cyril Chirouze. “So we make wine like Burgundy, everything is destemmed. Many people equate Beaujolais with carbonic maceration [which requires whole bunches] but in fact carbonic maceration started to be used only in the fifties, we consider that the real tradition is to make wine like Burgundy.”

Château des Jacques is a building site today because the old winery is being completely renovated.

“There is a blend from each commune, which we regard like a village wine in Burgundy, and 7 different single vineyard wines, which we could compare with premier crus. You might think this is the difference between grand vins and second wines, but it’s not like that at all, we take the best barrels for the blend for the commune, and then if there is enough we make the single vineyard wines.” The blends are matured one third in cuve and two thirds in barrique, with only a little new oak; the single vineyard wines are matured in barrique, with about 20% new oak.

A new cuverie is being constructed and should be ready for the 2017 harvest.

Tasting the range is much like a tasting in Burgundy. The communal blends are textbook illustrations of their appellations; Morgon is the tightest, Fleurie moves towards fleshiness, and Moulin à Vent shows breadth and that sense of minerality (I call it iron in the soil although if there’s any mineral in Moulin à Vent it’s really manganese). In the lieu-dits of Moulin à Vent, Carquelin (with some clay in the soil) is a little rounder than La Roche (which is sandier), and Rochegrès has a sense of purity and minerality enhanced by its high elevation. Moving to Morgon Côte du Py (at the same elevation of 360m as Rochegrès), there’s that typical sense of tension. All of the wines require aging: I tasted a horizontal of the 2014 vintage and I would wait at least 2-3 years before starting any of them. We concluded the tasting with a 1996 (to celebrate the anniversary of Jadot’s purchase) and it still in excellent shape.

My next visit was to Domaine Paul Janin (also known as Domaine de Tremblay) where “the history is very simple,” says Eric Janin. “It goes back to my great grandfather, who was a tonnelier and bought several parcels of vines.” My grandfather bought some vines in the Tremblay lieu dit, which became the official name of the domain. “The domain has both increased and diminished since then.” Today there are 7.5 ha, all in Moulin à Vent, except for a hectare of Beaujolais Villages. There are three cuvées from Moulin à Vent: Vignes de Tremblay, which is a blend from several plots; Heritage, which is an assemblage from plots planted by Eric’s grandfather in the 1930s; and Le Greneriers, which a single vineyard wine from around the house. Vinification follows what you might call recent tradition, with whole bunches going into the vat with only a little destemming, giving carbonic maceration for the first few days, followed by maturation exclusively in stainless steel.

The Janin domain is in the heart of Moulin à Vent, a stone’s throw from Château des Jacques.

The wines are the quintessence of maturation in cuve, emphasizing purity of black fruits, with cherries merging into more aromatic notes in warmer vintages. Tannins can be felt on the finish but are very supple. There is greater concentration going from the Vignes de Tremblay to the Vieilles Vignes and then to the single vineyard wine, but there is always that sense of finesse and focus. The 2014 vintage is wonderfully approachable already. The same sense of purity and precision carries over to the Beaujolais Blanc.

There is something for everyone here. I wouldn’t like to argue as to whether there is a “true” style for Beaujolais, but it’s obvious from comparing the two producers that you can make top notch wines in more than one way. All serious producers in Beaujolais feel they are laboring under the burden that it’s difficult to get away from the image of Beaujolais Nouveau—which is why the Crus rarely put Beaujolais on the label—but it’s worth recognizing that the Crus, especially the top ones of Fleurie, Morgon, and Moulin à Vent, can be interesting, and reflective of terroir and Gamay, just as much as better known varieties.

Young Turks in Beaujolais: Mee Godard

Maybe it’s time for another revolution, and perhaps the recent study of soil types, represented on the walls of several producers by copies of the multicolored maps showing the soil types in the Crus, has been a contributory factor. Visiting producers, say, twenty years ago, most would have one, or at most two, cuvées from a Cru. Now it is common to find multiple cuvées from each Cru, each representing specific terroirs. Morgon is a case in point. It’s a sign of how things are changing that Louis-Benoît Desvignes recollects, “When I started a special bottling (the Vieilles Vignes from Javernières on the Côte de Py) in 2009, people thought I would lose customers.” But this week I visited several producers who make cuvées to express different terroirs in Morgon, from the sandier soil of Corcelette, to the more alluvial soil and greater clay of Grand Cras, to the volcanic terroir of Côte du Py.

Mee Godard was studying biology at university when her father suggested she might become an oenologist, and a minor in wine science led her to Oregon and then back to France. Why Beaujolais? “Because I discovered these wines at a tasting in the region. When I left my winemaking job in Beaune, I came here to look for vineyards.” At the end of 2012 she was able to buy in house in Morgon that came with 5 ha of vineyards. A year later she added another hectare in Moulin à Vent, and this year another hectare. The house is just at the edge of Côte du Py, which has long been recognized as Morgon’s best climat.

Mee is still building the domain, with a base in Morgon.

Mee’s winemaking is distinctive. “I try to make vins de garde. I try to use as much whole bunch as possible, mostly about 70%, so there is some carbonic maceration, but I don’t want to have a lot, just some in individual berries.” Both pigeage and pumping-over are used. Everything is aged in wood, using a mixture of barriques, demi-muids, and foudre with only a little new wood. “Last year I didn’t buy any new wood, the year before I bought a new demi-muid.”

These are certainly wines for aging, quite reserved at first. Tasting the three cuvées of Morgon from 2013 through 2015, Corcelette tends to show red berry fruits with a touch of tannin at the end, Grand Cras is a little broader with just a touch more aromatic lift, and Côte du Py is the roundest and richest, but always with that sense of tension, and precision waiting to emerge. 2013 is the most uptight, even a little stern, 2014 opens out to broader expression, and 2015 is the richest. There is also a cuvée which is a selection from a special plot in Côte du Py, called Passerrelle 557, which shows striking purity of fruits. These are real wines expressing terroir but needing time to develop; a million miles away from the soft aromatics without backbone of most Beaujolais, they prompt a comparison with Burgundy.

Young Turks in Beaujolais: Julien Sunier

Beaujolais has been in the doldrums as long as anyone can remember. Briefly rescued by the success of Beaujolais Nouveau in the 1980s, the solution became the problem as Beaujolais became a synonym for very fruity inexpensive wines. The so-called Gang of Four led by Marcel Lapierre caused something of a revolution by focusing on making more natural wines to bring out terroir. “My father was part of a group that rebelled against the industrial production of Beaujolais,” says Mathieu Lapierre, adding, “We try to make natural wines but it’s difficult to defend them from the industrial system.” It’s a measure of his attitude that when asked about global warming, he says, “I’m not sure about that, the real question is why some people in Beaujolais chaptalize; if you reach 12% do you need more alcohol?”

One feature of some new producers in Beaujolais is that they don’t come from a winemaking background, and their different approaches to winemaking show that it’s possible to make great Beaujolais in more than one way. Julien Sunier’s parents live in Dijon, but were not involved in wine, but Julien became involved in winemaking, getting an exposure to Beaujolais when he set up a winery for Mommessin. In 2008 he decided to establish his own domain.

Julien’s winery is well off the beaten track for Beaujolais, in a converted farm in Avenas, which originally he bought as a residence. “The elevation here is 750 m,” he says, “and you know you can’t have vines above 600 m in Beaujolais.” Originally he bought the farm to be a place to live. “I had a bad idea of Beaujolais when I came here, the Nouveau idea,” he says, “but after working at Mommessin I decided to start my own domain.” We tasted his wines in the living room of his stylish house, which used to be a cow shed; the winery is adjacent. He rents vineyards in Regnié, Morgon, and Fleurie. “From the start I decided to be organic, and that represents 90% of the effort,” he says.

Julien’s house, stylishly converted from a cow barn, is at the left; the winery is at the right, with tanks outside to take advantage of the natural cooling of 700m elevation.

“Winemaking is natural, we do not use any of the 250 oenological preparations. We stopped chaptalization and filtration in 2010 and I add only a gram of sulfur at bottling.” The length of maceration varies. “If it’s a rich year I will leave it on the skins and do something generous, but we don’t look for extraction, I won’t do pigeage or pumping over. So even when there is a long maceration, there is not too much extraction. I want the vintage to present itself.”

Julien’s entry level wine is a Vin de France called Wild Soul. It comes from purchased grapes from Beaujolais Villages—the hailstorms of the past two years left many growers short of grapes so that unusually they decided to buy some to augment production—and it shows slightly spicy red fruits with just a touch of aromatics. “This is an example of Gamay made in the old way, when I taste with people from the village they say it’s like the wine their grandparents made. I didn’t invent anything, I’m just trying to forget the last 60 years.” It’s declassified to Vin de France because of continuous problems getting the agrément for the AOP. “The people who do the agrément don’t like my style, they like thermovinification [a winemaking method that critics say homogenizes wines]. I’ll play the game for the Crus, but for this I wanted to emphasize the domain.”

For the Crus, wines are transferred to barriques before fermentation has ended, so they really get some exposure to lees as they age. In 2016, the Regnié is smooth and silky, the Fleurie is smooth and spicy with hints of Fleurie’s fleshiness showing, and the Morgon is taut, crisp, and precise. Julien points out that when he was at Mommessin he found an old wine list showing that in the 1920s, the Crus of Beaujolais priced the same as Chambolle Musigny, and although he doesn’t say it, you feel that his aim is get back there.

Cuisine is Alive and Well in France: A New Gastronomic Destination in the Beaujolais

The death of cuisine in France has been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps nowhere but France could there be a tiny village with two restaurants as innovative as those in Saint Amour Bellevue, in deepest Beaujolais.

Established by chef Cyril Laugier and his wife Valérie in 1996, Auberge du Paradis in Saint Amour has been my watering hole in the Beaujolais for several years. The hotel has a great atmosphere; Cyril and Valérie are what the French would call très sympa. A boutique hotel, the building gives the impression of having been constructed over time from several different buildings, so there all sorts of unexpected turns as you find your way to your room. Decoration is very stylish, if somewhat idiosyncratic; I suppose I would describe it as French/Italian modern. Breakfasts give the most fantastic send-off before spending a day tasting: I use the plural because they are different every day—even the jams, uniquely spiced, are different every morning. Cyril serves the breakfast himself.

The restaurant obtained a much deserved Michelin star in 2014. The current menu starts with a sorbet of aubergine, with a curry vinegar, and basil herbs. The subtle Asiatic influences made this the killer dish for me. It was followed by tuna, marinated with herbs, confit peppers, and Kashmiri influences. Then there was pork that had been marinated in soy, before being cooked in the oven, together with a spaghetti of cucumber. The desert was equally innovative, raspberries with cream of roses. Overall, the style of cuisine seems to have become more forceful over the years I have been coming here.

The restaurant at Auberge du Paradis was redecorated in 2014 and is elegant and spacious.

Within a hundred yards across the street is a more recent arrival, 14 Fevrier (named for Valentine’s day) by Japanese chef Masafumi Hamano, who came to France in 2004 after working at a French restaurant in Tokyo. He started the restaurant in 2013 and obtained a star from Michelin immediately. The elegant restaurant shows a Japanese aesthetic and the cuisine is modern French with a Japanese twist. Amuse bouches included a hibiscus macaroon, a verbena macaroon, and vichyssoise with a watermelon sorbet. The first course was described as a pana cotta, but at first sight had nothing to do with it. It turned out the pana cotta was underneath a gelée of turnips. The surprise combination of flavors made this the killer dish for me. The next course was cobia (a meaty white fish) in a lobster sauce. The combinations of unexpected flavors can be a bit tricky to match with wine, but all worked brilliantly.

14 Fevrier is stylish and spacious with a Japanese aesthetic.

A feature of these restaurants, as well as many others visited on this trip, has been the treatment of vegetables. I remember that when l’Arpège, the three star in Paris, changed to a vegetarian menu some years ago, it was regarded with a certain degree of suspicion. But now treating vegetables as an important component in their own right, not merely an accompaniment, has become common. I might go so far as to say that this month in France has been an education in vegetables, coming both from the exceptional quality of the produce to innovative treatments.

Being in Beaujolais, both restaurants have excellent wine lists with many reasonable choices. At Auberge du Paradis, we had a top Pouilly Fuissé, the 2009 Instarts from Château Beauregard. The richness of the year is beginning to overtake Beauregard’s classic style, but the wine is at its peak now. At 14 Fevrier, we tried a white Nuits St. Georges, les Terres Blanches from Daniel Rion, also 2009, which was interesting as we had tasted the range of reds at the domain a couple of days earlier; it showed the same sense of textured power.

Both restaurants essentially have a single menu, which changes periodically. (At 14 Fevrier there is an alternative choice for the fish course.) I do not know what criteria Michelin has for awarding stars—I am not sure that anyone knows, including the Michelin inspectors—but both restaurants have one star. The food at both shows a level of innovation and complexity that would suggests two star, so I suspect the holdback is the fact that each presents only a single menu, with little or no choice. But Saint Amour is the place to go in the Beaujolais.