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.

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 Son. 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.

A Bad Experience at the Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune

I wish restaurants would adopt rational policies on corkage (as I argued in my previous blog). Alas, rationality in wine policy has not reached France, where I am spending July. I had a particularly bad experience at the Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune. Since Beaune is the center of the wine trade in Burgundy, you might expect some sympathy towards people who want to drink special bottles of wine for one reason or another. While there are some restaurants with a good attitude, the Hotel de Beaune is particularly hostile.

One of my visits on the Côte de Beaune was to Albert Grivault, where after a tasting of Meursault and its premier crus, M. Bardet opened an old bottle to illustrate its aging potential. “If Meursault had a Grand Cru, it would be the Clos des Perrières,” he said, as he opened a bottle of the 1985 from his monopole. It was splendid: mature but not too tertiary, with a faint trace of minerality. (What a counterpoise to the problems of aging whites in the Age of Premox!) After the tasting, he very kindly gave us the bottle to finish off with dinner.

We were staying at the Hotel de Beaune, which I have regarded as my watering hole in Beaune more or less ever since it opened, and we eat at the bistro once or twice on every visit. We always order a bottle from the list, but this time I took the Clos des Perrières along and asked if as a favor we could drink it with our meal. The waiter went off to ask his boss, who went off to ask the owner, and then came back to say “Pas Possible.” I explained that this was an unusual situation, and that we had to drink the bottle that evening because it had been opened and would not keep, I offered to buy a bottle from the list but drink the Clos des Perrières instead, but “Pas Possible.”

The bistro at the Hotel de Beaune where the attitude has become “pas possible”.

So we took our bottle and went round the corner to L’Ecrit Vin, where the reception could not have been more different. “You have a special bottle, we have special glasses,” said the owner cheerfully, producing some Riedel Burgundy glasses. The staff all showed interest in the wine, which was magnificent: I had been concerned that over some hours since opening it might have become too tertiary, but it went the other way, with its innate minerality really coming to the fore. It seemed younger six hours after opening than in the initial tasting.

I recognize that restaurants can establish whatever policy they like with regards to corkage (and obviously they don’t want people to bring cheap bottles they bought in the town), but as I pointed out in my previous blog, an inflexible policy seems economically against their own interests. The Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune was not full that evening, so all their policy accomplished was the loss of two covers. In case it seems that my description of the Hotel as hostile seems exaggerated, I can only describe our departure. I had not met the owner of the Hotel de Beaune, Johan Björklund, on our previous visits, but he made a point of coming to speak to us when we checked out of the hotel: “I hope you never come back,” he said. Indeed we will not.

A Win-Win Proposal for Wine in Restaurants

For people who believe that enjoying a meal requires a fine bottle of wine to match the food, dining out is becoming problematic. When I started eating out, markups on wines in restaurants usually brought the wine to about double the retail price. (Yes, I realize that makes me sound like Methuselah.) At that level, I certainly felt free to experiment and to try new wines that might interest me. In fact, I often made discoveries from restaurant lists.

With markups now usually bringing wine to three or even four times retail, this is a completely different game. Couple this with sharp increases in retail prices from classic wine regions, and this means that it becomes more or less prohibitive to order Bordeaux or Burgundy from a restaurant list.

Enter corkage. While once it was all but impossible to find restaurants that would let you bring your own wine, this has now become much easier in London and New York, to the point at which there are enough choices that I feel able simply  to avoid restaurants that do not have a corkage policy. It’s especially noticeable that new restaurants, for whom the cost of establishing a good wine list is significant, seem more reasonable about corkage than longer established restaurants.

Offering the sommelier a taste when you take a wine to restaurant sometimes leads to an interesting discussion. I was enormously impressed by one restaurant in London which not only has a reasonable corkage policy, but where the sommelier reacted to my bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Provence by saying, “I like your wine, it is very interesting, and I will investigate getting some for our list.”

It is noticeable (perhaps counter intuitively) that it’s the restaurants that have an interest in wine, and which really try to have interesting wine lists, that are more receptive to corkage than those who simply buy their list from a distributor and regard it as no more than a profit center. Whatever the quality of the list, I think the restaurant is acting against its own economic interests by refusing to allow corkage. Unless the food is basically sold at break-even, and all the profits come from selling wine, what purpose does it serve in effect to tell winelovers to go somewhere else. Unless the restaurant is always full, all that has been accomplished is to keep a table empty.

A rationale way to handle corkage would be to charge the average profit on a bottle of wine. That way it would make no difference to the restaurant whether you brought a bottle and paid corkage or bought from the list. Another would be simply to charge the cost of the cheapest wine on the list (and the restaurant comes out ahead because they get to keep the bottle). Is it too much to ask that restaurateurs should realize it’s a win-win situation to have a corkage policy that is financially neutral for their bottom line?

Tales of Superlative and Other Wine Service

I have a test for attentive wine service in a restaurant. I stretch out my hand to pick up the bottle from the table or from an ice bucket close by, but before I can grasp it, the sommelier is there. (You might argue that we should never get to the stage at which I feel the need to refill the glass, of course, but sometimes it might not be immediately obvious.) If the sommelier arrives after I have poured the wine and says reproachfully, allow me, as he puts the bottle back, he has failed the test.

I agree with Frank Prial, who wrote some wonderful articles in the New York Times years ago, arguing that he felt proprietary towards a bottle he had ordered in a restaurant and would prefer to be allowed to pour his own—my particular beef is when too much wine is poured; my companion, the Anima Figure, does not like to drink too much, but I find it embarrassing to continually stop sommeliers from over filling her glass—but I view having complete control of the bottle as a lost cause. (Frank Prial said, “The days of wine rituals are coming to an end. And as Ko-Ko says in ‘The Mikado’: ‘And they’ll none of ’em be missed; they’ll none of ’em be missed’,” but I think he was overly optimistic.)

The situation is usually more easily controlled with red wine, which is most often left on the table, than with white, when the ice bucket is not necessarily within reach. But whether the wine is red or white, I believe that if a sommelier is going to put the bottle somewhere out of my reach, he has created an obligation absolutely to be there the moment my glass is empty. Alas this does not always happen.

At one famous restaurant not a million miles from Mâcon, I had two contradictory experiences of brilliant wine service and falling down on the job. I ordered a bottle of Leflaive’s Puligny Montrachet, Clavoillons premier cru. The sommelier came back to say they had run out—but offered the Les Pucelles premier cru from the same vintage at the same price. This was an extremely handsome offer as the price of Pucelles on the list was double that of Clavoillons. This is really harking back to old values, I thought, these days they would more often come back and say, sorry, you’ll have to choose something else. But then during the dinner, my glass ran out, without a sommelier in sight. Against the protestations of my companion, I walked over to the ice bucket a few feet away, collected the bottle and poured us both wine, and then returned the bottle. No one noticed, even when I repeated the performance a little while later.

It’s an affectation to put the bottle where the customer can’t reach it. An equal affectation is not to put any salt on the table. Since individual tastes for salt vary so widely, it is impossible to predict who will or will not want it. Just as with wine, if the salt isn’t within reach, the restaurant has created a burden for itself, but I can’t count how often a hot course has been put on the table, lovingly described by the waiter to the point of listing all the ingredients—but then the moment you actually come to taste it, all the waiters have disappeared, and where is the salt? I feel like the King and the Dairymaid: “All I want is a little bit of butter with my bread.”

So make up your minds, restaurateurs. Either  make sure the wine is always in reach and put salt on the table, or train your staff to be absolutely sure that someone is watching every table every single second.

A Visit with Coche Dury: A Delicious 2015 Vintage

Coche Dury has long been one of the most reputed domains in Meursault, famously difficult to visit when Jean-François Coche Dury, known for his reticence, was in charge, somewhat easier now his son Rafaël has taken over. It is still very much a hands-on domain: when I visited last week, Rafaël came straight from the vineyard for our tasting.

Coche-Dury’s winery has recently been extended (at left).

On the road through Meursault, the house is surrounded by vines on three sides, and you can see the church a couple of hundred yards away. Round the back is a second building that has just been extended. While we were waiting for Rafaël, a large door suddenly opened in the new extension, and rather Bond-like, a formidable-looking tractor emerged and set off for the vineyards.

Rafaël is the fourth generation. His great grandfather bought the first vineyard when he returned after being a prisoner of war in the first world war. He continued to work at another domain while buying vineyards, and Rafaël’s grandfather, Georges, continued to accumulate vineyards, although he did not bottle the majority of his wines until the 1960s. When Jean-François started in the 1970s, there were many good opportunities to buy vineyards, and he set up Domaine Coche Dury (Dury being the name of his wife). “Today this would not be possible, because vineyards are so expensive,” Rafaël says ruefully. When Georges retired in 1985, his vineyards came to Jean-François, who retired in 2010. Rafaël has been at the domain since 1999.

From 10 ha of vines there are seven cuvées, starting with the village Meursault. Most of the vineyards are near the house, the most outlying being plots in Puligny Montrachet Enseignères and the Meursault Caillerets (adjacent to Volnay Caillerets). Winemaking is constant. “Élevage always lasts for 18 months and we are not going to change it.” The approach is artisanal to the extent of allowing malolactic fermentation to occur or not occur. “The timing of the malo is very variable, from December after the harvest to almost a year later. Occasionally a barrel does not do malo, I consider that is its wish, but it’s very rare.”

You can see the church in Meursault across Coche-Dury’s vineyards.

Tasting through the entire range of 2015s, the wines already show as delicious. “We harvested the vintage strategically to avoid predicted hailstorms, but fortunately for us they departed for Chablis.” Harvest started unusually early, at the very end of August. “We can’t make wine steadily, like twenty years ago, there is more variation now. It’s very stressful for the vigneron, every year is really different, but it’s been very good for the consumer.”

Usually some time is needed for the intense minerality that characterizes Coche-Dury’s wines to integrate, but the 2015 can virtually all be approached already. Usually “the minimum time to wait is four or five years, but the wines are formidable after ten years, and the Corton Charlemagne will be even better at fifteen years. We haven’t had any great problems with premox, only some occasional bottles.”

Meursault Chevalier 2015 opens with stone fruits in front of citrus, with that steely minerality in the background, and the comparison with Puligny Enseignères epitomizes the different between Meursault and Puligny Montrachet: the Enseignères showcases the linear precision of Puligny. Meursault Caillerets shows the breadth of Meursault more clearly than minerality at the present, Meursault Genevrières is tightly wound, and it’s only the forward character of 2015 that makes it at all approachable now. Meursault Perrières has more penetrating acidity, showing a Rolls Royce sense of power. With more roundness, Corton Charlemagne is almost perfumed behind the smoky oak and citrus palate. “C’est la douceur du Charlemagne,” Rafaël says. Every drop a grand cru: my companion, the Anima Figure, stopped spitting out.

Although they aren’t as well known as the whites, Coche Dury also has some reds. The quality of the domain shows through just as clearly, with each seeming to be equivalent to an appellation one notch above its level. Bourgogne rouge comes from two parcels close to the house; very round for Bourgogne, it makes a faintly nutty impression. Auxey Duresses has lovely aromatics of red cherries, with some faint hints of tobacco at the end. Meursault rouge makes an impression of round cherry fruits, but the palate is quite reserved and needs more time to come around.

Conditions in 2015 seemed to raise some concerns whether whites from the Côte de Beaune might be a little too rich, even a little too flabby, for greatness, which was a problem with some 2009s, but at least at Coche Dury, it seems you can have your wine and drink it: most are already openly delicious, but they should age and revert towards the usual steely, mineral character as the baby fat of the young fruits integrates. Perhaps they won’t be as long lived as the 2014s, but they are fabulous wines if you can find—and afford!—them.