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.

Should you Decant Champagne?

“It all depends on what you want from your Champagne,” said the Anima Figure, my dinner companion, as we watched the Vintage 2004 being decanted at a tasting of Billecart-Salmon Champagne, held at The Modern in New York to celebrate François Roland Billecart’s first visit to the United States in 25 years. It was a lovely golden color, with a mousse on the surface of the decanter that dissipated fairly quickly. I know that some producers have recently been talking about decanting Champagne, but I confess that I have not myself seen Champagne decanted previously, so I was more than curious about the rationale on this particular occasion.

François Billecart had recommended that this vintage should be decanted around 45 minutes before serving, because it is still quite tight. As poured from the decanter, it was full of flavor, round and nutty with notes of brioche, and a deep texture. What about the bubbles? Well it was definitely a sparkling wine, but the fizz was not very aggressive. As served, it was a perfect match for the lobster in smoked vegetable broth.

The 2004 was the initial year of the new “Vintage” range. It’s two thirds Pinot Noir from Mareuil, with 20% vinified in barrique. When I first tasted it, at Billecart Salmon last summer, winemaker François Domi said, “This has brought ampleur. We changed the philosophy a bit. ” My recollection from that tasting was that the wine was rounded, but not oaky, with the effect of wood showing more in the creamier textured impression on the palate. The richness belies its Extra Brut status.

Based on my memory, this Champagne seemed pretty flavorful on opening, so I prevailed on the sommelier to pour me a fresh sample the next time a bottle was opened for decanting. The comparison was like night and day. Against the food, the bubbles seemed quite aggressive, hiding the flavors that were such a good match in the decanted sample. But at this point, more than hour after the initial decantation, the decanted sample was beginning to become a bit flat.

Later I had the opportunity to ask François Roland Billecart directly about the recommendation to decant. We agreed that you lose freshness but gain flavor by decanting, and the question is the best compromise. “It depends on the occasion,” François says. “If it’s for an aperitif, you should open the bottle and serve, but if it’s with dinner, decant before.” I continued to compare the two samples as they sat in the glass—they were served incidentally in wine glasses as opposed to flutes, another statement of purpose—and I felt that the ideal compromise between sparkle and flavor was reached somewhere between 30-45 minutes after opening.

Older wines at the tasting were also served in wine glasses. My favorite was the 1997 Blanc de Blancs, showing a lovely balance between developing fruits and nuts and truffles. With great depth on the finish, it outshone the Nicolas François Billecart 1997. The Elisabeth Salmon Rosé 1990 was most impressive, actually seeming less developed than the 1997 vintage Champagnes. Here is the full delicacy of rosé for which Billecart-Salmon is famous, with the subtle development of age.

I’m not sure I would go to the full extreme of decanting, but there is certainly a case to be made for opening a young vintage half an hour or so in advance to allow flavors to emerge that you would scarcely suspect if you guzzled it all immediately on opening.

Merlot with Elegance

The crystalline purity is reminiscent of Volnay: the sheer elegance reminds me of Margaux or perhaps St. Julien. Fruits are precisely delineated. The dominant grape variety would not be the first to come to mind in a blind tasting, but it is Merlot: in fact this is a blend of 90% Merlot with 10% Cabernet Franc, and it used to be the Premier Grand Cru Classé of St. Emilion with the highest proportion of Merlot.

Every once in a while you have a wine that really makes you rethink your perceptions of typicity, and this Château Magdelaine from 1982 is a perfect example. I have always found Magdelaine to be the most Médocian wine of the right bank, with a pleasing touch of austerity as opposed to the full fleshy opulence of so many wines. At one point, Clive Coates described it as third only after Cheval Blanc and Ausone.

A leading St. Emilion estate for two centuries, Château Magdelaine was acquired by the Moueix family (of Château Pétrus) in 1952. It has been a Premier Grand Classé B ever since St. Emilion was classified, but in 2012 two changes occurred. Magdelaine did not appear in the revised classification; and Moueix announced that it would be merged with Château Bélair-Monange, a neighboring chateau that is their other property in St. Emilion. Cause and effect have never been publicly discussed. The wine from combined properties (from the 2012 vintage) will be under the name of Château Bélair-Monange

The revised St Emilion classification definitely pandered to the internationalization of Bordeaux  by promoting Château Pavie (very controversial for its rich, extracted style since Gérard Pearse took it over) and Château Angelus from Premier Grand Cru Classé B to A. And Valandraud, an archetypal garage wine, was promoted straight from St Emilion to Premier Grand Cru Classé B without ever passing through the intermediate Grand Cru Classé. Château Figeac, the candidate at every prior classification for promotion, but whose one third Cabernet Sauvignon gives it a sterner style than most St. Emilions, was ignored.

Certainly Magdelaine has been falling out of fashion over the past decade or so, failing to get really high points from critics. If this is because it has more of a left bank elegance than right bank plushness, so be it; but it’s a shame for the homogenization of styles to be reinforced by the classification. Isn’t the French system of appellations and classification supposed to help preserve tradition rather than pander to fashion?

All I can say is that the 1982 Magdelaine is a lovely wine, the epitome of what Bordeaux was supposed to be about. It is a shame if this style is to disappear because power displaces finesse.

Bordeaux 2011: The Year of Restaurant Wines

Following the highly successful rich 2009 and more classic 2010, the 2011 vintage was bound to be a bit of a let down. Differences between appellations are especially clear this year, a consequence perhaps of more marginal conditions. There are few great wines, some that will find it difficult to achieve balance, but the best should be appropriate for drinking in restaurants from two to eight years from now if the prices aren’t too unreasonable, which unfortunately may not be the case.

Pauillac may be the most consistent of the appellations, with fruits that are distinctly more concentrated than St. Julien or Margaux, making a classic demonstration of appellation character. Tannins are usually obvious, but refined, and should come into balance over the next two to three years. Some wines seem a palpable throwback to the period when years were needed for tannins to resolve after release, but the fruits are concentrated enough to hold out. Not only the most even appellation, this is the one truest to its reputation. Particularly honorable mention goes to Pichon Baron, which shows as powerful and almost opulent, and to Pichon Lalande, which shows as more elegant and refined.

The style is also relatively even for St. Julien, with better rounded fruits than Margaux, if less concentrated than Pauillac. Acidity is usually balanced and many wines show attractive nutty overtones, with enough fruit concentration to develop nicely for the short to mid term as tannins resolve. Léoville Poyferré showed is round, modern style, Léoville Barton its usual elegance, and Saint Pierre gets an award for its refined, classy impression.

Margaux is by far the most variable appellation. Wines tend to have tight tannins that are emphasized by high acidity. Fruits tend to be light so there may be only a relatively brief period to enjoy the wines between the resolution of the tannins and the drying out of the fruits. The most successful have mastered the acidity and tannins, but are soft and approachable in a modern style that isn’t easy to recognize as Margaux. It seems the choice was between short lived elegance and approachability this year. No single chateau really stands out.

The Haut Médoc is more even than Margaux but the wines are almost uniformly light, although acidity and tannins are rarely obtrusive—but nor are the fruits. They tend to be a bit characterless, although La Lagune and La Tour Carnet stand  out for maintaining their usual styles.

The individual chateaus in Graves have stayed true to their characters, with each showing very much its usual style. The best are Haut Bailly for its combination of fruit and structure true to its classic style, Domaine de Chevalier for its elegance, Smith Haut Lafitte in more modern style but backtracking a bit from the overt modernity of 2010 and 2009, and Pape Clément the most evidently modern of all, but a definite success in this vintage. Tannins are no more of a problem than they should be at this stage.

2011 is not a success in St. Emilion. Although there are not the same problems in managing acidity and tannins as the left bank, the problematic character is a common impression of an edge of saccharine on the finish, a sense of an unbalanced sweetness. Will this become sickly as the wines evolve or disappear as they shed the puppy fat? No St. Emilion really stands out from the crowd this year, although Canon shows its typically precise style.

Pomerol does not have the problems of St. Emilion and is quite consistent—and quite superficial. There’s nothing to excess this year, the wines are approachable, but they offer no sense of the stuffing needed to support further development. You have the impression that already they are as good as they will get, and I am doubtful that they will become more complex with time. The closest to a real success is La Conseillante.

The top whites from Pessac are very fine and should drink well over the next five years. At opposite poles are the freshness of Smith Haut Lafitte, dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, and the roundness of Pape Clément, half Sémillon; and then Domaine de Chevalier shows its usual elegance. I would be happy to have any of them for dinner.

Sauternes generally seem a little rustic, with fairly viscous bodies lacking the aromatic uplift that’s needed to relieve the sweetness. Notable exceptions are Suduiraut, with a classic impression of botrytic piquancy, and de Fargues, as always the top of the show.

It’s a sign of the times that no wines have overt signs of herbaceousness. They vary somewhat in whether the fruits are forward or reserved, whether the acidity is too high or the tannins too bitter, but the emphasis is very definitely on fruit in a relatively modern idiom. As a rough working rule, the modernists, who have been focusing for years on softening the tannins, came off better than the traditionalists in this particular vintage. However, there is no wine (at least in the UGCB tasting) that I would give more than 90 points, and this is not a vintage to buy for the cellar, but if prices come down, could be  useful for enjoying in the short term, especially at restaurants.

Wines were tasted at the New York visit of the UGCB tour, which presented more than 100 wines from the 2011 vintage.

A Visit to Clos Rougeard

The unassuming appearance of Clos Rougeard completely belies its international reputation as the domain where the Foucault brothers make the best red wine of the Loire. Located in a residential street in Chacé, there is no nameplate or even a street number to distinguish the domain: you have to deduce its location from the numbers of the houses on either side. A neighbor on the other side of the street watched with some amusement as we pressed the bell and got no answer. “They’ve gone out,” he told us, “I saw them leave a few minutes ago. Do you have an appointment?” When told that we did, he said, “well it will be alright then, they will be back soon.” I had the impression that watching people turned away from Clos Rougeard might be part of his day. But in a few minutes, Nady Foucault indeed returned to let us in. Once admitted, the house is to one side, and across a courtyard is the entrance to the winery, with a rabbit warren of old caves underneath, carved out of the rock and very cold.

The domain has just over 10 ha, with 9.5 ha of Cabernet Franc and a hectare of Chenin Blanc. The three cuvees of Cabernet Franc are the domain wine (an assemblage of many parcels), Les Poyeux, and Le Bourg: the white wine is called Brèze. Les Poyeux is a 3 ha plot of 40 year old vines with soils carrying from argile-silex to argile-calcaire. Le Bourg has 70 year old vines on argile-calcaire terroir (located behind the house), consisting of  1 ha in two parcels. Le Bourg gives a tighter wine with higher acidity and tighter tannins and needs more time. Usually Le Clos (the domain bottling) and Les Poyeux spend 24 months in barrique as does Bourg, but in 2009 Bourg spent 30 months because this was a powerful vintage. The white (Brèze) spends 24 months in barriques, with 20% new oak. One need hardly ask about methods: they are all traditional. Vines are maintained by selection massale. There’s no chaptalization, no collage, no filtration, no battonage (for red: sometimes there is battonage for white).

The major characteristic of the house, for both reds and white, is the sheer purity of the fruits. There is a wonderfully seamless, smooth, edge to the Cabernet Franc; you feel you are tasting the unalloyed purity of the variety. The underlying structure is so refined it is hard to see directly. The fruits are precisely delineated, with great purity of line, supported by a very fine underlying granular texture, with a sheen on the surface. Hints of stone and tobacco show on the finish. All the cuvées offer an unmistakable impression of pure Cabernet Franc. There’s a smooth generosity to the wine that in terms of comparisons with Bordeaux might be regarded as more right bank than left bank. The reds are by far the best known, but the white is also very fine: concentrated, mineral, and savory.

There are other fine red wines in Saumur Champigny and Chinon, but it is fair to say that nothing else I tasted on a recent visit to the region left me with that impression of seamless purity. I asked the Foucaults what is responsible for the difference at Clos Rougeard. “We had a chance, our parents never used herbicide; they were the only people in the appellation not to do so in the 1960s and 1970s. The other vignerons mocked us because we had weeds among the vines. And in the 1980s we were the only ones to mature our harvest in barriques; most people only used cuves,” says Nady Foucault.  The difference is so marked, it’s hard to believe that is all there is to it! When pushed, all Nady would add was that, “The other difference is that we are very traditional, we are making wine exactly like our parents and grandparents.” But with all due respect, I would be astonished if the wines were this fine two generations ago.

The Foucaults sell the wine at a reasonable price, not cheap, but fair (although it’s all on allocation: even top restaurants get only a half case). They are conscious of its fame, however. When I visited, there was a lively discussion about the price of wines, including Clos Rougeard on the after market. ““I am not for speculation in wine, it’s made for drinking. Wines are not like jewelry,” says Nady, and the price recently reached by an old bottle of Le Bourg was regarded with incredulity.

Should there be corkage on bottled water?

In the era when restaurants customarily doubled the price of wine, I felt more or less free to order any wine on the list that I could afford.  As prices slowly crept up to three times retail, I began to feel restricted, and if I could not find a (relative) bargain, somewhat confined to less interesting wines than I would usually drink. As prices routinely increased over a three-fold markup (and remember that this is really probably closer to four-fold since restaurants pay trade rather than retail prices), I reached the point of gritting my teeth and saying to the sommelier, bring me the cheapest bottle of red on the list. Now I have decided that ordering off the list is a mug’s game and I have been looking for restaurants that allow corkage.

Even in New York City, there is a surprising number. By and large, at any quality level there are some restaurants that allow corkage and some (more?) that do not, and it’s only a rare exception when a restaurant offers something so unique that I feel it is worth patronizing in spite of the absence of the corkage. The most common range is $35-$45, going up higher at some grander restaurants. The case I always make to restaurants that do not have corkage is: why don’t you charge the price of your cheapest bottle, or the average profit on a bottle, for corkage: then it will be revenue-neutral and everyone wins. Some restaurants accept it, some don’t.

I will at a pinch accept the argument that a restaurant is putting thought into providing a wine list that suits its food and that they want diners to focus attention on it. But I really find in infuriating when the list is simply put together by a distributor, it has no particular interest, and it’s just another profit center. Sometimes the wines are simply so inappropriate (and expensive) that I feel, absent corkage, I must vote with my feet. In the course of research into  corkage, I have had some interesting exchanges with sommeliers or wine directors. The Atlantic Grill informed me that they do not allow corkage but have an appropriate list with well trained staff to help diners. When I replied that I did not actually like their white Burgundy selection and found the New World whites overbearing, but I thought there might be a place for Riesling in a fish restaurant, the response came with a distinct sense of “gotcha” that there were many German Rieslings on the list, perfect for someone with my taste. Sadly, the accompanying copy of the list showed that not a single one of those Rieslings was dry. I don’t know who is going to drink off-dry or sweet Riesling with their fish, but it ain’t me.

I have started  compiling a list of restaurants that do or do not allow corkage, attached at the end here: additions and corrections are welcome. In the meantime, that brings me to water. I happen to like sparkling water with meals, but everything seems to have changed with the introduction of equipment that allows restaurants to introduce their own bubbles into tap water. This may be good for the environment because the bottling is done at source, as it were, but the stuff has a lethal taste: it is not like  mineral water, it tastes like chlorinated water with bubbles. I think it is absolutely the ruination of a good meal: it gives no refreshing uplift to counterpoise the food. Now some restaurants that have the equipment also have real mineral water for those who ask for it, but some have switched over completely and there is no alternative. My question to them is: can I bring my own Pellegrino and will you charge me corkage (screwage?) on it?

Restaurants with corkage in Manhattan:

l’Absinthe $45

Antonucci $20

Casa Lever $65

Dovetail $35

David Burke $45

Eleven Madison $75

Gramercy Tavern

Jean Georges $85

La Mangeoire $30

Marea $75

The Mark $75

The Modern $45

Picholine $50

Sette Mezzo $35

Spigolo $35

Tocqueville $45

Union Square Cafe $20

Restaurants that do not allow corkage:

Atlantic Grill

Cafe Boulud

Crown

Daniel

Le Bernardin

Veritas

Vico

When Should You Send Wine Back at a Restaurant?

I hate sending wine back at a restaurant. Of course I will do this when a bottle is flawed, but there’s always the potential for some disagreement or unpleasantness. My working rule is that this is appropriate only when the wine is clearly flawed, not merely because I don’t like it. Usually this is because the bottle is corked, and in the vast majority of cases the sommelier accepts immediately that the bottle is defective, but occasionally there is a sommelier who doesn’t recognize the taint and is awkward about it. But I was brought to a new question this week by a wine that was so poor – although technically it was not flawed by being corked or oxidized or having any other single identifiable defect – that I wondered whether being completely atypical should count as a reason for rejection.

Increasing problems with premature oxidation of white Burgundy have made this, my staple when I want a white wine in a restaurant, more of a risky venture when the wine is more than a year or so old. Once again, most sommeliers will recognize madeirization as a flaw, but from time to time I’ve had difficulties with this, especially in France. “These are the typical aromas of the vintage,” a sommelier explained patronizingly to me at a grand restaurant in Provence when a white Burgundy was madeirized. As politely as I could, I said that I had a cellar full of that vintage and none had this problem. With very bad grace, he agreed to take the bottle back, but warned me to order a different vintage, because all his wines of that vintage had the same problem. The storage conditions must have been terrible. These days I have taken whenever ordering a white Burgundy to asking at the outset whether it has any problem with oxidation. Often enough a sommelier will say there have been problems, and advises me to choose something else. But having asked the question, at least I then feel free to send the bottle back if there is any taint by oxidation.

Given the erratic nature of cork taint, there would not be much point in asking whether a wine is likely to be corked, but even with this most easily recognizable flaw, there can be doubt. When a bottle is well and truly tainted, it’s a fairly easy decision to reject, but this can be more difficult when there’s a subthreshhold level of taint, enough to suppress the fruits but not enough to show any clear evidence of TCA on the nose. Actually, I think this is a killer for the producer: if you don’t know this particular producer, you can easily conclude that he’s no good rather than that the wine is flawed. In such cases I have usually felt obliged to stay with the bottle. When you have a clear expectation for the wine, you may be able to say fairly that it is flawed. But given people’s widely varying sensitivities to cork taint, there can be problems in marginal cases. My most amusing incident was at the restaurant Les Bacchanales in Vence, where a bottle of a recent vintage white Burgundy was suspiciously lacking in fruits. When I expressed concern, the waiter took it over to the diner at the next table, who was a local dignitary on the wine and food scene. We could hear him saying, “no, I do not see any problem here,” which the waiter duly came back to report. As the taint was slowly becoming more evident, I stood my ground, and indeed a substitute bottle was vastly better, A few minutes later the chef came out. “I do apologize,” he said, that bottle is terribly tainted. “I would not even cook with it.” So here we had a living demonstration of variation in sensitivity, increasing from the food writer to the chef, where I was uncomfortably the piggy in the middle. That’s why it can be so difficult.

This week I am visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley as part of the research for my next book, Claret & Cabs. My usual habit is to try to perform a reality check at dinner by having a wine that we have tasted at a producer, to see whether experiencing a whole bottle with food gives me the same impression as a tasting. However, having dinner at the Auberge du Soleil, I was so offended by the markups on the Napa Cabernets that I decided to try something else. My usual experience in wine regions is that restaurants showcase the local producers, and while it would be naive to expect to find bargains on the wine list, often there is some wine, perhaps an older vintage that hasn’t been terribly marked up, that offers an interesting experience without completely breaking the bank. Slowly I have become adjusted to markups moving from two fold to more than three fold, but at over four times retail prices, I draw the line. One example makes the point. The Spottswoode Napa Cabernet 2000 is $360 on the list at Auberge – but the restaurant at Domaine Chandon has it at $160. Now I’m prepared to believe that expenses are higher at Auberge, but not that they justify a price of more than double compared to another good local restaurant. The wine averages around $80 at retail, so the markup at Auberge is well over my line.

So I did something I have not done before and ordered a wine from another region altogether, in fact from Burgundy, as  I thought a lighter style anyway would fit better with our particular meal. This was the Nuits St. Georges 2005 from Confuron-Cotetidot. I think it’s a reasonable expectation that in 2005 any decent producer should have been able to make an acceptable wine at communal level. But this was a throwback to the old days of Nuits St. Georges, and I do not mean that as a compliment. It had no nose at all and no fruit could be detected on the palate. If this had been a Bourgogne AOC, I would have shrugged and said that I expected a better result in this vintage. But this tasted (if the word taste can be used at all in conjunction with this wine) as though it had been overcropped to hell. I hesitated, but decided that as it had no detectable flaw, it would be unfair to send it back. However, when the wine deteriorated in the glass to the point that all you could taste was a medicinal acidity, I called over the sommelier and asked her to taste it. “Ah it has racy acidity, a bit surprising for 2005,” she said. I explained that my problem was more with the lack of fruit, and she wondered whether decanting would help. I did not feel that decanting could bring out nonexistent fruit, however. She offered to bring another wine, but I did not feel like starting another bottle at this point (and I had somewhat lost confidence in the selection of Burgundy), but we ended up with a couple of glasses of the Beaux Frères Willamette Pinot Noir from 2008 (surprisingly taut for this producer and vintage), but definitely wine as opposed to the previous mix of acid and water.

I still hold to the position that you can’t send a wine back just because you don’t quite like it, and  I cringe at the thought of imagining flaws because a wine fails to come up to expectation. But in retrospect, I think perhaps I should have rejected this wine at the outset, without crossing the line, on the grounds that it was so far from the typicity of Nuits St. Georges that it was unreasonable for it to be presented on the wine list. Here is the tasting note

J.Confuron-Cotetidot, Nuits St. Georges, 2005

No nose at all. Rather characterless and lacking fruit on the palate, seems dilute and overcropped. No obvious flaws, but only a thin somewhat medicinal, slightly acid, quality to the palate. Only fruit character is an amorphous somewhat flat medicinal note. Would not be a credit to the Bourgogne AOC. 75 points.

Restaurant Review: Grand Vigne at Sources de Caudalie

In the middle of the vineyards of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, the Caudalie hotel and spa has become my watering hole for visiting chateaux in the Graves. Since my last visit, a new chef has been engaged and the restaurant has achieved a Michelin star, so I was curious to see what changes I would find.

The restaurant offers three choices: a rather restricted three course Plaisir Gourmand, à la carte, and a tasting menu (based on selections from the à la carte). One note of warning: if you stay at the hotel on a demi pension basis, the meal at Grand Vigne includes only the Plaisir Gourmand. Personally, there wasn’t a single item on this menu that appealed to me, and it did not look as thought it had either the ingredients or the interest for a one star level. This would make for a disappointing evening, although in defense of the hotel, you can take the à la carte instead (for an extra charge, bien sûr).

Even on the à la carte, menu choices are a bit restricted for a one star rating (does Michelin take the variety on the menu into account when awarding stars?) One starter of crab with vegetables was good; giant prawns wrapped in pasta were better, although accompanied by citrus fruits that clashed with wine. (But in the interests of full disclosure, I rarely like mixtures of savory with fruits.) A mark against the restaurant was that both starters came with the same base of tomato jelly. This seemed a lazy design. One curiosity was that one night the prawn starter had two prawns; another night it had only one prawn. It seems an odd practice to halve the size of the starter from one night to the next.

Main courses were the best elements. Pigeon with rhubarb profiteroles was simply excellent, everything in perfect balance. This was the killer dish for me. Turbot was the most imaginative offering, on a base of girolles, with a clever spiral of carrot spaghetti. Desserts were good, the most interesting being a trompe l’oeil of strawberries, apparently presented in a glass, but actually with “glass” consisting of an edible sugar molding. I would give the restaurant its star (just).

Especially for a restaurant asociated with a chateau, the wine list was disappointing. On previous visits I have been very pleased with the wine list, which included, as you might expect, older vintages of Smith Haut Lafitte, both red and white, at very reasonable prices. This was a good opportunity to showcase their wines. There also used to be a good selection of wines from other regions, including Coche Dury Meursault at fair prices. All that has gone. There are a couple of current vintages of Smith Haut Lafitte, a routine run through the regions of Bordeaux, and some small offerings from elsewhere, but I was hard put to find wines I thought would be interesting at reasonable prices. In the end I was satisfied with neither of my choices. Domaine de Chevalier, which has always been a favorite, disappointed with its 2004 red; and Malartic Lagravière’s white 2006 made me wonder how on earth it was ever classified as a Grand Cru. Wine service fell a bit short: I had to wander over to the ice bucket to retrieve my bottle from time to time.

Domaine de Chevalier, 2004 (red)

Deep ruby color still with some purple edges. Very restrained nose with faint hints of Cabernet austerity. There’s a rich initial impression, but cut by a rather dry finish (characteristic of the year, perhaps, but exacerbated here). This feels like a Cabernet-driven wine. How much will that dryness soften with time and will this happen before the fruits dry out? Although I like wines in the classic style, this is a little too dry even for my taste. 86 Drink – 2016.

Malartic Lagravière, 2006 (white)

A bit characterless: not a lot happening on the nose, perhaps a whiff of citrus and a touch of minerality. The same spectrum follows through to the palate, where the lack of fruit concentration allows a sort of faintly metallic minerality to come through to the finish. This seems  enormously over cropped. I am left wondering what this wine offers that Muscadet hasn’t got, except for price. 84 Drink now if at all.

Restaurant Review: Locanda Locatelli

A late meal after a concert showed that this snazzy restaurant remains on top form food wise, but still attracts a rather noisy crowd, so be prepared for noise interference from other tables. We started out with a basket of interesting breads and excellent olive oil with that unmistakable green olive texture; the only other olive oil of this quality I’ve encountered was at Picholine in New York. This being one of London’s top Italian restaurants, we decided to go for broke, and started with the pasta, malfatti for my companion (a sort of slightly heavier pasta than ravioli rolled around ricotta and aubergine to make some delicious parcels) and chestnut tagliatelle with wild mushrooms for me (made with chestnut flour and five types of wild mushroom). The tagliatelle were faute de gnocchi because the gnocchi with cepes had all gone, and no doubt would have been a little lighter. (I am always reminded when having wild mushrooms of the time years ago when we ordered wild mushrooms as a starter at a restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. Simply sautéed, they made a wild assortment of colors and shapes on the plate, many I had never seen before. After we had eaten them, we asked about the source. “Oh, someone knocked at the door and said he had wild mushrooms and the chef bought them, “ said the waiter. We both went white for a moment, but decided that if they had been lethal they would have already killed us.)

We both ordered the same second course, wild sea bass in a tomato crust with an artichoke purée. This was accompanied by artichoke leaves to chew, something I have not seen for quite a while. Here was an excellent balance between fish and accompaniments, with the acidity of the tomatoes nicely cutting the opulence of the purée. Service is absolutely top notch. Overall I give the food one and a half stars: clearly above one star level, but not quite at the level of innovation and refinement for two stars.

The wine list is full of top names from Italy as you might expect, with many pages of red wines – especially strong on Barolo and Barbaresco – but not a whole lot of interesting choices in whites (of course, you might say that about Italy as a whole). A feature I really liked was that alcohol level was stated on the list, which saved me from an error: I was about to order a bottle of Fontodi’s Chianti, and then noticed that it had 15% alcohol. This would definitely have been a mistake, especially at the late hour. We settled for a half bottle of Valdicava’s Brunello, which at 13.5% showed subtlety and elegance. Wine service was impeccable.

Locanda is highly recommended if you can get a table – reservations are difficult; not only is it difficult to get through (booking is only by phone), but there tends to be some awkwardness about getting a table at the time you want it.

 Brunello di Montalcino, Valdicava 2004

Still quite a ruby color. A faintly savory sour cherry note develops on the palate, very Sangiovese. (Oh my goodness, they were right not to allow Cabernet Sauvignon into Rosso di Montalcino, it would have been the thin end of a wedge into typicité). The initial surge of fruits from the original release has calmed down considerably. Nice balance of acidity and savory edge to the cherry fruits, a fairly taut sense of structure, aging gracefully but perhaps not destined for a really old age (I think really long aging is much rarer for Brunello than generally supposed), although perhaps not to be judged on this example as this was a half bottle. 91, drink now-2016.

Restaurant Review: Galvin Bistrot de Luxe

A really good bistro in some ways is of more interest to me than a Michelin starred restaurant. Of course, it’s great to eat out at the top levels, and leisurely evenings in elegant surroundings with fine food are one of my favorite pursuits, but there are many occasions when I’d like to have a more straightforward meal rather than eat at home. Arriving in London from New York, this was just such an occasion, and round the corner is Galvin Bistrot de Luxe. Opened six years ago by Chris Galvin (who used to cook at the Orrery long ago when it had a Michelin star), it has been a great success.

“De Luxe” is a fair description because it’s a far cry from bistros turning out the standard fare of roast chicken and fries. Granted the menu generally avoids more expensive ingredients: you won’t find venison or turbot here, and the meat dishes tend more to stews than filets, but I’ve never had a poor meal, and often some very good ones.

This meal we both started with the salad of beets and goat cheese, simple but well sourced, with nicely complementing flavors. (Most of the starters are cold, which seems appropriate for the bistro, although I do have a general view that once the Michelin-starred level is reached, a preponderance should be cooked on the spot. A cry should go up in the kitchen, “Lewin is here, let us cook his dinner,” rather than simply cutting a slice off something pre-prepared.)

Main courses were good with one caveat. My steamed fillets of Corsican bream, ragoût of sweet corn, courgette & saffron were simply excellent, in a  creamy sauce that would have done credit to a Michelin-starred restaurant. The fish tasted farmed rather than wild, but that’s an expected compromise at the bistro level. My wife’s pavé of cod, coco de Paimpol, trompette mushroom & Bayonne ham was successful as a composition, but slightly spoiled by gritty mushrooms that did not seem to have been properly cleaned. A blackcurrant mousse made a beautiful dessert, rather reminiscent in taste and texture of summer pudding, but smoother, with a  thin layer of underlying fruit.

Prices are very fair, especially allowing for the breadth of the wine list, which extends from decent choices at just over £20 to quite grand wines at vastly higher prices. In many ways, I think the measure of a restaurant wine list is more what it offers at the lower end than the higher end. Anyone can buy in the top Bordeaux or Burgundy if they are prepared to spend the money, but it takes knowledge and effort to find something good at the bottom end.

Apropos of stars, by the way, I’m far from the only person who finds Michelin’s awards to be erratic at the one star level.  Their original list of one star restaurants in New York was something of a joke, and the present London list is rather variable, to put it kindly. Galvin Bistrot is in that useful category I would give a three quarter star – but that said, it is significantly better than some one-starred restaurants in London that I’ve given up on.