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.

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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.

Chablis Diary: the New Wave in Chablis

I was going to call this blog “the Young Turks of Chablis,” but that would not have been quite accurate since change is not so much coming from a younger generation as from producers who have simply rethought what sort of wine they want to make. The common feature lies with people who established domains relatively recently, sometimes turning around old family domains with a change of generations, sometimes starting from scratch.

Chablis seems to me to have shown less change than other areas of Burgundy over the past twenty or thirty years. Whereas on the Côte d’Or there has been a steady move towards growers bottling their own wines, and recently “micro-negociants” have become the form of expression for producers who do not own vineyards but want to make high quality wine, in Chablis there remain many small growers who send their grapes to the cooperative (admittedly La Chablisienne is one of the best co-ops in France).

Large producers from Beaune have not made a huge impact in Chablis, although Drouhin-Vaudon is long established, Louis Latour bought Simonnet-Febvre in 2003, and Faiveley bought Billaud-Simon in 2014. Land prices in Chablis have not soared in the same way as the Côte d’Or, but fragmented holdings and unwillingness to sell have restricted supply, so it has not been easy for new producers to come into the market. However, in the past few years there have (finally) been some changes, and visiting this week, I found several (relatively) new, dynamic producers.

I found the first Young Turk on a previous visit in 2014 (A Visit to Patrick Piuze). Patrick’s driving force is interest in the variety of terroirs. “The essence of the place depends on the mosaic of soils, when you realize this you want to make lots of cuvees not just one. Most people here blend, they don’t worry if the vines are old. We try to buy grapes we like from special sites. I want to be as close as possible to a domaine without having to purchase land.” A bit tight when young, his wines have real intensity, with alcohol levels a bit lower than average.

My first visit this week was to Catherine & Louis Poitout, who have set up their domain in an old building on the banks of the Serein. The domain started in 2011 with family vineyards from both sides. There were many small parcels of varying qualities, and in 2012 the holdings were rationalized. “The true taste of Chablis is mineral, with the most simple vinification,” says Louis. “We do the same vinification for all cuvées. There is never any wood, everything is kept as simple as possible.” The range extends from a direct and fruity Petit Chablis, to Chablis Bienommé where minerality begins to emerge, Chablis Les Venerées from old vines, offering increased sense of texture, and premier crus Vaucoupin (all minerality) and Les Fourneaux (herbal and round).

The Pitout domain is in a charming old house on the banks of the Serein.

But the most unusual Pitout wine may be the Vin de France, Franc de Pied, L’Inextinct, which as its name indicates, comes from very old, ungrafted vines. “We found this parcel in 2012, it was in very bad condition, the vines had been cut across at the base, and everyone thought they would die because they’d been cut at the graft, but they just regrew. They are ungrafted and we regenerate them by the old method of sticking a shoot in the soil. The wine is labeled as Vin de France because it doesn’t fit our idea of Petit Chablis, and it’s not in Chablis AOP.” It offers great sense of fruit purity, with richness on the palate, but retaining the liveliness of Chablis.

The Fèvres are a very old family in Chablis, but the husband and wife team of Nathalie & Gilles Fèvre formed their own domain relatively recently. Both Gilles’s grandfather and father were presidents of the cooperative, and Nathalie was the oenologue. “In 2003 we decided to form our own domain so we left the coop,” Gilles explains. With 12 ha of family vineyards, they built a small winery, and then in 2005 the domain expanded to 50 ha with the inheritance of more family vineyards. “All the wines are around the village (Fontenay-près-Chablis), basically between here and the grand crus, so we are a right bank domain.” The Petit Chablis is lively and crisp, intended to be consumed in the first year, Chablis has greater weight and more fragrancy, Fourchaume has greater sense of texture and that fragrancy of the house style comes out more clearly, Valourent moves towards greater richness, and Preuses shows more subtlety. A tasting here is a real demonstration of differences in right bank terroirs. “You can taste the difference in the grapes from different terroirs when they come into the cuve,” says Nathalie. There is light use of wood in vinification. “We think 30% in barriques is enough, we want to keep freshness and minerality, Chablis should be tense and mineral.”

Nathalie & Gilles Fèvre constructed their winery in the heart of the vineyards at Fontenay-près-Chablis.

Samuel Billaud spent twenty years making the wine at the family domain, Billaud Simon, sold to Faiveley in 2014, before leaving to form his own domain, which is now located in renovated mediaeval buildings right under the ramparts of Chablis. The very stylish cuverie has many small stainless steel fermenters to allow vinification by parcel. He has a few family vineyards but also buys grapes as a negociant. His bright style brings out lively citrus flavors across the range, starting with a Petit Chablis coming from a vineyard that used to be considered at premier cru level long ago but was not included in the AOC. The same style follows in a Bourgogne that is a blend between the areas of Chablis and Mâcon, and then the style intensifies in the Chablis. There’s increased sense of focus and precision in the premier crus, increased richness moving from left bank to right bank, and then from premier cru to grand cru. There’s consistency of style, with greater texture and flavor variety, and more subtle impressions, moving up the range.

Samuel Billaud’s domain is a cluster of old buildings around a courtyard in the center of Chablis.

My last visit in Chablis was to Thomas Pico who created Domaine Pattes Loups with only two hectares of family vineyards when he decided that he wanted to be organic, but his father, at Domaine Bois d’Hiver, didn’t want to make the conversion. Today Thomas has about 12 ha for Pattes Loup (with roughly an equal area remaining in Bois d’Hiver). Even allowing for the fact the most of the wines were tasted from cuve, because the 2015 vintage is undergoing an unusually long élevage, these were among the most concentrated and forceful wines I tasted in Chablis. Fruits tend to citrus, bright and intense. It takes about a year for the wines to develop roundness; the 2014s are just beginning to soften. Thomas is committed to an artisanal approach. My companion, the Anima Figure, remarked that winemaking has become more scientific. “No it hasn’t,” Thomas shot back.

Thomas Pico has a modern building for Domaine Pattes Loup in the village of Corgis.

Each of these producers has their own style, of course, but the common feature is a sense of authenticity, a commitment to a view of the typicity of Chablis that preserves freshness and minerality. It’s a wonderfully refreshing antithesis to a general tendency to make all wines taste the same, with vaguely amorphous soft aromatics that can be attractive but don’t convey a sense of place.

Here are suggestions for reference wines that give a good idea of the style of each producer:

  • L & C Poitout, Chablis, Les Venérés
  • Nathalie et Gilles Fevre, Fourchaume
  • Samuel Billaud, Mont de Milieu
  • Pattes Loup, Chablis, Vente d’Ange

 

Chablis Diary: Global Warming Isn’t All Bad

“They were all so bad in Chablis twenty years ago. For me, concentration is important, lower yields and riper. But everyone said, we are making Chablis, it’s never ripe, the typical Chablis is green. People said, when you make ripe Chablis, it loses its character. But you can’t make wine from unripe grapes—all green wines taste the same,” said negociant Jean-Marie Guffens when I last visited Verget. Twenty years ago he was criticized because his wines had too much fruit to be considered typical of Chablis. But after two decades of global warming, Chablis has changed: fruit is more often at the forefront, although that crisp mineral acidity is usually not far behind.

Chablis1

Chablis is still a quiet town at the center of the vineyards.

Tasting the 2015 vintage at the BIVB tasting in London last week, and then again this week at many individual producers in Chablis, it was striking how attractive the wines are. Based on early reports of the vintage, it seemed that it might be like the 2009: very fruity and ripe, often lovely in their own right, but where the richness has obscured the character of Chablis. Also they tend not to be very long aged. I have been finishing off my Premier and Grand Cru Chablis 2009s in the past few weeks because many show signs of tiring.

“Our experiences with 2009 may have helped us to do better in 2015,” says Vincent Dampt at Domaine Daniel Dampt. Even Petit Chablis  in 2015 often offers attractive light fruits that make a splendid summer wine. I think it’s fair to say that many Petit Chablis of this vintage reach a standard equivalent to, or even better than, Chablis of a generation ago. Even the premier crus and grand crus, where you expect to wait a few years, are immediately approachable in 2015. Indeed, in visiting producers to update profiles for my forthcoming Guide to the Wines of Chablis, I became concerned that I might be misled by this vintage into describing the styles of the wines as more immediately approachable than they usually are.

Most Chablis producers are happy that 2015 shows so well now, but say quietly that they think 2014 is the better vintage, especially if you plan to age the wines over the next few years. I never had great expectations for this vintage because my memories of 2014 date from constant rain in Burgundy in June and July, but the last part of August and September gave an Indian summer that rescued the vintage. Aside from some wines that surprisingly show some over-ripe or tertiary notes, here is the crisp minerality associated with Chablis, but with enough fruit that the wines should come into good balance given another two or three years. The 2016s are somewhere between 2014 and 2016, with good fruits and balance acidity, often quite attractive and approachable if not as forward as 2016.

That said, the most interesting development is a much wider range of styles than I have seen in the past. This is a tribute to the much greater control that can be exercised over viticulture and vinification. Some producers have a light, elegant, fragrant style—none of these being descriptions I would used about Chablis twenty years ago—while others have more forceful acidity or herbal impressions. I suppose it is a matter of personal opinion whether you regard this as a loss of typicity or a change in typicity, or perhaps now one should say typicities. Asking producers about their stylistic objectives, the most common response is that the key point is to retain freshness, but even so, styles in Chablis have become significantly more diverse. Apart from some exceptional unusually hot vintages (which of course may yet become the norm) this broadening isn’t directly attributable to global warming, but global warming is the enabler that has given producers the flexibility to vary their styles. Even though today temperatures are into the nineties (Fahrenheit: thirties in Centigrade) today (6 July) in Burgundy, global warming isn’t all bad.

European Union Bans Restaurant Workers from Working at Meal Times

Dateline Brussels, April 1, 2017

The declaration that restaurant workers must have time off in the middle of the day and cannot be required to work in the evenings came as a joint announcement from the Commissioner for Health & Food Safety and the Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labor Mobility. While this was unexpected, it was presented as following directly in the line of previous regulations intended to protect workers from unsocial conditions.

Background

Conditions for workers are governed by E.U. Working Time Directive 2003/88/EC. An Impact Assessment of the evolution of working time organisation concluded in December 2010 that: Working at hours which are normatively devoted to social interaction, such as on evenings and weekends, should lead to severe impairments to social well-being as well as to a reduction of time for social commitments.”[1]

The Impact Assessment was especially concerned about the results of working unusual hours: “Workers are also subjected to a desynchronization from the social rhythm of a society.” Indeeed, there was specific concern about people who had to work at interrupted periods: “Those working in rotating shifts have to work during valuable times for social interaction and participation and thus are restricted from social participation and interaction leading to substantial social impairments.”

The assessment was part of a continuing process of review of the Directive that involved consultations with interested parties. However, the Commission subsequently reported that: “Extensive talks were held throughout 2012, but no agreement was reached. Since workers’ and employers’ organisations have been unable to reach agreement, it is now up to the Commission to decide on the review of the Working Time Directive.”[2]

Today’s Directive

The E.U. has now taken the bull by the horns. It was only a small step to move from concern about working at unsocial shift times or on evenings or weekends to conclude that requiring restaurant workers to work during meal times prevents them from having social interactions over lunch or dinner. But what about disruption to the industry? “The EU has concluded that its mandate to protect workers takes precedence over concerns about any disruption to the industry.”

   
Marianne Thyssen, E.U. Commissioner, Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility Vytenis Andriukaitis, E.U. Commissioner for Health & Food Safety

The new regulations come into immediate effect, but with a transitional period during which workers may work either at lunch or at dinner but not both. When they take full effect, however, restaurants will have to find other means to prepare and serve food at unsocial times (defined as between noon and 2 p.m. and between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.). Restauranteurs have reserved comment so far, but there is concern in the drinks industry about collateral damage.


Sources

[1] European Commission DG for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Annex 1 – Study on health and safety aspects of working time, 21 December 2010.

[2] http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=706&langId=en&intPageId=205