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.

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Chablis Diary part 4: Terroir versus Oak

“In the eighties there were two big schools, cuve and oak; my father was always stainless steel; he used to say, I’m not in the timber business. But he has changed his mind,” says Fabien Moreau at Christian Moreau. “William Fèvre always used some new oak, but that stopped as soon as Henriot took over in 1998. We didn’t want to boisé the vin, to the contrary we wanted to keep freshness,” says Didier Seguier, who came to Fèvre from Bouchard at the time. Here you see the convergence in Chablis: protagonists for stainless steel have taken up oak, while protagonists for oak have backed off.

The two extremes remain Raveneau and Dauvissat on one hand, where everything is matured in barrique, and Louis Michel at the other, where everything is matured in stainless steel, but at most producers Petit Chablis and Chablis are matured in cuve, and varying proportions of oak are used for premier and grand crus. The approach is Burgundian in the sense that the oak exposure is graduated with the cuvée. On the Côte d’Or, of course, all the wines are matured in oak, and the tendency is to increase the proportion of new oak going from communal wine to premier cru to grand cru. In Chablis, all the oak is old and it’s the proportion of oak to stainless steel that changes.

Almost every producer was at pains to say that there is little or no new oak. The duration is usually quite limited: one common approach is to put a proportion into oak, but after around six months to perform assemblage with the wine matured in cuve. After assemblage, the wine is matured further, but exclusively in cuve. So why do I often find obvious oak on Grand Cru Chablis, and sometimes on premier cru also? In fact, it’s often necessary to wait a few years to let the oak integrate.

As a lighter wine than the Côte d’Or, even at Grand Cru level Chablis doesn’t have the same capacity to support oak or more extraction. Indeed, although maturation on the lees is common, typically for around 12 months for Premier Cru and around 18 months for Grand Cru, battonage is unusual in Chablis. “We don’t have the same body and strength as the Cote de Beaune, if we go too far with battonage the wine will be good at first but will tire quickly,” says Sandrine Audegond at Domaine Laroche. I wonder whether the difference is battonage is a contributing factor to the occurrence of premature oxidation on the Côte d’Or and its absence in Chablis

Each producer has his own view on how best to express terroir differences in Chablis.Is this done by vinifying all wines in the same way, so that the only significant difference is the terroir. This is the view of both Dauvissat and Raveneau (with only oak) and Louis Michel (with only steel), and Jean-Claude Bessin (all premier and grand crus with 60% oak). Or should vinification be adjusted to the Cru, as it is at William Fèvre, Droin, Laroche, Long-Depaquit, and Christian Moreau, with a general policy of increasing oak proportion going up a hierarchy of premier and grand crus. Somewhere in between are Pinson and the Chablisienne cooperative, where all premier crus get the same treatment, but grand cru gets more oak.GrandCruChablisTW1Grand Cru Chablis extends all the way from the bottom to the top of the slope

After years of drinking Chablis, I have a pretty clear view of the characters of the premier and grand crus. Montmains and Vaillons are the best premier crus on the left bank, with similar exposures on parallel hillsides in adjacent valleys. Close to the grand crus on the right bank, Fourchaume, Mont de Milieu, and Montée de Tonnerre have more structure and richness, and among the grand crus Preuses is always the most delicate and feminine, while Les Clos is always the most reserved, even austere, and needs longer.

But the grand crus extend all the way from the road just on the edge of the town to the woods at the top of the hill. With the much slighter slope along the Côte de Nuits, for example, everything depends on position on the slope: so especially for Les Clos, the largest grand cru in Chablis, how come it is always the most powerful wine made by any producer, irrespective of whether the plot is in a protected position under the trees at the top or exposed in the middle or at the bottom? Even within the smaller crus, there can be significant differences in soil types, so is any fixed view of their character more imagination than reality?

Chablis Diary part 3: What is the Meaning of Chablis – the Fruitiness of It All?

All across the northern limits for winemaking in France, from the Loire in the west, across Chablis, to Champagne and Alsace in the east, wine styles continue to evolve in response to global warming and better methods of viticulture that increase maturity in the grapes. In the Loire Chenin Blanc no longer tastes of wet dog, but now shows an almost waxy, almost nutty, spectrum of stone fruits: Sauvignon Blanc is rarely herbaceous and may go so far as to show apricots. Over in Alsace, there’s a trend towards wines with more residual sugar, while in Champagne dosage has decreased to keep the balance. In Chablis this week I was struck by the sheer fruitiness of many wines: fruitiness is not a quality I would have associated with Chablis twenty or thirty years ago.

When I asked producers how they see Chablis today, the answers were pretty uniform: it should retain freshness and minerality. When I followed up by asking how its character has changed, the answer was generally dismissive: it hasn’t really changed at all, they would say. Global warming has been beneficial; chaptalization has become rare, difficult vintages have turned out much better than they used to, but that essential tension between fruit and acidity, perhaps what the French call nervosité, hasn’t changed at all. I don’t agree on this last, crucial point about character.

I remember when most Chablis was thin and acid, where the fruits (if you could detect them) were bitter lemon or grapefruit. Granted that citrus remains the dominant flavor in the Chablis spectrum, often enough today it moves from fresh citrus to stewed fruits, rounder and softer, and often enough there are notes of stone fruits running in the direction of apricots. Minerality is hard to describe, but like pornography you know it when you taste it, and it’s fair in my opinion to say that in many cases it has now become subservient to the fruits.

When I visited Verget last year, I had an interesting discussion with Jean-Marie Guffens about his entry into Chablis as a negociant. “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. Today I count about twenty people making good wine, twenty years ago there were almost none,” is his position. In conventional terms, Verget’s wines have often struck me as a half way house between traditional Chablis and the Côte d’Or, although I’m sure Jean-Marie’s view would be that “traditional” Chablis simply shows the accumulated history of failure in the region and is a misleading expression of its terroir.

Well, anyway, the typical Chablis isn’t green any more. Back in the eighties, the issue of steel versus oak was quite controversial in Chablis, but now most producers have settled into a compromise in which the top wines are matured partly in steel and partly in (old) barriques. The extremes of all oak and all stainless were defined by the principal protagonists many years ago, but others have been adjusting the balance of stainless and oak to get their desired style, and it’s here that I see the most change. Steel producers now use some oak; oak producers have backed off on the proportion. At one time, William Fevre was using quite a bit of new oak, but that stopped when Henriot took over in 1998. You don’t often get the chance to compare the two styles directly, and the closest I came was at Billaud-Simon, where the Mont de Milieu is vinified in stainless steel but the Vieilles Vignes from one parcel sees some oak. The stainless Mont de Milieu was to my mind closest to the aspirations for minerality, but the Vieilles Vignes had rounder, softer fruits with more immediate appeal. I have the impression that Bernard Billaud’s heart is in stainless steel, but the introduction of some cuvées using oak is a concession to the market.

The most overtly fruity style comes from Long-Depaquit, owned by negociant Albert Bichot. “The styles are really different here,” says régisseur Matthieu Mangenot. The common features are freshness and minerality. But Bichot’s style is to produce wine with fruity character. We don’t want to say to our premier cru customers, buy the wine and wait ten years, the objective is to bring emotion to the wine even when young.”

As a rough measure, it seems to me that it might be possibly to classify producers on savory/fruity balance. The most savory would be Raveneau and Dauvissat, both comitted to oak, and perhaps for that reason my favorites. But there is no exact correlation between use of oak and tendency to savory. My order of producers by style would go like this:

ChablisProducersThe balance changes with every cuvee and vintage, of course, but perhaps this is a useful guide to thinking about how producers fit into changing styles. The differences are not as violent as the arguments in some other locations between modernists and traditionalists, but the fruity style may be more modern, at least in the sense that wines like this would have been difficult or impossible to produce until recent times.

Chablis Diary part 2: the Legend of Raveneau

The entrance to Raveneau’s cuverie in a back street of Chablis is as discrete as the wines themselves. A simple metal sign above the door spells out Raveneau. A steep flight of uneven stone stairs leads down to the old cellars, which are crammed with barriques. But next to them is a newly excavated barrel room that was built three years ago. “It’s less picturesque but much more practical,” says Isabelle Raveneau, Bernard Raveneau’s daughter, who has joined him at the domain to take charge of marketing. Before the cellar was excavated, there were cellars on both sides of the street, and moving the wine around was a major hassle; today winemaking can rely more on gravity. But however more convenient the cellars may be, nothing significant has changed with the wines, which remain almost unchallenged at the very peak of Chablis.

RaveneauTW3Only the metal sign indicates you have found the master of Chablis

It’s hard to find descriptions to do justice to the subtlety of the style. Fruits are of course generally in the citrus spectrum, but they meld slowly into a more savory aura, with notes of liquorice or anise bringing a splendid complexity to the finish. From time to time I find Chablis from other producers with intimations of this style in individual wines, but no one else with this consistency across the range. Premier crus age for ten years or more, grand crus longer—I am finishing up my 2000s at the moment. For me, Raveneau is a unique representation of Chablis. The absolute master of the (old) oak style, Raveneau’s wines have gone from being impossible to find, ten years ago, to impossible to afford, today.

RaveneauTW4Some of the best wines of Chablis came from these cramped old cellars

So I asked Bernard Raveneau, what’s the secret, what gives Raveneau Chablis its unique quality? “It’s the origin, the travail attentif in the vines. A chef would say that if the ingredients are top quality, there is no need for artifice: it’s exactly the same with wine. Many people today say they use something special, such as biodynamics, but there is no secret here, except that we never go to extremes.” Yields are low, typically around 38-30 hl/ha, which certainly assists quality, but they are not so extraordinarily reduced as to explain the unique character. Nor is it a feature specifically of vine age, as vines vary from 10 to 60 years old (and clones and selection massale are both used for planting). And it’s not due to any single terroir, as the same style runs through the range from Chablis to Premier Crus to Grand Crus.

RaveneauTW10This cellar may be new but the barriques are old

“My father had only 3 ha,” says Bernard Raveneau, and looking at Isabelle, adds, “we grow only slowly.” About 15 years ago, he added 2 ha to bring the domain to its present 9 ha, with 1 ha in Chablis AOP, 6.5 ha in Premier Cru, and 3.5 ha in Grand Cru.. You get the impression that the details of the vines are regarded as less significant than the terroir, which rules all. Élevage is the same for everything from Chablis to Grand Cru. “It’s the origin that makes the difference,” says Bernard. Fermentation and malolactic fermentation are done in stainless steel cuves, then the wine goes into barriques for 10 months. New wood is used only as barrels need to be replaced, which means in effect a few each year.

The deceptive simplicity of approach produces the greatest wines in Chablis, but Bernard has an interesting view of Chablis vis à vis the Côte d’Or. “Chablis is the New World of Burgundy. In the 1960s, Chablis was 700 ha, today it’s 5,500 ha – so it’s a very new vineyard and people are more modern, they like investing in technology, where in Côte d’Or it’s very traditional. Here in Chablis, it’s a different mentality. People in Chablis pay more attention to winemaking; on Côte d’Or, if malo doesn’t start, they’ll shrug and wait until the Spring when it warms up, here people will do something about it, to get the process finished.”

We tasted the 2013s from barrique. The Chablis has relatively direct fruits, citrus with apple overtones, then that slightly malic impression continues on Forêts, and it’s with Vaillons that the impression changes to Raveneau’s typical slightly savory quality. Butteaux is a bit more restrained and herbal. Montée de Tonnerre begins to show more of the balance of the grand crus, with fruit intensity coming up. In the grand crus, Blanchots is delicate, Valmur broadens out, and then Clos shows the characteristic austerity of youth, distinctly more backward than the other grand crus, but all the same it is surprisingly approachable and the potential complexity is evident. I am surprised, because I had a bottle of Clos 2009 only a couple of weeks ago, and the fruits were distinctly closed; in fact the 2013 barrel sample seems readier! Good though the barrel samples are, these are not wines for instant gratification, and I fear that vinicide is committed on too many Raveneau Chablis’. I ask Bernard if the wines tend to close up for a while, but he says that they begin to open out after four years or so, and then typically come to a plateau: he doesn’t feel they really close up. I leave without being able to define the secret of Raveneau, but as convinced as ever that these are Chablis’ for the ages.