Seven go mad in Burgundy...
It began, like so many great journeys, at an ungodly hour. Just after 2.20 in the morning I pulled away from home and headed into the dark and rain. Rather like sailors on an ocean voyage, I had a tidal gate to meet; in my case I had to cover the 200 miles to the M25 London orbital before the rush hour hit around 6.30. I had an 8.20 train booked through the tunnel, then on to Paris for lunch. In the back was 6 or 7 cases of wine; I had originally planned to carry the whole 30 dozen bottles the trip would require, but tales of French customs going feral and ignoring my EU rights to move the wine scared me into sending the bulk of it ahead by truck.
There would be six of us: Ivan and Chris Donaldson: the founders of Pegasus Bay, Larry McKenna and Carol Bunn from Escarpment, Helen Masters: winemaker at Ata Rangi, and myself. Finally, Jerome Faure: the extraordinary head sommelier for Constance Resorts, whose crazy plan this was.
Somehow Jerome had persuaded the renowned Loiseau group of fine restaurants to host a series of wine dinners, from Paris down to Burgundy. They supply consultancy to the Constance group of luxury resorts in the Indian Ocean, where Jerome is head of wine (and oversees the best wine cellar in that part of the globe). Jerome was bringing one of their Mauritian trained chefs to work in these exalted restaurants, and concocted the plan, probably after an overdose of good Kiwi Pinot.
Together we would travel from hostellerie to hostellerie, eating, drinking and tasting our way as we brought the delights of New Zealand wine to the French.
We kicked off the week with a dinner with some sommelier friends in Montparnasse. Le Petit Sommelier was an ideal venue, especially as we brought several of our own sommeliers with us (none of them that petit!). If ever a group was over equipped for the task we were it, with Jonathon Bauer: France’s current champion sommelier and Olivier Poussier: a former champion, among our ranks, we had the perfect team to decode the big list and they set to it with enthusiasm. Any of us could have picked out solid bottles from the usual suspects, but these guys were a whole different game: we started with what tasted like white Burgundy, but turned out to be a Rabigato: Muxagat from the Douro (Mateus Nicolau de Almeida). From there to Corsica for Y Leccia Patrimonio Blanc 2012 from Domaine d’E Croce: a gorgeous rich and fruity Vermentino white, perfect for the boudin noir we ate with it. A St Joseph from Gonon wrapped up the whites; Marsanne dominant and lusciously hedonistic.
The reds didn’t let the side down: Bandol from Tempier, Chateau de Fonsalette from the Rhone and a great Bourgueil, which was served blind, but Olivier nailed with insolent ease. The foods were simple but perfect: Côte de Boeuf with the best frites ever and Iberica pork neck with polenta.
The message of the evening was how many amazing wines are completely affordable; when you have the right guide to take you there. We all need a personal sommelier for such evenings (plus a list good enough to make the hunt possible). But it’s not often one arrives so well armed!
Tuesday started with a brief tasting for some local Paris somms, all up to speed in their knowledge and enthusiasm, before a quick lunch at Le Sens Unique just off the Champs Elysee; great rognons de veau and confit de canard washed down with Provence Rose.
I’ve come to understand how Paris is a seriously tricky place to eat. There are a great many traditional restaurants of high quality and value. Equally there are a whole cohort of exciting places where mostly younger chefs are pushing their boundaries, and, of course, the serious fine cuisine places. But there is a quagmire of complacent, lazy, nothing wrong but absolutely nothing right sort of places to wade through in between. Without guidance this is a minefield of a city to negotiate. I’ve been slowly gathering a list, but it takes time and quite a bit of effort.
Our first wine dinner wasn’t an effort at all. Tante Marguerite may be the only Loiseau restaurant of our journey not to hold a star, but that isn’t for want of trying. Spectacular cooking, impeccable service, it would have been a joy to sit back and enjoy it. Except we couldn’t, because each plate had to be hurriedly scoffed in order to head round to join guests and talk about the wines. The reception from the sell out crowd was inspiring; people were curious, appreciative, knowledgeable, I had to rethink my prejudices as fast as I absorbed their responses. One young man, dining with his parents, handed me an envelope containing a request for employment when he finished his studies (he was travelling to New Zealand to read for his masters in winemaking and viticulture at Lincoln University in Christchurch). How cool is that?
Wednesday: 6 am and loading cars with wine and cases, aiming to be out of the city before the rush begins: lunch in Meursault is our reward. And it all works to schedule: we drop the wine in Beaune and load a truck which will trans-ship the stock for Dijon and Saulieu, then head off to Xavier Monnot in Meursault for a tasting and lunch.
This is a new domaine for me, but the wines were really solid: quite a big range, each with good precision and delineation, but without austerity. A couple of older examples over lunch really showed how capable this domaine is. Xavier was a great host, exuberant and fun, and the lunch on the terrace of his spectacular house was all one expects of great Burgundy hospitality. As each course arrived we tucked in, but were all acutely aware that there would be several courses of Michelin starred wine dinner to eat in just a few hours time.
Next stop was Etienne Sauzet, where the winery has had a rather snazzy tasting room added since the last time I was here. Also Benoit Riffault is making his presence clear in the winery now.
The 13’s were chiseled, honed to a micron of accuracy. This a domaine which has always enjoyed precision, but the wines are now enjoying a new height in this regard. It was evident that they are taking no chances with oxidation issues, with sulphur showing on a few of the wines. They are now also a few years into a biodynamic regime and clearly enjoying the results of it. These are wines that celebrate the skill of the careful winemaker. There could not have been a finer contrast to enjoy before the final tasting of the day: for we had the Willy Wonker magic ticket of the Côte du Beaune: Coche Dury.
I had tasted the wines a few times, but never the top cuvées and I have never met the man. These wines seem to have almost a mythical status; the white analogue to Domaine Leroy. From my previous experience I had seen some uncanny parallels; both seem to conjure a special power and gravitas from minor appellations, both seem to be viticulture driven, not winery driven… both are very reluctant to open their door… and of course both attract market prices normally ascribed to national budgets.
Jean-François Coche was pretty much as I imagined. A bit gnarly, dressed for the vineyard; rather strange that he was the one in shorts while the Kiwis were all in long pants! He sat on his stool made from old vine trunks like Radagast from the Lord of the Rings. One expected a Goshawk to come and perch on his shoulder.
And the wines? Ahhh, yes. No chiseling here, no honing, no striving for perfection. These are wines of natural, organic power (I’m not saying the wines are natural or organic, I’m using the words in their true sense), they are like living things, wines of terroir, but not anybody else’s terroir, these are Jean-François’ personal patches of vines and they taste that way.
The legendary Corton Charlemagne soared on a carpet of toasted almonds. Of course, not worth a fraction of the ludicrous prices the secondary market elevate it to. But worth every penny of the rather more modest prices the winery charge to the privileged few who get an allocation (somebody told me there are just 10 people on the private customer allocation list). I feel the deepest sympathy for people like Jean-François: catapulted into a prominence they didn’t seek and their labours turned into a set of bragging rights for billionaires. There are worse problems, to be sure, but it isn’t a fate that I’d wish on any such person.
So to dinner. It became clear to us as soon as we arrived that the restaurant were somewhat sceptical about the entire concept of a New Zealand tasting and wine dinner in Burgundy. They had been a little nervous of publicising and unsure of whether telling people about this madcap scheme might be harmful to their future credibility. So we set up our tasting tables in the courtyard and resigned ourselves to a quiet session with a few tourists.
One minute we were chatting amongst ourselves, then a trickle started to arrive, the flow grew until within about 20 minutes it seemed half of the Côte was there to see us. Some bought bottles of wine to share, all were gracious, interested and complimentary. Friends turned up from domaines that we knew… others were strangers by face but not by name or reputation. Soon the place was abuzz, with the restaurant rather bemused to see that they had a hit on their hands.
The meal was glorious: the best cured salmon I have ever had layered with wafers of radish… snails with an egg in Pinot Blanc Meurette: a Burgundy classic, lamb as a nod to our nationality, with smoked pepper and grilled avocado. All in all a great end to a great day. We headed up into St Romain, where Xavier’s sister has a beautiful house for an all too brief sleep before the show was back on the road in the morning.
Thursday started with an early tasting at Armand Rousseau. I have enjoyed these wines for many, many years and I am rather peeved that now they have been escalated to price-points that I cannot endure. As I was typing this account an offer appeared in my email from a prominent broker. There were three Rousseau wines in the list. All were around £1000 a bottle. Even at the far more modest release prices, I really struggle: these were regulars for me back in the day.
What cannot be faulted is the quality: every time I have tasted here I am struck by the incredible consistency of arc: winemaker arc and place arc just run together with accuracy that leaves me envious and bewildered. Each time I am lucky enough to see it, the wines get better, more precise, yet more enjoyable. They are things of wonder, just a shame that I wonder who can afford them.
Then on to an introduction that filled me with intrigue. Mounir Sauma is somebody I have heard many wild stories about: the crazy Lebanese negociant who seems to have a near magical ability to persuade domaines to part with single barrels of grand cru wines for him to re-invent and call his own. And re-invent them he does: with his own custom light toast barrels, he ages wines with an elevage that is positively perverse by Burgundian standards: never less than 2 years in new oak, often closer to 3 years. No wines are sulphured until bottling. The man is clearly a risk junkie, maybe born of an upbringing that can never have been too far from a mortar shell.
But this unique formula works. The wines are good: distinctive, sometimes showing some of that expensive woodwork, but always expressive and with a purity that seems just plain wrong for an approach that is so left field. It shows us that there are many more ways to make winemaking work than we suspect.
Mounir is, as I’d expected, larger than life. We wander through vineyards, pulling bottles from the vineyard in question, working our way through Gevrey, Chambolle, Morey, Vougeot and Vosne, before settling for a picnic lunch under Corton Charlemagne. He is a perfect tour guide: like all the best his account isn’t neutral or sterile, but opinionated and very much an individual vision. That is so important in wine; everybody may rattle on about terroir, but the person behind the wine is the conductor of the vines and strong characters make for exciting wines.
As lunch comes to an end it becomes clear that we have passed some sort of test and Mounir invites us to come back to the winery to discuss white wine making. And so we spend a happy afternoon delving into barrels (this man has well over 80 cuvees in any vintage) and discussing finer points of white wine-making, nerdy beyond belief to anybody other than those who earn their living this way. We look at an amphora filled with Corton Charlemagne berries and left on skins with no treatment at all for the last nine months. The cap has just started to fall and the liquid is fabulous: deeply phenolic, like no Corton you could ever find in a bottle, but a completely engrossing, complex wine that is probably far closer to the wines made by the original Cistercians than anything in any Burgundy cellar today. Inspiring stuff. I am struck by the extra-ordinary generosity of so many of our hosts. Mounir could have bought a car with the proceeds of the bottles he pulled, and a decent car at that. This wasn’t to sell wine, or to curry the favour of critics. This was plain enthusiasm to share his world with his peers. It’s humbling.
And so to Dijon. Again a tasting and dinner, this time at Loiseau des Ducs. Again we set out our stall, this time outside on the street. But we had been told that the dinner was a sell out with a number of Burgundy luminaries among the diners. Again, within minutes, the crowd were there. I was just showing Anne Gros; one of my favourite Côte de Nuits winemakers, a trio of Pinots when I heard a loud shout and a private client of ours, who has worked vintage with us in the past was standing there looking on in disbelief. His apartment was only 50 metres away and he hurried off and returned with a couple of old vintages of Felton Road for us to show! The night descended into a very late one of fine bottles, great food, good company and trying to find out how to re-enter our small hotel at 3 in the morning!
Friday was our last day, but what a day. Jerome had organised a start with Louis-Michel at Comte Liger-Belair. Louis-Michel is always interesting to talk to, with the courage to play a few games with his winemaking. The wines are getting ever better and, of course, there is the legendary La Romanée: the smallest grand cru in the Côte and the only one to challenge its neighbour: Romanée Conti, for prestige. I leave thinking how Burgundy has never in its history made such consistently great wines as it does now.
So we flick down the road to Louis-Michel’s cousin: Thibault; a good and solid friend, Thibault is a fascinating contrast within the Liger-Belair clan. Louis-Michel’s line are the generals to Napoleon, Thibault’s are the traders; in wine and other goods. Louis-Michel is gracious, Thibault is generous in every sense: a large open and warm man… a great sailor, world class and still sails a huge classic racing yacht belonging to the Monaco royal family. The wines also are generous, full and welcoming. So is the lunch on the lawn, in a scene that could be a classic oil painting for a French repast.
We lounge our way through wines, jambon persil, more wines, cheese and a strawberry tart that could have starred in its own cookery show. No matter that we have five courses of three star food to consume that evening, this is France and we do it the way we do it.
And so to the end of our journey: the legendary Côte D’Or: Relais Bernard Loiseau. 3 Michelin stars, but more than that. This is culinary legend and something very special for me. This was the first Michelin starred restaurant I ever ate in. Young, just with its first star, I found it when my car broke down just up the road. I stayed the night and I have the clearest memories of the dinner they served. After amuse and appetisers, I was presented with the best confit de canard I had ever tasted. As I finished, my plate was whipped away and replaced with a new one bearing a seared magret. “I’ve had mine” I protested. “This is the rest of your duck” came the reply. I was in heaven.
The following morning I had to leave very early, but Bernard was up to give me freshly baked bread and croissants, home made jams and local butter. We drank coffee and chatted before I had to go find my hire car. I never met him again. His rise to 3 star prominence and his tragic suicide became one of the road legends of haut cuisine. Amazingly, his widow: Dominique, picked up the baton and ensured that his vision continued. When we arrived she was waiting for us.
Our final meal and tasting passed in a blur: eating sublime dishes, wandering round a kitchen the size of a tennis court, enjoying the wonderful gardens that surround the restaurant like a Japanese teahouse.
Perhaps my highpoint was my seating companion: Eric Riewer, a senior critic at the Gault Millau guide. I have always admired the Gault Millau for its stubborn refusal to apply social hierarchy to its marking: if a street vendor can cook food of three star quality, then so be it: they get equal status. There used to be a very scruffy Gujarati restaurant in London that held equal marking to Marco Pierre White’s 3 star palace, despite the fact that you couldn’t spend £25 a head there if you tried.
But, now I had the perfect answer to my first puzzle of the trip: how to decode the great eating places in Paris. Eric not only enlightened me, but offered to procure the tricky reservations on my behalf the next time I visited.
And that summed up the week: it started with champion sommeliers decoding a great list and ended with a great critic offering to decode one of the world’s most opaque dining cities. In between we drank some of the greatest wines on the planet, ate the food of the Gods and, in our own small way, showed what we can achieve in our corner of the globe. It was a true inspiration to receive the enthusiastic feedback we had at every stop along the way.
And this is work? How lucky are we?
My profound thanks to Jerome Faure, Constance Resorts and the Loiseau Group for making this incredible week possible.