A Tasting Tour de France
Julie Mautner / October 2012
A lucky group of restaurant staffers immersed themselves in the food and wines of Paris, Provence, and Burgundy. Julie Mautner heard all about the moveable feast.
Once a year, owner Tom MacDonald and sommelier Jeremy Quinn organize a tasting trip for the staffs of their three Chicago venues: Telegraph restaurant and wine bar, Webster’s Wine Bar, and The Bluebird craft beer bar. This year, the lucky group flew to France and bombed around Burgundy on bikes. Prior to joining the staff in Burgundy, MacDonald, Quinn, and Telegraph executive chef Johnny Anderes immersed themselves in natural wines in Paris and spent a few intoxicating days in Provence.
PART 1: THE TRIP
Since leaving their litigation consulting careers and opening Webster’s Wine Bar in Chicago in 1994, husband and wife Tom MacDonald and Janan Asfour have always believed in experiencing fine wines first-hand—not just by pulling a cork and tasting at home in Chicago, but by visiting the actual vineyards and cellars, tasting with the men and women who craft them.
So every year since 1995, they’ve invited their employees (servers, bartenders, chefs, cooks, and even bus boys) on trips to wine regions that have included California, Oregon, Washington, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Austria, Germany, with Belgium thrown in for a tour of breweries. For employees who choose to sign on, the company pays for all in-country travel (train, rental car, etc.) and a few special meals; staffers pay their own air and lodging. “I sanction, condone, encourage, and partially fund the trips,” MacDonald says. “But our sommelier, Jeremy Quinn, does all the organizational hard work.”
And so it was, in May 2012, that a crew of 13 from Webster’s Wine Bar and Telegraph (opened last summer) set out to explore Burgundy’s Côte d’Or by bike. From their home base near Meursault, the group happily sipped and spit their way through the villages of Volnay (Voillot, Lafarge), Pommard (Violot-Guillemard), Nantoux (Montchovet), St.-Romain (Chassorney), and Meursault (Mikulski), among others.
“There’s simply no better way to get a deep appreciation for the landscape and intricacies of the terroir than by traveling on foot (impractical) or on bike,” MacDonald explains. “Getting the heart pumping in between epic tasting sessions is definitely the way to go. No other mode of transport does a regional wine tour justice.”
“I had toured Burgundy several times by car, and always came home agreeing with the standard idea that the Côte d’Or is a predictable, gentle slope,” Quinn adds. “But this year, the bikes allowed me to see how dynamic the landscape really is.”
Prior to the group’s arrival, MacDonald, Quinn, and Anderes spent two days in Paris and four days in Provence. “In Paris—perhaps the best wine city on the planet—the craze is the ‘natural wine’ wine bar,” Quinn says. “Natural wines have no added chemicals, preservatives, or flavor or appearance enhancers. They’re made using little or no sulphur, and they’re fermented using only natural native yeasts. And if the owner embraces natural wines, it follows that the food will be equally artisanal and natural. We were very impressed with Vivant and Le Baratin, for example, which offered both killer natural wines and heartwarming food.”
The trio then hightailed it to Provence, for wine touring, market shopping, and an infusion of culinary inspiration. Home base in St.-Rémy-de-Provence was the gracious Mas de Cornud, a cooking school and country inn in an 18th century mas (farmhouse), where owners David and Nito Carpita let them loose in the kitchen, pantry, cellar, and potager (kitchen garden). The plan? To prepare a few major meals from the best local ingredients, do some recipe R&D, reconnect with winemaker friends, source some new labels, and slip into the Mediterranean at least once.
First order of business? Food shopping. “At the Friday morning market in Eygalières, we found products of impeccable quality,” Anderes says. “Asparagus, red peppers, fresh herbs, cured meats, and local cheeses. At the fishmonger in St.-Rémy-de-Provence, everything looked like it had come from the sea that morning…and probably had. At the Carpitas’ favorite butcher, we got quail and the butcher’s family recipe for stuffing sausage.” The dinner that came together was marinated grilled prawns, broiled dorade (sea bream) stuffed with thyme and wrapped in sorrel, farce-stuffed quail roasted on an outdoor spit, and a dessert of fresh strawberries with goat’s milk cream and candied fennel.
Up and out at the crack of noon, the trio zipped down to Bandol to meet with Etienne Portalis and his father, Cyrille, at Château Pradeaux. “Their rosés are the most famous in the region…and understandably so,” Quinn says.
Then they headed southeast to Clos Cibonne, a family-owned winery facing the sea just east of Toulon, where rosés and reds are made from the rare Tibouren grape. First the gang was treated to a “dazzling” local seafood lunch: lumpfish caviar, fresh brandade, grilled dorade, toasts with tamara (cod roe), and a classic super-fresh bouillabaisse. Then they tasted their way through more than a dozen wines, including a few rosés from the mid-1970s. “Yes, rosé from the ’70s! Still full of vitality and freshness,” Quinn adds.
By all accounts, the France escapade was a stimulating, smashing success, inspiring some great new dishes for menus back in Chicago and some new wine finds as well.
“This whole trip was one big feast for the senses,” Anderes says. “If this is work, then I certainly picked the right career.”
PART 2: FROM THE SOMMELIER'S NOTEBOOK
Quinn took extensive tasting notes in France. “This year’s was definitely the most exciting, grueling, and rewarding trip yet,” he reports, “with the most ground covered, from Provence to Burgundy to the Jura, and the most varied staff traveling with different knowledge levels. We learned from the winemakers, the terroir, and each other in equal measure!” Here are some of Quinn’s favorite restaurant and winery finds. (He also blogged about the trip at telegraphchicago.com/category/wineblog.)
A tiny natural wine bar and restaurant opened last year by Pierre Jancou, formerly of Racines. As a “follower” of Jancou’s, I’d been to Racines before; he was a leading light in the Paris scene for years before heading to the South of France for a time. The staff is very friendly and courteous; the plates are deliciously small, fresh, and seasonal. And while we ordered some listed wines by the glass and bottle, it was most fun, on my second visit, to give our server control of what we were drinking: he ran to the cellar repeatedly for fascinating bottles not on their chalkboard.
A classic destination in Belleville, rapidly becoming one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city. Hearty plates and outstanding wine.
After training at Michelin three-star L’Arpège, Bertrand Grébaut (who’s just 30 years old, I believe) opened this fantastic restaurant in April 2011, intending to “loosen up” the environment for fine cuisine, to great acclaim. The menu is always revolving, and the wine list is chock-full of rare, delicious natural choices at great prices. After chatting with the very cool staff, we enjoyed an off-the-charts five course meal that was one of the finest I’ve ever had in Paris, next to Le Chateaubriand.
At Johnny’s insistence, we dined in this spot well-known amongst Chicago chefs. Basque (but born in Britain), chef Stephane Jego produces dynamite food from his tiny kitchen, and the fact that the place is constantly packed with locals is a sure sign that it’s a winner. His hearty, slightly rustic dishes were worth the wait.
Château Pradeaux, St.-Cyr-sur-Mer, Bandol
I’ve been a huge fan of Pradeaux’s ethically made wines for many years, so it was a treat to finally visit! The estate’s history runs to 1752; Cyrille Portalis, the current owner, is in the midst of handing the work of the estate to his son Etienne. We met with both of them and got a clear portrait of what makes Bandol’s situation—and Pradeaux’s situation within Bandol—so special, with a short vineyard and cellar tour, followed by a tasting that included the 2011 rosé, the finest I’ve ever had from the domain.
Clos Cibbone, Le Pradet
We tasted a host of terrific reds and rosés poured by our hosts, Claude and Brigitte Deforge. Clos Cibonne is unique for two reasons: the estate specializes in the Tibouren varietal, a rare red Mediterranean blending grape of Mesopotamian origin that’s now nearly extinct; and the veil of yeast (flor), underneath which the finest rosés are elaborated over the course of a year. While tasting the 2010 and 2011 vintages, we recognized a very common theme for Provence: the difference between wines made for the local French market and those made for export to the States. Nearly every estate (Cibonne included) has a line of wines, led by rosé, which are crisp, easy to drink, and very affordable, usually fermented in stainless steel with cultured yeast, and often from purchased grapes. These are meant to be enjoyed quickly, within a few months of release, and on their own, not necessarily at table. These are wines “for the French market.”
The wines we see in the U.S. (we poured the Cibonne rosé last summer at Telegraph) undergo a longer maturation before release, show a deeper color, are aged in large, neutral foudre barrels, and, in the case of Cibonne, aged under flor. These are wines made for “contemplation” or at the table, and represent a more traditional style. This style of rosé also has great longevity in the mid-term; we tasted a very lively, very quaffable 1994 rosé, as well as a deeply colored 1978 rosé, which, while nearing the end of its life, still had surprising acidity and focus.
The “Tradition” reds from this estate are fantastic as well. We tasted a 2011 Tibouren red next to a 1979; while the ’79 lost a lot of the vibrant scarlet hue that the 2011 showed, it still had a bracing, delicate line of acidity and angular fruit that made me think of older Pinot Noir from northern Burgundy, or the Jura’s Trousseau.
Domaine Hauvette, St.-Rémy-de-Provence
It was a deep pleasure for me to visit the vineyards and new cellar of Dominique Hauvette, in the shadow of the Alpilles Mountains. A self-taught winemaker, Dominique is fiercely independent and an uncompromising natural producer of stunning reds, whites, and rosés, some of which elaborate in concrete fermentation eggs for purity. She was very generous with her time, showing us a host of vintages from the last decade. Her 2008 Amethyste red blend of 60 percent Cinsault is terribly pure and deeply herbal; my pick to share with anyone who considers Provençale reds to be one-dimensional or predictable!
The number of highlights would take days to convey! But to name a few…
Le Comptoir des Tontons, Beaune
Outstanding husband and wife restaurant with creative food and a killer wine list.
What a delight, after days of heavy sauces, salty hams, rich beef, and pungent cheese, to eat at this centrally located, deliciously artisanal Japanese restaurant, with wines from all corners of France.
La Cabotte, Nuits-St.-Georges
The place to eat in NSG for thoughtfully prepared, classically influenced cuisine.
Domaine de Chassorney, St.-Romain
From one of the most radically natural Burgundian estates, these wines from Frédéric Cossard represent one possible future for the entire region, with clarity, focus, and precision. Frédéric’s 2011 from the Monts Luisants premier cru in Morey-St.-Denis, just above Clos de la Roche, remains one of the finest Burgundies I’ve ever tasted—it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with its panther-like agility and concentrated suavity. A definite “heavy hitter,” certain to impress anyone with the region’s continued vitality.
Catherine et Dominique Derain, St.-Aubin
Dominique is one of the coolest cats working in Burgundy today; his largely unsulfured bottlings carry a captivating rawness previously unthinkable in St.-Aubin. His Vesvau Lieu-dit Blanc from St.-Aubin is a later-harvested, medium-priced luxury whose flinty, spicy crushed pepper and tropical character shows an exotic—and affordable!-side to Côte-de-Beaune blanc.
Domaine Méo-Camuzet, Vosne-Romanée
At this storied domaine, Jean-Nicolas Méo took us through a fantastic barrel tasting, which taught us a great deal about vintage differences in Burgundy, especially 2010 and 2011. There are a host of famous wines and top crus here, including Richebourg, Vougeot, and Echezeaux, making it easy to forget the lesser known bottlings. We tasted a 2010 rouge from Fixin that had an amazing initial attack and persistent mouthfeel—perhaps the wine with which to introduce guests to Méo-Camuzet.
François Mikulski, Meursault
A relative newcomer to Burgundy, François’ take on his Meursault terroir carries a freshness and intensity which few of his more deeply rooted neighbors can boast having. This was a great visit, which showed clear terroir diversity. One has to mention François’ Aligote, made from two plots whose vines were planted in 1929 and 1948—its crispness and elegance prove that when their vines are mature, great wines can be made from this varietal.
Benjamin Leroux, Beaune
I’m convinced that Benjamin is one of the finest winemakers in Burgundy today. Not yet 40, he has a restless, exploratory attitude to site expression and seeks purity in every barrel, often changing his élevage regime to achieve it. I’m very fond of his Hauts Jarrons (Savigny-Les-Beaune) and Aux Thorey (Nuits-St-Georges), but on this visit, his 2010 Mitans premier cru from Volnay spoke the strongest to me. On a wine list, it inches toward the upper tier and registers as one of the finest Volnays one can taste, showing passion fruit, sassafras, and outstanding depth.