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Posted by Robert Whitley on August 2, 2017 at 10:36 AM

Postcard from France: Provence

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — There are a number of reasons tourists flock to Provence in summer.  There are the pristine beaches that line the glistening blue Mediterranean waters.  The ancient Roman and Greek ruins are an attraction, too.  For art lovers, many of the quaint villages of Provence and the Cote d'Azur were the inspiration for Van Gogh, Chagall and Matisse.  And for some, the unique gastronomy is the lure.


My personal Tour de France in the summer of 2017 was inspired by a food and wine experience some 17 years ago, which culminated with a dinner at the Michelin two-star restaurant Bastide Saint-Antoine on a rather significant birthday.  I still have the menu from that evening, signed by chef Jacques Chibois, in a prominent space in my wine cellar.

The next day, following the gastronomic tour de force,  I lunched outside at Bastide Saint-Antoine and enjoyed the warm summer weather with a dry rosé wine from Bandol.  As it turned out, this was the dawning of my appreciation for the excellent dry rose wines of Provence.

I tried as best I could to recreate the experience of 17 years ago while lunching once again at Bastide Saint-Antoine.

I am happy to report that the kitchen hasn't missed a beat in the intervening years and the selection of rosé wines is every bit as good as I remembered.  The precision of the service staff combined with the excellence of the cuisine and a broad selection of wine from Provence, Burgundy, Champagne and the Rhone Valley made for a memorable stop on the drive from Nice to Aix.

I was not so fortunate after I arrived at my destination. I booked a reservation at L'Espirit de la Violette, formerly Clos de la Violette and once the finest restaurant in Aix.

I fondly remembered meeting chef Jean-Marc Banzo on the same evening he learned the Michelin Guide had elevated Clos de la Violette from one star to two.  At that time, Clos de la Violette was also a Relais & Chateaux hotel on the edge of the Old Town.  Chef Banzo left about five years ago, and new ownership closed the hotel and gave the restaurant a face-lift.

It has lost one of its two Michelin stars, and from my experience, I believe Michelin has been too kind.  The dinner was fair at best.  One of the three amuse-bouche presented was inedible, and the meat course, a roast rack of lamb, was overcooked and hopelessly botched by the server making a feeble attempt to carve it.

Dinner was saved somewhat by the excellent wine service.  The house coupe de Champagne was a Bruno Paillard Brut, a stunning wine.  And the sommelier steered me away from a light Burgundy with the lamb course to an outstanding Rhône blend from Saint-Chinian, the 2014 Domaine Rimbert La Mas au Schiste.  The match would have been magical if the lamb had been anything like the lamb chop I enjoyed two weeks earlier at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris.

My disappointment in Michelin was short-lived, however, for I took the guide's recommendation on a casual restaurant in the Old Town of Aix, Vintrepide.  The food was simple and honest and made from local ingredients.  The first course of zucchini blossom was probably the best I've ever had.  The wine list was exceptional and well-priced, though most of the offerings were either current or very recent vintages.

Quite by accident, I saved the best for last.  A brief visit to the Relais & Chateaux hotel in Les Baux, Baumaniere, turned out to be food and wine nirvana.

Chef Jean-Andre Charial was the brilliance behind the Michelin three-star L'Oustau de Baumaniere when I dined there 17 years ago.  He has since retired from the kitchen, but he happens to own the restaurant and hotel, so his influence continues unabated.  Under Charial, L'Oustau Baumaniere was at one time the longest-running Michelin three-star restaurant in France.

Without Charial in the kitchen it has been reduced to two stars, but in my humble opinion, it remains three stars in every sense.  The five-course "Evolution/Tradition" tasting menu on the evening I was there was an extraordinary dining experience.  Just as important to me, the wine list was sensational and deep, sprinkled with many older vintages from France's most important producers.

I found it surprising that the best value wines on the list were the older vintages, so I took the bait, ordering a 1993 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne for 250 Euros.  My idea of value doesn't necessarily mean cheap.  I would have expected to pay much more for a 24-year-old white Burgundy from one of France's greatest chardonnay vineyards, one known for its remarkable ability to age.

When I inquired with the sommelier about whether the wine was in good condition, he was firm.  "Of course," he declared.  "This was a fresh vintage."

Bingo.  It was the wine of the night, indeed the finest wine I had tasted in my two weeks on the French Riviera and Provence, and probably the best wine I have tasted this year.

Seventeen years ago, chef Charial took me into the wine cellar at L'Oustau and chose a 1927 Clos de Vougeot, a Grand Cru red Burgundy, to serve at my pre-birthday dinner.  It was a stunner. I happily report that some things never change!

Peregrine, Central Otago (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($25, Vineyard Brands)
Even at the higher end of Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand these days, the issue is balance.  The famously energetic acidity that vintners can conjure from the cool Kiwi climate on the south island always raises a winemaking question:  Do I let the fermentation run all the way to dryness, producing a Sauvignon that will be zesty enough to awaken the dead, or do I leave enough residual sugar to buffer that acidity and make a rendition that will appeal more to the masses than connoisseurs?  This wine shows that a happy medium is possible, as it shows brilliant balance between bright citrus fruit and softer melon notes that really wear well after the first glass (and the second, too).  Indeed, the balance here is so precise and the wine so complete that it could serve very well as a sipper, or as a partner for freshly shucked oysters, or for pairing with finfish or lighter preparations of chicken.
92 Michael Franz

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This Issue's Reviews
 
No Rosé, Please…Just Chill the Red
Michael Apstein

As regular readers of this column know--and if you didn't you could tell from the introductory paragraph--I am not a fan of rosé. Although rosés are cool and refreshing, most lack complexity. I realize I'm painting with a very broad brush because there are rosés that deliver lots of character. Rosés from Bandol or Tavel in the south of France, to name just two, can make you sit up and focus on what's in your glass. But most rosés don't demand attention, which, of course, is likely much of their appeal. Most people do not want to think about the nuances of wine, especially in the summer. But for those who want a cool and refreshing, rosé-like experience and want to think--at least a little--about what's in the glass while sitting on the porch or deck, I suggest chilling red wine.
Wines of British Columbia: Tough to Find but Worth the Effort
Jim Clarke

If there's a wine that doesn't travel well, it might be the wines of British Columbia. By this, I don't mean that their wines crack up in transit, but that they barely travel at all. Domestic wine consumption within Canada is strong; as W. Blake Gray pointed out here on Wine Review Online some time ago, Canadians drink ten times more than the country produces, so there is little need to export. Domestic sales are encouraged by the provincial Liquor Boards, too, within their own provincial borders in particular. How provincial are they? Well, enough that it's easier to find an Ontario wine in New York than in British Columbia, for example. But while Ontario wines are starting to dribble across the border, British Columbian wines remain virtually unknown in the USA.
Wine With
WINE WITH…Poblano Peppers Stuffed with Beef and Rice


'I like to treat them like old-fashioned stuffed bell-peppers,' said the woman at the farmers' market from whom we'd just bought 6 beautiful, large poblanos. 'I stuff them with ground beef and rice, and I often freeze an entire batch, uncooked, for use in the winter.' It's been a long time since either of us has made, or even eaten, an old-fashioned stuffed pepper, but her words inspired us. After substituting poblanos for harsher tasting (and often bitter) green bell peppers, we went strictly old-school in this recipe, aiming for simplicity of ingredients and ease of preparation. Actually, we veered off the traditional course in another way as well, by serving our peppers with an Ottolenghi-inspired mint-yogurt sauce instead of the tomato sauce that usually tops stuffed bell peppers. This savory sauce, along with the use of poblano peppers, transformed what had been a reliable, if somewhat stodgy, 20th century classic into a delicious dish well suited to today's palates.
On My Table
Making Chardonnay Matter Again
Mary Ewing-Mulligan

The 2015 Sonoma-Loeb El Novillero Chardonnay is a gorgeous Chardonnay, with all the richness and complexity that California Chardonnay can deliver but none of the excess. Its exotic aroma speaks of lychee, ripe lemon, quince, butterscotch, cream and smoky oak. In your mouth, the wine is full, round and voluptuous, with creamy texture but also an enlivening acidity that holds the rich elements in check. Its flavors suggest peach, pineapple, lemon, floral notes, nutmeg and buttery brioche. The wine's acidity gives depth and dimension to the complex flavors and rich structure. The oak barrels in which this wine fermented were 50 percent new; all the wine underwent ML and the time on the lees was ten months compared to eight months for the other two Chardonnays.