Monthly Archives

August 2015

Restaurants

La Salle à Manger

Salle à Manger Wine

Excellent Montréal food critic Lesley Chesterman said of La Salle à Manger “when the plates hit the table, it’s gourmet game on”. This was back in 2011. Guillaume and I headed there a couple of nights ago to see if this Mont-Royal hot spot was still worthy of such high praise.

The place is cool. Nice dim lighting, wooden benches intermixed with individual tables, a glassed-in meat locker with a glimpse of the bustling kitchen behind. Vintage style wall paper behind a long, inviting bar. The Boss crooning “Atlantic City” in the background. So far, so good. The menu is simple but enticing with a good mix of vegetarian, meat and seafood options. Everything sounds market fresh, and approachable. No complicated laundry lists of ingredients, no high fallutin’ poetic descriptions; short and to the point.

The wine list is long, with a pleasing number of by the glass options and a nice range of prices. But then I start looking at the origins… Austria, Loire Valley, Jura…and my heart sinks. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of these regions. But they are also the poster children for the ultra-trendy natural wine movement. I am going to say something very unhip now…   Ready? I don’t like natural wines. I have had some good ones. But on the whole….not a fan. Wine producers, waiters, friends all swear that this bottle will not be murky and taste like apple cider or barnyard, but to greater or lesser extents, they all do. Side note…I am very keen to be proven wrong, so feel free to send suggestions. I will dutifully try them and be happy to change my opinion. Anyways…back to the topic at hand… La Salle à Manger’s wine list.

I ask the waiter, who proudly announces that yes, the wine list does focus on natural wines (sigh…). As we are already seated, and have ordered, we decide to push on through. We are in a celebratory mood. I have passed my 1st year of Master of Wine studies! We order Champagne. Robert Barbichon Réserve 4 cépages to be exact. I take a first nervous sip and am relieved. The nose is highly aromatic with apricot, tarte tatin and floral notes. The wine is crisp, light and refreshing, with subtle but persistent mousse and a lifted, fruity finish. This is not an earthshakingly good Champagne but very nice for the price. Our starters arrive: green bean salad, with grilled courgettes and fresh goat’s cheese for me (very fresh, but a tad bland) and grilled octopus, jalapenos and corn waffle for Guillaume (better, though the octopus is a little overwhelmed by the spice and quantity of waffle). Our smiling waiter brings over glasses and a couple of bottles to let us try the wines before committing. I like this guy! For the green beans he recommends a Pierre Frick Alsatian Sylvaner for its weight and minerality. The pairing works reasonably well, though the wine is a little neutral for my taste, with a tell-tale hint of apple sourness on the finish. For the octopus, our friend pours a decidedly brown glass of rosé. It is a Loire Vin de France Cabernet Franc. Guillaume’s verdict? Pretty nose of hawthorn and mixed berries, enough fruit and body to soften the spice, but a pronounced animal note on the finish that clashes with the octopus.

For our next course, I take a wild mushroom dish with a jus de viande and egg. It is rich, hearty and flavourful, just as I’d hoped. I am offered two choices. The first one is the winner. A Catalan Garnacha Macabeu blend (Laureano Serres “Aidons Nous”). It is redolent of potpourri and cherries, with moderate acidity, medium body, integrated alcohol and animal notes on the finish that work well with the mushrooms. Guillaume has lamb liver with caponata (great mix of textures and flavours, liver well cooked, all in all a thumbs up). The pairing works well here too. The wine is Ca’ de Noci “Gheppio” Rosso from Emilia Romagna. An IGT blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and local grape Malbo Gentile. Super-ripe fruit with volatile notes garners a frown from Guillaume, but the acidity matches the caponata nicely, and the full body and firm tannins work well with the liver. We finish with richly textured, firm and delicious panna cotta. No wine pairing here, but our waiter kindly offers us a glass of Rivaton Rivesaltes Grenat. A surprising wine with classic vin doux nose, but bone dry with lots of body, depth and smooth, rounded tannins.

Overall, we would rate this restaurant experience in the good to very good range…sort of B+ level. A little on the expensive side, but a great vibe and really excellent service. The wine list, like the menu, has obviously had lots of thought and care put into it. The waiter knows his list and recommends well. However, I just can’t shake the fact that, unless the concept is made very clear to customers from the outset, a wine list should not be made up almost entirely of natural wines. There does exist an informed minority that love this style, and more power to them. But I don’t believe the average consumer will understand or enjoy murky, brown rosé, sour cider notes on whites or heavy barnyard aromas on light bodied reds. The wine pairings were good, but I just didn’t like any of the wines save the Champagne, and what is a good restaurant experience about if not pleasure?

Producers Reviews

Producer Profile – Paul-Henry Pellé

Paul-Henry Pellé

Seriously good, seriously affordable Burgundian-influenced Loire Sauvignon Blanc

I met Paul-Henry in 2005 when he was studying viticulture at the Lycée Viticole de Beaune and I was studying international wine commerce at the Beaune campus of the AgroSup Dijon. Amid the giddiness of his wine loving, party oriented crowd, he stood out from the pack. He knew how to let loose, but was just a shade quieter and wiser than the others; a bit of an old soul. We became fast friends; eating and drinking our way through Burgundy, the Loire and later South Africa.

Though he was too humble to brag about it, Paul-Henry stood to inherit a 40 hectare estate in Menetou-Salon; an AOC region in the extreme east of the Loire Valley, near Sancerre. In 2007, when his friends were heading off for overseas harvests and oenology degrees, Paul-Henry set out for home. He was to take up his responsibilities in the vines and the cellar; just 22 years old and already head of the estate. His father had passed away when Paul-Henry was only 10 years old. Since then, his mother had kept up the domaine’s excellent reputation with the help of a top quality hired oenologist, awaiting the next generation’s coming of age. Paul-Henry took up his charge with quiet dignity, rising to the challenge of managing staff who had known him since he was in diapers.

Over the next couple of years, I visited Paul-Henry a number of times for meals at the legendary C’heu l’Zib in Menetou-Salon (a hearty and animated, family-style Berrichon restaurant), for Paul-Henry’s legendary summer Garden Parties and, most importantly, for tastings at the winery. The Domaine Henry Pellé, named for Paul-Henry’s grandfather, is based in the village of Morogues. It is a pretty spot with stone houses and a lovely, old church, surrounded by green meadows, vineyards and forests. The Pelle’s Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir vineyards are dotted through the communes of Morogues, neighbouring Menetou-Salon and Sancerre.

As modest as ever, Paul-Henry would tell you that the poise and complexity of his wines is all due to terroir; Kimmeridgean clay-limestone marl soils made up of vast multitudes of fossilized oyster shells (locally called Terres Blanches). His first act upon returning home was to cut out all pesticides and herbicides, and start nourishing the soil with homegrown composts. His time in Burgundy had convinced him of the importance of working each parcel individually, to achieve a unique expression from each plot.

The same rigour is employed in the winery. Wherever possible grapes move to fermenting tanks by gravity flow and conveyor belts to avoid harsh pumping. Fermentation is temperature controlled in stainless steel and neutral oak vats. The top white cuvées are aged on their lees for added texture, while the top reds see subtle barrel ageing.  The wines are then bottled unfiltered to preserve their aromatic purity. Paul-Henry will tell you that his goal is to craft fresh, lively, balanced wines. But his best wines go so much further. They are elegant and intensely aromatic; an enticing procession of fresh, vibrant attack, creamy mid-palate and lifted, mineral-rich finish.

Sadly, Ontario readers, none are currently sold at the LCBO so you will just have to drive to Québec to stock up:

Domaine Henry Pellé Menetou-Salon Les Bornés 2014 – 89pts. PW

Les bornés means clay soil in the local Berrichon dialect. This easy-drinking white is aged 6 months in stainless steel on fine lees. The 2014 vintage is crisp and refreshing with intense aromas of citrus and quince. Light bodied with a hint of creaminess on the mid-palate and a lifted finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (20.65$)

Domaine Henry Pellé Morogues 2014 – 91pts. PW

A blend of 7 parcels from among the highest altitude slopes of the appellation, this Menetou-Salon is pure and racy, with a refined citrus fruit and white floral nose. More depth and textured than Les Bornes, this cuvee has a subtly saline notes on the palate and a lively, mineral-rich finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (23.35$ for 750mL / 13.55$ for 375mL)

Domaine Henry Pellé Menetou Salon “Les Blanchais” 2013 – 94pts PW

Les Blanchais is a single parcel cuvée from one of Pellé’s top vineyard sites in Menetou-Salon. The clay-limestone marl is interspersed with silex; a complexity of soils that Pellé feels speaks through the wine. The 50 year-old vines lend power and concentration, with intense citrus, grassy, floral and mineral notes on the nose and palate. There is a pleasing fullness to this wine, and a long, layered finish. Still taut, needs a few years’ cellaring or a couple of hours decanting to fully unwind.

Where to buy: SAQ (29.70$)

No Domaine Henry Pellé reds are currently imported, but you can contact the local agent for more information: www.vinsbalthazard.com

Life

The Death of Joy

Wine Shop

Comparative tastings and the standardization of style.

It is human nature to want to compare; to establish a bench mark and then try to measure up. In our Darwin-esque “survival of the fittest” mentality, we are trying to survive by determining who is best and how to emulate them. We love to give out trophies and scores and proclaim that x is better than y, and that all should prefer x. And the supposedly genteel, refined world of wine is no different. I regularly read articles on comparative tastings that look to rock the establishment with proclamations that new world, less well reputed vineyards are superior to their renowned old world counterparts. In a famous 1976 tasting dubbed “The Judgement of Paris”, Californian Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons beat white Burgundies and red Bordeaux in a series of blind tastings.   Just last week, an Australian publication proudly announced that the new wave of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producers from the Yarra Valley and New Zealand are better than Burgundy, often for half the price.

While I understand that new regions, looking to gain in respect and notoriety from wine consumers, can help their cause by likening their wines to revered vineyards. And I relate to the need to set a goal and aspire to achieving the greatness we perceive in others… I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that the wine industry seems stuck in a comparison rut. I love the freshness, the fruit purity and precision of a good Central Otago Pinot Noir. And I love the elegance, complexity, and structure of a Chambolle-Musigny. I especially appreciate the fact that both styles exist to compliment different meals and occasions. Why determine that one is better than the other? Who decides what the best criteria is to make such a choice? And why should we trust their judgement? The writer that hailed Yarra Valley as better than Burgundy based his decision on “freshness, primary fruit and verve”. Burgundian winemaker, Benjamin Leroux, argued that the majority of his fellow producers were not looking to highlight those characteristics but rather focus on structure. Two different approaches and preferences, that ultimately both result in great wines. So why not simply celebrate the wealth of diversity in styles? Yes, it is irksome to pay so much more for the supposedly great wines from fabled vineyards, than purportedly better wines from newer origins. But so far these constant comparisons have not resulted in significant price decreases for the former. They just drive up prices for the latter… Great for the grower, but not so much for the drinker!

Mark Twain once said that “comparison is the death of joy”. Our obsession with determining a uniform best, rather than savouring well-made wines from around the world for their individual charms, is a glum affair. In the 1990s/early 2000s, when winemakers in Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-pape saw that more extracted, oakier wines were receiving higher Robert Parker scores, there was a rush to replicate the style and a generation of copycat wines emerged. I for one would rather have a wealth of styles from the light, fresh and fruity to the big, bold and tannic and everything in between. For, as many different types of wine that exist, there are an equal number of different consumer preferences, palates, dishes to pair with and so on. In my humble opinion, that is the principle joy of wine.