What an exquisite dance we had with the sommelier at Frenchie last Wednesday! The head sommelier Aurélien Masse unveiled a stunning series of wines, which we were given the tantalizing task of identifying blind alongside our carte blanche1 tasting menu dinner.
It started like this: ‘I’ve got some stuff that’s not on the wine list, as well.’
‘Any Jamet Côtes du Rhône?’
‘Yeah, I’d REALLY like to have that on my list, but unfortunately…’
‘No; there’s some Dauvissat that’s not on the list, but no Tribut. Too hard to get! I’ve got some Anne-Claude Leflaive Bourgogne blanc … ’
‘Hmm. Although would the oak élevage get in our way? Oh — how about Roulot Bourgogne blanc? Or, ooh! Any De Moor Bel Air et Clardy Chablis?’
Suddenly the sommelier leaned back, and his expression transformed into a serene contentedness. ‘Very well. I now perfectly understand your palate. No need for that wine list any more, here — I’ll take that. So. We’re going to stay within a budget of say 40-50 Euros a bottle, yes? And you’re going to just trust me.’
So, carte blanche for the chef that evening, and carte blanche for the sommelier. Why not?
I’ll admit, at first I was worried. Sommeliers don’t always strike the right chords; a traumatic experience last year with the now ex-sommelier at the otherwise fantastic restaurant David Toutain ended in my pounding my fist on the table, exclaiming: “Frais! Sec! Minéral! Vous avez quoi?2” after an abysmal Albillo was the last straw in a chain of hot, lousy dogs he’d escorted to our table. Each chubby, misshapen monster seemed to reflect more of a commitment to a winemaking philosophy than to one’s palate and the dinner itself.
Thankfully, that was not to be the case tonight.
Things started strong with a white, clearly a Chenin Blanc, which I’d soon guessed was ‘either a Saumur or an Anjou’; a slight green tinge to the Chenin fruit had me guessing Domaine du Collier’s Saumur La Charpentrie blanc — the domaine led since 1999 by Antoine Foucault, the son of Charly Foucault of the legendary Clos Rougeard. I waffled, and thought it could also be a less cidery/oxidative and therefore more fresh vintage of René Mosse‘s Anjou blanc or perhaps even his Bonnes Blanches; but this tasted more lean and incisive.
It ended up being a 2012 Richard Leroy Noëls de Montbenault Vin de France. What a special wine to start with! I was surprised by this vintage’s leaner character; I’d tried 2010 and found it to be an almost muscular fruity. This was far more reserved. Richard Leroy is a trailblazer that decided to make dry wine in Layon, no botrytis, and this is an allocated beauty that’s tough to find. We quickly devoured it alongside amuse-bouches.
The next white wine was the greatest challenge of the tasting. Oh, how I squirmed.
‘If you can guess this wine, I’ll give it to you for free’. Okay, this’ll be tough. This is an aromatic white. My mind rushed to Alsace: aged, calmer Gewurtztraminer that has shed the bulk of its lychee fruit and exuberance for a stony yet insistent fruit? No, not quite. Perhaps a noble, aged Pinot Gris? Hmm, still doesn’t feel quite right; too lean.
Suddenly the wine reminded me for a second of a blanc de blancs Champagne that had lost its bead. Cold climate, I thought. Jane suddenly proferred Chasselas. Hmm, Chasselas doesn’t only come from Alsace, it comes from the mountains: wait, could this be Savagnin? No, no: not nearly as acid; and far too aromatic.
Wait: cold, but not Jura, nor Alsace … Savoie! Chasselas it wasn’t, but that’s the right direction! There is some honey here, and an aromatic, exultatory fruit. Hmm. I then waffled between a quirky, noble aged mountain Chasselas, aka. Fendant — a Swiss Domaine de Beudon was on my mind — and a Roussette de Savoie.
That was when Aurélien offered the following advice: ‘You know, I have a friend who is an amazing taster. He always does the same thing: one guess, with conviction. And when he nails it …. it’s amazing. You just need to make one choice!’
Very well, then. With conviction: this is a Roussette de Savoie. I’d tasted an amazing 2011 Louis Magnin Roussette de Savoie from the Rosenthal portfolio recently with Clarke, and the incredible taste still lingered on my palate and mind.
Well sonuvabitch, will you look who it actually was.
It’s the 2012 Dominique Belluard Les Alpes Vin de Savoie, and I would have bet the farm that I could’ve recognized Dominique Belluard’s Gringet anytime, anywhere, especially given what my palate typically brands as an exuberant wintry ginger aroma at every tasting.
‘It’s my last bottle’, Aurélien confessed. Jesus: thank you, sir. What a wine. Such brilliant acidity, such wonderful, fleshy fruit, but never in the least bit overwrought canned fruit runoff. Let’s hear it for Dominique Belluard for saving Gringet from the verge of extinction. This became extinct quickly alongside appetizers, but not without a nod of recognition towards Aurélien for giving up his only bottle left.
Next up came our main course: Armoise hen with leek, escargots, and vin jaune sabayon.
Burgundy was finally to make an appearance. Within a second upon lighting upon my palate, I’d exclaimed ‘Quel beau Pinot Noir!’, and with another minute or two it was clear as could be that the exuberant, chunky fruit, coupled with a telltale green tone, undisputably branded this as a 2011. And probably a Côte de Nuits, given the dark, robust yet elegant fruit.
Sure enough, it was the 2011 Ghislaine Barthod Bourgogne rouge. Enter the perennial discussion about the origins of greenness in the 2011 Burgundy (and invariably by extension 2004) vintage. I asked Aurélien if he’d heard about Bill Nanson’s interesting theory regarding a spike in ladybug populations, which would have ended up in the wines; I’ve always been fascinated by it. Allegedly it takes only the most infinitesimal bit of ladybug guts to taint a large quantity of wine.
Quite recently, though, I ran into Sébastien Cathiard, winemaker for Domaine Sylvain Cathiard, whose Chambolle Musigny are outrageously well-made, at the IPOB tasting (fancy that), and picked his brain for a while. We came to the question of 2011, and it turns out he prefers the theory that it is instead temperature and growing conditions present in both vintages — an alternation of dry and wet — which provoked green aromas in a whole host of wines. And that, further, he is 101% certain that the aromas will resolve in the wines. ‘I was recently at a Romanée St Vivant vertical tasting in Hong Kong‘, he noted, ‘2003-2012‘. ‘Wow, life is hard’, I interjected. ‘Ha! yeah, well, it was my first! But, you know which wine was tasting best of all the Romanée St Vivant we tasted? The 2004! It was the wine that was the most ready to drink that night! Just amazing.’ Sébastien then explained how he is convinced that it is the dry spring and rainy summer climactic pattern that brings this green aromatic profile more to the nose of vintages such as 2004, 2007, and 2011 (especially 2011) than to the palate3.
I’m intrigued. It has the Occam’s razor advantage of seeming somehow simpler than a massive, Hitchcockian invasion of ladybugs into destemming machines and presses. Even if I’m not confident that all of the 2011 Bourgognes affected by this green character will have the longevity to outrun their stemmy aromas, one thing is for sure: the glass residuals of this 2011 Ghislaine Barthod Bourgogne rouge were all about fruit. The green character fled for the last few drops: so, at least here, I think we can see where this wine is going.
Next up came our last wine, to accompany dessert. Aurélien confessed he’d tried another bottle but discarded it as he ‘found it to be a touch too natural‘. God bless him for not serving some horse-shit laden, brettanomyces barnyard monstrosity.
This is an amazingly creative dessert, a warm liquid-centered chocolate cake with a Brillat-Savarin mousse and a sorrel purée and kumquats. Aurélien confessed how tough it was marrying the sorrel and kumquat components. And when he poured a red wine for us out of his decanter, at first I balked. I could visually grasp that this was dry, somehow. ‘A dry red wine? For chocolate?’ ‘Ah, it’s just a great wine …’ ‘Oh, okay, well, I guess you just wanted to open a nice wine to close, and we’ll just sort of taste it in spite of dessert.’ Honestly, I was fine with the idea; by now he had my confidence to open remarkably well-pedigreed, valued wines.
Bringing my nose to the glass, the first thing that dawned upon me was that this was a tannic, structured wine. At first I thought of Cabernet (as dumb as that seems, in retrospect. Blind tasting is humbling), but that was obviously far off the mark, and once Jane insisted on young Châteauneuf du Pape, it felt impossiblee that Grenache could have anything to do with this wine, but the Rhône felt right and I toyed with Crozes Hermitage or St Joseph. Of course: Syrah and chocolate. Syrah’s magical power to cross into dessert.
Crozes Hermitage seems to have one of two granitic faces; either there is a southern exposed, fast-draining, higher pH soil in more northern portions which can produce thinner wines than this, or, it can be a sandy clay-infused, chunkier iteration further south.
And yet, that didn’t fit. As the wine was getting more and more delicious, it conserved a wild, dense, feral character. That should’ve been my cue.
‘You know, the Syrah + chocolate pairing is a rather excellent one!’ I’d remarked to Aurélien. I placed my final bet on a Crozes. Not quite!
For Chrissake, look at that. A 2009 Ogier. It’s functionally a baby Côte Rôtie.
It sure tasted like the Côte Rôties that Ogier does so very well: feral, wild, savage, yet herbal, lean and chiseled. This was in an incredibly good place on this night. Alluring to the point that I wished to hoard the wine immediately, and I would have the next day had I not already been burdened with 15 bottles of wine I needed to somehow fit in my luggage on Saturday. This particular parcel in Seyssuel (12 km north of Ampuis) was chosen by Stéphane Ogier as sufficiently similar in its full-southern exposed, steep, decomposed granitic terroir that he decided to brand the wine ‘Soul Mate’ (Âme Sœur).
I looked over to Aurélien with an almost pained, ecstatic look. This wine was just too good.
What a night.
Look where your mind goes as you squirm searching for what in retrospect should be as clear as day! Blind tasting is humbling sensory deprivation. As I long ago renounced the Master of Wine project (thanks in large part to the film SOMM), this is not part of some daily errand. “Blind tasting is to wine drinking what strip poker is to love,” Kermit Lynch once famously railed, arguing that wines should always be appreciated in context.
I just love blind tasting dinners, though. They decontaminate our palates of bias; the halo of cost, renown, or rarity melt away and leave nothing but the wine beneath our noses.
Of course, even in a blind tasting dinner, Kermit’s context is still king: it’s all still up to the sommelier to assemble an impressive lineup that works in the context of the food.
Frenchie has established itself over the last few years as a hip, ‘Brooklyn-styled’ restaurant in Paris. Honestly, the ubiquity of Brooklyn worship is nothing short of stunning in Paris. As a happy Brooklyn resident, I’m flattered; but on some level, it can feel like a formulaic merry-go-round — bouncing from metropolis to metropolis, perusing menus with their seemingly identical accent on artisanal, seasonal, locally-sourced food, and that Brooklyn low-fi/retro unfinished decor, yet hi-fi cost structures.
Hip or not, Frenchie delivered. The food was lovely and inventive. Even if the center stage was Aurélien Masse’s brilliant job dancing around the cuisine as a sommelier, it couldn’t detract from the lovely work of the kitchen.
Make your reservations well in advance, give Aurélien carte blanche, and pray that he still has some beauties hidden downstairs. If you’re a bourbon lover, take a look at the top shelves.Frenchie 5-6, rue du Nil, 75002 Paris, France Tel: 01 40 39 96 19