2000s Archive

Wine Journal: if the walls could talk

Originally Published October 2002
The bond between the venerable restaurant Taillevent and the great wines of France was sealed decades ago in a private dining room upstairs, and there it continues today.

Such is the celebrity of Burgundy's leading estates today that it's difficult to grasp how precariously they survived the 1930s. In those days, the merchants controlled the wine market and paid the growers little more than commodity prices for wines they used simply to improve their blends. Growers with the temerity to resist the merchants found themselves blacklisted.

They were saved by the combined efforts of the banker Henri Grandet, his friend Raymond Baudouin (a businessman who empathized with the growers, never having forgotten his own modest origins as a lumberjack), and a clutch of Paris restaurateurs. Baudouin, financed by Grandet, bought the best wines of top growers, and the restaurateurs sold and promoted them. André Vrinat of Taillevent, perhaps the most prominent, organized events for his customers to direct their attention to an unfamiliar region, an underappreciated vintage, or a deservedly up-and-coming grower, matching each wine to a dish that would show it off. In 1952, he and Baudouin initiated the Paulée de Paris, an evening devoted to tasting and discussing raw young samples of the new vintage that were brought to Taillevent's private dining room by growers from every part of France.

André Vrinat's son, Jean-Claude, the present proprietor of Taillevent and a man passionate about wine, started as a sommelier at the restaurant a decade later. And the Paulée continued as a joyful rite of spring until 1973, the year André retired. By then, its participants had become a veritable who's who of French viticulture—confirmation that its aim had been achieved. Today, every bottle those growers produce is in high demand throughout the world, but they never forget Taillevent.

Taillevent's private dining room, now more sumptuous than it was in the '50s and '60s, is still a favorite venue for growers. Last spring, May de Lencquesaing, owner of the Pauillac classed growth Château Pichon Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande, invited me to a luncheon at which she presented some of her wines.

We began with mushroom ravioli in a film of truffle-infused broth whipped to a foam with foie gras. With it, we compared the 1996 vintage with the 1986. There were 20 of us at the long table, and we were divided in our preferences. The '96, after being tightly closed for several years, had opened up very nicely and was bright and alluring. In contrast, the equally powerful '86 was all darkly mellow sobriety. Some of us, charmed by the youthful fruit of the '96, could ignore any disconnection from the truffles and mushrooms; others were drawn to the '86, attracted by its harmony of mood with the dish.

As we continued to eat and drink our way through more courses and more vintages of Pichon-Lalande, there was much to talk about. The wine choices and their sequence seemed deliberately provocative. Gildas d'Ollone, Pichon-Lalande's manager, explained: “When we invite friends to lunch in Paris like this, we usually bring along a few bottles of recent vintages, to show our guests what we've been up to. This time, we thought it would be interesting to taste some older wines alongside the younger ones and let them play off each other.”

Some days later, discussing the lunch with Jean-Claude Vrinat, I mentioned the slight controversy at the table over which vintage accompanied the mushroom ravioli to better effect. He told me how difficult it is to propose a single dish that will show two (or more) wines to advantage, “especially when there are contrasts between them. In those circumstances,” he said, “we sometimes feel obliged to suggest a dish with a very low profile—which defeats the purpose of serving the wines with fine food. The alternative is to match the dish to one wine or the other.

“In any event, my own feeling is that it's best to restrict the number of wines. A meal is not a tasting—that can take place beforehand. When there are too many wines with a single dish, or even with several dishes in the course of a meal, nothing gets proper attention. The wines compete with one another and often, by their sheer number, overwhelm the food.”

To devise the menu, May de Lencquesaing's daughter Violaine had worked closely with Vrinat's daughter Valérie. The ravioli was quickly agreed upon—it's a favorite dish at Taillevent and works especially well with wines that have a little age. Milk-fed lamb was chosen for the centerpiece wines—the 1982 and the 1989—partly because of the traditional tie between Pauillac and lamb, but mostly because of the way it could bring out the supple texture of these two wines.

The grapes had been so ripe in both years that May de Lencquesaing said she'd been concerned about the wines' low acidity. “Acidity in a wine is like salt in food,” she said. “It brings out the flavors and keeps them lively.” Though she had feared for the balance of the 1982 especially, here it was, 20 years later, proving to us that the balance of a wine depends on more than one element.

The Basque condiment piment d'Espelette used in the lamb dish was mentioned on our classically presented menus, but I hadn't detected it. “It was just to give a discreet lift,” Vrinat said. “Had it been noticed, it would have been too much.” He had used it because the lamb came from the western Pyrenees. “I like to maintain geographic integrity among the ingredients of a dish,” he said with a sly smile, relishing a traditionalist's dig at fusion cooking.

The lamb was garnished with a julienne of snap peas and tiny fava beans, cooked through and then tossed in melted butter to caramelize them slightly, in the classic French manner. Crisp-tender green vegetables, with their slight crunch and more vibrant flavor, can be difficult for older wines.

“As for the cheese course,” Violaine de Lencquesaing said, “though the convention is to serve one hard, one soft, one blue, and one goat, it's impossible for any wine to support all four types. Still, I was afraid our guests would find just one cheese boring. We settled on the Pierre Robert because, though it's very creamy, it has a lower fat content than Brie. Monsieur Vrinat brought it closer to the wines by inserting a layer of toasted walnuts.”

“I'm not actually sure that mature red wine and cheese go together at all,” Vrinat said when I asked him about this. “Often the finest red wine is held until the cheese appears, even though this is usually the least effective way to show off such a wine.”

D'Ollone got round this by serving the '87 and '97—challenging years for Pichon-Lalande—with the cheese, a daring play immediately after the sumptuous '82 and '89. Both '87 and '97 had been handicapped by rainy weather when the vines were in flower. Yet the wines proved how well the consistency of Pichon-Lalande comes through regardless of vintage.

And then there was the chocolate, another challenge. “We felt obliged to offer a dessert,” Violaine told me. “Though it's always a problem to pair one with red wine. A few years ago, we ended a Paris lunch with a red wine and a plain and not very sweet cake made with chestnut flour, and that was successful. But I love the idea of chocolate and red wine and wanted to try it.”

With the Pichon-Lalande '85 and '95 came a fondant au chocolat, and the combination might even have worked, despite the present awkward phase of the '95. The chocolate was intense, however, and the dessert's rich, creamy center overwhelmed the Merlot-dominated '85. A pity: May de Lencquesaing confessed later that normally the '85 is her favorite.

But generally the wines and food impressed us, and as the meal progressed we found ourselves increasingly cheerful, even about our differences of opinion. So much so that, as lunch drew to a close, one in our company, a distinguished Paris sommelier, rose to his feet (and almost brought us to ours) with an impressive rendering, a cappella, of the aria “Di Quella Pira” from Il Trovatore.

“That was the Pichon-Lalande singing,” he said modestly as we all applauded.

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