Thursday, April 07, 2011

Mon Ami Christophe

Headlines can shock or, at least, make you sit up.
I had opened the new Decanter Wine Magazine and saw the heading...
'Chinese start to look further afield than Bordeaux'
Oh no I thought...masses of Chinese buying all my hidden treasures.
Another short article stated that 'Yes...China is looking beyond Bordeaux, but in settings where 'face' is crucial there is little evidence of change'. It goes on to say that Burgundy and the New World were on their list. No mention of German Spätburgunder or Austrian Grüner Veltliner. Phew...that was close.
As I relaxed in the afternoon sun my thoughts wandered and memories were awakened.
In the 90's when I was driving annually to Portugal on holiday...I would plan stopovers...mainly in France...and one such journey found me in the Lyon Alain Chapel's wonderful restaurant with it's delightful garden.
Alain Chapel, who died in 1990, was one of the greatest chefs of the 20th century and a wine taster second to none. Suzanne Chapel has managed to perpetuate the spirit of her husband by entrusting the kitchen to the excellent Philippe Jousse. His fattened Bresse chicken cooked in a pig’s bladder with foie gras sauce and his lobster salad are fabulous.
But...I am digressing. I arrived mid-afternoon and asked, as one does, for the wine-list.
I spent a leisurely hour deciding what to drink. At 5 pm I went down to the restaurant and asked to speak to the Sommelier. A young guy called Christophe greeted me and we discussed the 2-3 choices I had in mind. Back to the room to change and I was down in the restaurant at 6.30 pm. I was always alone on these travels but that never bothered me. I had reading material and would spend 3- 4 hours enjoying food, wine and and the written word. The Maître was old school French...strict...and a touch too 'greasy' but acceptable. You know what I mean, 'Good Evening Sir, where would Sir like to sit'...and so on. The priority for me when eating alone is to have a table in the corner where I could watch customers and staff. The workings of a fine restaurant have always fascinated me...and to watch what others were choosing & drinking is never boring. With my pile of books to the left and my notepad to the right...I ordered the food. Christophe appeared with some sort of tatty old book. He said I should have a look at it...but not to say anything to the Maître. It was an old wine list from the 20's...all hand written. I carefully turned the pages...seeing what they had been drinking back then. Without anyone was returned to Christophe. My wine was opened and he put some into 'his' glass and confirmed it was fine. During the evening he returned to inquire about the wine but also just to exchange views and discuss the wine world. He had found someone with similar interest...we were now 'Wine Brothers'. It got to a point where the Maître had to call him to another he winked and said we could maybe chat later.
The food was delicious...this was a Michelin starred restaurant...but something you could get your teeth light 'Nouvelle Cusine' which was very 'IN' at the time. My bottle was had been easy over 3 hours..and I asked if I could smoke a cigar somewhere. The Maître led me out of the restaurant to a special room. As I was leaving there was a large party of Asian customers at one of the tables. Christophe was discussing the wines. In the Smoker's Lounge I sat happily puffing away at my Havana. Through the doorway I could see into another room with a large fireplace. You could sit there and choose your food before going into the restaurant. It was about 9.30 pm by now and sat on a sofa was an 'elderly' gentleman. With him..a lady MANY years younger. They were drinking Champagne and choosing the food...and whenever they felt they were not viewable...she was all over him. Very amusing...and I wished him luck with his stamina! As I took in this 'Cabaret' Christoph appeared behind me with a glass of white wine. He said 'Try this'. I was pretty much full of wine...but took a sip. It was gorgeous. I asked him what it was...and he explained it was a Montrachet 1982...a VERY expensive white Burgundy. Thanking him I asked how I come to be getting a glass? He explained that the large party of people I had seen were Chinese. They were ordering wines as though price was no object. They obviously knew the names but had no real wine knowledge he explained. The normal procedure, as I explained earlier, was that Christophe would pour a small glass for himself...smell it...'maybe' taste it and then pronounce it OK. This glass was his 'taster' He smiled...and was gone...only to appear again 10 minutes later with a glass of red. 'Try this one' he said 'they are ordering names but these wines should go to wine lovers'. It turned out to be a Romanee-Conti 1982! This is how all restaurants should look after me I thought! That was may think. Forget it...The 'pièce de résistance' was yet to come...heaven help my stomach. A glass of gold arrived. Yikes...this looked good...and was most definitely a Dessert wine. A legend...Chateau Y'quem 1967! A great Sauternes which was heralded back then as one of the great all-time wines. It went well with my Havana. I was in heaven...and if I had not stopped I may have ended up there. Thankfully the Chinese had not ordered any Vintage Port! I slept well...and after breakfast in bed... managed to find Christophe before I set off on my travels. Like old buddies we said goodbye. An unforgettable evening...ain't life wonderful!
PS...checking Google with the name Christophe and Alain Chapel...I see the Sommelier is...Christophe Equille. Thank goodness he didn't get the boot for looking after his 'Ami'.


Alex said...

Great story! This was more than just a stopover. Makes me think of the German saying "Der Weg ist das Ziel" :P

Barry said...

On my trips to Portugal...there were a lot of stopovers...Mein Ziel war immer der richtige Weg

Edward said...


I'm even more envious than usual.

Barry said...

Everybody is allowed their 15 seconds of pleasure....