We celebrated my 64th birthday in Québec City, Canada, from our perch at the Château Frontanac, high above the mighty St. Lawrence, as close to France as you’re going to get without an airplane. We dined at La Crémaillère, an easy walk from the statue of Samuel de Champlain to the rue Sainte-Anne. We were seated by the maître d’ in a lovely dining room, where another couple was finishing their meal, and a table of five businessmen were loudly bantering in English and French.
Between courses and conversation of our own, we checked in on the show. There were two clients, an owner/executive of a small business and his right-hand man. The executive was having fun with the sales rep, Juan, who had flown up from Atlanta and could not speak French. The right-hand man was ordering more wine. There was already an empty bottle on the sideboard, Brunello di Montelcino. The next bottle to come out was Côte-Rôtie. Despite my contortions, I couldn’t make out the vintages.
In addition to Juan, the sales side had a manager, presumably Juan’s boss, who frequently took out an oversized notebook and wrote down action items, and a well-groomed executive from Montreal, who kept steering the discussion back to business. The clients wanted to talk about their last yachting vacation together in Florida, and about golf. Had Juan ever played Augusta?
For Margaret’s scallops and my rabbit, I ordered a half-bottle of Minervois. Minervois is an island in the wine lake of Languedoc/Roussillon, the region sweeping westward from the Rhone all the way to Spain. Here the reds are dominated by carignan, a varietal that grows like kudzu and was once France’s most widely-planted grape, until the government, in an effort to improve the overall quality of French wine, started paying farmers to grub it up. Now the top varietal is Merlot.
In Minervois, where they’ve been making wine since Roman times, they blend cinsault and grenache with no more than 40% carignan, to create a softer, more aromatic wine. The carignan may also have been fermented using carbonic maceration, which prevents oxygen from starting the aging process, so keeping the wine fresh. A bottle of 100% carignan can only be sold as vin de pays.
Our attention was again drawn away from our meal. “What would we tell our current provider? We’ve only been with them a year?” the client asked. “Tell them the same thing you told us last year,” said the Montrealer.
The maître d’ came to their table at that moment with a new bottle of wine. I couldn’t exactly make it out; it looked like Bordeaux. The right-hand man tasted the wine, then passed it to the client. There was something wrong. The offending bottle and glasses were briskly removed, and moments later a second bottle of Côte-Rôtie appeared.
Over their steaks, someone asked, “So who makes this decision?”
“Alain,” the clients laughed in unison. Alain, who was not at the table.
Languedoc/Roussillon is justly famous for its vins doux naturels, dessert wines made by adding alcohol to stop fermentation and retain sweetness. This method was developed at the University of Montpellier, the capital of Languedoc/Roussillon, in the 12th century, and is practiced today in Banyuls, Rivesaltes, Maury and other AOCs there, including Muscat de St.-Jean-de-Minervois. Alas, none of these was available; the restaurant featured instead Canadian ice wine, or vin de glace, so I happily sipped another vin doux naturel, muscat de beaumes de venise, while Margaret and I together devoured a fruit tart.
As we left the restaurant, the maître d’ apologized to us for our loud dining neighbors. We assured him it was fine; we thought of it as dinner theatre. “What did they send back?” I asked, identifying myself as a sommelier from New York.
“They wanted something bigger, more powerful.” We exchanged glances: Brunello? Côte-Rôtie? Bigger? “So I tried something. It’s ok, the chef is happy.”