"A restaurant is a Paradise indeed to any gourmand," wrote Brillat-Savarin, the great 19th century French writer on gastronomy. And, he very well could have added, to vintners also, especially those who participated in an international conference, "Focus on Chardonnay," held the end of July in Beaune, France.
"Because participants represented some of the best chardonnay producers from France, Italy and California, we wanted to offer them the opportunity to taste their wines with the finest French cooking possible," said Leslie Litwak, spokesperson for Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, sponsor of the event. For this reason, conference organizers selected two- and three-star Michelin Guide restaurants whose chefs designed dinners especially for the best vintages each producer brought to the conference.
In the mornings, "Focus on Chardonnay" explored technical topics like the use of clones to ensure proper acidities, mouth feel and elegance, while afternoons allowed on-site visits to the renowned vineyards in Chassagne and Puligny Montrachet, Meursault and Pouilly Fuisse, where chardonnay yields some of the world's most sought-after, elegant white wines.
But in the evenings, it was the chefs' turn. Dining in a great French restaurant is a kind of theater one can eat. The director of the performance, a chef, organizes rehearsals for his actors, the ingredients, days in advance. At his country inn, Le Cote-d'Or, Bernard Loiseau marinated whole Brease chickens in a truffled bouillon Madeira sauce for 48 hours. Then he dressed the birds in chopped chicken livers and a julienne of carrots and celery before finally steaming them for 45 minutes over a beef bouillon. At this point the chicken is no longer chicken but poularde "Alexandre Dumaine," which dances off porcelain plates in a mixture of vegetables, poultry and meat flavors.
At three-star Lucas Carton at 9 Place de la Madeleine in Paris, chef Alain Senderens worked an incredible array of textures, colors and tastes in a ris de veau aux artichauts poivrade that resembled a fall flower arrangement. The softness of large pieces of sweetbreads contrasted with the sponginess of two crawfish, and the crispness of extra-thin green beans and the crunchy texture of red peppercorns. Colors ranged from the light beige of the sweetbreads and darker brown of a sauce cremee to the yellow of girolle mushrooms and reds of the crawfish and peppercorns -- all very autumn-looking, even in July. But then this is the haut theatre of haute cuisine whose main purpose cannot be confused with just feeding hungry customers.
All wines were tasted blind. Most guests could distinguish between California and Burgundian styles. Yet on one evening, winemaker Zelma Long of Simi Winery, along with everyone at her table, failed to recognize her own wine. Most thought it a Montrachet.
Usually the chefs, sommeliers and Jacques Puisais, president of the French union of oenologists, knew which wines were being served with each dish. "This, of course, is the ultimate performance for any wine and why winemakers work so hard -- to give us pleasure, a pleasure of beauty and taste at the table," noted Mr. Puisais, who in addition to being a moderator of the conference also heads a national taste laboratory in Tours.
To provide that pleasure, Mr. Puisais and a chef would carefully sample dishes an hour before serving and adjust final seasonings to have a better match with the wines. Chef Christophe Crotet of the Hostellerie de Levernois outside of Beaune decided to scratch all pepper from his chicoree frisee au chevre frais because it overwhelmed the wines. He also added )) more lemon to his beurre blanc sauce in the homard a la nage to repeat more compatibly the citrus traces in the '84 Sonoma-Cutrer, Les Pierres and the '85 Puligny Montrachet, Les Combettes from Domaine Sauzet.
Conference participants clearly enjoyed seeing to what taste levels their wines could reach in the presence of exquisite meals that averaged five courses with seven wines and lasted three hours. Thus the restaurants were not just a paradise for vintners' taste buds, but were an epicurean proving ground for their wares as well.
Barbara Haas, wife of importer Robert Haas, who was also a moderator of the conference, perhaps best summarized the group's reaction to all the elegant dining: "I had to pinch myself at times to realize how much creativity these winemakers and chefs actually possess."
Then, adding wistfully something that theatergoers know well after experiencing a spectacular performance, she said: "I knew these moments could never be duplicated. No two wines ever taste exactly the same with the same dishes on another evening. I just enjoyed it all -- every moment -- and never thought about calories."
Chicoree frisee au chevre frais
1 head of chicory (curly endive): escarole may be substituted
2 tablespoons sherry or white wine vinegar
1/4 cup walnut or peanut oil