The night before Ireland took on the might of the French rugby team in Lansdowne Road, I had to contend with a daunting French lineup of my own. It was a far more genteel affair in contrast to what faced our men in green, however: an evening in the famous Michelin-starred L’Ecrivain restaurant, hosted by importer extraordinaire Simon Tyrrell and featuring some of the finest wines of the Northern Rhône from Stéphane Montez and Yann Chave.
The two winemakers were by the bar with Simon when I arrived, sipping on the delicious Gaia Assyrtiko from Santorini in Greece – I suppose even the French must get tired of drinking their own wines the whole time. We exchanged pleasantries while establishing that neither of us spoke the other’s language to any notable degree, and though a flurry of arrivals meant we couldn’t probe the extent of this situation, Stéphane wittily quipped that given the quantity of wine on offer we were sure to speak the same language by the end of the evening.
Little did I know how close to the truth he was…
Chalk & (French) Cheese
Stéphane Montez is, incredibly, the 10th generation of winemakers in his family. I say ‘incredible’ not because ten generations is a long time – it is of course, but it’s not entirely unheard of in the wine world, with the Antinori family of Italy currently into their 26th generation for example.
What I found most fascinating about Stéphane’s heritage is how lightly he wore it. Other winemaking dynasties of that pedigree, though affable and generous to a fault, can over time assume a regal air about them.
Mr. Montez, however, was anything of the sort: laid-back, quick with a joke, and with an unshaven insouciance. A natural raconteur, he introduced his wines as though recounting a humorous story he heard earlier that day, punctuated here and there with the requisite nonchalant Gallic shrug and pout.
Yann Chave, on the other hand, was more reserved and professorial, most likely as a result of his previous profession: a bank fraud investigator, of all things. In 1996 Yann took over the winemaking activities of father Bernard, whose wines were apparently generally good without being exceptional, perhaps partly explained by the fact that his attention was also taken up cultivating apricots, cherries and peaches.
Yann brought a more studious and focused approach to running the domaine, certifying it as fully organic in the process and insisting on labour-intensive handpicking and no or little oak for his three wines in order to allow their pure fruits shine through – in other words a pared-back, honest, and almost reverential approach to the region and its wines.
Samsung a Little Bit Different
The venue for the evening was not to be the main upstairs restaurant of L’Ecrivain, as I had originally assumed, but instead their brand new Samsung Kitchen located just off the reception bar. It was my first time in this space that essentially acts both as a private dining room and demonstration kitchen, and where the dishes for our evening were finished off before serving. It was staffed by one or two L’Ecrivain sous-chefs, depending on requirements, although for our starters Derry Clarke himself lent a hand. The memory of a Michelin-starred chef cooking my starter in front of me is not going to leave me for some time!
We were handed a list of wines to be tasted that evening, six superb bottles in total. But in keeping with the French nonchalant air of the evening we were told to largely disregard this sheet since three of the six wines were unavailable, as it happens, and what’s more we were in fact going to be served a whopping thirteen wines in total. Mais oui!
As an aperitif we were served the superb Les Hauts De Monteillet Blanc (reviewed below), before being poured both the 2008 and 2015 vintages of Stéphane Montez’s Condrieu “Les Grandes Chaillées”, a blend of eight select parcels from this historic appellation. The 2008 was waxy and even slightly Maderized, as you’d expect from an eight-year-old white wine, while the younger and fresher vintage was much more to my taste: weighty yet elegant with some blossom and woodsmoke.
While all this was going on we were first served a crab meat amuse bouche followed by incredible roast scallops with Jerusalem artichoke. Scallops are one of my favourite dishes but need to be ultra-fresh and deftly handled, which of course they were in the hands of Derry Clarke (did I mention he cooked them right in front of me?!), and served alongside some of the Rhône’s most famous whites they were, obviously, superbly paired.
The Best Things Come in Two
From there it was on to the reds, starting with a pair of Yann Chave’s “Tradition” Crozes-Hermitage wines. First there was the 2003, an infamous year which saw an extreme heatwave rip through Europe, though you wouldn’t have noticed it in Yann’s bottling, which was superb and still ripe with an aged smoky minerality and black olive flavours. The 2015, one of my recommendations below, was a younger version and equally outstanding.
We progressed then to the next level of Chave’s Crozes-Hermitage, “Le Rouvre”, and again we had to vintages to compare and contrast. First was a complex, minty-cool black fruited 2007, followed by a magnum of its spicier, ‘hotter’ younger brother 2011 which needed a little time yet to knit together.
It seemed by this point that the French were intent on killing us with kindness: we were presented, yet again, with two vintages of yet another wine, this time a 2006 and 2014 of Montez’s St Joseph “Cuvée du Papy”. It comes with a lovely backstory too: it has been produced since the 1989 vintage when Antoine, Stéphane’s father became a grandfather. To celebrate he chose “his best sites, his most beautiful vines and his most select grapes, selected his best barrels and put all his love and know-how into the development of an exceptional vintage: Cuvée du Papy.”
Stéphane was eager to draw the distinction that the 2006 was “Bordeaux in style”, while the 2014 was “Burgundy in Style”, which I agreed with wholeheartedly. In truth my preference was with the 2006, which was quintessentially aged Rhone with crunchy blueberry fruit and violets, while the 2014 was more funky and a touch ‘bretty‘, and indeed lighter and earthier in style.
Oh, and of course there was the food. Amongst all this incredible wine were some fantastic dishes, with my choice falling firmly on the sika deer on offer (it didn’t take much to predict that stone bass wouldn’t pair so well with punchy Rhône reds!)
Finally, we came to the last two red wines, both the apogées of Stéphane and Yann’s efforts. First was Montez’s 2009 Côte-Rôtie “Fortis”, a supremely elegant, deep and beautiful wine just showing a touch of bottle age through some smoke and coffee notes, followed by Chave’s 2009 Hermitage, a more serious and concentrated, herbal, long and complex wine.
Apologies to anyone looking for more extensive reviews of these two iconic wines: my notes weren’t exactly extensive at this point, since at this stage in the evening I was reeling in the hedonistic pleasure of drinking some of the world’s most prestigious and finest wines and enjoying the fantastic company.
We finished off then with what was a surprise for most of us there: a sweet Condrieu, a rarity in itself these days. Specifically, it was Stéphane’s 2007 Condrieu “Grain de Folie”, made 50% with botrytised grapes and 50% with grapes that raisined on the vine. The result was stratospheric – my more extensive review is below.
The evening was so enjoyable that next day when Ireland bravely defeated the French side I almost felt sorry for Stéphane and Yann, given how generous, humorous and memorable they were the night before.
THREE TO TRY
Les Hauts De Monteillet Blanc 2014, Domaine du Monteillet
€24.95 from Searson’s, Monkstown
A blend of Viognier, Rousanne and Clairette, this proved to be incredible value for money.
Beautifully mineral and herbal characters (white pepper and fennel in particular) provide foil for a toasty, buttery creaminess.
A concentrated and elegant wine that punches well above its weight. Delicious.
Crozes-Hermitage ‘Tradition’ Rouge 2015, Domaine Yann Chave
€27.95 from Searson’s, Monkstown and Donnybrook Fair
A fully organic wine, this provided a fresh fruity, very typically young Northern Rhône nose of blueberry, blackberry and black pepper.
The palate took a different tack and instead provided cool-climate Syrah’s distinctive smoky, mineral and savoury streak with some fantastic tannin. Poised and elegant, this is a fantastic wine.
Condrieu ‘Grain de Folie’, Domaine du Monteillet
€40 from Searson’s, Monkstown and Donnybrook Fair
Almost an afterthought, Stephane Montez’s sweet wine was stunning, and a refreshing coda to the serious flight of reds that came before it.
Being a botrytised wine it had the style’s distinctive marmalade character, but with supreme elegance, concentration, and refreshing acidity.
I’m a fan of sweet wine and this is up there with the best I’ve ever tasted, if not the best I’ve tasted. Superb.