09 February 2011

loire road trip, pt. V: bistrot de la place, saumur

Among the chief occupational hazards of the wine industry are dinners with many other traveling wine professionals. By the time the plats arrive there are invariably more bottles on the table than pins on a bowling lane, and a sort of mad profligate glee takes over, as yet more bottles are ordered, not to replace the unfinished ones already in play, but to provide further points of aesthetic comparison at any cost. If, like me two Sundays ago at Bistrot de la Place in Saumur, you are traveling without recourse to any kind of expense account, you're toast - you have to just surrender to the spirit of the occasion and bring homemade soup to work for the rest of the month.

What the hey, anyway. All of us were fortunate to have had any kind of night out in sleepy Saumur on a Sunday. During the period of the Renaissance des Appellations and La Dive Bouteille, the Bistrot de la Place books up solid, and we'd only snagged a twelve-top thanks to the admirable foresight of my friend J2,* who'd narrowly missed out on a table the year before.

The funny thing is, the food at Bistro de la Place is on the whole pretty mediocre. I have a feeling the wine connoisseurs who crowd the place at certain times of year are drawn primarily by the prices and the Sunday service. Two things rose above blandness: some beautiful briny green oysters, and seductively tender stuffed pig's foot (not, alas, pictured).

The wine list, too, was frustrating, the way that an exotic shoreline would be frustrating, if it were sown with mines. The selection of red and white Saumur wines was indeed exciting and expansive, and amply supplemented by wines from diverse other Loire appellations. But of the back-vintage bottles we tried that night, all but one or two were showing pretty wanly. And mark-ups were a little steep across the board - Lise et Bertrand Jousset's 2007 Montlouis "Singulier," for instance, was priced at a headscratching 48€. (By contrast, the same lovely wine can be had from magnum at Paris 19ème's Quedubon for 44€.)

I don't like to dwell on pricing. But part of me wonders whether I'm just spoiled by the Paris cave-à-manger scene, where chump-change 7€ mark-ups above retail pricing have become something like the norm. It's true that conventional wisdom used to dictate a 2.5x or 3x mark-up above wholesale for wines served in restaurants. But, conventionally, wine service was a lot more formal and baroque - not the gunslinging wham-bam splash-it-on-the-table ethos that unapologetically obtains at most informal bistros, in Paris and elsewhere. Hence the evolution in my expectations. By now, informal bistros without generous inviting wine programs strike me as kind of fusty and outmoded.

That said, we were in Saumur. Not a hotbed of new restaurant trends. We worked - extensively - with what was available. Numerous memorable wines were had - that is, of course, the uptick of dining in packs with traveling wine professionals - but in the interest of focus and brevity I'll just mention two.

A 2005 Domaine du Collier Saumur Rouge. I was particularly fascinated by this wine - and the cru white that followed it - after learning that the domaine was founded in 1999 by Antoine Foucault, the nephew of the winemaker I'd tasted with yesterday, Clos Rougeard's Nady Foucault. I'm informed they all still use the same cellar facilities I'd visited yesterday, but evidently the two winemakers' methods or source materials diverge in key ways from there: the Domaine du Collier wines are infinitely fresher, brighter, and more transparent. I don't mean to say they're better. The 2005 Saumur Rouge we drank had a brilliantly clear pomegranate nose, and lush fruit balanced with a nice acid snap - but on the whole had nothing of the ruminative depth or soulfulness of the Clos Rougeard equivalents. The Domaine du Collier wines in this way are rather like a latter-era Springsteen production - after he began working (why?!?) with grunge-sploitation expert Brendan O'Brien. Everything's right about it, except there's not a lot of depth in the mix, and the results, while enjoyable, don't really compare with the classic material.

The 2006 Domaine du Collier Saumur Blanc "La Charpentrie" confirmed my impression of the younger generation's chisel-sharp house style.

But, not that surprisingly, I much prefer it when applied to a white Saumur. Where I found the Clos Rougeard blancs kind of fractious and imprecise, the Domaine du Collier counterpart was refined, mineral, and polished to a Porsche-like sheen. Sourced from 100 year old vines, it was still a little ripe and lychee-intense for my tastes, but the wine juggled all the high-flown fruit without missing a beat.

* So as to differentiate him from the J with whom I was traveling. The initial system gets obtuse at times; I apologize.

Bistrot de la Place
16 Place St Pierre
49400 Saumur
Tel: 02 41 51 13 27

Related Links:

Loire Road Trip, pt. I: Domaine Guiberteau
Loire Road Trip, pt. II: Clos Rougeard
Loire Road Trip, pt. III: Café de la Promenade
Loire Road Trip, pt. IV: Renaissance des AOCs

A 2010 Saumur harvest report featuring both generations of Foucaults @ Jim'sLoire

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