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Blanc’s petits vins

Chef Raymond Blanc is in pursuit of the perfect wines to match his food, so what’s on his revamped wine list and why has he slashed the selection by half? Fiona Beckett meets him to find out

In most two-starred Michelin restaurants you’ll find the chef proudly showing off his most expensive bottles of wine, but at Le Manoir – or the Belmont Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons as we must call it these days – all Raymond Blanc wants to focus on is his ‘petits vins’. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The veteran chef, who has acquired a new generation of fans through his popular TV programmes, likes nothing better than to talk about his roots in the Besançon countryside and about his beloved mother, who is still sprightly enough to tend her own garden at the age of 92.

Wine, he says, is part of his earliest memories. ‘I’ve always been interested in wine, but we didn’t have much money,’ he says. ‘The wines we’d drink at home would be a Poulsard or a basic Jura table wine drawn from a barrel. I remember when I was 14. I’d been foraging all summer and selling produce to restaurants, so I had a bit of money. It was midday, and to the French stomach that means food. I passed a restaurant and [there was] an amazing smell of someone cooking veal kidneys. I’d never had them before, so I went in and asked if they had a table. They were very nice when they saw my love of food. The wine they suggested, a Côte-Rôtie from Guigal, was amazing – I’d never tasted a wine like it. I discovered the fire, warmth and spiciness of Rhône wines – oh my god, it was wonderful!’ Did he finish the bottle? Apparently yes, though it’s a long, excitable story, as all Blanc’s stories are, which you feel may have lost something in the telling…

Another formative experience was going to Paris restaurant Taillevent with his first wife Jenny and being put down by a snooty sommelier. ‘It felt like entering a church; the prices were crazy,’ he says. ‘I looked at the list and was totally frightened. You should have seen the look on their faces when I asked for a Beaujolais Nouveau.’ But then he struck lucky: Jenny retired to bed and he was invited to join a party of Americans on the next table who drank montrachet and Romanée-Conti until the wee hours. Another turning point for the young Blanc.

All this is by way of telling me that although the manoir has a cellar full of prestigious labels presided over by no fewer than 13 sommeliers, it’s far from a daunting experience. ‘we were one of the first to rip off the tie and the gentleman’s jacket,’ Blanc tells me colourfully. ‘And I’ve always been a great supporter of wine by the glass. I told Xavier [his former head sommelier, now master sommelier, Xavier Rousset of Texture and 28°-50°] that I want 30 wines by the glass when we only had five or six. He said, “monsieur Blanc, that is impossible!” But I said, “You will see; sales will go up.” And they did!’

Strength in breadth

The list is now in the capable hands of the current head sommelier, Arnaud Goubet, who is broadening the scope of the list while cutting the number of bins from 800 to 400 – another Blanc Big Idea. ‘The modern guest is exhausted,’ Blanc explains. ‘He never sees his wife and friends. when he comes here, he wants to relax. If you give him a wine list with 1,000 wines, he starts panicking.’

The classic wine regions of France still feature strongly, of course, but the manoir has wines from across regional France, spain and Italy plus a surprisingly strong showing of wines from the US, South Africa, Austria, Australia, New Zealand and Germany (‘we do a lot of Riesling by the glass’). There are English wines too and even an Armenian red. ‘We live in a multicultural society,’ says Blanc. ‘Tradition is France’s strength but also its weakness. If you go to Bordeaux, you only drink Bordeaux.’

How does this go down with the Manoir’s well- heeled clientele? What about the celebs? Apparently they’re up for it. ‘There’s that singer with The Beatles,’ says Goubet scratching his head as he tries to remember the name. ‘Paul McCartney?’ I offer. ‘That’s him! He likes me to suggest more unusual wines to him, like Côtes Catalanes and Jurançon.’

Personal favourites

Blanc has his own favourites. ‘I drink by season. Mostly Pinot Noir, though in the summer I’ll drink wines like Cabernet Franc or Gamay, which are full of freshness and flavour. In the game season I’ll go for Syrah – spicier wines like St-Joseph or Roussillon, wines from Domaine Gauby, for example. And Provence is an area that is misunderstood. People think of it as producing only rosé, but I’ve had some great reds from there. You can age them beautifully.’

Unlike many chefs, Blanc takes a keen interest in wine. He shows me a scrappy piece of paper with handwritten notes on some recently tasted Cabernet Francs to prove it. ‘Arnaud gives me seven bottles at a time from somewhere like the Loire. I was recently trying a 2006 Chinon off the list but those wines are not a true representation of what should be a summer wine – the tannins are too hard. What you want for summer is a vin de soif.’ ‘He is not afraid to tell us what he thinks,’ says Arnaud. ‘I am self-taught – I don’t have prejudices,’ retorts Blanc. ‘Most sommeliers think the great names are untouchable.’

The winemaker he’s most excited about currently is Xavier Guillaume, from the Franche- Comté, who owns one of the biggest vine nurseries in the world. ‘Let’s try one against some top Burgundies,’ urges Blanc, getting Goubet to line them up against some Gevrey-Chambertins and a Nuits-St-Georges from Sylvain Cathiard. ‘It stands up well, no?’ he asks eagerly. ‘I love my Pinot.’

With Blanc’s encouragement, Goubet is also listing an increasing number of organic and biodynamic wines, which now account for 14% of the list (about a fifth of that total are biodynamic). ‘If you grow grapes biodynamically, the vineyard can express itself,’ says Goubet. ‘If you put pesticides in the ground, what happens to the terroir?’
‘It’s immoral how many chemicals are used in the wine industry,’ Blanc bursts out. ‘All the great artisan winemakers are going organic. The chefs want it. I’m looking for wine that has total honesty to match the purity in my food. Arnaud is doing this with all his heart. It is my vision but I want him to own the vision as much as I do.’

Blanc on blancs

The only time in our interview that Blanc expresses a preference for white is with cheese. At the Manoir, three Comtés of 12, 24 and 36 months are served with vin jaune from the Jura, to the occasional mystification of the customers. ‘We are creatures of habit,’ sighs Blanc. ‘We still drink red wine with cheese, but the tannins in red wine hate the lactic acid of milk. It’s cheese’s total enemy.’

He adds: ‘Although we are cutting back the list, it’s going to be more interesting, looking for jewels, looking for craftsmen. We will ask our friends, sommeliers, wine writers who know particular parts of the world. You need to be humble. You need to ask for advice. Even five years ago everyone kept everything secret. Now we need to share.’

Written by Fiona Beckett

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