Insider’s Guide to French Wine Country
Famed wine regions like the Loire are becoming more accessible—and friendly new restaurants are a big part of the attitude adjustment.
Some legendary French wine regions, like the Loire and the Rhône, are notoriously unwelcoming to tourists. Most of the famous wine producers have little interest in opening tasting rooms. And, until recently, there just weren’t many good places for a traveler to eat, beyond a few straightforward country-inn dining rooms and a handful of extravagant Michelin-multistarred restaurants. But now, haute chefs like Michel Troisgros in Roanne and Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles have opened casual places with terrific food and accessible wine lists. And some wine-country insiders, like chef Jean-Marc Bourgeois and winemaker Olivier Leflaive (renowned for his Burgundies) have taken things even further: They’ve opened amazing inns to make guests feel especially at home in French wine country.
The Loire Valley
Duck with Parmesan cream at Le Chai. Photo courtesy of Le Chai.
There are hundreds of gorgeous châteaus in the Loire valley; what makes Manoir de Restigné especially alluring is its restaurant, Le Chai, featuring Damien Cousseau’s pristine, inventive cooking. Like Loire winemakers known for their biodynamic methods, Cousseau sources local organic ingredients, which he uses to create fantastical combinations like fried foie gras with beet ravioli and beet ice cream, or roasted prawns with celery custard and chestnuts. Wines, like Domaine Breton’s mellow, cassis-flavored 2006 Trinch! Bourgueil, reflect Le Chai’s location in the middle of the Cabernet Franc–centric Loire.
Although his family name is synonymous with stellar Sancerre, Jean-Marc Bourgeois is a brilliant chef. Last year, he and his wife renovated and expanded their restaurant La Côte des Monts Damnés in the minuscule town of Chavignol, adding a hotel and a bistro. In the fancy dining room, he offers an indulgent menu that might include extra-wide tagliatelle with goat cheese and nutmeg butter; the bistro serves simpler dishes like duck salad with nut-oil vinaigrette. For obvious reasons, there’s Sancerre on the wine list in both places, including Sancerre rouge (little of which is exported to the U.S.) like Henri Bourgeois’s cherry-rich 2008 Les Bonnes Bouches. The bistro’s selection is especially approachable, with bottles like Claude Lafond’s bright 2008 Reuilly Blanc ($27).
Chef Cécile Argondico’s comfortable spot in the little town of Valaire in the central Loire is a hangout for the winemakers who work just down the road. At the laid-back wine bar, in an old country inn, guests sit at tables both inside and outside and drink natural wines with simple French country dishes, like velvety parsnip soup, artisanal sausage with du Puy lentils and house-made chicken-liver terrine. Argondico’s boyfriend is rising-star winemaker Thierry Puzelat, so his bottles are well-represented, including the complex, spicy 2007 La Tesnière Touraine made with the offbeat local red grape Pineau d’Aunis.
In 2008, husband-and-wife team Catherine and Gérard Bossé closed their Michelin-starred Les Tonnelles on the island of Béhuard to open a small place in Angers. At Une Île, Gérard’s menu usually features fish from the nearby Loire River; the sweetbreads he serves with blood orange and seasonal root vegetables are sourced from a local farmer. The Bossés are friends with many of the best local winemakers, so the all-French list includes bottlings by Agnès and René Mosse and Isabelle and Jo Pithon.
The Rhône Valley
Jean-Luc Rabanel. Photo © Lucien Clergue.
In 2006, Jean-Luc Rabanel (photo, left) began serving haute Provençal food at L’Atelier in Arles, in the southern Rhône. In 2007, he went more casual, opening bistro A Côté, where his daily-changing $42 menu has appealing dishes like Parmesan-crumbed baked mussels and seared beef filet with béarnaise sauce. The short wine list emphasizes local selections, such as the 2008 Oh d’Ete Côtes Catalanes Rosé (only $4 a glass).
The small town of Tain l’Hermitage is the home of Valrhona chocolate. It’s even better known for the vineyards that cover the surrounding hills and its outstanding winemakers, like Michel Chapoutier and Paul Jaboulet. Their names are inscribed on the wooden door of the wonderful two-year-old Le Mangevins and included on the 300-plus-bottle list, which reads like the greatest hits of the Rhône valley (for instance, the 1979, 1986, 1989 and 1991 vintages of Jaboulet Aîné Chevalier de Stérimberg). Chef-owner Vincent Dollat’s specialties range from Alpine cheese–stuffed ravioli with escargot to individual molten cakes made, of course, with Valrhona chocolate.
The Troisgros family has garnered three Michelin stars for more than 40 years at its eponymous, and very expensive, restaurant in Roanne. Michel Troisgros’s 16-month-old inn, about 9 miles away, is less fancy but full of thoughtful touches (there’s a pile of straw hats for guests to wear when they’re drinking aperitifs and eating canapés on the porch). The dining room is set inside a renovated stone barn; it’s dec-orated with huge, modern white light fixtures and swooping extension cords (which are surprisingly attractive). Michel designed the menu and cooks there part of the time, preparing buttery potato omelets, tender spice-braised lamb shanks and exquisite meringues topped with toasted nuts. The wine list features non-flashy selections from some of the region’s top producers: The 2005 Coche Dury white Burgundy is only $60.
Olivier Leflaive (in hat). Photo courtesy of Olivier LeFlaive.
Most famous wine producers in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or don’t mingle with tourists. Olivier Leflaive (photo, left) is the exception. Not only did he open a Puligny-Montrachet restaurant, La Table, in 1994, he even sat down with the guests. Now he has launched the 13-room inn La Maison d’Olivier Leflaive, in a 17th-century house, relocating La Table next door. New chef Claudine Tixier’s five-course tasting menus, which might include Basque-style stewed chicken with eggplant, can be paired with a flight of 14 wines with elite bottles like 2006 Meursault Premier Cru Charmes (for $70 per person). Leflaive enjoys working the dining room: “There was an American couple and a French couple that didn’t want to sit together, but by the end of the meal, they were making plans to visit each other,” he says.
In France it’s not uncommon to find a husband-and-wife team running a restaurant. At the new incarnation of Auberge de la Charme in a 229-year-old stone house, there are two such couples. Chef Nicolas Isnard goes to the market each morning, then prepares dishes like roasted pigeon with fresh porcini and black Burgundy truffles, and grilled turbot with red and yellow beets served three ways: mashed, shaved and fried into chips. Pastry chef Cécile Isnard tweaks classic French desserts, using a confit of figs to fill flaky tarts. Co-chef David Le Comte also cooks in the kitchen, while Jessica Le Comte does everything from seating guests to opening bottles from the grand cru–heavy wine list, such as the 2006 David Duband Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru and 2004 Domaine Robert Arnoux Romanée St. Vivant Grand Cru. The restaurant got its first Michelin star earlier this year.