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Wines Make Waves on St. Barts

Smack in the middle of the Caribbean is a small piece of France, where the water is aqua, the people are beautiful and the wines are sensational

Conversation shuts down as the tiny plane noses into the vertical plunge that all but face-plants us onto the Caribbean island of St. Barthélemy. Sardined into the cabin with my wife and me is a fair cross section of St. Barts tourists: a group of young French women as animated and brightly attired as a flock of finches, a type-A New Yorker in a navy blazer ("Do YOU work for this airline?" he had demanded, Zeus-like, of random passersby back at the St. Martin airport) and the actors Matt Dillon and Cameron Diaz. It isn't until the plane shudders onto the runway that the Texas Wine Collector taps me on the shoulder.

I instantly remember him from a château tour I had helped guide in France the year before. He and his friends had bought $400 bottles of Château Cheval Blanc, pulled the corks and passed the stuff around in plastic cups. St. Barts was going to be his kind of island. Mine, too, as it turned out. "You didn't come down here to taste Bordeaux, did you?" he asks. Well, yeah, actually, I did.

St. Barts is a wayward little piece of France, a place that seems to have drifted off its mooring--but not too far--from some St. Tropez cove. The island's many French restaurants help sustain the illusion, not just with their cuisine but with their wine lists too. From white-linen-tablecloth establishments to shacklike pieds dans l'eau places (the latter often as expensive as the former), there's enough great wine on St. Barts to keep any wine-loving French person--or any French-wine-loving person--from getting homesick. Which is why we've come to the island: for wine drinkers, St. Barts means no compromise in paradise.

Our quest quickly leads us to the barrel-chested, silver-haired François Béret. We find ourselves at François Plantation (Columbier; 011-590-29-80-22), his resort in the hills, in a glass-fronted wine room that's as cool and humidity modulat- ed as Biosphere 2. Béret claims to have the island's best wine list, and the evidence--a small stockpile of 1990 Roederer Brut Cristal Champagne and cases of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Château d'Yquem and Château Mouton Rothschild--suggests he might.

During its busy season, François Plantationholds weekly tastings that attract wine cognoscenti, among them Alain Magras, the owner of Cellier du Gouverneur, St. Barts's best-known wine shop. Over a glass of Méo-Camuzet's Côte de Nuits red Burgundy, Magras explains to me why wine on St. Barts is so special: the island commands seaborne shipments that are sent directly from France rather than routed--and roasted--via Miami. He also explains why a palm-tree-covered island where restaurants serve mahimahi and lobsters the size of dachshunds should offer so much red Bordeaux. "Our visitors like the top wines," he says with a shrug, meaning, I suppose, that to many people luxe living equals prestige Bordeaux, no matter what the setting.

Tonight's tasting features, of course, red Bordeaux. We sip a plummy 1989 La-grange, a surprisingly silky but still-closed-in 1993 Cos d'Estournel and then the star of the evening, a 1995 Trilogie, a tooth- purpling old-vines bottling of Merlot from St-Emilion's Château St Georges.

As an experiment, my wife and I later taste a red Bordeaux in the unclimatized atmosphere of St. Barts, and we find the combination oddly companionable. The ambient air is so thick and soft that it seems to connect to the texture--almost to the specific gravity--of a 1993 Grand- Puy-Lacoste, especially once the wine reaches air temperature. We resolve, however, to deny ourselves more warm red Bordeaux.

Instead, over the next few days, we'll have Bandol rosé with lobster--pink wine with pink food--at the restaurant L'Ananas (Gustavia; 011-590-27-63-77) and Muscadet with the sensationally fresh, mostly cold-water plateau de fruits de mer, a seafood platter, at the beachfront Sand Bar at the Eden Rock hotel(St. Jean; 011-590-27-72-94). We'll drink a Pouilly-Fumé, La Moynerie from Michel Redde et Fils, at La Case de l'Isle at the Hôtel St. Barth Isle de France(Flamands; 011-590-27-61-81); the Pouilly-Fumé's citrusy, tropical flavors and hint of smoke are a wonderful complement to a fillet of wahoo (a local fish) flavored with Asian spices.

Noon finds us with a pique-nique at Anse du Gouverneur, where gorgeous people from several continents bodysurf in various states of unattired naturalness. We're just out of the aqua-tinted water, both of us salty, dripping and thirsty. I reach into our cooler for a dry Provençal rosé, the Gatorade of the French Riviera. The 1997 Château Minuty is a pale salmon color, the bottle dappled with condensation. The scene is perfect--too perfect.

I use the corkscrew on my pocketknife to pull out the cork; the tip digs in, but the cork doesn't budge. I begin battering it with a ballpoint pen. It finally moves a little, but now the pen cap is embedded in the cork.

Suddenly, I hear a booming voice: "Weh-heh-hell, y'all look like you're doing all right for yourselves!" I look up and see the Texas Wine Collector, haloed by the sun. He surveys my wife, then the picnic, then the rosé with the ballpoint pen jutting out like the antenna of some absurd piece of spy equipment. "Well, hey," he says after skipping a beat, "enjoy."

That night we are dining on the terrace of Le Gaïac restaurant at Le Toiny (Anse de Toiny; 011-590-29-77-47), a Relais & Châteaux resort atop a hillside on the island's east coast. Rugged headlands stretch into the distance. Our table is next to a shimmering blue-tiled infinity pool, so called because it gives the illusion of being rimless, as though one too many flutter kicks might send you over the edge.

The candlelit setting says Burgundy to us. Skipping past the wine list's Domaine de la Romanée-Conti section (with a 1991 La Tâche that goes for $820), we find a shy beauty, a 1994 Chambolle-Musigny from Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron. Light, fresh and polished, with a bushel of youthful fruit, this wine is terrific with the salty, delicate flavors of panfried scallops, and it has enough body to taste juicy and rich with a salad of warm lobster, haricot verts and wild mushrooms.

There comes a moment at Le Gaïac--probably as we first taste our appetizers of warm foie gras--when the privileged exoticism of St. Barts strikes home. Here, in the sultry Caribbean night, we are enjoying wine, scallops, mushrooms, pole beans and duck liver brought from across the ocean, almost from across the world, in a profound, peculiarly French commitment to something as transitory as an evening meal. I don't fully appreciate how dislocating the experience is until I step beyond Le Toiny's little circle of light--out into the darkness of the parking lot--and the night frogs and crickets start up, and the wild scent of tropical flowers fills my nose.

RICHARD NALLEY won the 1997 James Beard Foundation Award for magazine writing on wine, beer and spirits.

Published October 1998
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