My wife Hélène has provided invaluable support to my vinous aspirations, but it would all have been impossible had I not been aided and abetted by a very special angel we found in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
It all began with a bottle of Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf du Pape, from the 1988 vintage to be precise. Cousin Robert had thoughtfully left it for us on the dining room table in his charming little abode tucked away on a back lane in Saint-Rémy. You see, Hélène and I would often borrow Robert’s home when he was off visiting friends in other parts of Europe. And this was one such occasion.
Hélène prepared a lunch of lamb chops, flageolets (marvellous little critters much like lima beans), tiny potatoes fried in duck fat and a fresh garden salad to accompany the bottle of La Nerthe. Definitely a food and wine paring made in heaven. The wine was simply ethereal. A medium ruby red in colour, the nose was of perfumed raspberry, black cherry, blackberry, smoke, cocoa, liquorice, cloves and nutmeg. It was wonderfully knit together, round and exceeding long. Sheer ambrosia.
I needed more! Not merely wanted – needed. I got in touch with Robert and he directed me to a wine shop called InterCave at 1 avenue du 19 mars 1962 (the date when the Algerian War ended) on the northern ring road of the village. He told me it was owned by a very knowledgeable chap by the name of Christian Esparza and to mention Robert’s name when we visited the store.
So, we dropped by the next day and found ourselves in an establishment unlike any LCBO retail outlet. There were wine pennants hanging from the ceiling, ‘vin en vrac’ (wine in huge vats where the price varied in direct proportion to the alcoholic strength), wine casks upon which were open bottles ready for tasting and cases and cases of wine everywhere. In the back, through an archway was a veritable treasure trove of France’s greatest wines. We had entered our vinous Utopia! The beaming ‘caviste’ approached and I knew in a moment that it must be Christian Esparza. After introductions I mentioned that Robert had sent us and that we were in search of 1988 Château La Nerthe. And thus began a most enjoyable collaboration and friendship.
We dropped in to see M. Esparza and his treasures countless times after that first encounter. Ours was quite a formal relationship for the first few years. But I learned a great deal about the local wines from him and gained an appreciation for his taste in wines and his never ceasing search for fairly-priced gems. I have to admit that I purchased quite a few of his wines over the years, purely to confirm his assessments of them, of course.
When we decided to delve into the wild and wacky world of wine over 12 years ago, we wondered how we were ever going to find wineries to represent. Our thoughts turned to M. Esparza. Perhaps he could cajole a couple of his wineries to take us on. Lo and behold, he found three that were willing to take a chance. By great coincidence, all three were run by women. Well, maybe not so great. You see, M. Esparza, along with his many other attributes, has a keen appreciation for attractive members of the opposite sex. Luckily for us, all three agreed to sign on and we were on our way. I should point out that Christian did not ask to be compensated for his kind assistance. He did it because he liked us (well, Hélène for sure) and to help ensure that his wineries had diversified customer bases that would enhance their on-going viability.
We returned to Saint-Rémy soon after setting out in the wine business and arranged a lunch with M. Esparza and Robert at Le Café de la Place in order to establish a plan of attack for the wine shows we were about to attend in Cannes and Montpellier. This was to be the first of a long and tasty series of similar rendezvous we have had (and continue to have) with Christian over the years. Christian’s delightful wife Patricia, who hails from the island of Réunion (a department of France), joined in subsequent festivities and lately their daughter Marine (currently studying for a career in aeronautical engineering) has agreeably done likewise.
What follows, in no particular order, is a mention of some of the fine dining establishments in and around Saint-Rémy that we have graced with our presence. This is not merely to make you drool, but also to serve as a guide should you ever find yourself, as did Nostradamus, Van Gogh and Princess Caroline of Monaco, in that wondrous bit of paradise. This list is by no means exhaustive; there are at least 100 eateries in and around the town.
La Maison Jaune – this Michelin starred delight is situated on the second and third floors of an unprepossessing building in the heart of Saint-Rémy. A rooftop terrace provides a marvellous view of the uppermost elements of the ancient part of the village while one slurps fine wines and munches scrumptious culinary creations.
Le Château des Alpilles – we dined alfresco on the sylvan grounds of this manor home and estate located just west of the village. It isn’t often that one is as transfixed by the magnificent old trees at a dining establishment as they are by the fine fare. I brought a 1983 Penfolds Grange Hermitage from Arthur’s Cellar to help wash down the delicious delicacies. All in all, a most marvellous experience.
Le Bistrot Découverte – Since acquiring a new chef a little while ago, this charming bistro located on the best people-watching spot in town, has become our go to place for lunch. A grand dame occupies a choice table almost every day, sometimes by herself and at other times with fascinating friends. The restaurant features a reasonably priced daily plat de jour like an aioli (a mayonnaise, olive oil and garlic sauce) feast on Fridays. We thoroughly enjoyed magrets de canard the day we dined there with Christian.
Les Terrasses de l’Image – located almost across the street from Le Bistrot Découverte in the wonderfully restored Hôtel de l’Image (numerous Saint-Rémois objected vociferously to the gentrification of the old derelict heap), this restaurant is best enjoyed on the large patio tucked away in the beautiful grounds behind the hotel. Everything about this place is first rate, including the prices.
L’Estagnol – the main dining room is an old orangerie (conservatory) but we prefer the secluded, verdant patio in the back. The restaurant, which specializes in seafood, is located just a couple of doors up from Les Terrasses de l’Image. The big plate of langoustines (like scampi) is absolutely marvellous, but oh so messy. We enjoyed a long languid lunch here with Christian that was rudely interrupted by an obnoxious Champagne salesman.
La Table du Hameau – this restaurant is part of the upscale Hameau des Baux resort tucked away in the Provençal landscape near the village of Paradou (nearby Le Bistrot du Paradou is also great fun). You would think that the hamlet dated from the 17th Century but in fact it has all been built in recent years. As is our wont, we decided to dine outside and, as you can see, it was a tad chilly (nice of the establishment to provide blankets). But I can assure you that the temperature did nothing to cool the enjoyment of the meal, the wines or the camaraderie.
We have also enjoyed some fabulous meals at the Esparza’s home in Meynes where Champagne cooling in a large bucket of ice always started off the luncheons on a truly delicious note. We would use such occasions to try new wines and rediscover old favourites. Over the years we imported a fairly large quantity of wine from the excellent small, family-owned wineries that Christian had commended to us. He would frequently ask if we were making any money and would be most exasperated when we told him we weren’t. He was simply incapable of fathoming the difficulties involved in working with a liquor monopoly. However, while our gains might not have been pecuniary in nature, what we did gain was much more valuable – the friendships we made with people like Christian Esparza.
By the way, Christian’s wine emporium was originally called InterCave, which was a franchise operation. He eventually extricated himself from this arrangement and formed his own business, Caves & Domaines which is its current name.
About a year ago as a bridge to eventual retirement, he took on a partner. The partner has a great love of fine Scotch whisky and the store now sports an excellent single malt and blend section. If you are ever in Saint-Rémy, drop in to see them … and, tell them I sent you.
That bottle of 1988 Château La Nerthe led us to Christian. We couldn’t have done it without him. Merci, mon ami.
If you would like to sample some of the marvels that Christian has found for us, just join our little wine club – no fees or obligations. Your taste buds will thank you (and Christian) vociferously! Coming next are the splendid Châteauneuf du Pape and other Southern Rhônes from Domaine Roger Sabon.