Our wine correspondent Jim Walker and his wife Hélène Buisson recently visited Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in southern France to bid a fond adieu to their vinous mentor and a couple of their vintners. You see, they had decided to wind down their participation in the wild, wacky and wonderful world of wine and they wanted to say goodbye to those who had made it all possible.

The Liquor Control Board of Ontario conspired to make it unfeasible for us to remain in the wine business, so we threw in the towel early last spring. We had been importing wine into Ontario and operating Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club for more than 16 years. Central to it all was the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and a very special gentleman by the name of Christian Esparza. You will find all the background in one of my previous Gentleman’s Portion contributions. We felt that it just wouldn’t be right if we didn’t go back to origins of it all and say a proper farewell to Christian and his wife Patricia as well as some of our winery colleagues.

We set up our base in Nice and planned a three-day visit to Saint-Rémy from there. By wretched happenstance, we each contracted a nasty bout of the ‘green apple quick step’ a few days before departure. Hélène attributed it to some bagged lettuce we had used to make a salad. It was sort of slimy and I had taken but a single bite. Seems that was more than enough. For the first couple of days it would have been extremely unwise to have been more than a few meters from the nearest loo.

Didier Négron, Delphine Sabon and us

Thus, it was with a great measure of fear and trepidation that we headed out early one morning for the long, uphill trek to the Nice train station with a rolling suitcase in tow. As we trudged along, I muttered something about deserving the Croix de Guerre. But we made it and settled into our seats on the TGV (train à grande vitesse) bound non-stop for Avignon. Just for the record, the new Avignon rail station has great washroom facilities.

We secured a rather battered rent-a-car and declined the prepaid gas option where you get to pay for a full tank in advance. It made no sense in that we would driving less than a hundred kilometres and would top up upon our return (a fateful decision if ever there was one). Then we drove the short distance to Châteauneuf du Pape where we toured around for old times sake and then arrived at Domaine Roger Sabon for our farewell rendezvous (here’s how this marvellous relationship began). As so many times before, we were greeted by Delphine Sabon, who runs the administrative side of things, and Didier Négron, who so ably tends to the winemaking. Believe it or not, we were feeling too punk to participate in a tasting (sniff) but did enjoy reminiscing about our very successful business relationship. Over the years we together had supplied Le Sélect Bistro (see Gentleman’s Portion post Oh Blessed Bistro) with more than 10,000 bottles of various vintages of their splendid ‘Rhône By Roger Sabon’ Côtes du Rhone. We presented them both with Canadian mint coin sets to remember us by and then sadly departed.

We then drove to Saint-Rémy and found our rental apartment in the heart of the village directly across from the striking, gothic Église Catholique Collégiale Saint-Martin. Our shelter for the next three days was found at the top of 39 narrow, steep, rickety steps. A little later, this architectural bit of malfeasance came back to haunt me. I’m won’t regale you with that tale in deference to your delicate sensibilities.

Église Catholique Collégiale Saint-Martin in St-Rémy

We spent the rest of the day visiting our old haunts, at least the ones that were still in operation. It seems that the plague was more than several our favourite places could withstand. Many had been replaced by high-end real estate offices with flashy storefront videos featuring exotic nearby residences. We concluded the day with a light dinner in our aerie and turned in early.

We were scheduled to visit Aline and Bernard Giuliani at their winery the next day, but gastrointestinal eruptions (les crises in French, a fine description) conspired to put an end to that notion. It was clear that we needed serious medical attention. So, we ventured over to a nearby pharmacy and asked to be referred to a local doctor. They recommended a nearby clinic. It was too busy there to see us till the following day. That simply wouldn’t do.

Christian Esparza and his ardent acolyte

Back to the pharmacy we trotted and requested a referral to a doctor who could receive us that day. A docteur Alain Ghandour was available and could see us straight away. By coincidence his office was halfway to Christian Esparza’s wine emporium and could be identified by two large green snakes on the outer gates! We readily found the place and waited but a few moments to see Dr. Ghandour, who bore a striking resemblance to Burl Ives. He was a jolly soul and quickly ascertained the source of our misery. “We haven’t time for lab tests, but experience tells me it is food poisoning.” He then prescribed a long list of remedies and presented us with an invoice for but 30 Euros each.

From there we toddled down to Christian’s shop of wondrous wine. While Hélène caught up on all the local gossip and settled our lunch arrangements for the following day, I rummaged through the numerous racks of vinous treasures. Presently, I came upon a few bottles of 2020 Meursault-Genevrières 1er Cru by Michel Bouzereau et Fils. They outrageously expensive, but many years prior a Meursault-Genevrières was the first serious white Burgundy I had ever tasted. I fell helplessly in love with it and simply couldn’t resist another fling. Christian also gave us a 2016 Château des Tours Réserve Côtes du Rhône produced by the Reynaud family of Château Rayas renown. I’ll tell you more about these wines in a future post.

Christian and Hélène outside Bistrot Découverte

Next it was back to the pharmacy where we loaded up on enough pills, powders and potions to cure all Saint-Rémois of every ailment known to man. Then it was back up the 39 steps to choke down the evening’s allotment of medicine, have another modest repast and hie off early to bed.

The following day dawned auspiciously. It was clear and sunny, the tonics were having a positive effect and we were meeting the Esparzas at Le Bistrot Découvertefor lunch. We were told the head chef, Jeremy Scalia had just transferred over from La Mère Germaine in Châteauneuf du Pape where he earned a Michelin star.

The magnificent Avignon TGV station

We met Patricia and Christian at high noon and began festivities with glasses of Champagne, courtesy of the restaurant. Our conversations ricocheted from topic to topic as they are wont to do with old friends. The meal progressed apace, starting with field mushrooms in a divine cream sauce for me and beef carpaccio for the others. Hélène declared it to be awesome. Christian had selected a 2018 Château des Tours Réserve to accompany our meal. Made from 65% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 15% Cinsault, it was everything a Rhône red should be – deep, seductive berry fruit with a generous helping of spice. It was full, rich, supple and silky. In a word, stunning.                      

I selected veal as my main. It was disappointingly tough. Christian chose a bouillabaisse to my great envy. Hélène and Patricia selected wild mushroom risotto which was declared amazing.  I finished with a delicious chocolate concoction while Patricia and Christian had a fig creation that also caused me covetous spasms. Hélène passed.

We presented Christian with a Canadian mint $20 silver coin set and Patricia with a Birch Branch chunk of chocolate from SOMA chocolatemaker located in Toronto’s Distillery District to remember us by. Christian noted that he planned to retire in about three years and would visit us in Canada shortly thereafter. He insisted on paying for lunch. Our parting was truly such sweet sorrow.  

French petroleum workers adding insult to injury

We headed out early the next morning for the Avignon train station, la gare d’Avignon TGV. But first we had to top up the gas in our rental car. We found an open station near Avignon that had long lineups at two sets of pumps. We slowly inched our way forward only to learn that just diesel fuel was being sold! Our car took regular gas. There were no warning signs to alert customers. We passed by a couple of other gas stations along the way – same problem. Then we found out that there was a strike at France’s largest refinery that obviously was causing a shortage of regular fuel.

Permit me a slight deviation from my main story. Russia had cut off a big chunk of Europe’s petroleum supply and then OPEC had slashed its oil production. What do the French do? Why the workers at their largest refinery go on strike, of course. The result was that there was virtually no regular gasoline in the country; numerous cars that relied on it had to be parked.  The poor carless wretches thus had to take public transit (goodness knows where they got their gas), which created mob scenes on French buses, trams and trains everywhere. So, what do those wascally Fwench do next? Why the transit workers go on strike, natch. Perfect. Guess what they were on strike about. Why, the right to strike (in support of their oil worker brethren), naturally. Then, just for the fun of it, the country’s teachers decided to strike. You just can’t make this stuff up.

The Marseille train station in much quieter times 

Back to our story. We reached the rental car offices and they tried to charge us for a whole tank of gas. Hélène, a force to be reckoned with when aggrieved, agued that they knew full well there was no regular gas available when the first rented us the car. They should be ashamed of themselves. The gas charge was quickly reversed. We barely had time to make the slow train to Marseille – no TGV train directly back to Nice. We disembarked at the Marseilles train station (Gare de Marseille – Saint-Charles) to transfer to another slow train to Nice. This is a massive, crowded, chaotic station with little signage and nowhere to sit. Quite off-putting, really. We had a long wait for our next train and needed to sit. So, we ordered the cheapest hamburger at the huge McDonalds and commandeered a couple of spots at a crowded table. They were the worst hamburgers we have ever had and were an obviously unwise choice of fare given our still delicate conditions. But at least we got to sit down. The second leg of our return journey was mercifully uneventful.

Back in Nice we discussed our impressions of Saint-Rémy and how it had changed from our first visits more than 30 years prior. It was smaller, rougher, dirtier and, well, more authentic back then. We liked it that way. Over the years we had watched the village become more sophisticated, modern, sleeker and decidedly more expensive. Is it still a fine spot to visit? Sure. Will we ever return? Sadly, probably not. But, oh those memories.

Featured image: A tranquil square in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

Postscript: In a previous post, Wining and Dining Gracefully in Southern France I noted that doggy bags were frowned upon in French restaurants. However, during our recent visit to Nice we learned that this is no longer the case. In the interest of fighting food waste, doggy bags are now perfectly acceptable in most dining establishments.

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This is Jim’s 77th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories.                               


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