This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, June 13, 2005.

Blind and bizarre

Palais de Papes
Avignon's landmark Palais des Papes, the 14th century home of the papacy.
I love discovering unfamiliar wine grapes and regions. I love exploring new dimensions in pairing food and wine. And if I do not exactly love "blind" tasting - the fine analytical art of identifying a wine without knowing what's in the glass - I respect it as an excellent way to sharpen my wine-tasting skills.

All three of these happy elements came together during a memorable evening in Avignon last week, a happenstance event that I won't soon forget. As I prepare to fly home tomorrow after a great week of wine travel, I thought I would devote today's Wine Advisor to a quick summary of the innovative array of small dishes that we enjoyed at Restaurant Christian Etienne - and the fiendishly challenging series of "blind" tastings of offbeat French regional wines that Sommelier Kelly McAuliffe assembled to accompany them.

McAuliffe, a gregarious native of Carson City, Nevada, has been working in the French wine scene for 11 years and may be the only American sommelier currently working at a Michelin-starred French restaurant. He seemed delighted to have the opportunity to talk wine with a traveling group of fairly serious American "wine geeks," and when he proposed the blind-tasting game, we eagerly complied. Little did we know how tough he was going to make it, picking wines from obscure appellations and offbeat grapes and, more evilly still, wines that departed dramatically from those regions' characteristic styles. The dinner was a delight, and a sommelier's challenge. Christian Etienne's eponymous chef specializes in small dishes that feature the vegetables of the season. This night's bill of fare prominently featured fresh, flavorful artichokes and asparagus - both considered "difficult" with wine - as theme ingredients.

Here's an overview of the dinner dishes and the wines. Many of the producers do export in at least small amount to the U.S., the UK and other countries. Try if you'd like to try to track them down.

With amuses bouches including tiny pastry beggar's purses filled with an intense wild-mushroom mix, shot glasses filled with a creamy fennel puree, and canapes, a warmup aperitif before the blind tasting frivolity begins.

Champagne Bruno Paillard Rosé - Very pale copper, a pretty hue, with relatively scant bubbles. Ripe canteloupe shows in an intriguing, exotic aroma, but it's more straightforward on the palate: Crisp tart-apple flavors, bone-dry and palate-cleansing. A fine start to the meal.

Another amuse, a pair of shot glasses containing airy, barely sweet whipped cream, one laced with artichokes, the other boasting a subtle asparagus flavor, each garnished with a paper-thin, flash-fried cross-section of a baby artichoke and a fat asparagus spear, the first wine presented "blind."

Mark Angeli 2003 Anjou les Fouchardes - Very pale copper in color, clearly a rosé. But what strange and exotic scents ... high-toned, medicinal, possibly oxidized, strongly herbal, with notes of witch hazel and verbena, reminiscent of vermouth. Bone-dry and searing acidity. What in the heck is it. I toy with the idea of a Savagnin from the Jura, but no ... it's an Anjou Chenin Blanc from the Loire by, McAuliffe says, "a funny wine maker, a rebel."

Three thimble-sized rolls of chewy, salty, dark boiled ham rolled around artichokes, plated with a small field-greens salad and garnished with long flash-fried chives and a thumb-size baguette that appears to have been deep-fried.

Chateau Mourgues du Gres 2004 "Les Galets Dores" Costieres de Nimes Blanc - From a producer whose 2003 rosé was featured in a recent Wine Advisor, this one puzzles the group, which finds characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and even Viognier in it. In fact, it's a blend of Southern Rhone varieties: white Grenache, Picpoul de Pinet and Roussanne.

Domaine Gauby 2002 Vin de Pays des Cotes Catalanes Vieilles Vignes - McAuliffe returns to the room with this straw-color wine in a decanter, plugging the neck with his thumb and shaking it vigorously until it's frothy. Yeasty notes, toasty oak and ripe apples lead toward the conclusion that it's a Chardonnay - maybe a ripe, oaky Maconnais, I joke that it must be a "cuvee unique" made for North Berkeley Imports, a U.S. firm known for its oak-accented selections. But no, it's much more exotic, a blend of White Grenache (30%), Macabeo (30%), the rare Grenache Gris and Carignan Gris (15% each) and a splash of Chardonnay from the Rousillon in Southwest France.

Calmar farcie, a golf-ball-size squid stuffed with tiny mushrooms and served between two spears of green asparagus prepared tempura-style, atop a pale-green swash of pistachio oil. (The squid was tough, cooked a little too long, the only flaw in an otherwise four-star dinner.)

Clos Canarelli 2003 Corse Figari - Another "blind" offering that might be Chardonnay but of course is not. Bright straw in color, it offers pleasant appley scents; crisp and tart on first tasting, but spicy oak builds and builds as it crosses the palate. Odd, I say, joshing that it starts like Chablis but finishes like California Chardonnay. In fact it's Corsican, made from the Rolle grape, the local name for Vermentino.

An artichoke-stuffed tender ravioli bathed in a pool of basil "cream," actually a frothy, herb-scented olive-oil emulsion, followed by tiny whole lamb tenderloins plated on fresh, bright-green spring peas and favas, garnished with a spear of green asparagus and one of white.

Domaine de la Grange des Pères 2000 Vin de Pays de l'Herault Vaillé - First red wine of the evening, this one is dark garnet in color with a bright reddish-violet edge. Gamey "animaux" and deep black fruit aromas segue to "sweet" red-berry and cherry flavors on the palate, tart and tannic. I'm pretty sure it's a Bandol, the excellent Mourvedre-based red from Provence; but I'm wrong, of course - McAuliffe isn't going to make it that easy. It's a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre (I claim a few points credit for this) and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Languedoc.

A refreshing salad of goat cheese mixed with chopped artichokes and plated on fresh mache lettuce, garnished with a flash-fried paper-thin cross-section of artichoke.

Domaine Arretxea 2003 Irouléguy "Hegoxuri" - Light gold in color, white fruit, a little butter and a little confectioner's sugar, tart and just off-dry. I go bold on this one and dramatically announce that it's a Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes from the Northern Rhone, made from a blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. Nope. Not even close. It's from the Basque country of Southwestern France, made from indigenous grapes.

A most unusual dessert, featuring sweet, tender bits of eggplant in lemon cream, topped by a wafer and a ball of, um, artichoke ice cream, garnished with a thin flash-fried slice of lemon.

Mark Angeli "Rosé d'un Jour" Vin de Table de France - Back to the rebel of the Loire for this appealing if offbeat wine. Pale pink in color, clear at the edge, it has all the scents of a good rosé - ripe strawberries and fresh herbs - and it's crisply acidic; but it's also distinctly off-dry, which is, simply put, weird. "Provence White Zinfandel," I crack, which wins me disapproving looks. As it turns out, it's Angeli's irreverent joke. Denied controlled-appellation status for its utter lack of typicity as a Rosé d'Anjou, he released it as a simple, unclassified table wine labeled with a French pun that sounds similar but translates as "Rosé for one day."

The dinner was memorable, and so were the wines, a collection of unfamiliar and offbeat grape varieties and French wine regions, a voyage of discovery that, for me, is even more enjoyable than bathing in the luxury of high-end wines.

Restaurant Christian Etienne wins two thumbs up from me, and so does Sommelier Kelly. If you visit Avignon, I recommend it. And tell Kelly we said hello. (Restaurant Christian Etienne is located directly opposite Avignon's historic 14th century Palace of the Popes on the Place du Palais (10 rue de Mons, Avignon, +33 (0)4 90 86 16 50).

I've got the usual multiple notebooks and hundreds of photos from this past week's trip down the Rhone, and I hope to get a wine diary and photo gallery organized and published soon. Watch this address for the material as I get it together:

Our friends Lauriann Green-Sollin and Jean-Pierre Sollin will also have photos and information on their Website soon, along with, of course, details about all their tours, which I highly recommend:

Full contents of today's Wine Advisor