Paris, Bistrot de Sommelier (Monday, June 10)

Our first night's dinner in Paris was a special treat - a six-course, six-wine meal put together by Philippe Faure-Brac at his Bistrot de Sommelier in Paris. Faure-Brac, chosen the world's top sommelier in 1992, is a leading wine-and-food expert, and the pairings at his restaurant demonstrated this in creative dishes that made absolutely remarkable combinations with the wines he chose for each course.

To add a little wine-enthusiast fun, the wines were presented blind, in a casual "see if you can guess the wine and vintage" game, with the identity of each revealed at the end of its course.

The first course, a lightly tangy fromage blanc with chopped chives, was accompanied by a very pale straw-color wine with a grassy and lightly citric aroma and a crisp, tart flavor with a bit more body than the color suggests. Clearly Sauvignon Blanc, Old World and young. I waver between Bordeaux and the Loire, toy with Sancerre, but conclude that it's a 2000 White Bordeaux from Graves. Close, but not quite. It's Le Sec 2000 Bordeaux Blanc Sec, a bone-dry white wine from Sauternes, generally known for its sweet wines. Like Sauternes, it may be made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, but this one is 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc.

Next up was a delightful light pasta, tiny ravioli stuffed with chopped parsley and presented with a rosemary cream sauce, a splash of balsamic, and a garnish of fresh rosemary leaves that had been lightly roasted. The wine was an intriguing and rather odd white, a rather rich golden color with a highly aromatic scent of toast and hazelnuts. I went charging down the wrong path at first, thinking in terms of Savoie and Savagnin, but working on it for a while brought me back to Chardonnay with a load of toasted oak. New World? No, but probably "Parkerized" Burgundy, laden with oak and not quite dry, simple and probably relatively generic. Macon-Villages? It's Domaine Anne Gros 1999 Bourgogne Chardonnay, and indeed it was aged in 100 percent new French oak.

The third course brought a thick, fresh tuna steak coated with a layer of poppy seeds, roasted a bit past medium-rare and plated on a fruity red-wine reduction with a slice of crisp bacon as garnish. The wine? A slightly hazy ruby red, it showed herbal tobacco-leaf and tomato characteristics that absolutely convinced me it was a young Pinot Noir, probably a 1999 and perhaps a Savigny-les-Beaune. Wrong, bozo! Demonstrating how easily blind tasting can bamboozle the purported "experts," I replicated Harry Waugh's "not since lunch" joke when he was asked the last time he mistook Bordeaux for Burgundy. It was actually Chateau le Jurat 1996 St.-Emilion Grand Cru, a Right Bank blend with Cabernet Franc and Merlot dominant. In retrospect, I suppose it was the "tobacco-leaf" character of the Cab Franc that threw me, but the correct response is, "No excuse, folks."

Course four brought the beef: Rare tenderloin plated on a Sauce Bercy redolent of caramelized onions and wild mushrooms, with a selection of several varieties of fingerling potatoes. The wine was easy to nail as a Cabernet Sauvignon (at least this time I got the variety right), but I tripped up on the careless assumption that all the wines at this Parisian bistrot would be French, and missed the clear signals of its New World status in its deep, almost blackish purple color, extracted fruit and almost Portlike sweet fruit. I guessed it was a 1999 Médoc. In fact it was from New Zealand: C. J. Pask 1998 Hawkes Bay Cabernet Sauvignon.

The cheese course, a Provence treat featuring a deliciously runny and au point St. Marcellan with a dab of black-olive tapenade and a slice of walnut bread, came with a hearty, peppery red with grapey fruit and tannic fire that clearly spoke of Syrah but seemed almost too complex to be a single varietal. Grenache? Mourvèdre? Maybe a Bandol? But an overheard hint from the other end of the table puts me back on track: It's a Northern Rhone. High tannins and minerality lead me to guess 1998 Hermitage, which is close but just misses the brass ring. It's Yves Cuilleron 1998 Côte Rôtie "Bassenon."

Even with relatively discreet portions, the six-course meal was filling us up by the time dessert came, and it was an intriguing dessert indeed, a "vertical" presentation of poached pears atop a short ginger cookie, layered with a thin slice of caramelized sugar and topped with a round of something like a panna cotta laced with intriguing caraway flavor, plated on raspberry cream. The wine was a dessert wine, of course, light golden amber and breathing fresh, ripe apricots. This one puzzled me a bit ... it lacked the overt fruit of Muscat but seemed awfully light for a Sauternes, and didn't show me either the light volatile acidity or much of the honeyed signature of botrytis that I expect in the latter. Still, on reflection I guessed Sauternes and got it right, resting on my laurels at that point and not even trying for the vintage. It was Clos L'Abeilley 1997 Sauternes, the usual Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend.

Coffee and tea wrapped up the meal, followed by a midnight visit to the restaurant's stone-lined, subterranean cellar, a dusty trove filled with treasures that made us wish we had sneaked a corkscrew in - our hosts showed us with delight such goodies as a 1990 Chateau Petrus, '89 Latour, '70 Margaux ... some just-in Richebourg from Domaine Romanée Conti, and a special prize, a half-bottle of 1895 La Mission Haut-Brion. One of our group had to ask: "Think it's any good?" A young sommelier, brandishing a corkscrew, responded, "Let's find out!" But he was only joking, alas.

And that was that ... a brisk walk back to our nearby hotel on a chilly Parisian evening, and a too-short sleep before we would head for the Gare de Lyon and the quick TGV run down to Avignon.

Tour group
We board the bus at our hotel in Paris as our French wine adventure begins.
The bullet-like TGV awaits its load of passengers at Gare de Lyon for the 2 1/2 hour trip down to Avignon.

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