24 Feb 2014 - This establishment did get a Michelin star! And a special mention for its exceptional wine list.
After la crise viticole forced the closure of many wine co-operative buildings in the Languedoc-Roussillon, I have often wondered what happened to these majestic edifices. Conversion to a different use is difficult because of their reinforced concrete cuves, so some are already sad, empty, derelict reminders of their former grandeur. Some are used for storage, others have already been demolished, and a few have been converted into accommodation or hotels.
One very local to me has not severed its roots from the vine, having been transformed into an innovative wine-connected business by its brave new owners. Vinauberge in Poilhes is now a centre for wines for the Languedoc, where Languedoc-Roussillon vignerons are invited to stock and display their wines for trade and public to discover. The owners took an easy route and built a new small hotel/gite complex in the grounds and use the concrete cuves that remain for storage, having demolished some for display and restaurant areas. Even so they had to demolish 1,250 tonnes of concrete.
Having heard good reports of a restaurant in another former cave-coopérative building in the village of Bélesta in the Fenouillèdes part of Roussillon, 30 minutes west of Perpignan and under the watchful eye of the peak of Canigou 30 km to the south west, I found that it was much more than just a restaurant. Similar to Vinauberge, it is not losing its wine identity. It makes its own three cuvées from 10 ha of vines between the Agly and Têt Valleys and it focuses on and promotes the best produce of that area of France. Riberach Hôtel Cave Restaurant has become the vinous hub of the upper Agly Valley, Riberach being the medieval name for the small hilltop village of Bélesta.
Luc Richard's desire to return to his family village and make wine, as his forebears did, blossomed into a partnership and the idea grew into what we see now, a top-quality hotel with a gastronomic restaurant, a wine shop and a centre for the promotion of local artisanal wines and produce. It is the leader of local oenotourism and arranges wine tours of the Agly Valley with domaine visits, convivial beginners' wine courses, and in-depth studies of natural winemaking by Richard's oenologist partner Patrick Rodrigues. You can even work for him, paid and housed, from July to the end of September as part of a training course.
Luc Richard is an architect, as is his wife Karin Pühringer, and their architecture is crisp, clean and modern combined with innovative and amusing touches, yet strongly ecological. Even the swimming pool is natural; filtration by plants, not chemicals. Some of the cuves are now bedrooms.
It is no surprise then to learn that their wines are natural, too, as are many on the comprehensive list that encompasses the best of the area. My last visit to Fenouillèdes was many years ago and this time it was an eye-opener. The area seems to have taken natural winemaking to its heart, attracts like-minded vignerons who work together and has raised the understanding and experience of natural winemaking to such a degree that, funnily enough, it would be difficult to know that some of the wines are natural. Managing the tartaric acid levels is the key, I was told, something that is possible with their large variety of soils, their altitude and climate (less than 500 mm rain a year, more than 250 days of wind, cold winters, hot summers and plenty of sunshine). However much I agree with the underlying reasons for making natural wine, I normally dislike and avoid Carignan and the odd fermentation flavours that many natural wines possess. But here I found a predominantly Carignan natural wine which I thoroughly enjoyed, from Domaine Modat in the neighbouring village of Cassagnes, Le Petit Modamour 2011 at €8.90. From the shop we bought a bottle of no-sulphur wine aged in open barrels to try: Ombre du Soir 2008 Vin de France at 15% alcohol from Ombres & Soleil in Tautavel. According to the back label, it is best accompanied by the album So by Peter Gabriel.
Chef Laurent Lemal has a cookery school that, with the participation of local vignerons, showcases the kind of dishes that marry well with their wines. He calls it 'Cuisine Green', designed to go with wines that I would describe as having plenty of 'tension'. He also serves such food in the restaurant, his menus acknowledging and thanking the artisan producers of mainly organic ingredients.
British visitors to the restaurant may discover a familiar face, that of James Payne, who was the Ruinart Champagne-sponsored UK Sommelier of 2001. He has worked in Cumbria at Sharrow Bay, in Scotland at The Three Chimneys and Ardeonaig Hotel, and in London at The Square, The Greenhouse and Le Pont de la Tour. Having recently joined the team as restaurant manager, he will soon assume the role of sommelier as well. Perhaps his new employers read Nick Lander's 2004 article about the opening of The Greenhouse.
It was a warm evening with no wind so we ate on the terrace while a huge, round, harvest moon rose over a hill across the valley; a more romantic experience would be hard to find. The menus range from €30 to €69 and we chose the 54€ 'Menu 1925', the date the co-operative was built. It was a five-course meal of crayfish, the fish known in France as sandre, veal, cheese and a strawberry dessert. We accompanied it with different wines from Matassa, a Rancio 2000 from Domaine Danjou-Banessy in Espira de l'Agly with the cheese and a curious semi-sparkling red dessert vin doux naturel, Bella Donna from Les Enfants Sauvages.
The cuisine is creative and complicated, using several unusual ingredients, and is obviously time-consuming to produce. The ingredients used in the 1925 menu included squid ink crumbs, tonka bean biscuit, tomato gel, basil gel, citrat leaf, trisol, agar agar, smoked red pepper gel, smoked red pepper sorbet, kizarmi nori, borage flowers, wadi tops, lapsang souchong and beef broth, potato purée mousse, ricotta based gnocchi, condensed milk, lemon basil leaves, milk crisp, strawberry syrup and fizzy/popping sugar.
Instructions for the crayfish starter pictured are: 'The tail meat is cooked in a court bouillon of white wine, white wine vinegar, carrots, onions and clove. The claw meat is lightly covered in Trisol (maize flower) and fried for a short time to give its crunchy coating. The court bouillon is retained and set with agar agar and presented as cubes in a black bowl, along with a smoked red pepper gel and smoked red pepper sorbet. Above the sorbet is a thick cream with lemon juice through it and on top of that are the fine black slices of kizarmi nori (type of seaweed), also borage flowers and wadi tops (which grow in salt water and have a subtle hint of green olive). Poured over this ensemble is a chilled crayfish broth and placed around are two or three arlettes, shortcrust pastry disks to give a contrasting texture.'
The meal is certainly full of interest and surprising flavours. Some may find it too complicated, particularly if, like us, they have to wait for additional evening prep work because other diners arrived without reservations. But I think that the restaurant may be on course for its first major Michelin recognition. Will it acquire a star this year? We will know early next year.
I went for a meal but came away with the impression that this small part of France is about to make an even greater individual stamp on the viticulture map. The environmental philosophy is so well accepted by many producers that they do not even mention that their wines are biodynamic or natural. Now they have a focal point that is supporting, uniting and driving them.
And, to boot, visitors will actually get a real taste of the area - and many other flavours too.
Domaine de la Romaine, 1 Cour de la Cave, Poilhes 34310
Tel +33 467 21 78 42