‘Liébus loves his job. It is small, interesting local wines that excite him – the best of AP Ventoux’
IT Is A long way, in distance and other gauges, from Lot to Provence: 400km, journeying from Cahors’ earthy, ‘black’ Malbecs and black truffles to Grenache and Cinsault blends full of berries and dried herbs, with the ratatouilles and daubes that suit them so well; into olive oil country, away from the land of lard.
Benoît Liébus, born in Lot, made this journey to become sommelier at Hotel Crillon-le-Brave, an elegant hilltop hotel that seems to have taken over most of the village. He is only 30, dark-skinned and black-haired, and unexpectedly forthright: a Périgord truffle in a rosé environment.
That’s the traditional pale Provençal rosé, for which Liébus has little time. ‘People think light colour equals low alcohol,’ he says scornfully, showing me a deep scarlet Tavel rosé, by Eric Pfifferling of Domaine de l’Anglore, and a Parisy, by Emmanuel Reynaud, a glorious, low-intervention Grenache- Cinsault rosé made near Vacqueyras that is the bright, light red once called clairet.
Like the Romans, I believe there is no civilisation without the olive and the vine – still, I’m also fond of lard. so, in an entirely self-serving gesture of respect to Liébus’ origins, I choose Gers foie gras, served in unusually well-bred squares with nougat (Montélimar is up the road) and strawberries from Carpentras, a town so near that we’re planning to cycle there. Instead, Liébus suggests Domaine du Tix, a winery in the Ventoux AP that’s about the same distance, although he does mutter something about a hill. He serves a creamy white Châteauneufdu-Pape, Domaine Bois de Boursan; while André Perret’s Condrieu, Coteau de Chéry 2014 accompanies courgette flowers stuffed with lobster.
Liébus’ parents were restaurateurs; when he suggested an alternative career they laughed, and enrolled him in catering school anyway. He loves his job. He knows the great names, but it is small, interesting local wines that excite him. The best of AP Ventoux, not a great appellation but one studded with approachable locals – like Domaine du Tix. ‘It’s hard to get freshness here, with the heat,’ says Liébus. ‘With these wines, you breathe.’
He launches into a scurrilous anecdote about the hoodwinking of Tix’s previous owners, who only bought the vineyard because they wanted the house, but were game for making wine, until they discovered that the vines they’d been sold were not. They replanted, very successfully, selling up two years ago to a Quebecois who has ambitious plans for a tasting room and a cultural enclave, with concerts and other spectacles.
Darkness coats the restaurant terrace, dimming our view of Mont Ventoux, and swallows swoop to catch the airborne insects that are their local delicacy. Our dinner swoops, too, across the Italian border and back: John Dory fillet with aubergine socca, the thin pancake of the French and Italian Riviera, and Taggiasca olives, which grow around Nice and also near Genoa; mullet that plunges south to Marseille (bouillabaisse jus and squid-stuffed tomato) and east again to Italy (lemon gnocchi). Liébus pairs the latter with Les Pièces Longues, a biodynamic Chenin Blanc by Fabien Jouves, another Lot native with an interest in unlikely wines: Chenin is hardly a common grape around Cahors, although apparently it was, once.
Liébus is a fount of unprintable stories and a guide to some excellent wines. He is also, unfortunately, right about that hill. After 10km the road tilts upwards, past pretty rows of vines heavy with fruit, and bicycle or no, I start to sympathise with those footloose, footsore Romans.
Three kilometres later, every centimetre of it uphill, we reach the winery, where the excellent Viognier retains the breeze from Mont Ventoux that I didn’t experience while getting here – as well as the 340m of altitude I certainly did. It’s quiet and cool, and the wall clock says 10.40, permanently. And here, for a moment, we stop.
‘Like the Romans, I believe there is no civilisation without the olive and vine’
Nina Caplan writes a wine column in the New statesman and is the 2016 Louis Roederer International Food & Wine Writer of the Year