Nina Ca­plan

‘Liébus loves his job. It is small, in­ter­est­ing lo­cal wines that ex­cite him – the best of AP Ven­toux’

Decanter - - CONTENTS -

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

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