Curnonsky’s five whites
Curnonsky, the pen name of Maurice Edmond Sailland, was the great French gastronome of the first half of the 20th century.
In the 1930s when the first appellations d’origine controlée were being awarded, he distinguished five white wines, naturally French, as the best in the world. These were Chateau Grillet, Le Montrachet, La Coulée de Serrant, Chateau Chalon and Chateau d’Yquem.
Enjoying les cinq de Curnonsky at one time or another has been a privilege Tom and I have been fortunate enough to experience. To combine these wines in a single meal is, for me, sheer fantasy, but has been done from time to time by wine enthusiasts... or should I say, very rich wine enthusiasts.
One might equally fantasise about what to serve with the wines and in what order to serve them. Of course, you might spin out the pleasure and make each wine the focus of a special meal. That too is a challenge, and one I would prefer, as serving too many fine wines together can blur the edges.
On the other hand, I remember the déjeuner d’essai, to which I was invited when Alain Senderens was testing his menu for the millennium dinner at Chateau de Vincennes.
Half a dozen of us sat round the table in his cramped, low-ceilinged office above his restaurant Lucas Carton and tasted legendary wines such as Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite, Domaine Romanée Conti, as well as Le Montrachet and Chateau d’Yquem, alongside a parade of exquisite dishes. The senses were so alert, we were all so conscious of tasting history that nothing blurred.
We have a single bottle of 1962 Chateau d’Yquem, one of the great vintages, signed by the late Julia Child: “To Tom Bissell, my favourite sommelier”, as a thank you for sorting out her wine cellar. When could one possibly drink that? And with whom? The classic pairing of this wonderful Sauternes is with foie gras.
As an experiment, I suggest that you serve your terrine of foie gras after the main course, instead of cheese, and accompany it with a first glass of this luscious wine before going on to the dessert. It is a revelation. This is how it used to be done, in Edwardian days, which goes some way to explain the present apparent anomaly of serving sweet wine before dry at the beginning of the meal, because foie gras is now served at the beginning of the meal.
Sauternes with a salty blue cheese such as Roquefort also works well.
It was, I think, a book advance which allowed us to purchase a few bottles of Le Montrachet at auction some years ago. There is none left now, but we enjoyed opening it for generous wine-loving friends, who always bring out their best bottles for us. To serve with it, I would usually cook a classic fish dish, turbot or salmon with beurre blanc, perhaps some scallops, but nothing to detract from the charms of this classic white burgundy.
For a lesser everyday treat, we are currently enjoying some single vineyard 2010 Macon Perronne, not as fine an expression of Chardonnay as its illustrious northern neighbour, but very pleasant nonetheless, with an admirable crispness and none of the gushing tropical fruit to be found in some New World chardonnays.
It accompanies many a fish dish in our house, from roasted line-caught sea bass to grilled scallops with black pudding and crisp pancetta, via Chilean fish stew, Wednesday night fish cakes and even has the body to match a smoked haddock kedgeree.
La Coulée de Serrant, in the Savennières appellation, is from Anjou, Curnonsky’s birthplace. Nicolas Joly, who now makes La Coulée de Serrant, is one of France’s best-known winemakers, and a firm proponent of biodynamic cultivation.
We first tasted this unusual white wine decades ago but my palate was not experienced enough or attuned enough to appreciate the finesse and minerality of this quintessential Loire wine made from the Chenin Blanc grape.
Now, fine white Loire wines are among my favourites, and our ‘house’ bubbly is the exquisite Vouvray Brut from Foreau. And Chenin is widely planted in New World vineyards, showing particularly well in South Africa. Rather than serving a red wine, next time you serve soft goat’s cheese, try it with a Chenin Blanc, even a demi-sec. The match is perfect.
Otherwise, fish dishes – especially freshwater fish, but also seafood – are the natural partners for this grape which grows on the gentle slopes of the river Loire as it winds its way to the Atlantic.
The Viognier grape is enjoying a renaissance not only in France but also California, Australia, Italy, Chile and Argentina. France does well in Languedoc Roussillon, but its original home is the northern Rhone, Condrieu. Its most elegant manifestation is in the tiny (3.8 hectares) appellation of Chateau Grillet, which is also the name of the only domaine producing the wine.
We have only tasted it once, under highly unusual circumstances. Shopping in a wine store in Springfield, Missouri, in the 1970s, we came across astonishing treasures. A 1967 Chateau Grillet was piled into our supermarket trolley along with 1969 Chateaux Pétrus and Haut Brion, fairly indifferent vintages it has to be said, 1971 Winkeler Gutenberg and Johannisberger Klaus Spätlese, 1971 Chassagne Montrachet, 1970 Hermitage, 1973 Chateau Pape Clément and 1960 Warre; I have never been on another shopping expedition like it.
For 10 days we ate and supped like princes; the Chateau Grillet being served with an authentic sukiyaki. Oriental flavours do suit this violet floral aromatic grape and it makes a fine partner for sushi.
A few years ago Tom and I were invited to La Percée du Vin Jaune, a moveable feast held in different towns in the Jura to celebrate the release of this golden, flor-influenced wine, an alpine sherry if you will, of which Chateau Chalon is one of the four appellations producing vin jaune, made from the savagnin grape (not to be confused with the Sauvignon).
It is considered a vin de garde, a wine for keeping. Indeed it can keep for a century and is only released after seven years in barrel, when it is bottled in the typical, and unique, clavelin, holding 62 centilitres. That year the celebrations were held in Arbois, and we were able to taste the wine on a number of occasions with the local speciality which is the poulet au vin jaune et aux morilles.
I was even intronisée in the confrérie of the same name. Whenever we opened one of the bottles of Chateau Chalon we brought back with us, I always cooked the same dish; why fix something if it isn’t broken? But I do have thoughts about introducing some other flavours to accompanying dishes, notably a gentle touch of curry.
It is there, unmistakeably on the nose, in fact, specifically, fenugreek. I spent some time with the Arbois-based chocolatier Edouard Hirsinger, considered one of France’s top five, as he devised chocolates to go with the vin jaune. A walnut ganache with a hint of curry was absolutely perfect with it, exactly picking up the nuances of the wine.
As well as the enormous pleasure to be derived from tasting these five wines, they lead one into new realms of tasting and food matching and I would argue that Curnonsky’s selection is as valid today as it was in the 1930s, although I might be tempted to substitute for the Chateau Grillet a perfect Alsace Riesling, such as the Grand Crus made by the brilliant Faller women of Domaine Weinbach.
“Simplicity is the sign of perfection”, was a view that Curnonsky shared with his contemporary Auguste Escoffier, famous for his “faites simple” exhortation. They did not share much else.
Escoffier was a sophisticated and refined gastronome, whereas Curnonsky loved bourgeois and regional cooking and disliked le snobisme de la cuisine anonyme and cosmopolite; he would not have liked today’s fusion food, but would have approved of the bistrot gastronomique movement, I feel. And I hope he would have enjoyed some of the dishes we have tasted with his famous five white wines.