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Clos Ouvert and Hôtel Herman

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As the tasting of Péron wines at Hôtel Herman wound down, business at the restaurant began picking up and, like several other tasters, I decided to stick around and have a bite, a decision made easier by the convivial setup, small plate approach and appealing by-the-glass selection of wines. That other friends and acquaintances – a MWG member, an SAQ wine advisor, a reporter from La Presse, staff from nearby restaurants, a cohort from Rézin – began trickling in only sealed the deal.

Installed on the other side of the room, the Rézin gang appeared to be focused on a half dozen bottles they had brought with them and a 20-something guy wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word Morgon. Glasses were being poured for some of the staff and several patrons. Eventually, Rézin rep Steve came to our end of the bar and explained that the t-shirt wearer was a visiting winemaker who was friends with Mathieu Lapierre and we shouldn’t miss his formidable old-vine cuvée – old here meaning from stock first planted 350 years ago – made from a forgotten grape variety.

Glass in hand, I introduced myself to the winemaker. His name? Louis-Antoine Luyt. He reached for the bottle of the formidable wine and poured me a taste, explaining that it was made from Païs grapes. That brought to mind another wine made from an obscure grape, the 100% Fer Servadou MarcillacLo Sang del Païs.” While Luyt’s Païs smelled and tasted nothing like a Gamay (or a Marcillac, for that matter), the similarities with a Beaujolais cru were obvious. “This is the first I’ve ever heard of a Païs grape in the Beaujolais,” I mentioned. “What’s the back story?”

“Beaujolais?! My wines are from Chile. Pais was brought to the Americas by Spaniards in the 16th century and planted to make sacramental wine. It’s probably the same as California’s Mission grape.”

“But, but the Morgon t-shirt, Mathieu Lapierre…”

“Well, I’m from France, I love Beaujolais and I went to school with Mathieu. When I decided to make my own wine, I set out looking for a challenge and ended up in Chile.”

He went on to explain that he and partners eventually found a vineyard to lease in the Maule valley. Located about 35 km from the coast at an altitude of between 300 and 700 m, the vineyard was already planted to several varieties, all ungrafted. The parcels are dry farmed and manually worked in compliance with organic principles. The wine-making is natural, the sulphur regime minimal. The domaine is called Clos Ouvert, a name nearly as sweet as Domaine du Possible‘s.

I wasn’t taking notes but, assuming I’m remembering this correctly, Luyt offered tastes of two vintages of the Pais de Quenehuao (the 2010 for sure and maybe the 2011). Both were riper than a Bojo and had a completely different flavour profile, yet the weight, acidity, structure and sappiness were very Bojo-like, due surely in part to a similar wine-making approach that includes carbonic maceration. Also poured were samples of: the 2010 Cinsault “Quella”, which can stand comparison with Languedoc Cinsaults; the 2010 Primavera, an easy-drinking, Carignan-dominated blend; and the 2011 Carménère “Cauquenes”, the first and only wine made from that grape that I’d ask for a second glass of. There may also have been a Cabernet Franc. None of the wines were fruit bombs. All were balanced, more savoury than sweet and possessed of a minerally streak that was unlike any I’ve encountered in Andean wines and that had me thinking terroir, especially since the wines weren’t slavish imitations of their French homologues. Most of all, they were food-friendly and drinkable – what the French call digeste.

“Don’t take this wrong,” I said, “but I’m not normally a fan of Chilean wines. They often taste like tomato – the plant, not the fruit – and seem devoid of finesse. So, I mean it as a compliment when I say I’d never guess these wines were from Chile.”

“I don’t like a lot of Chilean wines either. That was a big part of the challenge I mentioned earlier.”

Rézin is bringing in the wines, which will begin arriving in November when the 2010 Pais hits our shores. All will be available only in cases of 12 bottles and through the private import channel. Prices have yet to be determined but should run under $25 a bottle for individuals and even less for restaurants. I look forward to spending some quality time with them and you should too.

My mini review of Hôtel Herman is after the jump.

Hôtel Herman has kept the bare bones – the open kitchen in the back, the windowed front, the wood floors, bare brick walls and stamped tin ceiling – of its predecessor, the late Montée de lait, and chucked the unfortunate rest, most notably the corral of uncomfortable, high-backed banquettes.  The space is now dominated by a long U-shaped bar that runs down the centre of the room from the kitchen to near the front door. Practical for serving, great for people watching and conducive to conversation. Single tables – two-tops, as I recall – are lined up against the north wall and fill a more secluded alcove in the south wall. The trendy bare surfaces, exuberant gabbing and background music make for high noise levels, though nowhere near as deafening as those at Le Comptoir chacuteries et vins.

I began with a wide, shallow bowl of chilled vichyssoise garnished with cubed potatoes, shredded leeks and a few plump mussels. The soup per se was excellent: flavourful, smoothly but not overly puréed, simultaneously elegant and earthy. The garnishes were expertly cooked, though the potatoes tasted of the refrigerator.  Unfortunately, the finishing sprinkle of salt was done with too heavy a hand.

Next a plate of seared duck breast dolloped with a stiff but silky hollandaise and sitting on a black and white bed of cauliflower florets and trompette de la mort mushrooms. Quality ingredients, simply prepared and allowed to speak for themselves. My only niggle was hollandaise as a garnish for duck breast  – the rich on rich effect was a little too. Your mileage may vary.

Dessert, which came in a small mason jar, had three layers: a mildly tangy and barely firm crème prise, then a layer of crumbled shortbread cookie and, crowning it all, small, late-crop strawberries and fresh lemon balm in an ethereally light syrup. Simple, homey, seasonal and not particularly sweet. A winner.

Service was prompt, professional, friendly and totally smarm-free. The wine service excelled. The list is full of private import, natural wines from small producers. Several are listed as available by the glass and the staff said they were happy to consider pouring glasses of wines that weren’t. The waiters were also generous about offering tastes of their two or three spot-on recommendations per plate, letting you chose which you liked best.

My three dishes, two glasses of wine, tax and tip came to around $80, which seemed fair value for the overall experience. I’ll be back.

With Café Sardine, Pastaga, Le Comptoir chacuteries et vins and now Hôtel Herman, the stretch of St-Laurent between Villeneuve and Beaubien has become small plate/natural wine/locavoring central.

Written by carswell

September 24, 2012 at 21:19

One Response

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  1. […] the best expression of what they have, those markets will come to them.” Wines like these and Clos Ouvert’s various offerings are a definite step in that […]

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