Au Fil du Zinc – Chablis

One of my favorite restaurants in all of France is Au Fil du Zinc, a bright and elegant dining room that looks out over the gently flowing waters of the River Serein. Irancy-native Fabien Espana and his Japanese chef Ryo Nagahama have made this place an oasis of precise, intensely flavorful and product-driven cuisine, complemented by a spectacular wine list that’s so inexpensive as to inspire not merely awe but outright incredulity. Ryo has worked at L’Atelier Joël Robuchon in Paris, Tokyo and Taipei), and was once part of Yannick Alléno’s team at Le Meurice, but I get the impression he is more than happy in sleepy Chablis—and we are the richer for his presence there. Indeed, for a writer spending two weeks in Chablis, the existence of Au Fil du Zinc is transformative—(and, thankfully, sibling-restaurant Les Trois Bourgeons is open on days when Au Fil du Zinc is closed). During my time in the region this spring, I managed to fit in fully six meals at Au Fil du Zinc, but the account that follows is based on one particular Sunday lunch, when friends passing through Chablis joined me to help me do justice to some interesting bottles. Any of my six meals in the restaurant, however, would have merited inclusion in these pages, and I have mentioned a few of the other bottles and dishes I enjoyed in passing. 

This particular lunch, however, began with a simple course of fresh oysters, garnished with a very discrete touch of spring onion pickled in mirin. The oysters were exquisitely fresh, and the garnish was much more delicate than a classic mignonette, a sauce I typically find a little overpowering. My friends, who had driven from Paris, were thirsty; so, we ordered a 2010 Domaine Raveneau Chablis 1er Cru Montmains. This bottling, which derives from one of the Domaine’s smallest parcels, is already showing well, and I think it’s fair to say that the 2010 Chablis vintage is opening up somewhat faster than one might have expected when tasting the young wines from barrel. Its classically Chablisien bouquet, redolent of crisp green orchard fruit and oyster shell, and its saline, incisive palate made it a perfect foil for the briny bivalves. As one would expect, the Montmains wasn’t as satiny or enveloping as the domaine’s 2010 Chapelot that I had enjoyed the previous evening, but that only resulted in a better match with the food. Incidentally, at this early stage, Raveneau’s 2017s—which I had tasted a few days before—seem to resemble a more open, expressive version of their 2010s. 

The next course consisted of beignets of boudin noir, which could have been mistaken for black river stones. They were light and fluffy but rich and flavorful, and worked quite creditably with the Raveneau, even though they had me fantasizing about a bottle of Anselme Selosse’s V.O., which I think would have been the perfect pairing. The green asparagus velouté that followed cleansed the palate and captured all the energy of springtime, and its unimpeachably satiny texture demonstrated the attention to detail that Ryo and his team lavish on even the simplest dishes. Two spears of white asparagus followed, one encased in feather-light tempura, the other grilled.

At this stage—and before the arrival of a sweetbread quenelle served with caramelized endive—the Montmains was running low, and Fabien graciously materialized a bottle of Raveneau’s 1986 Butteaux. This was a special cuvée of Butteaux that the Domaine matured in new barrels; but they didn’t like the result, so the wine was bottled separately and forgotten in a garage. Some 30 years later, the Raveneau family allowed Fabien to take his pick for the restaurant. This was the best bottle that I’ve encountered to date, and the wood influence—which can sometimes be quite prominent—was barely discernible. Indeed, in a blind tasting, it would have been hard to tell the wine apart from Raveneau’s regular 1986 Butteaux. Chablis arguably goes through almost as great a transformation between youth and maturity as Champagne, and certainly, the 1986’s honeyed bouquet of mandarin, saffron, fresh mushroom and iodine—as well as its textural, lavish palate—were a world away from the youthful Montmains. Everybody loved it; and, as so often when drinking a mature white Burgundy, it made me reflect that the qualities that many consumers eschew in young wines are exactly those that they adore in mature wines: ripe white vintages such as 1982, 1985 and 1989 might be dismissed if they were released today as too rich and powerful; but at maturity, one hears few complaints. Of course, in the 1980s—as Jean-Marie Raveneau has told me—total acidities were much higher than today, even in the warmest vintages, so it’s not such a simple subject as that, but it does seem to me that texture and amplitude need to be rehabilitated as praiseworthy qualities in white Burgundy, provided the wine is balanced; and that it’s structure and tension, rather than meagerness and reduction, that are the real desiderata for age-worthy whites. 

A week later, I enjoyed another mature Chablis—the restaurant’s last bottle of Vincent Dauvissat’s 1989 Chablis Grand Cru Les Preuses—which merits a mention here, too. Dauvissat often comments that his Preuses (which I suspect he prefers to Les Clos) is more about flowers and stones than it is about fruit, and that’s true of this wine: the sunny, concentrated 1989 vintage translates to a full-bodied, muscular example; but it’s still the terroir that dominates, keeping the wine minerally and structurally reserved. It’s not at all flashy, despite all its power and intensity of flavor, and it’s much more elegant than many Côte de Beaune whites from this year. Indeed, I’m a little surprised that the 1989 Preuses isn’t a little more talked about in collector circles—but, I guess it’s a rare wine, and certainly hard to find with provenance to match this particular specimen.

With the next course, a braised shoulder of salt marsh lamb that melted in the mouth, a red wine was called for. As readers of the Hedonist’s Gazette will have inferred, I have a hard time resisting the 2008 Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and I must have consumed at least a case this year alone. It is both a cool and more precocious vintage for Rayas, and it entirely transcends the reputation of the year. In the last four or five months, the 2008 seems to have lost a little of its youthful exuberance, taking on more tertiary notes. Preferring wines either in the flush of youth or the plenitude of maturity, I tend to find intermediate states such as this less interesting, and the remnants of my case of the 2008 Rayas will be sleeping undisturbed in my cellar for at least a few years now. That said, the additional nuances of balsam bough and spice that now complement the 2008’s explosive bouquet of peonies, griotte cherries, raspberries and licorice don’t represent any kind of decline—they simply promise great excitement to come. And in fact, I ended up drinking another bottle a week later with a bloody but crunchy-skinned hot-smoked crown of duck, with no complaints to be heard. 

Being unable to resist the Reynaud family’s wines, earlier in the week I had consumed the restaurant’s last bottle of the 2007 Pignan Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Château Rayas. This comes from another sandy parcel a short walk through the trees from Rayas itself, but unlike Rayas (which straddles a small valley), it has only one single exposition. Pignan never seems to have quite the same range and complexity of Rayas itself, but for me, it comes a close second. It had been a while since I last drank the 2007, as I am doing a good job keeping my hands off the case resting in my cellar, and the wine is in a slightly awkward phase, offering up rich, roasted aromas that weren’t apparent four years ago. Having seen how these wines evolve, time and time again, I’m confident that it will come around—and it’s still a very pleasant drink—but now is not the best time to approach it. More successful was the 2015 Gonon Saint Joseph, a fleshy and enveloping vintage of this superb wine that hasn’t yet shut down, and which retains all the spicy, meaty, peppery, floral qualities that make Syrah so exciting despite the ripe, concentrated vintage. It’s another wine I’m very happy to own.

In short, Au Fil du Zinc is a must-visit address for anyone traveling to Burgundy. In fact, along with Jean-Michel Carette’s Restaurant Aux Terrasses at Tournus, it’s my favorite restaurant in the region. Warmest thanks to Fabien and Ryo for all the great moments I’ve spent at their table. 

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