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The ‘Joie de Vivre’ of French value wine

The film “From Paris with Love” is an action thriller. But, for Pascal Berthoumieux, it was the love in his heart that brought him from the City of Light with his American sweetheart to Champaign – and then Chicago.

Berthoumieux’s first stop in the United States had only a phonetic resemblance to the more storied wine region in France.

“I was surrounded by cornfields!” he exclaims. Soon, however, the man who managed restaurants on the Champs-Élysées – the historic place where he met his wife-to-be – established himself in Chicago’s equivalent, the Magnificent Mile.

Then in December 2009, perhaps during the very worst of the Great Recession, he opened Bistro Bordeaux in north-suburban Evanston.

“Only a crazy guy would go into business at that time, right?” he asks rhetorically. “But, I knew there was a need for a French restaurant in Evanston, and I was fortunate to open at just the right time.”

Now, with both the Bistro and Creperie Saint-Germain, Berthoumieux has given Evanston some culinary “joie de vivre.” But the restaurants have interesting wine lists (all French), with some eclectic wines and offerings that have great value. Berthoumieux loves unearthing some of these treasures from his native France. Chicago Budget Wine Examiner sat down with this exuberant restaurateur recently:

Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: What’s the core philosophy in assembling your wine list?

Pascal Berthoumieux: Well, at Bistro Bordeaux, it’s important to have a number of wines from the Bordeaux region. But, I always am in favor of selecting wines that are from family-owned wineries in France. I’d rather have these smaller-production wines rather than products from the big corporation-type, “French Robert Mondavi” type of wines. I feel like I can truly represent these smaller producers because I’m just like them – not a big company. These wineries put their heart and soul into what they do. I’m showing off the lesser-known wines from my country.

CBWE: Do some other French restaurants shy away from wine that comes from lesser-known French winemaking regions?

PB: I think all wine regions have their good, smaller producers. So, if those are what you’re looking for, you’ll find them throughout France. There are still a lot of family-owned wineries in France. Also, we try to find affordable wines. Often times, many upscale French restaurants like having only pricey wines on the list. That can be very discriminatory, and is geared only to the size of a patron’s wallet. Here, if you want to stay under $30 for a great bottle of wine, we have that. If you want to spend over $100, we have that, too. There is something for everyone, and that’s the way it should be.

CBWE: What specific region in France making itself known for delivering quality and value?

PB: The Languedoc region of France is a place many people are talking about more and more. As more time goes by, the wines from that region are getting more and more exposure. They are affordable, and there’s less regulation, so the winemakers have a freer hand. The wines from Languedoc work exceptionally well at the Creperie, because they work with that restaurant’s cuisine and concept – and they’re really a great bargain. The prices stay down because there’s less history there. In Bordeaux, if you make wine, you have to be in compliance with so many regulations. Languedoc winemakers can be more creative, and you can find so many wine styles without having to pay such a heavy premium. When people come to my restaurants, they know they can have a lovely bottle of French wine without having to spend a lot of money.

CBWE: Do you think that type of searching for value by the customer will last, even as we approach a more economically vibrant time?

PB: Yes. There are going to be a number of wines produced in more areas around the world. So, if France wants to remain a major player, they’re going to have to continue to offer affordable wines to the market. That’s where Languedoc can play an important role.

CBWE: What’s the difference between value wines, and wine that’s inexpensive?

PB: Well, inexpensive is just that, it’s a low-priced wine. But I think value is when it’s both affordable and has some real quality. It’s like having a good Sauvignon Blanc at a price from the Loire Valley, but not necessarily from Sancerre. “Value” is something that’s definitely a positive as far as I’m concerned.

CBWE: Please recommend a white and a red on the list at Bistro Bordeaux that you consider good value wines, and your suggested pairings with them.

PB: For a white, I’d recommend the Xavier Frissant Touraine (Sauvignon Blanc), and it would be delicious with our preparation of Bouillabaisse. It’s a wonderful dry, white wine that could go with any seafood, really. For a red, I really like the Chateau Haut Sarthes Bergerac 2011, which works beautifully with poultry, whether you’re having roast chicken or Coq Au Vin.