At Restaurant La Pyramide in the northern Rhône city of Vienne, Chief Sommelier Baptiste Cavagna cuts a striking figure in a neat black suit, vest and tie. He walks the elegant, modern dining room with a smooth, highly professional air while confidently serving wines and talking affably with guests. But “off stage” outside of Chef Patrick Henriroux’s gastronomic Michelin two-star stop, Cavagna often uses days off to taste directly and casually with dynamic winegrowers such as Matthieu Barret, the biodynamc producer extraordinaire in Cornas.
Cavagna’s gracious ease both in the dining room and in domaine cellars flows from his professionalism and passion to discover new wines. In 2016 his refined communication skills and dedication to métier impressed industry peers who voted Cavagna “Sommelier of the Year” in an evaluation organized by the French trade magazine, Le Chef. And while recognition as an outstanding sommelier in his generation is a great honor, Cavagna’s primary focus remains on creating memorable moments for guests.
“I always try to enhance every guest’s culinary pleasure by pairing each course with beautiful wine discoveries,” Cavagna says. “With a close link between the kitchen and the cellar, at La Pyramide we always work to offer guests not just a meal but an experience.”
On a recent Sunday evening dinner, our party of seven experienced Cavagna’s skills and savoir-faire firsthand. His fun, imaginative wine selections paired perfectly with the kitchen’s deliciously inventive “Menu Pyramide.”
To add a little fun to festivities, Cavagna served the wines “blind” from decanters. We had to rely on our senses and imaginations rather than preconceived notions in trying to identify each wine.
For the first course, Chef Patrick Henriroux’s team served a delectable Suprême de Pintade Fermière-–boneless, skinless breast meat of a farm-raised guinea fowl wrapped with smoked duck breast. It came with a mix of foie gras and seasonal rhubarb served over a sablé shortbread made from torrefied flour. To complement the dish’s juicy, slightly earthy flavors and creamy, sweet accents, Cavagna served an aromatic, dry white wine with just the slightest hint of dusty pink. The wine’s marvelous floral, peach and citrus aromas and rich flavors balanced with a touch of creaminess and mouthwatering minerality.
“A Grand Cru Pinot Gris from Alsace,” I suggested. Not close, actually.
Cavagna revealed the 2015 Domaine Belluard, “Le Feu” Vin de Savoie produced from Gringnet, an obscure grape variety native to the Savoie’s high altitude, Alpine vineyards. Winegrower Dominique Belluard calls it “Terroir de Mont-Blanc” since the vines grow near the famous mountain. “Le Feu” or “the fire” refers to the vineyard’s red clay soils rich in iron oxide.
Belluard’s biodynamic cultivation applies “dynamized” natural composts and teas in lieu of synthetic chemicals on the vines. Despite severe forty percent grades in some points in the vineyard, he performs all work manually. Harvest yields a modest 35 hl/h to concentrate fresh aromas and flavors. Fermentation occurs with indigenous yeasts in neutral concrete vats and results in only 12% A.B.V. Bottling occurs with minimal sulfites added. The meticulous work produces just the kind of fresh, hand-crafted bottle that Cavagna values: a terroir driven wine offering food-friendliness and sheer pleasure.
“I am a person who likes good wines, if this one can be done in an organic way I am for it. But I do not tolerate a wine with defaults especially doubtful aromas,’ he notes. “I always favor beautifully made wines.”
The “mountain” wines of the Jura and Savoie hold a special place with Cavagna who grew up nearby in the Ain département. His hometown, Nantua, has only 3,900 inhabitants and is best known for tannery and shoemaking. Ain’s only vineyards fall in the low profile Bugey appellation, home of the Altesse white grape and increasingly popular sparkling wines. All of which makes Cavagna’s rise to the heights of his profession even more impressive.
He began studying restaurant management in Ain. Then at the Lycée des Métiers Hôtelier de l’Hermitage, he pursued the sommelier métier in the town of Tain Hermitage, an epicenter of northern Rhône winegrowing. After graduation, Cavagna’s big break came working for the Loisseau family’s restaurants in Burgundy and Paris.
At the Relais Bernard Loisseau, a gastronomic Michelin-starred restaurant with a 15,000 bottle cellar, Cavagna learned from Chief Sommelier Eric Goettelmann, a winner of the Le Chef magazine’s :Sommelier of the Year” in 2006.
“Eric was very professional and knowledgeable,” Cavagna recalls. Baptiste Gauthier, another Loisseau colleague and now sommelier at Restaurant Anne-Sophie Pic in Valence, also served as a mentor.
“He was my direct supervisor, and he helped me grow and make progress,” Cavagna recalls.
After stints in the bright lights of Paris at Tante Marguerite and Le Meurice, Cavagna came to La Pyramide as Chief Sommelier in September, 2013. He oversees wine purchases for Chef Henriroux’s retail boutique, the hotel and three restaurants. At the restaurants, seventy five percent of the wines sold come from northern Rhône appellations such as Condrieu and Côte Rôtie. Cavagna and his team also sell significant amounts of white and red Burgundies.
As one of La Pyramide’s leaders, Cavagna also mentors assistant sommeliers and young interns. But his primary role remains providing guests with wine advice and service, always with an eye towards creating fun experiences. Speaking of which, at our group’s recent “Menu Pyramide” Sunday dinner, the second course offered a Fricassée d’escargots du Rozay—sautéed and braised Rozay snails served with crisp, tiny new potatoes and peas over a savory base of finely minced and caramelized meat from pig’s feet and ears. As they say, “Tout est bon dans le cochon!”
Cavagna’s next wine had a deep purple color with ripe dark fruit and tantalizing black peppers aromas. Concentrated, ripe fruit balanced with terrific freshness and prominent, yet smooth tannins. It was really delicious and a perfect paring with the Fricassée d’escargots du Rozay.
I guessed a Saint-Joseph red from a good producer and good vineyard. “Close,” Cavagna replied.
It was the 2014 Yann Chave, Crozes-Hermitage “Le Rouvre” made from select vines on the Rhône River’s “left bank” in the plains across from Saint-Joseph. The Syrah vines average around 50 years old and toil in soils rich in large, round galet stones. To enliven the soils and vines, talented veteran grower Yann Chave farms organically as certified with the green Agriculture Biologique mark on the bottle’s back label. The wine showed just how delicious and well-balanced Crozes-Hermitage can when a dedicated grower lavishes meticulous attention on the vines while working organically.
It was then on to third course which offered Selle d’Agneau Allaiton aux Herbes—a tender piece of lamb loin wrapped around fresh herbs and served with fennel bits, confit lemon pieces, and red beet juice. To complement the inventive dish, Cavagna served a red with glistening, dark ruby color offering intriguing aromas of ripe cherries and blackberries with subtle notes of earthy wild herbs and smokiness. Similar ripe flavors followed with a touch of spiciness balanced beautifully with fresh mineral notes and smooth tannins.
Placing the wine proved challenging. It resembled a well made Right Bank Bordeaux, yet had more exotic aromas and elegance. It lacked the overt ripeness of Grenache, yet it was richer than Pinot Noir. It certainly did not shout Syrah. This delicious wine turned out to be a revelation for me.
It was the 2014 Clos Saint-Vincent, “Cuvee Le Clos,” Vin de Bellet from winegrower G. Sergi and family. The wine uses Folle Noir (90%) and Grenache (10%) grapes from vines growing on the hills above the city of Nice along the Mediterranean Coast.
The vineyard benefits from both maritime breezes and winds blowing down from foothills of the Alpes. The vines are cultivated with biodynamie composts, teas, and plowing rather than synthetic chemicals. The domaine holds ECOCERT’s biodynamic certification and has been a member of Biodyvin since 2007. All the arduous, meticulous vineyard labor enables the vines to sink deep roots to take full advantage of Bellet’s complex soils of sands, clays, limestone and large, embedded galet stones.
Its another illustration of Cavagna’s strong preference for original, high quality vins de terroir providing both great pleasure and memorable moments of discovery. He consistently focuses on the wine and its pairing with food rather than drawing attention to himself. The results are simply dazzling.