Domaine de Clairefontaine sits like an oasis, tucked up in the hilltop hamlet of Chonas l'Ambellan on the eastern side of the Rhône River. Just a short 10-minute drive from Ampuis, the heart of Côte-Rôtie in the Northern Rhône, Clairefontaine is the perfect base camp for staying in the area when touring the wineries and vineyards. Family owned and run, Clairefontaine has history, but is also about to undergo big changes.
Philippe Girardon, 48, is trim and handsome, with close-cropped gray hair. He's the third generation of his family to live on the property, which he has turned into one of the area's best hideaways during his tenure as chef and owner. It's been a lifelong pursuit for Girardon and he's only just getting started. Girardon has plans to start a major renovation, with the work to be done while he keeps the business open with both his customer and staff in mind.
The renovation will upgrade the rooms in the main house, which now lags a bit behind the newer buildings on the property (old stables were converted to more modern rooms at the end of the 1990s). The kitchen-homey and quaint-will be expanded and modernized. The plans also call for installing an underground garage with 75 parking spaces as well as a new pool, spa, banquet facility and more. The project, assuming all goes well, will take a year. Closing during that stretch would be too difficult, not only for the business, but for Girardon's team as well.
"My sommelier has been here 20 years," said Girardon, who is seemingly always in his chef's whites. "My sous chef nine years. My gardener 17 years. My maître d'hôtel for 21 years. They've stayed that long for a reason. So I'm obligated to find a way to make it better for them to work here. The renovation will not only be for the guests, but for the staff as well," he said.
Girardon left school as a teenager to pursue his love of cooking, studying in the kitchen at the famed La Pyramide in Vienne when it was a three-star Michelin, as well as a few other places in the region. He returned to Clairefontaine when he was 20 to create the restaurant and hotel, at which time his parents gave him their blessing, along with a little gift. They gave their son their cellar of Guigal "La La" Côte-Rôties that they had been buying for years. That became the start of Clairefontaine's wine cellar. Girardon has continued the relationship with Guigal over the years and today, the nearly complete verticals of La Landonne, La Mouline and La Turque are the lynchpin of a cellar strong in Northern Rhône reds and whites.
The digestif Chartreuse is a personal passion of Girardon's as well and there are dozens of bottles of Chartreuse in the cellar, including the vintage bottling that is no longer produced. Sommelier Dominique Viala is always on hand to give good advice with both the wines and digestifs.
Girardon's cooking is distinctly grounded in French tradition, but it's also modern and precise and he's particularly deft with seafood and vegetables. A dos de bar topped with a truffled langoustine and coriander cream is a terrific example of his skill. It's rich and opulent, exactingly presented, but not at all overbearing while making a delightful match with a Northern Rhône white wine.
Girardon himself is always on hand-either in the kitchen or at the front of the house, where his wife, Laurence, can also often be found at the reception desk. That ardent work ethic has allowed Girardon to develop long-standing relationships with his customers, many of whom return year after year for an annual visit.
"Today there are two Frances-the one that works 35 hours a week and the one that only sleeps 35 hours a week. I'm not in the first group," he said proudly. "My battery," he added, tapping his heart with his hand, "is seeing people come back every year."
The interior of Clairefontaine's 18th-century manor house is to be renovated in the coming year.
The grounds of Clairefontaine play a big role in making the property so special, with more than 7 acres of wooded parkland spreading out in front of the main house, with towering pines and oaks surrounding a small pond where Girardon raises his own trout and houses a few swans. Guests often relax after a meal with a stroll around the grounds. On Sundays, the main lawn is full of large groups who linger well into the afternoon after a traditional family lunch. Girardon is equally as proud of the outside of Clairefontaine as he is the inside. Pointing to a shattered stump in the main garden, he tells the story of a rough winter a few years ago that toppled the large, old oak.
"But there's the history continuing," he said, pointing to a new sapling growing up out if it.
While the upcoming renovation at Clairefontaine is aimed at expansion for both his customers and staff, Girardon also has another goal in mind-capturing a second Michelin star (Clairefontaine currently has one). It would be an important recognition for his efforts as the guide still carries great importance in France, though Girardon is sanguine about his efforts to gain it.
"The best way to not lose one star is to always try for the second," he said. "Yes, I would like to get it. But if I don't, that's OK. I already have four stars-my wife and three children."
Domaine de Clairefontaine
Chemin des Fontanettes
38121 Chonas l'Amballan
Christian Nauer — Zurich Switzerland — July 1, 2011 6:54am ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — July 1, 2011 9:43am ET
Christian Nauer — Zurich Switzerland — September 18, 2011 11:00am ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — September 19, 2011 9:36am ET
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