Sprawling terraces packed with tired parents and their up-too-late children, dramatically lit ice cream stands and a make-shift amusement park surrounded by stands offering fried stuff and noise with a view of stinky ships in the port. The usual suspects. Tired from a morning spent roasting poolside, followed by a 3-hour lunch and a series of tastings that left us largely unimpressed, my friend and I arrived at our hotel in Banyuls-sur-Mer with just enough energy for one or two beers seaside nearby. So we strapped on our masks dutifully and roamed the touristy restaurant row that lines the Plage Central, weighing our aforementioned options. Neither of them really seemed ideal. But considering the many wineries we had passed inside the city boundaries of Banyuls-sur-Mer, something told me there was the perfect thing just around the corner. I think I googled something like “cool wine bar Banyuls” and I arrived at a recommendation for Les 9 Caves.
The place is just off the tourist strip, a pleasant 5-minute walk up Avenue Gen de Gaulle, but so far in spirit from the fried squid, fast-melting ice cream, crying children and be-masked tourists desperately trying to make the most of their COVID-defying vacation. An unassuming storefront leads to a large open space, formerly occupied by a cooperative winery that has been converted into a wine shop and restaurant by one Natasja (chef) and Jan-Paul Delhaas (sommelier). The selection is a wine geek’s dream, comprised mainly of organic, biodynamic and natural wines, sweet from Banyuls and dry from the surrounding Colliure appellation, but also including some of the best hits of nearby Roussillon, Languedoc and beyond. As we bopped around the cave, we saw they had a cool terrace in the back, but were told this is reserved for diners. So we took a seat in the front terrace instead and ordered two Chech-style blonde beers from the local Banyuls brewery La Trabuc. The mood was good, the service friendly, so we decided to return the next night for dinner and made a reservation while at the beach next day.
In fact, the dining area of this restaurant is adjoined to a still-operational winery used by 9 different Banyuls producers (whence “Les 9 Caves”). It’s clear that these floors, these walls have seen harvest action; the terrace itself is naturally dim and cool despite being outside. Cement walls and repurposed wood, the cool organic touch of a Sporangia fern just behind me, a balcony decked out in mosaic tiles housing the large glass bonbonnes once used to age wines by the region’s signature oxidative method. The place has a cool guingette vibe to it, except that the wine selection is top notch and the menu quite high-end. Not high-end in a douchey way though, just in that the kitchen knows what it’s doing. Unfortunately, the sunshine and seawater at Plage des Elmes had soaked up our energy and shrank our stomachs earlier that day, so we weren’t hungry enough to really appreciate the menu to the extent that it deserved to be appreciated. We got a board of cheese and charcuterie to nosh on, with a lovely, slightly fizzy Marsanne – Grenache Blanc blend. A perfectly assembled board with good ham, very good blue cheese, some house-pickled radishes and other good things. Despite our lack of hunger, we also decided to order the “Encornets Bolognese” just to see what the kitchen could do.
Besides a very gentle “Ça sera tout?” our waitress did not question the quantity we ordered, which was a pleasant surprise. We had booked for dinner, yes, and the place had filled up quick, but at no point did we really feel pressured into their tasting menu. On retrospect, if I ever do go back to Banyuls-sur-Mer, I will be going along on that whole ride, and I will strongly recommend this place to anyone visiting the region. Every dish I peeped on its way out of the kitchen looked beautiful, interesting, delicious.
The peculiarly named Encornets Bolognese ended up being a kind of fettuccine made of tender squid meat, topped with a tomato-scented ragu made from the beefy tentacles, caramelized to perfection through a sear in good olive oil. The pretty pile was drizzled with a generous dose of olive oil and dusted with what I imagine was a kind of squid ink in powder form. A level of creativity and execution not expected of what from the outside just looks like a quaint neighborhood wine bar, though the prices on the menu had hinted at big things. At around the same time as this dish arrived two glasses of the Domaine d l’Ausseil “Les Trois Pierres” 2011 from the Cotes de Roussillon, an unfined, unfiltered, gorgeous assemblage of old-vine Carignan, Syrah and Grenache from gneiss and schist soils, which sent my Priorat winemaker friend into an impassioned rant of the understated benefits of adding a touch of Syrah to Carignan-Grenache blends. Structure and elegance we both appreciated, lush red fruit and savory, herby garrigue, with a hint of mocha and black pepper from the Syrah, aged to a perfect maturity. We had 3 glasses each of this wine, which transported us both back to simpler times.
Les 9 Caves was really just everything we had been looking for after long days of sun and tastings. A perfect wine list, a creative menu and an absolutely unbeatable atmosphere within arms reach of an operational winery, gearing itself up for the impending 2020 harvest.