When chef Gabriel Rucker and wine director Andy Fortgang opened Canard last April, directly next door to the duo’s famed fine-dining establishment, Le Pigeon, it was billed as a more “casual” effort from the team.
Typically, a restaurant makes such a move by following a familiar playbook: a simpler, less costly menu, an unfussy approach to service and, where wine is concerned, a smaller, more “user-friendly” list. While these parameters generally apply to Canard, there is nothing obviously casual about Fortgang’s ambitious beverage program, which is comparable to Le Pigeon’s in terms of size.
But in place of its sister restaurant’s classically structured approach, organized into “Domestic,” “French” and “European” categories, Canard is a far more reckless affair. Specifically, it’s the kind of spot characterized by free-form sections like “In-Between Wines,” boasting offbeat orange wines and lesser-known rosés (think, Canary Islands and Corsica). It was this sense of freedom that Fortgang wanted to pursue when he and Rucker first decided to take over the space adjacent to Le Pigeon.
“Le Pigeon is ultimately about dining, and rightly so… The wine program is really meant to support the food, and we curate it fairly tightly throughout the year,” explains Fortgang. “At Canard, we wanted to create a space where the wine really stood on its own terms.”
Leaning slightly in favor of France, his list gives equal attention to both classic and emerging producers from Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire and the Rhône—while, at the same time, gathering miscellaneous favorites from across the wine-producing globe. Italian offerings, for example, range from Giacomo Conterno and Renato Ratti’s classic expressions of Barolo to naturalist bottlings from the likes of Etna’s Frank Cornelissen and Trentino’s Elisabetta Foradori. A similar stylistic mix informs the choices from Austria, Spain and beyond, which coexist with a generous helping of local pinot from the Willamette Valley and, somewhat controversially, California (“the one thing that people in Oregon aren’t open-minded about,” says Fortgang).
The total impression is one that embraces openness and improvisation. As Fortgang puts it, “There are a lot of people running great wine programs these days, but there’s always a mission statement, like ‘We’re focused on natural wine’ or ‘Our list is northern Italian’; for us, the exciting thing is that we’re not tied to any one format.” This effect is heightened by the list’s frequent offhand notes and explanatory asides, which showcase specific regions or producers of interest.
One current feature is an ode to the wines of Bandol’s Château Pibarnon, which highlights a four-vintage vertical extending back to 2005. Similarly, there’s a whole page comparing German riesling’s old guard (Dönhoff, Willi Schaeffer) and new (Clemens Busch, Peter Lauer), featuring rarities like Koehler-Ruprecht’s 1993 Kallstadter Saumagen Auslese Trocken (a steal at $100). Often, vintage depth is afforded to those bottles that fall outside the usual roster of cellar-worthy trophy wines—a bottle of 2001 muscat Ottonel from Domaine Barmés-Buecher in Alsace, for instance, or a 1993 Côtes du Jura chardonnay from Domaine Jean Bourdy.
With its free-flowing format, moving from one area of fascination to the next, the list at Canard touches upon the shifting moods, cravings and fixations that we all experience as drinkers. More than “casual,” the attitude on display comes across as disarmingly personal. To him, this means constantly embracing change. If the team’s enthusiasm for a certain category starts to wane, he’s not at all averse to following his curiosity in a completely different direction.
“I don’t know, maybe we’ll go buy a bunch of red wines from Etna, or geek out with some cool Australian reds that we don’t see very often in Portland,” says Fortgang. “Whatever it might be, the idea is that if we’re excited about something, we hope our guests will be, too.”
Canard in Five Bottles
Domaine de la Taille Aux Loups Vouvray "Clos de Venise"
Sourced from 50-year-old vines planted on silex and limestone soils in one of Vouvray’s great vineyard sites, this organically farmed chenin blanc from Loire icon Jacky Blot “is unmistakably Vouvray,” according to Fortgang, “but gives so much more in terms of texture and length”—a complexity that has only increased after eight years in the bottle. “This is a producer from a classic region making subtly groundbreaking wines,” he says. “That little twist of being classic and innovative is what we look for.”
- Price: $65
- Vintage: 2010
Marc Deschamps Pouilly-Fumé "Vinealis"
“As much as I love to discover new regions and wild new wines, rediscovering things is a bigger thrill,” says Fortgang. Although Loire Valley sauvignon blanc might have “lost its swagger” of late, “there is so much to rediscover in this category.” An old-vine cuvée only made in exceptional years, organic grower Marc Deschamps’ “Vinealis” bottling is sourced from the oldest vines in the Champs de Cri vineyard, showcasing amazing richness and density with what Fortgang describes as “minerality and cut”—even at 12 years old.
- Price: $58
- Vintage: 2006
Belle Pente "Belle Oiseau"
“Since we opened our sister restaurant Little Bird, in 2010, we’ve been making an edelzwicker-style blend with our friends Brian and Jill from [Oregon’s] Belle Pente,” says Fortgang. Although the Alsatian original—traditionally a blend of grapes native to that region—is generally consumed young, this local homage to the category, which incorporates riesling, pinot gris, gewürtztraminer and muscat, clearly rewards some short-term cellaring. “While we are pouring the current vintage of Belle Oiseau at Little Bird,” Fortgang explains, “at Canard we have the chance to put on some old stocks we’ve held aside that are aging gracefully.”
- Price: $42
- Vintage: 2011
Domaine Gérard Raphet Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru "Les Combottes"
A diehard Burgundy fanatic, Fortgang laments that many of his guests “don’t really get to experience what it’s all about,” given the aura of exclusivity surrounding the region’s wines. “They only see the über expensive wines, or they only get to try super young entry-level stuff,” he says. At $145, this classic interpretation of one of Gevrey-Chambertin’s top sites, courtesy of Gérard Raphet—“a great multi-generational domaine with good holdings and an elegant style of winemaking”—isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s still eminently charitable on the scale of current Burgundy pricing.
- Price: $145
- Vintage: 2008
Porter Creek Russian River Valley Pinot Noir "Fiona Hill Vineyard"
Chalk it up to what Freud once termed “the narcissism of small differences,” but according to Fortgang, Oregon diners aren’t exactly embracing California pinot noir with open arms. “For a pinot region, it’s ironic how much this town loves its own local stuff and Burgundian pinot noir (from 6,000 miles away), but treats wines from California like a pariah,” he explains. For exactly this reason, he maintains a large section of California pinot, including an entire vertical of Porter Creek’s Fiona Hill bottling, which showcases the elegant, or “Burgundian” side of the Golden State’s take on the grape.
- Price: $80
- Vintage: 2012