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JEAN PAUL RIOPELLE
AND QUEBEC LAURENTIANS BISTRO À CHAMPLAIN

Story and photos by

When Jean Paul Riopelle died in March 2002, Canada lost its most internationally acclaimed 20th-century Canadian painter. At his prime, he completed about 200 canvasses a year. In his lifetime, he created more than 5,800 works of art.

Artist Jean Paul Riopelle at Ste-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson
Artist Jean Paul Riopelle at Ste-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Riopelle's art hangs in major international collections. Galleries around the world displayed his works in solo shows. In 1989, a painting from Jean Paul's 1950s series, Mosaiques, was the first Canadian art to sell for more than US$1 million at Sotheby's.

Brief biography of Riopelle

Born in Montreal in 1923, the son of an architectural designer, Riopelle initially wanted to become a pro hockey player or a mechanic. As a child, he studied art and painted. When he turned 20 he decided to be a painter.

Riopelle joined the group, Les Automatistes, which promoted art as a spontaneous subconscious expression. In 1948, Jean Paul signed, with 15 other artists and intellectuals, the Refus Global, a significant social document in Quebec cultural history. The manifesto criticized the stifling influence of the government and church and demanded that Quebec open up to new ideas and the rest of the world.

Riopelle's life in Paris and Giverny

In 1949, Riopelle moved to Paris, where he lived for nearly 30 years. Besides painting and winning numerous international awards for his contemporary art, he enjoyed good food, drink, women and fast cars with his avant-garde circle of friends.

While in France, he met his artistic and life partner, the American painter, Joan Mitchell. They lived and worked together near Giverny, the village made famous by Monet. Jean Paul and Joan had a stormy relationship, but it continued after Riopelle returned to Quebec in the 1970s. The year of Mitchell's death, 1992, was the date of Riopelle's last major work.

Bistro à Champlain

We will never forget our chance encounter with Jean Paul Riopelle. It was in Ste-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson, in the Quebec Laurentians, about one hour northwest of Montreal. We had an assignment for the Financial Post to cover Champlain Charest's amazing wine collection at his Bistro à Champlain.

Champlain Charest toasts Riopelle
Champlain Charest toasts Riopelle
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The fine dining restaurant served up to 160 people in three dining rooms. Some diners arrived by hydroplane and helicopter, but most came by road. Driving from Montreal, we took exit 69 off the Autoroute des Laurentides, then drove east on 370 for 12 kilometers to 75 chemin Masson in Sainte-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson.

Bistro à Champlain occupied an old general store that dated from 1864. "The owner wanted to demolish it to build a motel in 1974," explained Champlain. "I was aghast that it was going to be destroyed, so I bought it, along with my friend and neighbor, Jean Paul Riopelle." (The artist lived next to Champlain, across Lake Masson, from the bistro.)

Champlain Charest's first Riopelle

Riopelle's friendship with Champlain dated back to 1968, when they met a Paris brasserie near La Coupole. Champlain won his first Riopelle by winning a wrist-wrestling match with the artist. Back in Quebec, their friendship grew out of their mutual love of fishing, hunting and hiking in the great outdoors.

They also shared a love of fast vehicles and planes. Jean Paul and Champlain both drove Ferraris. But most of all, they shared the love of fine wines.

Champlain Charest did not start his life as a restaurant owner. He graduated as a radiologist, after studying at the Université de Montréal and Harvard University in Boston. Working with Dr. André Legaré, a physician, wine-lover and connoisseur of fine culture, enhanced his knowledge and appreciation of all three fields.

Champlain's radiology career moved him from Saint-Luc Hospital in Montreal to the Université de Montréal, where he became assistant professor of radiology. He helped open radiology centers in Quebec, New Brunswick and northern British Columbia.

Award-winning wine cellar

Bistro à Champlain opened in 1987. After Champlain retired, he was able to devote himself full-time to the restaurant and his rapidly growing wine cellar.

The bistro's wine cellar held 8,000 bottles. What does a wine-lover do when he amasses a collection with so many bottles? "It was too much to drink by myself," said Champlain, "so I sold them to other wine-lovers, so I could buy more wine."

Champlain invited us into his cave à vin. We gazed in awe at rows of bottles, rising in racks to the mirror-covered ceiling. Most wines were French, although there were bottles from nearly every wine-making region. "I travel to Europe every year to taste recent harvests and decide what to import," explained Champlain.

We saw a Château Mouton Rothschild '78, with a label designed by Riopelle. "Each year, the winery invited an internationally-known painter to design the label," explained Champlain. We noted other labels created by Miro and Chagall.

Methuselahs and mathusalems of Romanee-Conti

While Bistro à Champlain's cellar boasted a dazzling collection of wines, ranging from Château Petrus to Château d'Yquem, the real jewels in the bistro's crown were the large format bottles. Among the gems, Champlain pointed out a methuselah (which holds eight bottles) and more than 100 mathusalems (six litres each) of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of his preferred wines. His pride and joy (at that time) was an 18-litre bottle (equivalent to two cases) of Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1995, one of only six in the world.

Champlain Charest displays a methuselah of Romanée Conti in his wine cellar.
Champlain Charest displays a methuselah of Romanée Conti in his wine cellar.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Why buy wine in such big bottles? "The wine from large bottles tastes better than wine from regular bottles," stated Champlain, "especially older wines." True connoisseurs, he recommended, should consider buying good wines in at least magnum sizes.

Not surprisingly, wine lovers from across the globe came here to admire this cellar and enjoy its great vintages. North America's major wine magazine, Wine Spectator selected Bistro à Champlain for its Grand Award in 1988, and every year since.

Bistro à Champlain has also won the CAA Four Diamond Award, annually since 1992, the Grand Prix du Tourisme and many other honors, including the Restaurant of the Year by the Revue du Vin de France in 1997.

Tasting menu with matching wines

To complement the robust reds in the wine cellar, Bistro à Champlain's menu featured game and red meat entrées, but there were crab, oyster and lobster appetizers and fish entrées for seafood-lovers. Among the à la carte menu items were foie gras, venison, veal and lamb. In addition, there was a fixed-price Menu Dégustation, with six courses and optional selections of matched wines, by the glass.

Some of Jean Paul Riopelle's paintings and bronzes adorned the bistro, along with works by other artists, such as Miro, Joan Mitchell, Louise Prescott, Sylvie Pomerleau, Charles Carson and Marc Séguin. Together, they added an eclectic touch to the original wooden counters and hand-hewn ceiling beams from the old store. With its lace curtains and green plants, the restaurant exuded a home-like warmth.

Dinner with Riopelle

As we joined Monique and Champlain for dinner, an elderly man with shoulder-length grey hair entered the restaurant. Champlain welcomed him and brought him to our table. To our great pleasure and surprise, it was Jean Paul Riopelle. He was a delightful dinner companion, but we quickly learned that he preferred to discuss food, wine, travel and fishing, rather than art.

Our hosts rarely sat for long. Champlain frequently interrupted his meal to bring diners on a tour of his wine cellar. Both Monique and Champlain got up to welcome guests with such cordiality that it was difficult to tell if the visitors were dinner clients or longtime friends.

Dinner with Charest (left), Monique Nadeau (second from the left) and J.P. Riopelle (right)
Dinner with Charest (left), Monique Nadeau (second from the left) and J.P. Riopelle (right)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

At one point, a waiter told Champlain and Monique that there was a complaint from one of the tables. The diners, apparently, were disappointed that a particular painting of Riopelle's was no longer displayed next to their table.

Smiling, Monique and Champlain retrieved the large canvas from another area of the restaurant and propped it up against the wall next to the diners. Riopelle, meanwhile, modestly appeared not to notice.

Instead, he sipped a glass of Burgundy, requested some crème brûlée for dessert, and joined us in a discussion of the merits of fine wine.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Bistro à Champlain closed in 2014. What happened to Champlain Charest's wine cellar? In 2016, Esterel Resort in the Laurentians bought the collection of 5,000 wine bottles and changed the name of its L'ultime restaurant to Bistro à Champlain. Groups of up to 50 people can dine at the Tablée à Champlain in the wine cellar, with a sommelier as the host.

More things to see and do in the Quebec Laurentians:

Château Beauvallon in Mont-Tremblant

Tubing at Mont Avila Near Saint-Sauveur Quebec's Ski Slopes

Cabane à Sucre Arthur-Raymond Quebec