23 July 2015

the noble savage: sauvage, 75006


The other evening I had the occasion to follow up on a surprising recommendation I'd received in March from Guardian wine columnist Fiona Beckett, who had turned up what sounded like a splendid wine bar in the least likely place of all: mere paces from luxury department store Le Bon Marché. This is deep, gerontocratic Paris, home to those Parisians whose wealth and social stability have largely spared them from meaningful interaction with the contemporary era, let alone any re-examination of their drinking habits.

I adore this neighborhood, naturally. But, save for the splendid Café Trama up the road, it's until now been very hard to find anything to drink there.

So newcomer natural-wine cave-à-manger Sauvage, when it opened in February on rue de Cherche-Midi, needed merely to exist to qualify as groundbreaking. Bare-bones, boxy, and cheerful, Sauvage resembles a small-town Scandinavian coffee shop. But owner Sebastien Leroy outdoes himself with a surprisingly uncompromising natural wine selection, and an improvisational menu that grasps beyond the usual cheese and charcuterie to include - at least on the night I visited - a bright and vivid lobster salad.

20 July 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: jean-paul thévenet, pizay


On a rainy morning in April, over some barrel samples of his and his son's old vine Morgon and Régnié (respectively), I mentioned to Jean-Paul Thévenet that I was planning a book project about the wines of Beaujolais. Like many winemakers I spoke to, he was encouraging, but not without certain qualifications.

"When we started making this type of wine, there were people who quite liked our wines, but who soon began telling us, this is good, and that’s not good, and it’s no good for us, to talk like that. There are people who work conventionally who work very well, and we ought to leave them the choice..."

Having worked for over three decades to encourage better viticultural and winemaking practices in his region, Thévenet is aware that progress is slow, where it occurs at all, and that the eager attention of a critic is likelier to inflame situations than improve them. Thévénet counsels patience.

"Little by little, the products are less noxious... There are a lot of people who begin to work a little more naturally. When we started to do this in 1985 - Marcel Lapierre a little before - we were often refused the appellation because [our wine] was marked atypical, not representative of the region. Meanwhile the old winegrowers told us that our wines were like the Morgon that was made fifty years ago."

09 July 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: jules métras, fleurie


Young Fleurie-based winemaker Jules Métras released his first wine under his own name this year, a Beaujolais-Villages sourced from two parcels, one in Lancié, the other in La Chappelle de Guinchay. The latter parcel was formerly owned by Jules Chauvet. Jules Métras vinifies the wine in his father's cellar, an anonymous-looking, un-insulated concrete structure perched amid the Fleurie climat of Grille-Midi.

He makes the wine in much the same way his father does. The fruit, harvested relatively late, is cooled down before gentle, long, cool carbonic fermentation with natural yeasts in lidded cement vat. "It took eight or nine days to start fermentation, which is pretty long. At the end of five days I was going crazy," he says. "But my dad says, 'Noooo, don't worry.' He's never worried."

We taste the wine in April, not long before bottling. The nose is deep, redolent of crushed berry, and faintly roasty, although only older barrels are used in elevage. Its black-current fruit possesses the suavity and dark florals that made his father's wine legendary. Jules Métras titled the cuvée "Bijou," a bit of local youth slang whose popularity Métras credits to his friend and fellow Beaujolais scion Kéké Descombes. "Everytime he plowed a parcel, he'd send some photos and say 'Wow, it's bijou!' Meaning it's clean, magnificent. Now when we drink great wine, it's bijou. When a pretty girl passes, she's bijou."

08 July 2015

jordan mackay's beaujolais misinformation

Jordan Mackay. Someone get this man a glass of Métras.

I write now and then for an NYC-based website called PUNCH, whose stated purpose is to explore the culture surrounding wine, spirits, and other alcoholic beverages. It's a publication of Ten Speed Press, itself a subsidiary of Random House. I hope the site and its parent companies will forgive me in advance for publicly taking issue with a deeply misinformative piece recently published in PUNCH by San Francisco Magazine wine writer Jordan Mackay.

Entitled "Beyond Carbonic: A New Era in Beaujolais," the piece alerts readers to an ostensibly new trend in Beaujolais winemaking, Burgundian fermentation with de-stemming and pigeage, i.e. not the region's traditional carbonic maceration. This is not, not even by the furthest stretch of the imagination, "a new era." Mackay inadvertently acknowledges as much in the piece itself, citing Chateau du Moulin-à-Vent (established: 1732) as among the practitioners. Jean-Paul Brun, the other key example Mackay cites in the piece, founded his domaine in 1979, and has long been imported to the US. The producers Mackay cites, it bears mentioning, are neither the region's leading lights, nor its youngest vanguard.

So, not news. Where Mackay goes harmfully off the rails is in ascribing all the faults of industrial Beaujolais Nouveau production circa-1980 to carbonic maceration. In one astonishingly wrongheaded paragraph, he manages to conflate the influence of Jules Chauvet with that of Georges Duboeuf.

02 July 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: laurence and rémi dufaitre, saint-étienne-des-ouillières


A common wine writing trope is to conclude that a wine resembles its maker in some way or another. Nowhere is this less applicable than in the wines of rising-star Beaujolais winemaker Rémi Dufaitre, whose production of Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly (among other wines) is distinguished by its elegance and finesse.

Rémi Dufaitre himself is more direct, an endearing trait, from certain angles. When I arrived at his domaine in Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières, roughly where the Brouilly appellation meets Beaujolais-Villages, he lost no time asking me upfront about my blog traffic. When I introduced my bike trip companion N, a novelist, Rémi, without missing a beat, asked, "How many books did you sell?"

The no-bullshit approach, in this case, reflects the confidence of a young winemaker who enjoys broad support among his forebears in the region. Originally from Saint-Etienne-La-Varenne, Dufaitre has known since birth his friend and Brouilly neighbor Jean-Claude Lapalu. Influential Fleurie winemaker Jean-Louis Dutraive is Dufaitre's cousin. And while Dufaitre and his wife Laurence only began bottling their own wines in 2010, their work soon attracted the attention of Villié-Morgon legend Jean Foillard, who has said he considers Dufaitre among the best of the younger generation of Beaujolais winemakers. Who cares if he possesses the combative, ball-breaking temperament of a mob enforcer, when the wines are this good?

25 June 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: jean-claude lapalu, saint-etienne-la-varenne


Jean-Claude Lapalu occupies an interesting position in the pantheon of contemporary Beaujolais. The son and grandson of winegrowers, he began bottling his own wines relatively late, at age 35. It was 1996. "I'm an intermediary," he acknowledges, "between the generation of Max Breton, who started before me, and the young generation today."

Our visit had been arranged Lapalu's good friend Rémi Dufaitre, a talented young winemaker twenty years his junior, who was hosting us that night in the neighboring town. Despite their age difference, Lapalu and Dufaitre share an easy rapport. Dropping us off chez Lapalu, Dufaitre asked his friend to "throw us back" to Dufaitre's place when we were through tasting. We asked if that was normal rural slang. Lapalu just laughed. "It's just Rémi being Rémi."

Lucky for us, Lapalu was in an expansive mood on the day we visited. Our tasting went long. A born raconteur, he's among the rare great vignerons whose verbal expressivity is a match for that of his wines.

15 June 2015

conscientious objectors: les déserteurs, 75011


As diners and critics, we're willing to discern greater depths in a chef's plates if he or she has led a swashbuckling lifestyle, or at least can be presented to us as having witnessed the mysteries of foreign cultures. In contemporary Paris, the résumé spice du jour is "travel in Asia," a transcendant, cuisine-altering experience for chefs ranging from David Toutain to Saturne's Sven Chartier to Le Servan's Tatiana Levha. If, of that list, only Levha's cuisine shows any direct engagement with eastern cuisines, don't blame the chefs. Blame their publicists, and culinary media outlets.

Les Déserteurs, the upscale market-menu restaurant opened last year by chef Daniel Baratier and sommelier Alex Céret in the former Rino space on rue Trousseau, is, like its chef, deficient in narrative flair. The name is a witticism referring to the owners' former workplace, the untrendy Ile Saint Louis Michelin one-star Le Sergent Recruteur, a restaurant that I now read is in liquidation. When the joke passes, we're left with the following premise: Two Friendly French Guys Open Slightly Pricey Restaurant.

Diners will be forgiven for not leaping to book six-tops. I myself only went because they had a last minute table on a Saturday night, and I often work in the neighborhood. I was therefore caught entirely by surprise by the restaurant's outright excellence. From its pacing to its apportionment to its marvelous contents, a meal at Les Déserteurs is a tour de force of sensitivity, where the refined, vegetable-driven country cuisine is as nuanced and mature as the wine list.

11 June 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: benoit camus, ville-sur-jarnioux


Some tasting appointments in Beaujolais are difficult to obtain because a given winemaker's work is so sought-after that he or she has no interest in cultivating new clientele. Securing a tasting with young fringe-natural winemaker Benoit Camus was difficult for something like the opposite reason. He has almost no commercial operation to speak of, instead selling his finished wines wholesale to a few négoçiants willing to sell it for him. He has practically no direct clientele at all, and next to nothing for visitors to taste.

Camus lives in the southern Beaujolais town of Cogny, a short drive from Villefranche-sur-Saône, the riverside town north of Lyon where I commenced a bicycle trip this past spring with two novelist friends. In our initial communications, I sensed it embarrassed him to receive visitors when he had almost no wine to show. He rather gallantly kept proposing we go see a winemaker friend of his further north instead, until at last accepting to have lunch together at his house in Cogny, rather than at his cellar in nearby Ville-sur-Jarnioux.

Ordinarily I would have taken his suggestion to visit elsewhere, but Camus was located right on our itinerary, and I'd been keen to meet him since tasting his wines in Paris. As it was, over the course of a very short tasting that turned into a jam session, we got a small peek into the life of a promising, eccentric winemaker at the semi-anonymous outset of his career.

05 June 2015

back yard: yard wine bar, 75011


When I first wrote about Jane Drotter's splendid contemporary bistrot YARD in April 2014, I couldn't help expressing astonishment that some of the passing Père Lachaise locals found prices too high. "Stinting flintnosed cheapskates," I called them. YARD the restaurant was then and still remains one of the city's best deals, its prices calibrated more to the expectations of its far-flung quartier than to the skills of chef Nye Smith or the superior quality of his product.

Drotter, presumably as part of a grand strategy for domination of nightlife in the eastern 11ème, has now opened, beside her bustling bistrot, YARD Wine Bar, a cosy roomful of high tables and a wide terrace where she continues to indulge her clientele. The small-plate menu prices are lower than those of most soft beverage programs in the Marais.

It's worth noting, though, that Drotter's clientele has changed. Where once it consisted of whoever happened to live or work nearby, it now resembles a cross-section of the Paris fine restaurant crowd, which is to say, chiefly people who unhesitatingly order the whole menu twice and consume oceans of natural wine. This dynamic, one hopes, will sustain YARD Wine Bar's paradisiacal micro-scene for many summers to come.

02 June 2015

rebirth of cool: entrée des artistes pigalle, 75009


Everything about Entrée des Artistes Pigalle proprietors Fabien Lombardi and Edouard Vermynck's previous bar-à-manger on rue de Crussol evinced a stubborn, cloistered dedication to cool, which often superseded practical concerns. Each cocktail took up its own page on the finicky list. The wine selection was fearlessly obscure. Hospitality could feel a bit teenage. The music program consisted exclusively of canonical rap.

When I heard they were uprooting that original successful address in favour of a larger space in Pigalle, I worried it might be a case of two artistes fixing what wasn't broke. As the album work - as opposed to the early mixtapes - of an MC like Action Bronson attests, sometimes it's folly to polish an idea whose virtues lay in messy spontaneity.*

But it took no more than a footstep beyond the unassuming threshold of Entrée des Artistes Pigalle to realise I'd underestimated Lombardi and Vermynck's ambitions. The dazzling space is gilt-edged, multi-tiered, Escher-like, with two floors, each with its own bar, served by a kitchen perched on what is, in essence, a stair landing. Gone is the air of bedroom hero-worship that characterised the old address. Lombardi and Vermynck have done what a succession of better-financed Paris bars (Silencio, Le Perchoir) have so far failed to do: create a mature, transportive ambience of Parisian cool, un-derivative of other cities.

22 May 2015

n.d.p. in burgundy: julien guillot, sagy-le-haut


Tucked among the fulsome green hills of Sagy-le-Haut is the cellar of Julien Guillot, the charming third-generation winemaker of biodynamic Mâconnais domaine Clos des Vignes du Maynes. Before returning to run the domaine in his late twenties, Guillot, who is of telegenic height and fresh-faced in his forties, had a career as an actor in France. He is conspicuously good at marketing his wines. Their prices in Paris and the US testify to this. His Bourgogne rouge "Cuvée Auguste" costs more than your average Marsannay.

What Clos des Vignes du Maynes' appellations lack in grandeur is made up for in the domaine's unimpeachable history and winemaking acumen. Julien's grandfather, Pierre Guillot, practiced a nascent version of organic viticulture ever since purchasing the domaine in 1954. Later, Julien's father Alain was instrumental in helping get the agriculture biologique (organic) logo approved by the French government in 1984. Julien, for his part, initiated the domaine's conversion to biodynamic viticulture in 1998. Upon hearing Guillot recount this in the anteroom of his cellar, my friend C posed a great question: "What did people in the region call 'organic' before 'organic' existed?"

Guillot grinned, and with the confidence that comes from having been right, replied, "Les conneries de Guillot," or 'Guillot's bullshit.'

18 May 2015

off the map: la poudrière, issy-les-moulineaux


I credit former La Cave de l'Insolite proprietor Michel Moulherat for introducing me to natural wine. His wasn't the closest wine shop to my old apartment on a loud, leery intersection on rue Saint Maur. But it was the closest wine shop staffed by someone who was both well-informed and willing to share his knowledge. I'd often stop by on the way home from work - but never if I were in a hurry, because Moulherat's voluble, Irish-accented conversation and the bevy of bottles he invariably opened could quickly take up much of an evening.

Then a few years ago Moulherat sold La Cave de l'Insolite to some earnest young restaurateurs. He did a spell consulting on wine for fine restaurant wholesalers Terroirs d'Avenir. I don't know what else he did. He kinda fell off the map.

So I was delighted to learn recently that Moulherat is back in front-of-house these days, running the wine program at La Poudrière, a homey new natural wine bistrot and cave-à-manger tucked in a railway arch in Issy-les-Moulineaux. Where the hell is Issy-les-Moulineaux? the overwhelming majority of readers might reasonably ask. It's the southern terminus of the Métro line 12. There's a Museum of Playing Cards there, which I guess makes two reasons to visit, counting La Poudrière.

12 May 2015

side benefits: table à côté, 75012


Paris has streets that hide in plain sight - overlooked byways that, due to poor sun exposition or traffic redundancy, get circumvented by pedestrians. The forever-shaded length of rue de Chateau d'Eau north of République is one. Another is the Aligre-adjacent rue de Prague, the quiet side street where French culinary journalist Bruno Verjus opened his ambitious restaurant Table in 2013. Despite receiving praise from Verjus' fellow journalists, Table still has its namesakes available most nights, partly due to its discreet location.

Similarly, the Paris natural wine scene has certain esteemed personalities that seem to bend the limelight whenever it nears them, and disappear. Natural wine as we know it in Paris - and increasingly, worldwide - was shaped in its adolescence by the palates of low-key dégustateurs with zero flair for self-promotion: people like La Cave de l'Insolite's Michel Moulherat, now at Issy-les-Mouleaux's La Poudrière, or Olivier Camus, whose struggling Belleville restaurant Le Chapeau Melon is an abandoned goldmine of old bottles.

Another such quietly influential personage is Franck Carré, formerly of La Cave des Papilles and Café Trama. Four months ago Carré opened, in partnership with Bruno Verjus, Table à Côté, a cave-à-manger so discreet and uncommercial as to make one suspect wine sales are secondary to some private creative endeavor requiring office space. (Perhaps he is writing a novel?) Table à Côté seats six on rue de Prague's forgotten sidewalk, and a dozen more inside on a leaden communal table. The menu consists of generous portions of highly-pedigreed meats and cheeses. The only real draw is Carré himself, whose long experience is evident in a slender wine selection containing bottles to marvel the most jaded palate. The other night, for instance, he introduced me to the apotheosis of pineau d'aunis.

06 May 2015

n.d.p. in abruzzo: 50 years of emidio pepe


So much has been written about Abruzzese winemaker Emidio Pepe's majestic montepulciani and the ethereal delicacy of his equally ageless trebbiani that I despair of the possibility of saying anything new. The wines are landmarks for the region, towering above everything else like the gnarled Apennine peaks through which one passes on the long car ride from Rome Fiumicino to Torano Nuovo.

Still, it remains for me to thank the Pepe family for inviting me to the latter town last November for the estate's 50th anniversary celebrations.

Rather than exhaust a reader with tasting notes of the dozens of vintages we sampled, I thought I'd just relay my own experiences with the estate's wines, in the hopes that by doing so I'll communicate something about their unique place within the pantheons of Italian wine, Abruzzese wine, and, nowadays, natural wine.

04 May 2015

revolutionaries: bar à vin a.t & restaurant a.t, 75005


On the surface, not much differentiates Pierre Gagnaire-trained chef Atsushi Tanaka's Restaurant A.T. from most staid Left Bank fine-dining. Its presentation is in thrall to Le Guide Michelin, from the boardroom lighting right down to the weighty, over-designed furniture. The format of Tanaka's 95€ tasting menu is in keeping with the exquisite tastes of a previous generation of diners.

But Tanaka has struck out on his own in two quietly revolutionary ways. Firstly, with his "wine-selector" Lulie Kaori Tanaka, he has embraced natural wine wholeheartedly, breaking ground not just for his otherwise arch-conservative restaurant style but also for his neighborhood. (Restaurant A.T.'s semi-anonymous storefront sits quietly in the shadow of La Tour d'Argent.)

More recently, Tanaka has, in one bold stroke, up-ended his concept by hiring explosively amusing sommelier David Benichou (ex-Ten Bells, ex-Vivant Table) to run an incongruously fun natural wine bar in his restaurant's heretofore underused cellar space. One effect has been to re-orient late-night drinking for the 5ème arrondissement, which hasn't had a decent watering hole since Curio Parlour closed a few years ago. But, more importantly, the opening of Bar à Vins A.T. demonstrates the newfound sense of freedom with which its owner and its habitués - a certain circle of influential young Japanese chefs - are changing their adoptive city.

20 April 2015

time is nye: yard, 75011


A friend who edits a fashion magazine once said to me, apropos of my blog, "I love it. But I never have any idea what you're talking about or whether you like a place. Could you just put a rating at the top or something?"

I've never been tempted to do this, because it would imply a hierarchical order to restaurant experiences that simply isn't there. I have however long been tempted to publish a running list of the Paris restaurants to which I find myself returning most often.*

In pride of place on this list, lately, is YARD, Jane Drotter's ever-evolving jewel of a bistrot by Père Lachaise. The cuisine used to be homey and neighborly under chef Fabrice Mellado. Then Australian chef Shaun Kelley arrived in spring of last year and emblazoned the address in the Paris dining firmament by dint of his ultra-contemporary kitchen smarts. Kelly passed like a comet, however, moving on too soon to make much impact, and since last November, YARD's kitchen has been run by young British chef Nye Smith. Belying his youth, and a résumé includes stints at London hotspots Moro and Koya, Smith's cuisine at YARD is neither precocious nor internationalist. Less austere than that of his predecessor, perceptibly more pleasure-oriented, it strikes a balance between sophistication and accessibility that couldn't be better suited to YARD. I think it's this rare synergy, combined with Drotter's expanding natural wine list and peerless hospitality, that makes each visit a uniquely enjoyable experience.

* List duly included after the jump.