27 July 2016
Complaining is a national pastime throughout France, along with labour strikes, cigarette-smoking, and pétanque. Vignerons, whose livelihoods are utterly dependent upon climatic forces beyond their control, have throughout the generations developed their own nuanced sub-genre of fatalistic groaning, comparable to that which wizened sailors practice regarding the fickleness of the sea.
Yet even in this context of universal grievance, Leynes vigneron Jean-François Promonet stands alone.
An expert mechanic specialising agricultural machines, he has long roots in the Beaujolais and Maconnais, and as he tells it, he arrived at his present, tenuous situation of quasi-vigneronnage on the dangerously steep hillsides of Leynes almost against his will, through a series of misfortunes. Nowadays he speaks of his soaring, wind-swept old-vine granite vineyards the way Ahab spoke of the white whale, with the same mixture of devotion and loathing.
02 June 2016
My time in Beaujolais has left me with a strong distaste for the appellation of Beaujolais-Villages. Not for the wines themselves, of course. Just the appellation, its haziness. It began well enough, in 1946, when it was decreed that certain communes could append their names to the basic appellation of Beaujolais. But a later decree in 1950 created the blanket appellation Beaujolais-Villages - a designation that might as well have been conceived expressly to play down the influence of terroir in the region.
The -Villages designation was once useful for allowing large-scale négoçiant enterprises to indicate mainly granite-soil, gobelet-trained fruit sourced from throughout the region at large. But these companies set the market expectation, such that it's now rare to find vignerons who take advantage of the 1946 decree to promote their individual commune's terroir: Beauojolais-Lancié, Beaujolais-Quincié, or Beaujolais-Marchampt, for example. It's a shame, because the traditionally vinified wines of individual Beaujolais communes do indeed possess a character all their own. Where Quincié B-V often tends toward the rusticity and richness of nearby Régnié, Marchampt B-V is unique in its altitudinous, high mountain fruit.
Hervé Ravera, a sulfur-free natural winemaker who set up shop in Marchampt in 2007, avoids the appellation system altogether, bottling his tiny Beaujolais-Villages production as Vin de France. Ironically, alongside those of his neighbor Nicolas Chemarin, Ravera's wines are just about the purest expression of Marchampt terroir available today.
23 May 2016
"It's not very charming, as a terroir," says young Fleurie vigneron Justin Dutraive, as we tramp down a muddy path to the 8000m of Beaujolais vines he began leasing in 2015. "But it was a good terroir to start: all flat, very mechanizable, with low rent. And no one wanted to take it, so it was going to be uprooted otherwise."
Dutraive isn't being modest. The parcel from which he produced his first wine in 2015 hugs the Duboeuf-dominated village of Maison Blanche so closely it practically constitutes urban farming. To the south is a copse of trees and a stream; to the east, train tracks; to the west, a cornfield. To the north is the Hotel Les Maritonnes. "In the summer, when you're on the tractor, you stare at the pool," jokes Dutraive.
From this unlikely patch of what is known locally as "corn terroir," Dutraive produced a powerful Beaujolais tout-court as well as a pétillant-naturel. The parcel's poor drainage and proximity to the stream paid off in 2015's scorching dry-spell: he brought in a solid 42HL/ha. Less bountiful, but no less notable, was the micro-parcel of Fleurie "Chapelle des Bois" he also vinified that year. Just two barrels were produced, a small but very successful addition to his family's renowned range of wines from the cru.
12 May 2016
Entering southern Beaujolais winemaker Julien Merle's cellar in Legny, I noted the low wooden ceilings above the cement vats and asked if he'd ever had issues with brettonamyces developing in tank. (Bret - the wild yeast often responsible for horsey aromas in wine - has been known to inhabit wood, sometimes causing entire cellars to be razed and reconstructed.) Merle shook his head.
"I think finally the bret is more of a worry for the vineyards higher up in Beaujolais, because the plants are very low," he explained. "We have the plants much higher, it’s cordon trained."
Cordon-training in the crus of Beaujolais is relatively rare - almost all vines are in traditional gobelet training, closer to the earth, where bret is said to reside. Few great vignerons in the crus cordon-train their vines, considering it anathema to quality-minded viticulture. If it's a cliché that many winemakers insist 'there are no rules' governing the production of great wine, it's because of seeming contradictions like this: in viticulture as in vinification, things go topsy-turvy as one travels between regions, or as here, between sub-regions of the same region. In Legny, on the faultline between the granite of north of Beaujolais and the clay-limestone of the south, Julien Merle is making stunningly pure and sturdy wines of the sort that renew my confidence that Beaujolais is worth a book-length study. And he does it by adapting the insights of natural-wine pioneers to the north to his own unique circumstances in the south.
02 May 2016
Few industries are as plagued with inefficiencies as that of Italian specialty shops in Paris. Prices are often rapacious. And queues are often interminable, due to the hellish combination of a) widespread French unfamiliarity with even the most basic Italian foodstuffs, and b) the tendency of Italian purveyors of foodstuffs to natter on endlessly with each under-informed client. Many shops further restrict their clientele by offering opening hours that prioritise siestas. On the occasions I actually enter an Italian specialty shop in Paris, I usually exit soon after, irritated and empty-handed.
Strolling away, mentally revising whatever dinner menu I had in mind, I find myself looking forward to the semi-apocalyptic event that will occur among Italian specialty stores in Paris in 2018, when upscale Italian supermarket juggernaut Eataly is slated to open. Eataly is not cheap, of course, but in my experience the chain's quality standards are high; its product selection is immense; and on principles of economic scale alone it should be able to undercut just about everyone. This is the only instance I can think of - besides Uber and, to some extent, Amazon - where I actually support the idea of a multinational chain disrupting a heterogenous community of small purveyors. The small purveyors of Italian foodstuffs in Paris need to work faster, sell more, and stop overcharging. Never again, I hope, will I pay 7€ for a small jar of chili flakes. (This actually happened at a shop on rue Saint Maur.)
Anyway, on Judgment Day of Italian Specialty Shops in Paris, Charonne-area épicerie Drogheria Italiana will be spared annihilation. The chili flakes are more reasonable, and, far more importantly, the épicerie serves, at just six window-facing counter seats, the city's most addictive* pizza.
27 April 2016
|A kieselguhr filtration system.|
I love natural wine. But I understand why the phrase "natural wine" and the sulfur discussion it entails can sometimes infuriate even its own supporters. In natural wine circles, the wine conversation has become so fixated on sulfur that other, equally fundamental questions are often getting overlooked. I refer mainly to the F-word: filtration.
I've been perplexed to see journalists and sommeliers I respect embracing filtered natural wines. And I was recently disappointed when one of my favorite wine writers, New York Times critic Eric Asimov, in his recent blind tasting of 2014 Morgon and Fleurie, duly quoted Kermit Lynch - the original champion of unfiltered wines - before awarding the two highest scores to plainly filtered wines.
To be fair, blind tastings are tough.* Beaujolais, and gamay overall, begins with a reputation for lightness, which might cause some tasters to presume a filtered wine is naturally light. But one of the more noble challenges of wine appreciation lies in preserving one's palate from habituation to technological shortcuts in vinification. This includes filtration, no less than sulfur overdoses or lab-cultured yeasts. In each instance, the potential quality of a wine is being sacrificed for the sake of a regularity more amenable to industrial distribution norms. The fact is that Kermit's 1980's crusade against wine filtration is still relevant today - particularly with regards to gamay, which seems to lose more from filtration than many other red varieties. Filtration of gamay is stylistically determinative: once you become attuned to it in a wine, it's as obvious as the difference between the burnish of real wood and the sheen of a plastic substitute.
25 April 2016
Saint-Julien vigneron and négoçiant Xavier Benier has long been an enigma to me. His unsulfured, unfiltered range of wines are well-represented around Paris, and nearly always offer excellent value for money. But for various reasons Benier's winemaking defies easy categorisation. The wine range seems to change every year; he has no website; the labels are a heterogenous hodgepodge; and Benier himself doesn't quite belong to any particular social group of like-minded winemakers, à la the 'Microscope Gang' of Villié-Morgon, or the wayward cult gathered around Philippe Jambon up north.
Until my visit to his cuvage last October, I didn't really know what to make of Benier.
I was to learn that part of the distance between Benier and his peers is merely geographic. Saint-Julien is quite far removed from the crus; it lies where the granite of Beaujolais-Villages cedes to the clay-limestone of Beaujolais tout court. Habitation is sparser and many mustard-yellow buildings evidence the proximity of the quarries of the pierres dorées. Benier is from Saint-Julien, and in something like the way libertarianism increases as one heads into the emptiness of the western US, his character reflects his surroundings, evincing a fierce independence that belies his diminutive, office-clerk figure. Over a glass of his remarkably good négoçiant Régnié, in the course of an anecdote about a dispute with the appellation, he'll casually recall arming himself with a sledgehammer.
18 April 2016
If I were ten years younger, I'd probably spend a lot of time on rue Keller. Recent years have seen a cornucopia of earnest young bars and restaurants open on this Voltaire-area side street, some pristine and intelligent (Aux Deux Cygnes), others less so (Barcardi Mojito Lab). I'd dig rue Keller's slew of vintage boutiques, book shops, and records shops, and the curious contrast between the innocence of these endeavors and the heavily-armed soldiers patrolling the street for the safety of its most famous and incongruous resident, Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
As things stand in this lifetime, however, I haven't spent much time on rue Keller. I do most of my shopping on Amazon, and when I dine out, I seem to gravitate towards businesses run by my elders. My reasoning for the latter is simple: I have more to learn from them. Paris' younger bars and bistrots can blur together at times, particularly if, as is often the case, they're sourcing their wines from the same handful of agents.
But now rue Keller, too, is growing up. The celebrated Franco-Japanese chef Kaori Endo (ex-Nanashi, ex-Rose Bakery) and her husband, the hyper-discreet O.G. natural wine caviste Michael Lemasle (Crus et Découvertes), have transformed quaint bistrot Le Petit Keller into something new and intriguing in the Paris restaurant scene. With ambitious opening hours, refined cuisine drawing equally on western health-consciousness and eastern home-cooking, and a smart natural wine list, the new Le Petit Keller is a savvy small-plates restaurant that dials down the masculine indulgence of the format without sacrificing an iota of sophistication.
13 April 2016
When the partners involved in Voltaire gastronome-magnet Restaurant Bones decided to go their separate ways last summer, remaining co-owner and Père Populaire kingpin Florent Ciccoli considered selling the business. Instead, after what seemed like months of faintly dubious "close-out" sales of the restaurant's wine cellar, Ciccoli decided to hop in the kitchen himself and reopen the restaurant with a very, very slight name change.
It's a daring move for a number of reasons, not least because very few chefs would relish withstanding direct comparison with the sophisticated culinary highs of previous chef James Henry. But a flair for improvisation has long been both the Pères Populaires group's greatest asset and its most wobbly liability.
For anyone wondering, Ciccoli's cuisine at the newly-rebaptised restaurant Jones does not withstand direct comparison to Henry's at Bones. But nor should it. Jones succeeds most convincingly where it departs most from the former restaurant's blueprint. Gone is Bones' sometimes churlish service; gone is the maximalist glass-pour selection; gone are set-menus and mandatory reservations. What one finds in place of these things is an inviting and unpretentious spot for free-form, last-minute dinners, enlivened by an undiminished natural wine list and, one presumes, many of the former restaurant's product purveyors. The populist format fits the times: the citizens of Paris' 11ème arrondissement can be proud that, in 2016, things like skin-macerated Savoie wines and fish heads have become almost mainstream.
01 April 2016
Odenas-born natural vigneron Raphael Champier decamped to a fixer-upper house and cellar on the outskirts of Villié-Morgon late last year. When I visited him and his girlfriend-slash-business partner Cristelle Lucca in January I asked him how he liked it in his new neighborhood, which is famously home to Beaujolais' most significant concentration of natural winemakers.
"Well," he said, scratching his head. "It's more complicated to go work in the vines."
The couples vines are in Brouilly, near Saint-Lager, and on the Côte de Brouilly, and in the Beaujolais-Villages appellation near Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières. It's about a twenty-minute drive to the nearest parcel. The couple agree that it's more than worth the commute to have their own cellar. Previously they worked in shared cellar facilities with other métayers at the Chateau de Lacarelle. While Champier derives from an extensive winemaking family and worked six years full-time for Saint-Etienne-de-la-Varenne's influential Jean-Claude Lapalu, his career trajectory has been anything but easy. His family is vast - he has fourteen brothers and sisters - and, in terms of winemaking, very conservative.
"We're making progress," Lucca jokes. "Now when we bring natural wine to the dinner table, they don't grimace anymore."
30 March 2016
Back in early November I asked Beaujolais vigneron Karim Vionnet where he'd be spending the soirée of Beaujolais Nouveau in Paris. He said he'd be a little bit everywhere, as usual, but he'd certainly be starting the evening at (inaudible).
"Au Sauvignon," he said, audibly this time, though seemingly without any confidence that it would be an interesting occasion. He rummaged around his paperwork and found the place's card. He didn't seem to know what the restaurant was or how his wines had wound up there, let alone how he had agreed to spend the soirée of Beaujolais Nouveau there - but that may just have been Karim being Karim. My interest was piqued because there are very few places serving natural Beaujolais, or natural wine at all, in Au Sauvignon's Saint-Sulpice neighborhood, which must rank among the dowdiest in Paris. A rich grandmotherliness suffuses the air; one senses the denizens have buying power, but without the willpower to consume, in the way that the elderly, through no fault of their own, simply stop eating much at mealtimes.
I wound up visiting Au Sauvignon for a late lunch in December and was pleased to find that the restaurant, if that is what it may be called, is perfectly adapted to its neighborhood, and in such a way as to render its style of service queerly contemporary for the city at large. The menu is composed entirely of the snack foods deemed acceptable by former generations of well-to-do Parisians who probably disapprove of snacking outside the context of a tough day's shopping at Le Bon Marché. This means tartines, oysters, and omelets at all hours, with osetra caviar available for anyone having a really bad day.
28 March 2016
The most recent book published in English about Beaujolais, as far as I can tell, is British journalist Rudolph Chelminski's wishfully titled I'll Drink To That: Beaujolais & The French Peasant Who Made It the World's Most Popular Wine. It is essentially a work of Georges Duboeuf hagiography, one rendered curious for having arrived in 2007, long after Duboeuf's era of peak influence, and well into the region's contemporary market blight. Chelminski is nonetheless very astute in one passage where he compares the peculiar geographical isolation of the Beaujolais to "certain parts of Appalachia." Don't get me wrong - it's not Deliverance or anything. But the hills between Mâcon and Lyon are home to a local culture that is as colourful and strange as it is insular. I can think of no better example than the persistence, in the Beaujolais region, of the tradition popularly known as les conscrits.
Les conscrits, or more formally, la fête des conscrits, is a ritual that originated during the Second Empire as a way to celebrate the departure of a village's youth into mandatory military service. By the 20th century it had also become an occasion to commemorate the military service of previous generations of villagers. In most towns the tradition came to include women as well as men. What happens is this: all those born in years ending in the same number as the current year (i.e. those born in 1976, 1986, 1996, etc. are those who are classed in the year of 6) raise money for a blowout block party and banquet, the dimensions of which vary according to the town in question. Some events are small, consisting only of some fanfare music and drinks at a local bar. The largest event occurs in Villefranche-sur-Saône, where the tradition is taken so seriously as continue to bar women from participation. There are dedicated church services, a massive parade, banquets, and so on over the course of several days.
Mandatory military service in France ended in 1998. But the tradition of les conscrits continues throughout Beaujolais from December through May each year, probably because it is a hell of a lot of fun. I had long been keen to experience this particular aspect of Beaujolais culture and was delighted to learn that Camille Lapierre, daughter of the late great Marcel Lapierre and a talented winemaker in her own right, was among those celebrating her conscrits in Villié-Morgon this year. She was extremely kind to invite me along to the festivities, which included floats, wigs, disco-balls, drum circles, and square-dancing hippies.
25 March 2016
About half an hour into our visit last October, larger-than-life Pierre Dorées vigneron Jean-Gilles Chasselay was serving us barrel tastes of his unusual "Cuvée de la Marduette" Beaujolais when suddenly the cellar was filled with a joltingly cacaphonic guitar solo, loud as a klaxon. I thought our glasses might shatter.
Chasselay finished serving himself a taste and then produced his cell phone, shutting the sound off. "Rory Gallagher," he explained, grinning. "Irish tour, 1974. He was a crazy guitarist. He died from drinking too much, unfortunately."
Then he went back to explaining the "Cuvée de la Marduette," a micro-cuvée that, while atypical of his family's oeuvre, nonetheless seems symbolic of Chasselay's approach to his metier. He vinifies it like a vin de garde, i.e. with a relatively long vatting, then throws it oak barrels of varying age for between one and two months. Then, at what for other wines would be the start of the process of elevage, he abruptly reassembles the wine and bottles it without filtration or sulfur addition. "The vinification's finished but the elevage isn't done. So I say it's 'poorly raised,'" he says, adding, "I like people who are poorly raised."
16 March 2016
The other day my kind friends drove us fifty minutes north of Beaujolais to taste just four wines. The wines, while well-made, were not life-changing. (The winemaker in question is, alas, a strong believer in kieselguhr filtration, which in my estimation affects gamay the way direct sunlight affects unexposed film.)
"Well," I said, sheepishly, returning to the car. "That was that."
What redeemed the morning was a visit, on the trip back, to Le Carafé in Mâcon, a charming and understated wine-centric bistrot in the shadow of the Eglise Saint Pierre. Founded by a longtime supporter of the region's natural winemakers, Patrick Pigouet, Le Carafé was sold in 2013 to young chef Damien Blaszczyk, who in addition to proposing marvelous country comfort food, has retained the character and integrity of the heavily Mâconnais / Beaujolais wine list. I'm also certifiably addicted to the restaurant's particular brand of Spanish olives, which I purchase take-out by the jarful after each meal.
02 March 2016
The prolific and indefatigable Marcel Joubert, arguably the most senior natural winemaker in Brouilly, made his last vintage in 2015. He's been producing ruggedly natural wines in a plethora of appellations since meeting pathbreaking Morgon winemaker Marcel Lapierre at motorcycle rallies at the end of the 1980's.
The two winemakers couldn't have more different profiles today. Lapierre, who died in 2010, is a legend, the subject of books and cartoons, perpetually fêted in the press. Joubert, alive and well, is almost a ghost by comparison. While beloved by his peers in Beaujolais and his direct clients, Joubert's larger-than-life personality, like his individual winemaking style, remains unknown to most drinkers. A fourth-generation winemaker who began his career in 1972, Joubert belongs to a previous generation of Beaujolais winemakers for whom discretion bordering on anonymity was part of the game.
As of 2016, he's handing over the reins of his domaine to his tall blonde daughter Carine, who worked in human resources before deciding to devote herself to the family business. "I'll stay as an intern," he said slyly in November in his tasting room in Quincié. "If she lets me."
08 February 2016
Pity the lonely aficionado. Imagine being possessed of knowledge and good taste, in a given subject, and yet being condemned, for want of similarly-inclined fellowship, to forever share one's passion with ciphers, suits, and passers-by.
If you have imagined this, it gives you a good foretaste of the potential tragedy of 11ème wine shop and wine bar Jéroboam. Owner Vincent Fiorani made his career in manufacture of children's toys. Until opening Jéroboam last year, he indulged his passion for wine as a partner in 17ème arrondissement wine shop Coureurs de Terroirs. When that association ran its course, he decided to launch himself full-time in wine.
Jéroboam is the result. The establishment counts among its assets an excellent, Marais-adjacent location; a vast, well-priced selection of less-than-obvious wines, including many natural wines and impressive back vintages; and simple, good-value boards of charcuterie, cheese, and cured fish. All of this is, unfortunately, delivered with the earnest marketing blather of a Wall Street English program.