28 February 2011

give the pipos what they want: les pipos, 75005

Oddly befitting its location in the university-dominated, student-infested 5ème arrondissement - just off the Pantheon, no less - neighborhood bar à vin Les Pipos can be read as a kind of controlled case study of the transformative effect of the addition of natural wines to an otherwise archetypal Paris bistro.

The results are astounding. Because an insistence on natural wines is invariably a political statement as well as an aesthetic one, the sloppy, gem-laden list at Les Pipos, presented - upon demand - in the usual blithe fashion, has the effect of very discreetly intellectualizing the whole concept. And all the bistro hallmarks that would otherwise provoke only mild annoyance or mild approval - the bumbling service, the simple, richly satisfying cuisine - are rendered respectively more forgivable or winning by the knowledge that, particularly in the 5ème, Les Pipos could really tart up the natural wine angle, but don't.

The restaurant possesses that rare thing for a tourist quartier in a tourist city: genuine offhand charm. Such that, when I popped by the other night with my friends R, E, and IF,* with only an apero and a cheese plate in mind, we instead proceeded to knock back three bottles with a full meal including oysters.

The meal in fact got off to a pretty rocky start. The server, a gruff old fellow resembling a snowman in March, was none too pleased that I ordered a too-good-to-be-true '02 Jean-Claude Rateau Côtes de Beaune that required him to descend to a basement cave, and which turned out not to be in stock. My friends and I then settled for a pleasant basic-bottling Jura wine by Jean François Ganevat, "Rien Que Du Fruit." You would be right in anticipating, on the basis of the wine's name, a brisk low-alcohol Vin de Table Chardonnay intended for immediate drinking. I have had the wine before on several occasions, and that is what I too was anticipating.

I had to brooch the issue of the wine's total oxidation very gently with our gruff server. This wine, it's, err, not the current vintage, is it? Lot number says '08. Been sitting around for a little while, eh? I know it's Jura: this wasn't the good sort of oxidation. Anyway. Not wanting to make a fuss about it, I consented to just consider the bad bottle the write-off of the night, and ordered something else. In the midst of this interaction I'd run into a Beaujolais vigneron whose wines I adore, Georges Descombes, and can admit that this was a factor both in why I didn't refuse to pay for the dead Ganevat, and in which wine I ordered next.

The bottle of 2007 Decombes Régnié Vielles Vignes was unquestionably, screaming-from-high-heavens corked. Cringing with embarrassment and shame I sent it back. (More on this below.) E, R, and IF all endured these wine negotiations with admirable humor. Probably because the food was mostly terrific, and very accessibly priced. IF wolfed down a garishly huge plate of bone marrow almost before I had time to beg a bite. I made up for it by eating most of his 100% proper steak tartare, visible above.

If my coq au vin was a little tufty and dry, it was totally acceptable by now, since the second bottle of Descombes' 2007 Régnié, grudgingly offered by our long-suffering server with an accompanying protest that the first was not corked ("Yes it was!"), was on the table and drinking beautifully. Crisp but substantial dark-fruited cru Beaujolais, redolent of currants and bark, with just a mite less acidity than I perhaps would have desired. At this point I begin to think it's something about Régnié: I love all the crus of Beaujolais, it's true, but if pressed I would say I love Régnié the least. It abuts Morgon on the southwest, and was the most recent cru to be designated, in 1988. There's something of a stolid tendency to it, less aerial than the other crus, even in a crunchy vintage like 2007.

As the plats were cleared, we all trooped outside for cigarettes, but on the way I became enmeshed in a funny diplomatic conversation about Beaujolais with Georges Descombes and the genial owner manager** of Les Pipos, Alain Gangneux, who I discovered were at the bar happily knocking back the bottle of Régnié I had just sent back as corked. Descombes said it was fine, not that expressive admittedly. Gangneux poured me another sip. I made roundabout apologies to Descombes, and thanked Gangneux for giving us a second bottle, all while thinking: "This wine is still absolutely unmistakably corked." However, there was no chance in hell that I, a dippy American wine blogger with halting French, was going to argue about this with the acclaimed winemaker himself, who additionally is a very nice fellow.

If I wasn't already totally sold on the graces of Les Pipos, the next bottle we ordered, a 2008 Domaine de la Grand'Cour Fleurie "Climat Champagne," cinched everything.

M. Gangneux had explained to me that in this instance, "Climat Champagne" refers to a 1.5ha lieu-dit within Fleurie known for old vines and a cooler climate. Domaine de la Grand'Cour is one of the oldest estates in Fleurie, whose current ownership by the Dutraive family - now the 2nd generation - dates to 1969.

It was up there with the most enjoyable wines I've tasted all year. Bright and saber-like, despite the cool hailstrewn vintage, with a long, mesmerizing cinnamon-raspberry-chewable vitamin palate. Thrillingly intense - like a distillate of all that is beautiful about cru Beaujolais. If the 2007 Descombes Régnié was like an early Walkmen composition - rangey, catchy, full of atmosphere but slightly lacking in direction - then the 2008 Grand'Cour "Climat Champagne" was new album standout "Woe Is Me": classic, understated, and instantly memorable.

* It was corked though. Through and through. It was all the more evident to me upon retasting, having just enjoyed a bottle that was not corked, not wet-cardboard-nosed, not totally without acid, not fruitless, not shut-down on the palate. I can think of two possible explanations for the difference of opinion here. One is that perhaps as a winemaker one can get so intimately close to one's wines that their graces and exact characteristics are clearly perceptible even behind the obscuring effect of certain flaws. The other - oh, let's not go into the other one. Descombes rocks. 

** Not sure how I got the wrong impression that night. Anyway fellow Paris blogger Wendy Lyn helpfully corrected me in the commentary below. (1/3/11.) 

Les Pipos
2, rue de l'Ecole Polytechnique
75005 PARIS
Metro: Cardinal Lemoine or Maubert-Mutualité
Tel: 01 43 54 11 40

Related Links:

The Discreet Charms of 2008 Beaujolais

A funny, atmospheric 2004 write-up of Les Pipos @ WineTerroirs, which strangely plays up the history of the bar, although from what I understand its current incarnation dates to that same year.
A long but worthwhile piece on a visit to Georges Descombes' estate @ WineTerroirs

A Ganevat tasting @ LeBlogd'Olif
A review of "Rien Que du Fruit" @ CrazyYellow

A rave about a different Domaine de la Grand'Cour bottling @ TheWineDoctor


  1. Les Pipos is my favorite neighborhood wine bar in Paris - mainly because of the wine selection, oysters (delivered from Cancale every Thursday)and the best "frites maison." I try and convince myself that the surly waiter (Mr. Snowman in March) is part of the overall charm of the place. Fortunately, Alain makes up for his server's lack of warmth. You should go there on the weekend sometime - there's a woman who plays the accordian and belts out classic French songs. People start singing along as the night goes on and more wine is consumed (the place is opened until 2am on weekends).

  2. Ah, man, that sounds excellent! I will totally be there singing along one of these weekends. Really is a wonderful place.

  3. Les Pipos is one of those quirky places (service) I love especially for the summer terrace, for the wine (Terres Jaunes) and pavé frites. Bruno (your gruff server) and Alain (the Manager, not owner) are all part of the experience (and now like family) One of the best natural wine cavistes in the city is my favorite dining and singing partner in the summer and I recommend it as a slice of real Paris to everyone. Thank you so much for the great post, can't wait to share it with the guys!

  4. @Wendy: Ah, thanks for the correction! Have updated the post. Thanks for reading, also!

  5. Love your blog, just retweeted on Twitter and Facebook. Isn't that Bruno something? LOL at snowman!

  6. Nice writing Aaron, forwarded to me by Wendy. Briefly, as the subject of corked wines can be as annoying as the problem itself (and as you already know), it's cause is the appearance of the chemical TCA in a cork and it's eventual contamination of the wine. How the TCA occurs in a cork and the resultant effects on wine we'll leave for another post. À propos de Pipos, it's the end user's genetic configuration that determines, for the most part, the degree of perceived "corkiness" in relation to the level of TCA present. The genetic variation in people's olfactory and gustatory sensitivity toward TCA is quite dramatic. Therefore what was blatantly obvious to you (likely highly sensitive) was possibly less so among your friends and perhaps not detectable at all to Alain and Georges. As for an owner disagreeing entirely, despite several independent unbiased assessments that the wine is in fact corked, as long as they are willing to replace the bottle I'm ok with their false pride, as it's a genetic characteristic abundantly expressed in all French men!

  7. @wendy: thanks for retweets!

    @RMY: well put! the appeal to genetics is also a very useful way of agreeing to disagree - it's sort of the escape route into pure subjectivity. "we'll never see eye to eye - we're just built this way!" etc. (also, you seem to have read me correctly. when a corked bottle is opened across a table from me, i sniff it immediately; but i am invariably the last person to notice a gas leak, or identify a perfume.)