30 November 2011

illegal sauvignon, and other surprises: ma cave, 75019

In need of dinner ingredients a few Sundays ago, I decided to check out the Marché de la Place des Fêtes, high up above Belleville in the 19ème arrondissement. The market itself was a bit of a disappointment that morning - endless lines, not especially cheap prices, fully one half the big market taken up by shoddy produce and knick-knack stands. Notably absent was the fellow from well-regarded neighborhood cave à manger Ô Divin, who I'd read sometimes has a stand there selling natural wines.*

What redeemed the excursion turned out to be the Velib ride up rue de Belleville past Pyrénées and Jourdain Metro stations, where I was delighted to find a bustling little quartier, with many shops actually open until one or two in the afternoon. Just a few minutes north of the pork buns, lacquered ducks, and leering street creeps of Belleville one encounters decent-looking boulangeries, an Italian épicerie, and butchers that don't look like health hazards.

Since I hadn't found any wine at the market, I skidded to a halt during my descent down rue de Belleville in front of Ma Cave, a pokey wine shop without much to recommend itself, at first glance, beyond the fact that it was open. All I sought was a bottle of potable cooking wine - something I could sip uncritically and employ in a sausage ragù. The bottle I took home in the end, from what turned out to be a very decent wine shop, both met and exceeded my low expectations: a dirt-cheap but totally fascinating bottle of Sauvignon, illegally grown in Marsannay and falsely labeled Aligoté.

A very successful horse butcher at the marché de la Place des Fêtes.

At midday the tiny wine shop was relatively thronged. I counted an astounding three people working in about the same square meterage as your average SUV, all providing fast and attentive service to a crowd that seemed uniformly middle-aged and more or less clueless. When it got to my turn I commenced my usual inadvertently frustrating routine of squinting at bottles, refusing recommendations, and responding to all advice with unequivocal intonations of "Hmm."

Behind the counter - with all the low-end whites, I should mention - I spotted a funny, natural-looking** label, and asked the proprietor what it was. He explained that the label I was looking at, which read, cryptically, "Bourgogne Typé S," was in fact the back label, and then turned the bottle around to reveal a very staid, low-end classic Burgundy label: it was a 2009 Bourgogne Aligoté by Domaine du Vieux Collège, a Marsannay-based estate of whom I knew nothing.

Except, it wasn't. The fellow from Ma Cave explained to me that actually the "Typé S" was the vigneron's way of denoting a parcel of Sauvignon that he owned in Marsannay, where the grape is not in fact legally allowed to be planted. The vigneron bottled it this way to throw off whichever authorities*** usually control this sort of thing, and sold it to Ma Cave and a few other friends.

The wine was a little under 6€, so I needed no more convincing. A glass of the bottle went into that evening's sausage ragù; the rest I drank. And how does Sauvignon from Marsannay taste? Like Sauvignon, that I can say. Maybe some Lemon Head candy notes, thin mineral. It tasted and smelled like Sauvignon, but with a certain artificial grip on the palate made me wonder about additives. I read that Vieux Collège practice the old lutte raisonée, and are converting to organic viticulture, but some folks can reason away anything. To draw any real conclusions about Sauvignon on Marsannay terroir, one would have to find a more expensive wine.

For legal examples of Sauvignon in Burgundy, there is the fledgling Saint-Bris appellation, up near Chablis, the best examples of which come from Domaine Goisot.

For what it's worth, though, Saint-Bris is predominantly chalk and limestone soil, where Marsannay has more clay and marl along with chalk.

Happily, I'd been so curious about the wine itself that the actual gustatory disappointment wasn't much of one. And from what I saw on that one visit, Ma Cave contains other surprises that are more reliably delicious. The fellow at Ma Cave had not seemed too hot on natural wine when I stated a preference for it; nonetheless I spotted more than a few identifiably natural producers on the shelves, notably Hervé Souhaut. ("Ah," said the fellow, "but his wines are very stable." "There are lots of very stable natural wines!" I refrained from shouting.)

I might as well add that the ragù came out tops. It finally occurred to me to brown some butter separately this time, and add it to the mixture at the very end, along with some fried sage leaves.

The Native Companion and I accompanied it with a freaking marvelous biodynamic 2008 Grignolino by Barbaresco-based producer Olek Bondonio, a gift from my friend J at Palate Restaurant in Los Angeles, via the excellent wine buyer there, Steve, who'd kindly agreed to lug it to Paris at J's behest.

I'm as big a fan of Grignolino as anyone, but I'd been skeptical it would be worth two transatlantic trips.

I was wonderfully wrong. This was a Grignolino with Nebbiolo education, dark leathery fruit, and ashen tannins, sour blackberries and cigarettes - the last curveball in a day full of them.

* Which can really be hard to find in a pinch on a Sunday. My usual go-tos are Le Verre Volé by the Canal St. Martin, or the limited selection at Chair de Poule, near Parmentier.

** It is a sad fact of natural wine graphic design that things often look really cheap and cartoony. 

*** It is true that publishing this blog post risks blowing the lid off the whole thing. I thought about that, and then considered, what the hell, the wine wasn't very good anyway. As a weak gesture to prudence, I'm declining to mention the vigneron by name.

Ma Cave
105, rue de Belleville
75019 PARIS
Tel: 01 42 08 62 95 ‎

Related Links:

Probably my favorite address in the 19ème: Quedubon, 75019

Some nice coverage of the market at the Place des Fêtes @ WineTerroirs
A profile of Domaine du Vieux Collège @ BourgognExtra


  1. Just found this, a lovely post. I represent Olek's wines in London and when visiting the other week found out that sadly 2013 will be the last vintage of Grignolino. The 'Nebbiolo education' you speak of is spot on. Olek's few rows are planted amongst Nebbiolo in his Roncagliette Barbaresco vineyard, which is the same tiny vineyard Gaja makes Sori Tildin from. Expensive real estate I guess! His Pelaverga from the same vineyard is wonderful too if you get the chance and he will keep making this moving forward. Alex.

  2. hi alex ! thanks so much for your note. happily my friend who gave me the grignolino sent me a bottle of pelaverga at the same time ! both were indeed terrific. will definitely try to stop in and visit olek next time i'm in that area