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.

24 February 2011

cue evil laughter

It's a little sad, but purely out of vanity, I have yet to delete any commmentary. Not even this sinister fellow, the substance of whose comment is somewhat hilarious, when you consider that it was left anonymously.

I just figure, you know, so be it.

23 February 2011

galaxie 500 & romorantin: au nouveau nez, 75020

Well, it wasn't precisely a pairing. My friends and I were pre-gaming at Au Nouveau Nez on the way to Saturday's Dean Wareham show, where the songwriter was slated to play only his classic late-eighties / early-nineties Galaxie 500 work. I'd arrived early, a lucky thing, since it's my unavoidably antisocial habit to lose myself in perusal of any wine selection for upwards of fifteen minutes before any drinks get poured.

Au Nouveau Nez 20ème proprietress Agnès and I got to talking about the wines of the Courtois family: a range of biodynamic Loire wines from Sologne, mostly field blends, mostly Vin de Tables, all labeled according to who in particular made the wine: Claude, le pere, or his son Julien, or his other son Etienne. Agnès, her partner Nadine (who runs the Au Nouveau Nez in the 11ème), and I had all recently tasted many of the Courtois' wines at the La Dive Bouteille tasting in Saumur, and we all left with different favorites.

Nadine preferred the reds. Agnès and I preferred the whites - almost to exclusion, in my case. (The reds, while sturdy and honest, strike me as slightly muddy and unfocused.) Nevertheless we were all charmed by the style of the Courtois clan in general, which, like Dean Wareham's old band, rests on an exotic tension between the maximal - everything-but-the-kitchen sink grape blends, numerous cuvées, Galaxie 500's arena-sized reverb - and the minimal, as represented by the simplicity and coherence of the results, the vinous equivalent of Wareham's two-chord homages to Lou Reed.

22 February 2011

a masterpiece: bistrot paul bert, 75011

Noticing this picture was one of two wonderfully disturbing moments of a recent lunch at 11ème bistro institution Bistrot Paul Bert. The other was when my friend / coworker D casually announced that his plans that Friday evening were to stay up all night staking out a purportedly violent ghost in a stranger's apartment near Metro Sentier.

Please pass the mustard.

It was a longer story than is worth going into on a wine blog. But I can theorize, perhaps more relevantly, that one of the reasons Bistrot Paul Bert remains so universally appealing - to everyone from locals to tourists to politicians to restaurateurs to wine geeks like myself - is its discreet capacity to surprise, even while remaining one of the most effortlessly classic establishments in the city.

21 February 2011

la renaissance des aoc's: domaine de l'ecu

Just a petit mot about Domaine de l'Ecu's rocking 2010 Muscadets, which I tasted while waiting in line to taste Nicolas Joly's Savennieres at the Renaissance des Appellations this year. As I mentioned in a previous post, the latter wines were all showing fairly hot and flabby, which let-down made the Domaine de l'Ecu wines shine even brighter, in retrospect. Winemaker Guy Bossard makes what to many drinkers are oxymoronic wines: a range of complex, elegant Muscadets, gem-like in their precision, each named for its soil type:  Gneiss, Granite, and Orthogneiss.

Now, it's not news to me that Muscadet can be profound. I seem to encounter a version meant to knock my socks off at least once every six months: often it's a screaming bargain, by a top producer of Muscadet, with seven to ten years' age on it. As much as I enjoy the experience, this genre of profound Muscadet seems to me to be of chiefly archival interest: somms gather round and nod with surprise and delight that after so many years such simple wines are showing strange inanimate-sweet flavors, none of which are, upon further reflection, very pleasurable. Creamed corn, seaweed, dirty mineral, etc.

What sets the Bossard wines apart is they are not merely good-for-Muscadet. With the exception of the basic "Cuvée Boss'Art," which seems to be a 'what-do-we-do-with-the-leftovers' kind of wine, they all possess a chiseled grace that places them among the most enjoyable whites I tasted at the Renaissance this year.

18 February 2011

la renaissance des aoc's: elisabetta foradori's new amphora crus

At the Renaissance des AOCs tasting I was surprised and delighted to meet Elisabetta Foradori, a trailblazing biodynamic winemaker from Trentino, and one of the most prominent ambassadors of Italian wine in general. Some measure of how pleased I was might be found in my willingness to post the above photo, despite the poor lighting, which causes me to look like a drunken koala.

Foradori's reds, made from the rich, raspy, autochthonous Campo Rotaliano grape Teroldego,* are fixtures on just about every great Italian wine list in the states, including the few that I've worked on myself. Partly this is due to how few Teroldego producers there are - it is not grown in any real quantities outside the tiny Teroldego Rotaliano DOC, of which Foradori is by far the dominant figure. But Teroldego the grape, which has been genetically linked to Syrah, always presents a fine opportunity for sommeliers to surprise their guests with a weird unknown wine - Italy! what diversity! - that nevertheless hits many familiar pleasure centers: rich fruit, tannic grip, relatively tame acid, etc. There are built-in narrative selling points, too: how Elisabetta Foradori lost her father to cancer at a young age, and thereupon took charge of her struggling family estate, and through hard work and clever promotion turned a backwards, hard-to-pronounce local grape into one of Italy's most famous and written-about reds.

You could say its almost a fond tradition for Italian restaurants at a certain level to stock Foradori. I admittedly never gave it a lot of thought, because I found her basic Teroldego engaging, but not lifechanging, and her continually Tre-Bicchieri-netting "Granato" more impressive at the expense of typicity - whatever it is that makes Teroldego Teroldego.** The wines made people happy more than they made me happy. At the Renaissance des AOCs this year, however, Foradori was debuting two new cru magnum bottlings of Teroldego, "Sgarzon" and "Morei," both fermented and aged in clay amphorae. I tasted the latter, and to say it floored me would be an understatement. It actually retroactively justified all the hyperbole ever written about the grape, "Granato," the whole operation.

17 February 2011

any other city in the world: juveniles, 75001

My colleagues and I used to pass this place often on the way to lunch at "Japanese Tapas" restaurant Issé, before the latter establishment incomprehensibly doubled their prices and ceded most of the menu to criminally expensive variations on grilled eel.* I'd read Juveniles was an historically important Paris wine bar, but until the other night after a film with my friend F, I'd put off visiting solely on the grounds that no one whose opinions I respect has ever said a peep about the place. It doesn't seem to be on the radar of quality-conscious people.

This is understandable, given Juveniles' tourist-artery location, and, yes, the general low quality of what F and I snacked on that night. The wine bar's most notable aspect is in fact that which will prevent me from returning very often, despite its proximity to my office: in its pokey, avuncular décor, its cheesing goofiness towards wine as a subject, and its focus on wine as a global field, through which one may ostensibly travel at the pop of a cork, Juveniles could pass for a genial, amateurish, wine-themed bar in any other city in the world.

Cincinatti, Liverpool, Melbourne...

16 February 2011

with a little help from derain: julien altaber at la dive bouteille

In any given packed, cavernous, pitch dark wine tasting, it's often difficult to differentiate vignerons whose wines are creating a real buzzworthy stir from those who simply have a ton of friends and admirers. Acclaimed biodynamic Burgundy vignerons Catherine et Dominique Derain certainly fall into the latter camp, probably the former also. I unfortunately missed the opportunity to taste through their current vintages this year at the Renaissance des AOCs in Angers and La Dive Bouteille, because at both tastings there was such a surging throng around their stand that to wait it out for the sake of a few sips of St. Aubin would have meant about forty minutes of waiting shoulder-to-shoulder for pours, during which time I could have tasted, and did instead taste, a bajillion other interesting wines.*

For instance: the surprisingly masterful Bourgogne AOC wines of Julien Altaber, a protogé of the Derains, who after working for them for years has recently begun making his own wines, using their facilities in St. Aubin. When J and I approached, he was standing looking kind of marooned near an entrance to the catacombs, by a barrel upon which stood the three wines he's bottled to date: a 2009 Bourgogne Blanc, and two Bourgogne Rouges, from 2008 and 2007 respectively.

All three were superb, which, of course, accounts for the buzz that had led us to taste his otherwise completely unassuming wines in the first place. (An importer friend from New York had tipped us off.)

15 February 2011

every night would be nice: les trois seaux, 75011

A few weeks back I posted a note about the intimate pre-opening soirée of Les Trois Seaux, a new bistro à vin on rue de la Fontaine au Roi in the 11ème, in which blog post the restaurant was sort of shown half-built with its pants down, as it were. Since the ouverture proper I've owed it to gregarious owner Olivier Aubert to stop in and have a real meal, which happy obligation I was at last able to meet the other Friday night with my friend IF and his visiting friends from London.

One reliably great thing about newborn restaurants is you can walk-in with a party of five on a Friday night and get seated toute suite. Unlike Aubert's wine bar in the 4ème, La Bodeguita du IVème, Les Trois Seaux is not situated directly beside the Centre Pompidou, so it doesn't have the same built-in audience. Les Trois Seaux is also a more ambitious venture than either of Les Bodeguitas (Aubert co-owns one in the 9ème as well) - there's a real kitchen, a market menu, a chef, Philippe Lerault, who cut his teeth at the Hotel Le Meurice - so it's understandable that the restaurant will take time to gain a following.

Right now, the ingredients for success are there: simple, satisfying cuisine, well-selected natural wines, a spacious dining room, a proprietor with knowledge and charm. Even beyond this, the recent opening of ever-packed wine bar Le Dauphin around the corner has certainly shown there's a thirst for quality in the immediate neighborhood. What remains is for these conditions to be exploited, but not too much.

14 February 2011

fury & eggs: le bal café, 75018

The team at Le Bal Café serves the greatest Sunday brunch in Paris. Every detail of the experience - from the NYTimes-worthy coffee, to the squeezed-to-order orange juice, to the perfectly-streaked bacon - belies an approach to brunch that is as simple as it is heart-winning: they try to present only the best possible versions of things. Even if it involves staffing someone to do nothing other than squeeze orange juice for six hours straight.

The only problem is the hordes of fellow brunchers, who have risen earlier than you and taken all the tables and eaten most of the food by the time you arrive. Even then, Le Bal Café theoretically has the institutional advantage of the attached bookshop and photography museum, with which one is free to distract oneself during the interminable wait for a table.

Except, as my friend H and I discovered the other Sunday, the fellow who runs the bookshop is a raging lunatic.

11 February 2011

loire road trip, pt. VII: quedubon homecoming, 75019

Tensions began to run high on that last day of our Loire adventure. Due to my ill-timed encounter with Bertrand Jousset and his excellent range of Loire whites, we'd left freezing subterranean natural wine tasting La Dive Bouteille somewhat later than intended, thereby imperiling our chances of making it to what was meant to be the architectural highlight of our trip, and the unqualified highlight of C's trip: the 16th-century Château de Chambord, near Blois.*

Happily, traffic was relatively light in the middle of nowhere in the Loire that day, so we made the trip in record time - only to be informed by the comically brainless ticket-taker that most of the entire château was off-limits for viewing that day, either on account of renovation or on account of a period film that was being shot on the ground floor. (Both were occurring without any kind of website forewarning.) C was justifiably livid. It was a little as if J and I had been informed, upon entry to La Dive earlier that day, that, due to some filming, no winemakers were in fact to be present, just the wines and the vicious chill.

I discovered that châteaux are actually horribly uncomfortable, at least in wintertime. The Château de Chambord in particular is so monstrously large that I presume the French government, after purchasing it in 1930, immediately thought, "Merde, how the hell are we going to fill this huge empty château?" On each (accessible) level there was a great central hall of nothing, at one corner of which sputtered a sad fire, around which were gathered whichever tourists or film crew happened to be on that floor. They might have been burning relics to keep warm, it would not have been unreasonable. Anyway we left the grand majestic Shiteau and I suspect the memory of the general desolation of the place was what made all three of us so game for a homecoming dinner, at J's suggestion, at 19ème natural wine bistro Quedubon, home of probably the warmest welcome in all of Paris.

10 February 2011

loire road trip, pt. VI: la dive bouteille

My friend and traveling companion J had told me serious horror stories about the darkness and freezing temperatures at last year's Dive Bouteille, the sprawling natural-focused public wine tasting that, for the second year in a row, was held in the catacombs below the Château de Brézé in Saumur. The wines were overchilled, you couldn't see, winemakers turned into ice sculptures and then you walked into them in the dark, etc.

Most of his descriptions were still pertinent this year, despite the organizers' best efforts. (They had even gone so far as to include images of toasters and heat lamps on the posters for this year's event.) La Dive this year remained drafty, antarctic, pitch-dark in places - echoes even made it difficult to hear - which numbing conditions all amount to a miserable environment in which to taste wines professionally, and a great deal of unserious fun.

This was the one tasting on our Loire itinerary where I said to hell with note-taking. Nevertheless I managed to retain very positive impressions of a few wines I tasted that day, beginning with the powerhouse Côtes du Marmandais wines of Elian de Ros.

09 February 2011

loire road trip, pt. V: bistrot de la place, saumur

Among the chief occupational hazards of the wine industry are dinners with many other traveling wine professionals. By the time the plats arrive there are invariably more bottles on the table than pins on a bowling lane, and a sort of mad profligate glee takes over, as yet more bottles are ordered, not to replace the unfinished ones already in play, but to provide further points of aesthetic comparison at any cost. If, like me two Sundays ago at Bistrot de la Place in Saumur, you are traveling without recourse to any kind of expense account, you're toast - you have to just surrender to the spirit of the occasion and bring homemade soup to work for the rest of the month.

What the hey, anyway. All of us were fortunate to have had any kind of night out in sleepy Saumur on a Sunday. During the period of the Renaissance des Appellations and La Dive Bouteille, the Bistrot de la Place books up solid, and we'd only snagged a twelve-top thanks to the admirable foresight of my friend J2,* who'd narrowly missed out on a table the year before.

08 February 2011

loire road trip, pt. IV: la renaissance des appellations, angers

I was remarkably intact the day after Catherine and Pierre Breton's off-the-chain bacchanalia in Bougeuil. Not bushy-tailed, by any means, but relatively steady on my feet, considering how little we had eaten - just fugitive handfuls of pommes frites, tartes flambées, and pork ribs all night - and what lakefuls of random wine we'd consumed. My friends J, C, and I sat through a pleasant pokey breakfast in our chambre d'hôte, attacking the weak coffee and yogurts while the proprietress, apparently unfamiliar with hangover etiquette, regaled us with an unrelenting news-anchor-like monologue concerning minute local regulatory controversies, unusually high rainfall, broken fence-posts, etc.

C, a born chatterer and native French speaker, is a tremendous asset in these scenarios. J and I mostly kept our heads down with ours mouths full and spent time petting the menagerie of cute characterful dogs our loud expository hostess had collected. At some point our gallantry failed us and we just wandered off, leaving C to extricate herself from a lengthy explanation of local flora.

We had a wine tasting to get to. The annual Renaissance des Appellations in Angers is the biodynamics-focused satellite tasting to the bigger and less explicitly bio Salon des Vins de Loire. Unlike La Dive Bouteille, a tasting held in the catacombs beneath the Château de Brézé, to which we were headed the following day, Le Renaissance des Appellations is not a public tasting. With 100+ vignerons packed into the Grenier St. Jean that day, presenting mostly biodynamic wines, there was far too much to taste in one day, let alone write up in one fell swoop. But we started with the tasting's lone Austrian stand, the renowned biodynamic Nikolaihof estate.

07 February 2011

loire road trip, pt. III: café de la promenade, bourgeuil

We'd been informed esteemed Loire vignerons Catherine & Pierre Breton were hosting a nice civilized sit-down dinner kind of thing. We never have the right information.

04 February 2011

loire road trip, pt. II: clos rougeard

Besides the wines themselves, the most unforgettable thing about last Saturday's tasting at Clos Rougeard was mustachioed winemaker Nady Foucault's strange entrance.

My friends J, C, and I had shown up early for our appointment,* along with winemakers Romain Guiberteau (Saumur) and Frantz Saumon (Montlouis), with whom we'd just had a very brief bada-bing-bada-boom sort of tasting at Domaine Guiberteau. By coincidence, they too had an appointment to taste the Clos Rougeard wines that day, so Romain led the way on the short drive to the nearby village of Chacé.

Once inside the unmarked gates of the Clos Rougeard operation, Romain guided us directly down into the dark wet cellar, where we encountered - no one. Romain, who'd been there before, called out a few times, and checked quickly into adjacent corridors, finding no one. We ascended back to surface level and smoked cigarettes for about twenty minutes in the freezing evening breeze, Romain remarking on how eerie it was that everything had been left open and seemingly abandoned.

Soon we were joined by a caviste from Bretagne and his two friends, who had evidently been doublebooked with us for the degustation. They lit cigarettes too.  There were like eight of us by now, standing around like a flock of pelicans, with others still to arrive. We were remarking on the odd incongruity of a nearby palm tree in the courtyard, when the winemaker we'd been awaiting, Nady Foucault, emerged from the same cellar we'd initially checked. He took the time to close the cellar door before balling his big fists at his sides and giving us a look from above his walrus mustache that said something to the effect of "What are you idiots all doing just standing there?"

02 February 2011

loire road trip, pt. I: late for domaine guiberteau

I had the tremendous good fortune this past weekend to be invited by my friends J and C on a road trip to several enormous wine tastings in the Loire valley. It was particularly nice of them to bring me along given that I don't have a valid French driver's license*, which condition reduced me to the inessential role of ballast for most of the long hard driving. The Loire valley, I discovered, is vast, and mostly empty.

J, who is the wine director at 1er arr. restaurant / boutique Spring, had snagged us two excellent cellar-visits for that Saturday. The second, which I'll report later, was at the illustrious benchmark Saumur estate Clos Rougeard, in Chacé. The first appointment, for which we ran a bit late, was a few miles away at Domaine Guiberteau, in Mollay, where Antoine Romain Guiberteau makes acclaimed natural Saumur whites and reds that in retrospect seem somewhat palpably (and understandably) influenced by a certain nearby illustrious benchmark Saumur estate.

For our lateness that day, we had any of three excuses.

01 February 2011

still relevant: didier gimmonet at caves augé, 75008

In the run-up to Christmas last year, as cavistes all over Paris were engaged in the annual delirious Champagne salesmanship, my patient friend S and I crossed town in the snow to attend a grower-Champagne tasting at Caves Augé, in the hopes of tasting the acclaimed, near-mythical wines of Anselme Selosse, a famous natural vigneron who was, in the end, not present at said grower-Champagne tasting.

It was a let-down. Most of the other barrels outside Caves Augé were manned by vignerons whose wines were already pretty familiar to me. And it was face-crackingly cold and our toes were little ice marbles. But, you know, we'd come all that way, and we had a few hours to kill before dinner, it seemed a shame to just wander off, defeated...

Anyway, these vaguely alcoholic rationalizations yielded the day's most enjoyable discovery: the consumately well-crafted, Chardonnay-driven Champagnes of Didier Gimmonet