21 December 2018

01 October 2018

let's talk about aix: the côteaux d'aix en provence AOC

When I spoke to Var natural vigneron Jean-Christophe Comor back in July, he aired certain criticisms of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence, or CIVP: chiefly, that tended to market rosé colour over rosé terroir. He found it absurd that the rosés of Provence are divided into the appellations Côtes de Provence, Côteaux Varois en Provence, and Côteaux d'Aix en Provence. "They don't all have the same terroir," he said. "But they all do the same [vinification] techniques."

As an itinerant wine writer and bystander to the scenario, I'm actually perfectly happy there are three distinct Provençal appellations, because it apparently means there are several distinct promotional budgets. So it was that, in the wake of a press junket to the Côteaux Varois this past May, I was invited to return to Provence in late September to attend a tasting of the wines of the adjacent Côteaux d'Aix en Provence appellation. The kicker - in fact, the trip's redeeming feature - was that this time we were to principally taste the region's oft-overlooked red wines.

At 4127ha, the Côteaux d'Aix en Provence appellation has only about a fifth of the planted surface as the adjacent Côtes de Provence, while covering a similar area. This testifies to the more urbanized landscape of the Côteaux d'Aix en Provence appellation, which extends from Arles and Saint-Rémy to the respective outskirts of Marseille and Aix. The terroir is, to put it lightly, diverse, varying from hilly sites bordering the Côteaux Varois to lowlands bordering the Étang de Berre and coastal sites west of Marseille. That's not to say the appellation's reds lack identity. The tasting of the appellation's red wines, held at the Château Vignelaure, revealed a slightly anachronistic Bordeaux fascination, presumably attributable to the fabulous wealth and conservatism of local landowners. But there were highlights, too.

30 August 2018

la courtille, tavel

The renown of Paris 20ème-arrondissement bistrot Le Baratin has a firm basis in the indisputable finesse of chef Raquel Carena's cuisine and the marksman-like natural wine instincts of her partner Philippe Pinoteau. Oft-overlooked amid the accolades surrounding the restaurateur couple is their savvy in human resources. Decades of hiring staff dedicated to natural wine - if not deriving directly from winemaking families, as in the case of front-of-house alums Inès Métras and Thibault Pfifferling - has helped the restaurant's influence expand far beyond Paris.

This summer, the southern Rhône village of Tavel saw the opening of La Courtille, a seasonal restaurant by two other talented Le Baratin alumnae, server-chef Natalia Crozon, and chef Marie Lézouret. Housed in the courtyard of an historic building formerly dedicated to silkworm production, La Courtille offers a menu that, in Crozon's own telling, is kind of another Le Baratin.

Bravo to that, my friends and I responded, over lunch back in July. Who wouldn't be overjoyed to find an homage to Carena's rustic preparations of veal kidney and beef cheeks transposed to a spacious sunlit courtyard provisioned with an unending supply of natural and organic Tavel rosé ?

22 August 2018

restaurant éphémère, vauxrenard

This coming Saturday will be the last service of the season at Restaurant Éphémère, a lovely and unexpected pop-up lunch restaurant tucked in the Beaujolais-Villages hamlet of Vauxrenard.

Run by the Dutch duo of legal recruiter-turned-restauratrice Gusta van Walsem and chef Jessie Ydo, Éphémère is housed in the backyard of Gusta's boyfriend, the acclaimed natural Fleurie vigneron Yvon Métras. Opening his farmhouse home to a stream of friends, neighbors, and tourist clientele all summer was perhaps the last thing I would have expected Métras to do, short of perform in a ballet. But by all accounts the restaurant has been a success. When this past weekend I asked Métras' son Jules how it was going, he replied, "It's full every day, and there's even people we don't know coming!" 

His mild surprise is a testament more to the isolation of Vauxrenard (population: 318) and the near-total absence of promotion behind the project than the quality of the wine and cuisine, which are both splendid. I visited in early July, shortly after Restaurant Éphémère opened, and found the Métras backyard transformed into a dining terrace, where sat, at tables shielded from the sun by a stark yellow tarp, a small cavalcade of natural winemaking peers: van Walsem's friend and fellow Dutch émigrée Florien Kleine Snuverink, a partner at Domaine Les Bottes Rouges in the Jura, Villié-Morgon's Georges Descombes, David and Michele Chapel of Domaine Chapel, along with Métras himself, bemused as ever.

16 August 2018

the tavel rosé of today: couleur tavel 2018

"Couleur Tavel" is an annual tasting festival held in the Gard village of Tavel to celebrate its eponymous rosé appellation. I had the pleasure of attending this July on the invitation of the Lyonnais press agency Clair de Lune. The public tasting itself, held in the warren of ancient gardens in Tavel's town center, was a labyrinthine clusterfuck, choked with giddy wandering families; it was followed by dinner at a wagon circle of food trucks surrounding a sort of dance-free dance-party, resembling a nocturnal exercise video, held in the Place du Président Leroy.

Given that the appellation comprises just 930ha, and is devoted exclusively to rosé wine, the "Couleur Tavel" event is not particularly diverse, nor does it appear to be aimed at a professional market. I was still delighted to attend, because it offered an occasion to familiarize myself with the prevailing norms of the Tavel appellation. The only Tavels I ever seem to drink are the wines of the appellation's black sheep, Eric Pfifferling, and as magnificent as his deep red rosés are, they are unrepresentative of the appellation at large.

Perhaps it is better to say Pfifferling's wines are unrepresentative of the Tavel appellation as it exists today. As I've come to understand it, a rosé wine, at the time the Tavel appellation was decreed in 1936, resembled more a light red wine than the transparent pink wine present-day drinkers have come to know as rosé. The overwhelming majority of the vignerons of Tavel, meanwhile, are producing something in-between, but closer to the latter, a watermelon-coloured rosé neither quite of the present era, nor of tradition.

01 August 2018

jean-christophe comor on natural rosé vinification

In early July I decided on the spur of the moment to join the Native Companion for an evening in the Provençal seaside town of Hyères, where she'd gone for work. The sojourn presented a fine occasion to follow up on my recent chat with Var natural winemaker Jean-Christophe Comor, who I'd run into at the Côteaux Varois AOC 25th Anniversary party back in late May. His 15-hectare domaine in La Roquebrussanne is just a 45 minute drive north from Hyères.

I've bought Comor's wines for several restaurant wine lists in Paris over the years, having initially made his acquaintance at various tasting salons. As a vigneron, he cuts a peculiar figure: owl-eyed, eloquent, slightly hunched, he's a former souverainiste politician and law professor who renounced politics in 2002 to make natural wine in the Côteaux Varois.

Today his idiosyncratic range of wines - 11 cuvées in all - includes highlights like the lightly-macerated, foudre-aged carignan blanc "Analepse" and a suavely powerful Bandol bearing the silly pun "L'Amourvèdre." But I have a special fascination with Comor's two natural rosés, simply because the category itself has grown so scarce in the present era of ultramodern colour-corrected Provençal Stepford-Wife rosé. In the cellar of his beautiful newly-constructed cuverie - built from local stone along the same foundations as an ancient sheepfold - we discussed what it means to produce natural rosé in Provence today.

19 June 2018

as var as I know: 25 years of the côteaux varois en provence AOC

My first move, upon being freed from my recent restaurant work somewhat sooner than anticipated, was to belatedly accept a lot of press junket invitations. This is how at the end of May I found myself spending two days shuttling around the Var with a gaggle of other journalists and bloggers, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Côteaux Varois en Provence AOC

The Côteaux Varois en Provence, a predominantly red wine appellation at its ascension to AOC in 1993, now devotes a whopping 91% of its production to rosé. I had mentally prepared myself for two days of industry doublespeak intended to pass off the effects of highly invasive vinification as the result of unique terroir and know-how. Perversely, this the reason rosé production holds such fascination for me: in no other wine category is there such a vast, irreconcilable gulf between what the mass wine market wants and what can feasibly be produced via natural vinification methods.

Natural rosé is one thing. The Provençal rosé currently soaring in popularity - salmon-coloured, dewdrop-clear, fruit-basket-flavored - is a different product entirely. In a surprisingly double-edged speech he gave at the AOC’s anniversary party in Saint-Julien, Gilles Masson, director of the Center of Research and Experimentation on Rosé Wine, called the “Provençal rosé idéotype” - a wine that is “transparent, fruity, round” - “almost an invention.” He went further than his prepared slides, saying it was “a type of wine that never existed in history.”

24 April 2018

a divorce with la vieille

Well, that was quick. As of earlier this month, I've left the manager and wine director position I held for the past eight months at the 1èr arrondissement restaurant Chez La Vieille.

In writing about the restaurant, before and after beginning to work there, I used to emphasise the involvement of American chef Daniel Rose, to differentiate this iteration of Chez La Vieille from the mediocre ones that preceded it at the historic Les Halles bistrot site. Alas, not even the involvement of Rose, who I've been tempted to consider a friend at times, was enough to save my job from his Parisian business partners. Many restaurants have investors who display zero familiarity with restaurant culture or the quotidian rhythms of a food service establishment, people whose actual involvement extends no further than dining as VIP clients from time to time and volunteering hilariously uninformed commentary on the cuisine and wine. Investors of this sort are no more than a benign nuisance when a more informed stakeholder is working on-site. At Chez La Vieille, I realised soon enough, the only informed stakeholder lives in New York.

As it happened, the task Rose had hired me to perform at Chez La Vieille - to turn the restaurant into a fun, raucous natural wine destination - ran counter to the wishes of his Parisian partners, who, like many of their generation and socioeconomic bracket, remain mystified by natural wine and find informal service slightly unsettling. The end result is, I'm back on the job market. Chez La Vieille will chug along, just with less natural wine, and bereft of the talents of the ace chef de cuisine Oleg Olexin, who left shortly after I did (for different reasons). I am poorer than when I began, having made less money working maniac 90-hour weeks than I used to make from stray gigs and writing assignments. Am I richer for the experience of having managed a restaurant on this side of the Atlantic? It has certainly left me cagier about the prospect of ever opening one of my own. Perhaps that is a form of wisdom.

29 November 2017

at home chez la vieille

Early the other evening a client came into the restaurant and ordered a glass of Beaujolais primeur. There were few other clients at the bar at that hour and I decided to fill the air by delivering a short aria about Guy Breton's quixotic dedication to creating the greatest vin de primeur each year - his painstaking quest to perfect a wine type that almost nobody is willing to respect, let alone pay real money for. To create a perfect primeur is like solving a Rubix cube blind-folded in under 90 seconds, only less profitable.

To my surprise, the client was actually listening, and asked follow-up questions. When I mentioned that I wrote a wine blog, and its name, he was astonished, because he had been reading it for the last seven years. Before he left, he quite reasonably suggested I write something to inform readers what it is I am doing these days.

So here we are. Since end-August I have been managing a restaurant in the 1st arrondissement of Paris called Chez La Vieille. It's owned by the American chef Daniel Rose, who I first met years ago, back when my friend Josh Adler of Paris Wine Company worked for him at Restaurant Spring. The short version of how I returned to the hospitality industry is I found myself at loose ends last summer, having utterly failed to make sufficient money writing about food and wine for the previous year. When in mid-summer Daniel sent a message asking if I knew anyone who'd be a good fit to manage Chez La Vieille, I volunteered. Of course, I knew it would mean I'd have to cease penning fanged critiques of other Paris restaurants. That came as a relief at this point. I have spent so long explaining what goes wrong with restaurants and wine lists. Now my job is to demonstrate what can go right, or, more precisely, to draw clients' attention to the few aspects that do go right, to distract them from the train-wrecks, wild-fires, and five-car pile-ups that are part of the nightly routine at even the most successful restaurants.

17 August 2017

n.d.p. in marseille: les buvards, 13002

For a number of reasons, only one of which was my lack of money, the Native Companion and I wound up in Marseille for a micro-vacation earlier this month.

My ulterior motive for visiting Marseille was to visit a few winemakers in Bandol, a 40 minute drive east. Her ulterior motive for visiting Marseille was it would permit her to bring her small dog. We spent one day in Bandol visiting winemakers in the company of a small dog. The rest of the time was spent failing to turn up good restaurants in sweltering late-summer Marseille.*

The one outstanding exception was Les Buvards, a ramshackle natural cave-à-manger two blocks north of Le Vieux Port. When I asked how long they've been open, raven-haired co-proprietor Laetitia Pantalacci replied, "It'll be a decade come Beaujolais Nouveau," which is about the best answer I could hope to receive. As we sat down on one of the street-facing tables, the NC remarked that she'd never heard anyone mark time in terms of Beaujolais Nouveau before. I assured her it wasn't that unusual, for a pioneering natural wine establishment.

09 August 2017

n.d.p. in beaujolais: sebastien congretel, régnié-durette

The Beaujolais is barren for good restaurants, and the village of Régnié-Durette is no exception. Any business in Régnié-Durette has the added disadvantage of being secluded: the village proper, unlike nearby towns of Cercié and Villié-Morgon, is set back from the departmental roads. To explore Régnié-Durette usually means going out of one's way.

On drive from his newly restored home in the village to the cuvage he borrows from his father-in-law in Lantignié, I ask newly-installed vigneron Sebastien Congretel how the local Régnié restaurant is. He laughs. "They serve food," he says, in the manner of one awarding the highest possible praise.

Clean-cut, bespectacled, lightly jock-ish, Congretel wouldn't be picked out of a line-up as a vigneron. He formerly lived in the 11ème arrondissement of Paris, and had begun a career working on oil rigs before deciding, in 2015, to become a vigneron in the Beaujolais, where his wife Charlotte's family maintain a handsome estate in Lantignié. Her father lent him the use of a cuvage and equipment, and he was able to acquired parcels in Morgon and Régnié. In another stroke of luck, he fell in with two more senior Beaujolais immigrants, the brothers Julien and Antoine Sunier, who make formidable natural wine in Avenas and Régnié, respectively. This year sees the release of what Congretel considers his proper debut vintage - and the Morgon, in particular, implies he's a very quick study.

12 July 2017

a farewell to meat: super, 75011

UPDATE Aug. 2nd, 2017: David Loyola tells me he has named, or renamed, his primeur "SUPER," whereas until now everyone had referred to it as Aux Deux Amis Primeur. I've updated the text below to account for the name change. 

When I first heard that 11ème wine bar Aux Deux Amis proprietor David Loyola had taken on the lease for a large adjacent space on rue Oberkampf, I shook my head in awe of what I assumed would become an extension of his popular existing wine bar. Aux Deux Amis is by all appearances a massive cash cow, turning tables from lunchtime to past midnight, the only Parisian natural wine bar of its generation to truly embrace a fun, unruly bar atmosphere. Surely on a busy thoroughfare like rue Oberkampf, I thought, bigger would mean better for Aux Deux Amis.

Instead Loyola opened a primeur, or greengrocer. It's a slightly puzzling move, given how many excellent primeurs have opened up within 5 minutes' walk within the past six months. (Le Zingam's second address on rue de la Fontaine au Roi, and Terroirs d'Avenir's new location on rue Jean Pierre Timbaud.) Loyola's greengrocer venture is probably explicable by that fact that his friend Cyril Bordarier of Le Verre Volé has already locked up natural wine retail and gourmet foodstuffs on that particular corner of rue Oberkampf, with Le Verre Volé Cave and L'Epicerie du Verre Volé, respectively. For Loyola, the options were probably primeur or nail salon.

Even so, there is already a solid primeur 100 meters up the street, and a terrible one perhaps 10 meters away. SUPER is distinguished by an impressively locavore focus - the majority of its vegetables derive from the Île de France - along with ambitious prices. It offers a small, almost stealth selection of wine and beer, as well as lunch service. At noon Loyola lords over the roomy kitchen area, improvising a daily sandwich and bento from exclusively vegetarian components. "We wanted to do no meat, and no fish, just to stay truly on theme," he explains.

06 July 2017

the île de porquerolles: domaine de l'île, domaine perzinksy & domaine de la courtade

I sometimes worry I come across as too principled. I so rarely get invited on press junkets. I suspect many PR people imagine me to be a saber-rattling natural wine radical who, if cornered on a cliff's edge by LVMH regional sales managers, would sooner jump than appear in their selfies.

In fact, I quite like playing the shill now and then. I have no trouble appearing gracious and amused when plied with free things. So it was that I recently enjoyed a splendid trip to the Île de Porquerolles the other day, organised by the Côtes de Provence AOC in conjunction with a Lyonnais press agency called Claire de Lune.

The Île de Porquerolles is an island south of the Provençal town of Toulon. Formerly a private island belonging to the industrialist François Joseph Fournier, who purchased it in 1912, Porquerolles was bequeathed to the French state in 1985, and today is home to three wineries: Domaine La Courtade, Domaine Perzinsky, and Domaine de l'Île. "There are three domaines on the Île," explains Domaine Perzinksy oenologist Richard Auther, "And we have three completely different styles."

19 June 2017

n.d.p. in lyon: le troisième fleuve, 69009

A few Saturdays ago my friend N and I found ourselves staggering north in Lyon after a lunch at Café Comptoir Abel,* where the greatest wine available had been half-pints of Leffe. Desperate for a worthwhile drink before our train north, I thought to pay a visit to Vincent Dechelette, a former employee of acclaimed old-city wine retailer Antic Wine who last December opened his own boutique, entitled Le Troisième Fleuve, a respectable trek upriver from his old workplace.

The new shop's name will be familiar to anyone who has ever read any piece of wine writing on the Beaujolais: it derives from the heavily-worn Léon Daudet line, in which the 19th-century French journalist dubbed the wine of the Beaujolais the "third river" of Lyon, after the Rhône and the Saône. Delechette, like myself, is a massive believer in the gamay, granite, and goblet-training.

His young cave - a short corridor comprised of a stone wall facing a tall mass of shelving - boasts a mostly-natural Beaujolais selection to rival any more established wine retailers in the city. The region's wines comprise perhaps 30-40% of Le Troisième Fleuve, with the remainder deriving from up-and-coming domaines from the rest of France. Dechelette also demonstrates an easy fluency with Beaujolais hospitality: he kindly allowed us to crack open a few bottles on-site, when we arrived out of breath in mid-afternoon, slightly damp with rain and dying of thirst.

13 June 2017

n.d.p. in lyon: brasserie georges, 69002

To recommend a restaurant on the basis of anything other than food, service, or wine has always seemed very foolish, like recommending a tailor because he plays excellent piano. I still recall my revulsion when upon arriving in France in 2009, an acquaintance took me to Derrière, a Paris restaurant famous for containing, in a rear space accessed through a Narnia-like wardrobe door, a sort of playroom, replete with ping-pong. What are we, I thought, children at a birthday party?

Yet I will profess that, during visits to Lyon over the past two years, among my most moving dining experiences has been at Brasserie Georges, a vast, ancient institution where the charm is mostly historical. The food - a solid impression of traditional dishes of Lyon and Alsace - and the wine - a safe selection of mostly reputable conventional estates - are both remarkable only for a restaurant of Brasserie Georges' immense size. It measures 667m2; seven hundred guests can be served per service.

Restaurants on this titanic scale tend to make one feel like a cog in a large machine. The nostalgic triumph of Brasserie Georges is to hark back to an early-modern era when large machines, and even sensations of anonymity, were novel and inspiring. The restaurant was founded in 1836 - the time of Baudelaire - but there is a distinctly Futurist zing in the air. Seated in the reverberating bustle of Brasserie Georges, one feels suffused with a strange hope, resembling the exhilaration of a Hollywood villain expositing over the loud, steady construction of his doomsday device.

08 June 2017

deck & donohue la terrasse at bob's bake shop, 75018

As of early May, Montreuil micro-brewery Deck & Donohue has teamed up with 18ème-arrondissement vegetarian canteen Bob's Bake Shop to liven up the latter's enormous terrace all summer.

Spearheading the project is Daniela Lavadenz, Thomas Deck's superhumanly energetic fiancée, who previously honed her skills in the kitchen at Au Passage and the dining room of Le Six Paul Bert. At Deck & Donohue La Terrasse, she offers a small menu of well-plated snack foods faithful to both the project's ambitions - a casual beer-garden sans garden - and its host, a vegetarian restaurant. The fried-food-and-frankfurter tendencies of the standard beer-garden concept are therefore replaced with hummous, marinated peppers, a slurpably brilliant salmorejo, and roast potatoes with chimichurri sauce, a nod to Lavadenz's Bolivian heritage. Supplementing the terrace's four taps of joltingly fresh Deck & Donohue beers are a bevy of natural rosés by the glass, from the likes of Julien Merle, Château Bas, and Frederic Rivaton.

To anyone like myself, reluctant, during summertime, to plunk down beaucoup euros for lengthy meals at fine Paris restaurants that invariably lack air-conditioning or even basic ventilation, Deck & Donohue La Terrasse offers a form of salvation. But the project's appeal will be tested by its location north of métro Lachapelle, a heavily immigrant neighborhood whose female residents have recently drawn significant media attention to routine harassment its streets. Salvation, in this case, comes with a healthy dose of social consciousness.