26 November 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: patrick "jo" cotton, saint-lager

As we toured Brouilly vigneron Patrick Cotton's gently tumescent, unsloped vineyards in Saint-Lager, I remarked that one parcel seemed to be missing a great deal of vines. The vines didn't look that old, either.

Cotton, who goes by the inexplicable nickname of "Jo," confirmed they weren't exceptionally old vines. His father had planted them not long before he retired. The fungal disease esca had subsequently killed some of the vines. But Cotton, like his father before him, doesn't own his vines. He works under métayage, a system wherein rent is paid to a vineyard's owner in the form of a percentage of the year's wine. Under métayage, Cotton explained, the vineyard owner is meant to cover costs of replanting... Here he trailed off, for reasons that became clear later.

Cotton is the brother of Guy Gotton, of Côte de Brouilly's Domaine Sanvers et Cotton, and the uncle of Guy's winemaker son Pierre. Patrick came to winemaking somewhat later in life than those two, following a visit, in 1985, to an amusingly opinionated acupuncturist.

02 November 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: pierre cotton, odenas

I can think of few better indicators of the stratospheric potential of cru Beaujolais terroir than the nascent career of young Odenas winemaker Pierre Cotton. He returned from his studies to the famile estate, Domaine Sanvers et Cotton, in 2012, and commercialised his first wine under his own name in 2014: an unsulfured unfiltered Côte de Brouilly he dubbed "100% Cotton."

I first tasted it over lunch at Le Relais des Caveaux in Villié-Morgon just before harvest began. I could only shake my head in wonder. The wine is a screaming success, an instant benchmark for the appellation - impeccably balanced, but retaining a certain voluptuousness, with a mineral foundation and iris notes amid its finely-etched dark-cherry fruit. How on earth ?

I met Cotton for the first time a few days later, when he passed by the Métras cuvage around apéro hour. His bearishness and gnarly white and blue motorcycle belie his soft-spoken, modest demeanor - the sort of quite-tall fellow whose height one tends to underestimate. He gives little outward indication of being one of the region's most promising young natural vignerons.

26 October 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: l'auberge du col du truges, le truges

Living in Beaujolais for the past few months has revealed myriad semi-unknown regional charms. What it has not revealed are many good restaurants. The winemakers I know are kind of sho-ga-nai about the situation, aware that they themselves rarely patronise their rather dire local restaurants.

Most villages have a bar and a restaurant, or one establishment serving as both, pitched at the lowest price range possible for the business to remain viable. (In Beaujolais this is, strangely, still not that cheap. I often dine for the same prices in Paris' better-value restaurants.) In some villages, there persist Michelin-style establishments, but they are perpetually empty-ish, seemingly dependent on the birthdays and anniversaries of the elderly, and on what trickle of Belgian and Dutch tourism still remains. Tourism overall has been in decline since the 1990's, and the corresponding stagnation in the average Beaujolais citizen's income, coupled with the eminent availability of large kitchens in private homes and the laudable persistence of culinary know-how among families, means that the natives simply don't dine out much.

Atop the Col de Truges, however, on the border between high Morgon and Chiroubles, there sits a dowdy auberge whose unadorned Beaujolaise cuisine has remains constant, and consistently excellent, throughout the region's changing fortunes.

15 October 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: julie balagny, moulin-à-vent

Before I met Julie Balagny in early August, I had presumed she was the reclusive type. I don't know where I got this idea.

It may have been her former association with Fleurie vigneron Yvon Métras, a genuine reclusive type. Or because her stand at the Bien Boire en Beaujolais tasting this past April went mostly unmanned, from what I could tell. It may have been that I unconsciously projected onto Balagny herself the rarity and relative costliness of her daringly pure, soulful Fleurie wines, which in Paris can only be found at Les Caves du Panthéon, La Cave des Papilles, and occasionally Le Verre Volé.

In any event, I couldn't have been more wrong. Balagny has proved to be among the most enthusiastic and welcoming figures I've met during my time in Beaujolais. To a large degree I owe to her the fact I'm even here, for she very kindly put in touch with my present landlady in Lancié. In a heavily factionalized region where many great winemakers are press-averse to the point of paranoia, Balagny is an exceptional case. A Parisian who made wine in the Southwest and Provence before moving to Beaujolais in February 2009, she can sympathise with the difficulties of a newcomer, because she herself went through them.

08 October 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: la cuvée des copines 2015

Most wine regions have a colourful word for the traditional end-of-harvest party. In Burgundy it's la paulée. In the Aube it's le chien. In Beaujolais it's called la revole. Chez Yvon Métras la revole this year resembled an unending apéro, punctuated by bouts of pétanque and attended by a wide cast of friends and neighbors. Having harvested sixteen days straight with a string of different domaines, I was in less than sterling form for la revole. At one point I just conked out and scootered home to take a nap, only to return and continue drinking two hours later.

I must have felt particularly well-rested, because upon return I found myself cheerfully agreeing to harvest yet again the following day. Laure Foillard and her friends - many of them, like her, winemakers' daughters - invited me to help harvest ten bennes or so of what would become "La Cuvée des Copines."

Laure explained that it was a project they'd begun the previous year, when they harvested an untended parcel of vines and vinified it with help from their families. The results were bottled and divided up for personal consumption among the numerous participating copines - Poline, Ophélie, Camille, Alexia, Inès, Elisa, etc. This year the copines had their sights on a steep, neglected parcel of Chiroubles belonging to Elisa's family. Sounds like fun, I said. But if I harvest with the copines, do I have to dress up like a woman?

29 September 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: georges descombes, vermont

There was a man hanging around in the driveway when my friends and I showed up on bicycles for a rendezvous with Morgon-based winemaker Georges Descombes back in April. We parked the bikes and tried phoning Descombes, who didn't pick up. The man wandered over, regarding his own cell phone, whereupon I recognized him as renowned Loire winemaker Pierre Breton, with whom we had evidently been double-booked.

It was a stroke of luck for us. Descombes zoomed into the driveway in short order, and in addition to a generous tasting of his celebrated array of Beaujolais, my friends and I were able to enjoy the perceptive commentary of two masterful winemakers, whose mutual appreciation was itself a pleasure to observe. It turns out it was Breton's first time visiting Le Noune, too. (I have yet to discern the precise origin of Descombes' nickname, which is among the most colourful in a region of colourful nicknames.)

That it soon got dark, and that, upon departing the long tasting, I skidded on gravel while racing downhill without headlights from the hamlet of Vermont, and that I fell and broke my collarbone, necessitating a taxi ride to the hospital at Villefranche-sur-Saône, doesn't mar the occasion at all, in retrospect.

26 September 2015

buckets, bennes, and quenelles: beaujolais harvests 2015

I moved to Beaujolais in mid-August to research a book I hope to write on the region's wines. I bought a 50cc scooter to get around on and I rented an apartment in Lancié, between the cru villages of Villié-Morgon and Fleurie. The uncharacteristically long blog silence this past month was on account of harvest time. 

I had initially planned to harvest with just one domaine, Yvon Métras in Fleurie. Métras harvests quite late, however - we began on Sept. 3rd this year (early by historical standards, but late for 2015 in Beaujolais). By late August I'd realised that since I didn't need lodging, most other winemakers didn't mind if I put in just a day or two of work here and there with their harvest teams before commencing chez Métras. 

This is how I wound up harvesting sixteen days straight with the following winemakers: Gilles Paris (Chiroubles), Jean-Paul Thévenet (Villié-Morgon), Jean-Louis Dutraive (Fleurie), Guy Breton (Villié-Morgon), and finally Yvon and Jules Métras (Fleurie). This isn't counting several subsequent mornings and afternoons spent harvesting various experimental micro-cuvées for these and other winemakers, which stories I'll relegate to future blog posts. What follows for now is sort of a harvest data-dump, a series of images and observations that I hope will transmit some of the flavour of the experience. 

17 August 2015

eternal return: le dome café, 75014

Upon arriving in Paris, one can take pleasure in almost any characterful feature of the city, regardless of fame or exclusivity. For six years the bins of Chinese vegetables in Belleville and the hair-weave tumbleweed around Barbés fascinated me more than the Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay. But conversely, as earlier this summer I prepared to leave Paris, I found myself drawn to the old, uncurious Paris, and establishments such as Le Dôme Café, the historic Montparnasse seafood brasserie whose iconic fame and ludicrous price point had heretofore completely repelled me.

What changed? I guess I just didn't want to leave the city with the nagging doubt that, in my peregrinations around rive droite wine bars, I was merely nibbling at the edges of what the city had to offer its wealthier diners.

Moreover, the Native Companion was leaving the city too, headed for a different destination. I thought I would mark the unbearably sad occasion by a kind of financial suicide, blowing memorable amounts of euros at Le Dôme on fresh fish, François Côtat Sancerre, and cinematic décor - all the accoutrements of turgid, laurel-resting Paris that, in our time together there, we'd been doing our best to ignore.

11 August 2015

clowns: clown bar, 75011

To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kind of scary. I've wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus, and a clown killed my dad. - Jack Handey

My distrust of Ewan Lemoigne and chef Sven Chartier's work goes back to the time Lemoigne botched my reservation at Saturne. Had Lemoigne handled the situation with any decency, I would've simply returned some other time. As it was, I didn't return to Saturne for over three years, until a magazine paid for my lunch there in March.

I just wanted no part of supporting such an inhospitable hospitality group. Until recently I was boycotting the Saturne duo's newer project, rue Amelot's Clown Bar, for the same reasons. Friends in the Paris restaurant scene, in efforts to persuade me to try Clown Bar chef Astumi Sota's lauded cuisine, would invariably arrive at the phrase, "But Ewan's not even there!"* I wouldn't budge, preferring instead to support nicer people at neighboring places like Repaire de Cartouche, Au Passage, Pas de Loup, Aux Deux Amis, and Le Tagine.

But hell, time passes. I'm about to leave Paris for a few months and I'd like to leave all grudges behind. Lunch at Saturne was excellent in March: I left utterly convinced of Sven Chartier's talents. And despite my differences with Lemoigne, I can certainly applaud the wine list he assembled at Saturne, which ranks among the city's best. Clown Bar, for its part, is a worthy addition to Paris' dining scene, offering an unmistakably upmarket experience of fine cuisine and natural wines in a pleasantly versatile format: small plates, Sunday service, a big terrace, a bar. True, it's more expensive than all its stylistic peers. But Paris has an under-served constituency who want that.

23 July 2015

the noble savage: sauvage, 75006

The other evening I had the occasion to follow up on a surprising recommendation I'd received in March from Guardian wine columnist Fiona Beckett, who had turned up what sounded like a splendid wine bar in the least likely place of all: mere paces from luxury department store Le Bon Marché. This is deep, gerontocratic Paris, home to those Parisians whose wealth and social stability have largely spared them from meaningful interaction with the contemporary era, let alone any re-examination of their drinking habits.

I adore this neighborhood, naturally. But, save for the splendid Café Trama up the road, it's until now been very hard to find anything to drink there.

So newcomer natural-wine cave-à-manger Sauvage, when it opened in February on rue de Cherche-Midi, needed merely to exist to qualify as groundbreaking. Bare-bones, boxy, and cheerful, Sauvage resembles a small-town Scandinavian coffee shop. But owner Sebastien Leroy outdoes himself with a surprisingly uncompromising natural wine selection, and an improvisational menu that grasps beyond the usual cheese and charcuterie to include - at least on the night I visited - a bright and vivid lobster salad.

20 July 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: jean-paul thévenet, pizay

On a rainy morning in April, over some barrel samples of his and his son's old vine Morgon and Régnié (respectively), I mentioned to Jean-Paul Thévenet that I was planning a book project about the wines of Beaujolais. Like many winemakers I spoke to, he was encouraging, but not without certain qualifications.

"When we started making this type of wine, there were people who quite liked our wines, but who soon began telling us, this is good, and that’s not good, and it’s no good for us, to talk like that. There are people who work conventionally who work very well, and we ought to leave them the choice..."

Having worked for over three decades to encourage better viticultural and winemaking practices in his region, Thévenet is aware that progress is slow, where it occurs at all, and that the eager attention of a critic is likelier to inflame situations than improve them. Thévénet counsels patience.

"Little by little, the products are less noxious... There are a lot of people who begin to work a little more naturally. When we started to do this in 1985 - Marcel Lapierre a little before - we were often refused the appellation because [our wine] was marked atypical, not representative of the region. Meanwhile the old winegrowers told us that our wines were like the Morgon that was made fifty years ago."

09 July 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: jules métras, fleurie

Young Fleurie-based winemaker Jules Métras released his first wine under his own name this year, a Beaujolais-Villages sourced from two parcels, one in Lancié, the other in La Chappelle de Guinchay. The latter parcel was formerly owned by Jules Chauvet. Jules Métras vinifies the wine in his father's cellar, an anonymous-looking, un-insulated concrete structure perched amid the Fleurie climat of Grille-Midi.

He makes the wine in much the same way his father does. The fruit, harvested relatively late, is cooled down before gentle, long, cool carbonic fermentation with natural yeasts in lidded cement vat. "It took eight or nine days to start fermentation, which is pretty long. At the end of five days I was going crazy," he says. "But my dad says, 'Noooo, don't worry.' He's never worried."

We taste the wine in April, not long before bottling. The nose is deep, redolent of crushed berry, and faintly roasty, although only older barrels are used in elevage. Its black-current fruit possesses the suavity and dark florals that made his father's wine legendary. Jules Métras titled the cuvée "Bijou," a bit of local youth slang whose popularity Métras credits to his friend and fellow Beaujolais scion Kéké Descombes. "Everytime he plowed a parcel, he'd send some photos and say 'Wow, it's bijou!' Meaning it's clean, magnificent. Now when we drink great wine, it's bijou. When a pretty girl passes, she's bijou."

08 July 2015

jordan mackay's beaujolais misinformation

Jordan Mackay. Someone get this man a glass of Métras.

I write now and then for an NYC-based website called PUNCH, whose stated purpose is to explore the culture surrounding wine, spirits, and other alcoholic beverages. It's a publication of Ten Speed Press, itself a subsidiary of Random House. I hope the site and its parent companies will forgive me in advance for publicly taking issue with a deeply misinformative piece recently published in PUNCH by San Francisco Magazine wine writer Jordan Mackay.

Entitled "Beyond Carbonic: A New Era in Beaujolais," the piece alerts readers to an ostensibly new trend in Beaujolais winemaking, Burgundian fermentation with de-stemming and pigeage, i.e. not the region's traditional carbonic maceration. This is not, not even by the furthest stretch of the imagination, "a new era." Mackay inadvertently acknowledges as much in the piece itself, citing Chateau du Moulin-à-Vent (established: 1732) as among the practitioners. Jean-Paul Brun, the other key example Mackay cites in the piece, founded his domaine in 1979, and has long been imported to the US. The producers Mackay cites, it bears mentioning, are neither the region's leading lights, nor its youngest vanguard.

So, not news. Where Mackay goes harmfully off the rails is in ascribing all the faults of industrial Beaujolais Nouveau production circa-1980 to carbonic maceration. In one astonishingly wrongheaded paragraph, he manages to conflate the influence of Jules Chauvet with that of Georges Duboeuf.

02 July 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: laurence and rémi dufaitre, saint-étienne-des-ouillières

A common wine writing trope is to conclude that a wine resembles its maker in some way or another. Nowhere is this less applicable than in the wines of rising-star Beaujolais winemaker Rémi Dufaitre, whose production of Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly (among other wines) is distinguished by its elegance and finesse.

Rémi Dufaitre himself is more direct, an endearing trait, from certain angles. When I arrived at his domaine in Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières, roughly where the Brouilly appellation meets Beaujolais-Villages, he lost no time asking me upfront about my blog traffic. When I introduced my bike trip companion N, a novelist, Rémi, without missing a beat, asked, "How many books did you sell?"

The no-bullshit approach, in this case, reflects the confidence of a young winemaker who enjoys broad support among his forebears in the region. Originally from Saint-Etienne-La-Varenne, Dufaitre has known since birth his friend and Brouilly neighbor Jean-Claude Lapalu. Influential Fleurie winemaker Jean-Louis Dutraive is Dufaitre's cousin. And while Dufaitre and his wife Laurence only began bottling their own wines in 2010, their work soon attracted the attention of Villié-Morgon legend Jean Foillard, who has said he considers Dufaitre among the best of the younger generation of Beaujolais winemakers. Who cares if he possesses the combative, ball-breaking temperament of a mob enforcer, when the wines are this good?

25 June 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: jean-claude lapalu, saint-etienne-la-varenne

Jean-Claude Lapalu occupies an interesting position in the pantheon of contemporary Beaujolais. The son and grandson of winegrowers, he began bottling his own wines relatively late, at age 35. It was 1996. "I'm an intermediary," he acknowledges, "between the generation of Max Breton, who started before me, and the young generation today."

Our visit had been arranged Lapalu's good friend Rémi Dufaitre, a talented young winemaker twenty years his junior, who was hosting us that night in the neighboring town. Despite their age difference, Lapalu and Dufaitre share an easy rapport. Dropping us off chez Lapalu, Dufaitre asked his friend to "throw us back" to Dufaitre's place when we were through tasting. We asked if that was normal rural slang. Lapalu just laughed. "It's just Rémi being Rémi."

Lucky for us, Lapalu was in an expansive mood on the day we visited. Our tasting went long. A born raconteur, he's among the rare great vignerons whose verbal expressivity is a match for that of his wines.

15 June 2015

conscientious objectors: les déserteurs, 75011

As diners and critics, we're willing to discern greater depths in a chef's plates if he or she has led a swashbuckling lifestyle, or at least can be presented to us as having witnessed the mysteries of foreign cultures. In contemporary Paris, the résumé spice du jour is "travel in Asia," a transcendant, cuisine-altering experience for chefs ranging from David Toutain to Saturne's Sven Chartier to Le Servan's Tatiana Levha. If, of that list, only Levha's cuisine shows any direct engagement with eastern cuisines, don't blame the chefs. Blame their publicists, and culinary media outlets.

Les Déserteurs, the upscale market-menu restaurant opened last year by chef Daniel Baratier and sommelier Alex Céret in the former Rino space on rue Trousseau, is, like its chef, deficient in narrative flair. The name is a witticism referring to the owners' former workplace, the untrendy Ile Saint Louis Michelin one-star Le Sergent Recruteur, a restaurant that I now read is in liquidation. When the joke passes, we're left with the following premise: Two Friendly French Guys Open Slightly Pricey Restaurant.

Diners will be forgiven for not leaping to book six-tops. I myself only went because they had a last minute table on a Saturday night, and I often work in the neighborhood. I was therefore caught entirely by surprise by the restaurant's outright excellence. From its pacing to its apportionment to its marvelous contents, a meal at Les Déserteurs is a tour de force of sensitivity, where the refined, vegetable-driven country cuisine is as nuanced and mature as the wine list.