10 February 2017
The forecast called for rain, but my friend E and I had passed a perfectly calm, sunny day visiting winemakers around Saint-Amour last July. Among the crus of Beaujolais, Saint-Amour is a curious culture unto itself, a throwback to the era of négoçiant supremacy, an economy kept afloat by the unthinkably dumb people in France and abroad who regularly purchase the wine for Saint Valentine's Day. (I have never met anyone who has done this, but apparently such people exist. Just thinking about them makes me feel better about the invariably inconsequential gestures I muster for the same holiday.)
Not the most ravishing day of tasting, in short. But we had a pleasant makeshift lunch on the picnic tables in the square in Leynes, where later, in a quest to find coffee, we entered a truly strange, deserted bar, overrun with dogs and exotic birds. The owner descended from upstairs before we could scram, so Nespresso it was. We asked to sit on the terrace. The sky had begun to cloud over.
E and I huffed our cigarettes, bolted our bad coffees, and pulled on our helmets. I seem to remember it was a straight shot up a knobbly one-lane road to our last appointment of the day, where, finally, we'd taste some Saint-Amour worth falling for, along with some stunning Pouilly-Fuissés. It felt somehow appropriate, skidding up to the gates of the Château des Rontets at precisely the moment the storm broke.
31 January 2017
I have never quite understood Daniel Rose' conservative streak. I'm too young to remember the initial, bare-bones Spring in the 9eme arrondissement. By the time I met Rose in 2010, he had already moved his restaurant to the 1èr arrondissement and a space that resembles an exec-lounge. The restaurant's service and menu pricing have always felt prematurely elderly for such a dynamic personality. Nor did Rose really switch gears when he took over the weirdo slapstick steakhouse La Bourse ou La Vie last year. He changed the grammatical conjunction, raised prices, improved the cuisine, and sapped the restaurant of its spontaneity.
Rose' recent revamp of the tiny historic 1èr arrondissement bistrot-bar Chez La Vieille is, in its way, more newsworthy than the rave reviews of Le Coucou, his chic New York restaurant début. For, discounting the abortive Buvette below Spring, Chez La Vieille is the first serious move Rose has made towards a more lively style of service.
Spanning two floors joined by a gorgeously warped staircase, Chez La Vieille is a near-complete success, where the humor and verve of its new owner find outlet in a concept as precise and versatile as a Swiss Army knife.
16 January 2017
"It's crazy, how many young winemakers are setting up in Beaujolais," muses southern Beaujolais winemaker Nicolas Dubost, who attained biodynamic certification for his organic domaine in 2015. "But not so much in the south."
Dubost is based in Saint-Germain-sur-l'Arbresle, a hamlet beside the village of Bully in the Pierre Dorées. The general viticultural approach here - industrial, productivist, machine-oriented - does a disservice to the diversity of the largely unknown terroir. The handful of ambitious, quality-oriented winemakers - Dobost included - sell their wines at prices so low as to practically discourage critical reflection.
Indeed, if the details of Beaujolais wine production overall remain under-appreciated, even by wine professionals, it's probably because the stakes are so small. There are strong incentives to master, say, Barbaresco vintages or vineyard exposition in Côte Rôtie, since the clients for these high-value wines tend to pose questions and seek assurance of expertise. Folks buying in the 9-14€ range need less convincing, so most retailers, not to mention critics, are content to leave it at 'sweet juice,' 'glouglou,' or a similar substitute for actual qualitative description. It's a shame, because as Dubost's wines increasingly prove, there are troves of nuance to be discovered, even in such unheralded terroir, at such small stakes.
05 December 2016
The man standing there with the huge elderflower bush in his vines is Romain des Grottes. He's a métayer, or sharecropper, working 8ha vines belonging to the Château de Lacarelle in Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières. Almost everything about that sentence is misleading, though.
The Château de Lacarelle belongs to des Grottes' grandfather, a peculiar situation that allows des Grottes considerably more creative leeway than most métayers. And his 8ha of vines is effectively 4ha, because since 2003 des Grottes has uprooted half the rows, planting cereals in the remaining spaces. He also works the soil less than many organic winemakers, content with a wilderness of grass cover that would make his elders blanche.
17 November 2016
Fleurie's Yann Bertrand made a Beaujolais Nouveau this year from fruit purchased from Charentay vigneron Romain Jambon. It's stellar - a long, 16-day maceration yielded a sinuous, impossibly bright wine, with vigorous raspberry fruit. The quantity is minuscule, something like 2600 bottles.
What makes the wine groundbreaking is Bertrand's decision not to filter it. He rightly figured that, given the tiny production, his primeur would be drunk in Fleurie, in Lyon, and at furthest, Paris. Little would be risked by avoiding filtration. For good measure, he took the unusual step putting the primeur in demi-muid for two weeks before bottling, so that the wine could clarify itself more quickly than it would have in tank.
Almost no one releases unfiltered Beaujolais Nouveau. Off the top of my head, I can think of only Max Breton* and Romain des Grottes**, both of whose unfiltered primeurs are, incidentally, terrific. (Oh! And Marcel Joubert.)
10 November 2016
|Max Breton's team at the end of day in his old vines at Saint Joseph in Morgon.|
Anything I post on the blog right now will rightfully be drowned out by the post-election din, i.e. the anguished, horrified screams of anyone with even a passing, sentimental attachment to democracy in America.
But with the third week of November approaching fast, I thought I'd dash out some notes on another pressing issue, the year's Beaujolais vintage.
27 October 2016
Négoçiants tend to suffer from an enthusiasm gap among wine drinkers. Compared with the vigneron who grows the grapes he or she turns into wine, the arts of the négoçiant can seem coldly mercantile. Few are more aware of this dynamic than Christophe Pacalet, whose business remains inextricably linked, for many wine drinkers, with that of his late uncle, Morgon vigneron Marcel Lapierre, who helped Pacalet set up his business in 1999.
Pacalet today produces a broad range of wines from purchased grapes, encompassing seven of the ten crus of Beaujolais, along with a Beaujolais Blanc, a primeur, and, from the 2015 vintage, two cuvées of Beaujolais-Villages. The bottles almost all bear similar, slightly anonymizing labels, which, along with Pacalet's formidable market presence in the USA and Japan, bely his business' fundamentally small-scale, artisanal nature. Pacalet harvests all the grapes with his own team, pressing in an old wooden vertical press, vinifying in restored wooden tanks. Most cuvées see aging in old barrels, many sourced from Pacalet's renowned cousin, the Burgundy négoçiant Philippe Pacalet.
On the day I first visited in October 2015, most of that year's wines had already been barreled. Moreso even than the aromas of fermenting gamay, what filled the cellar that afternoon was Christophe's excitement with several of his new fruit sources that year: a Chénas and a Saint Amour. "I just got the analyses back, and the Chénas has finished its sugar," he declared. "So this will be interesting! Let's taste it!"
11 October 2016
I first heard of Blacé-based Beaujolais vigneron Sylvère Trichard while putting together Paris By Mouth's annual "Beaujolais Nouveau in Paris" round-up a few years ago. I remember being surprised that an unknown vigneron had - all of a sudden, it seemed - placed his primeur alongside those of the region's great winemakers at many of Paris' best Beaujolais bistrots.
It took me a while to connect his name with his wine labels, which bear the domaine name Séléné. I learned only much later that Séléné is in fact a joint enterprise between Trichard and his business partner Elodie Bouvard, who runs a small organic vegetable farm at the domaine.
When the intitial Séléné vintages first appeared in Paris, they landed with a splash before, well, sinking. Nowadays Trichard admits that his trial-and-error approach was quite evident in his early vintages, which were often marred by bret. But the same dynamism, devotion, and intelligence that earned Trichard his initial clients in Paris have since seen his winemaking improve by leaps and bounds: the wines are now as charming as their labels. His (bret-free) 2015 old-vine Beaujolais tout court cuvée "Gisou" is a benchmark for the sector, as refined and complex a wine as it is possible to find south of Saint-Etienne-des-Oullières, outside the -Villages appellation.
09 September 2016
|The tiny cellar space that Balmet shared with his father until this year.|
Conventional wisdom of Beaujolais geography places the highest, most dramatic slopes in the granite soil crus clustered in the north of the region, with the landscape becoming gentler as one travels south towards the limestone hillsides of the Pierres Dorées. This is true in a general sense, but it overlooks certain notable high-altitude sites. The picturesque village of Oingt in the south is one. Then, southwest of the Brouilly appellation, there is Vaux-en-Beaujolais, a towering granite hill, the home of promising natural winemaker Jerôme Balmet.
From 2012 - 2015, Balmet shared a tiny cellar space with his dad, making a tiny, untaxable amount of wine from just 1.2ha of vines. Until now there has officially been just one red cuvée, bottled as Vin de France, and a small amount of rosé, plus a few magnums of stellar old-vine press-juice that were never commercially available.
In 2016, Balmet is joining the big(ger) leagues. As of January he took on the lease of 2.5ha of gently sloped vines near Saint-Etienne-des-Oullières, formerly tended by fellow natural winemaker Raphael Champier. He'll also begin vinifying at the facilities of the Château de Lacarelle, which owns the vines. This puts him in good company, alongside like-minded confrères like Romain des Grottes and Stephen Durieu de Lacarelle, who together comprise a fascinating nest of promising young natural winemakers at the château.
07 September 2016
When I spoke to Ô Divin Epicerie proprietor Naoufel Zaïm last January, he mentioned he'd soon be turning a nearby defunct clothing shop into a take-out stand offering hot meals.
A transition to take-out cuisine would seem a timely move in the gold-rush era of Deliveroo, UberEats, Take Eat Easy, Foodora, Allo Resto, etc. If I myself have yet to employ any of those delivery services, it's because in Paris the food they deliver tends to derive from one of two, rather stunted categories of establishment: bad take-out stands offering office-lunch fare, or decent restaurants that nonetheless perceptibly deprioritize take-out cuisine. The Parisian attachment to dining-out is such that there are almost no excellent establishments devoted to take-out dinners in the city.
Traiteur Ô Divin, in an amusing bait-and-switch, is not poised to change this situation - for, despite the name, Traiteur Ô Divin both resembles and functions very much like a wine bar.* Instead of the heaps of pre-prepped cuisine and the fortified cash-register one might expect from a take-out stand, there's a long, spacious bar and seating along the walls. There's an keen selection of natural wines familiar from Zaïm's previous establishments. The cuisine - which ranges from roast chicken to middle-eastern-inflected salads - is available to take-away or to consume on-site. The result is kind of a category unto itself - an odd cross between rue de la Roquette's Chez Aline and rue Sainte Marthe's La Cave à Michel. In short, the new traiteur is a splendid place for an apéro when one is tasked with bringing dinner home.
22 August 2016
Far-flung Lyonnais wine bistrot Le Fleurie exists in a wonderful parallel universe where the old Léon Daudet chestnut - that Beaujolais wine comprises the “third river” nourishing Lyon, after the Rhône and the Saône - still rings true.
Le Fleurie’s cuisine is solid and satisfying and co-proprietor Jacinthe Gomes’ concise, inspired wine list is the model of what a fine Lyonnais list should like: reds divided evenly between Beaujolais and the northern Rhône, with whites deriving mainly from Burgundy, the Mâconnais, with a dab of Rhône. Classic selections all, and at great prices!
Yet the fact remains that the population of Lyon, at time of writing, famously prefers almost anything to Beaujolais, and tends instead to identify with Rhône wines. Just why is a matter of speculation, into which I’m happy to delve at length later. For now, another fact remains: most people are idiots. Most Lyonnais, most French, most Americans, most drinkers, most humans. The rest of us are happy to go out of our way for lunch at Le Fleurie.
12 August 2016
I was therefore overjoyed the other evening to visit L’Auberge du Moulin, a shady terrace that offers, just off the roadside in the sleepy, mouthful town of Saint-Didier-sur-Chalaronne, an immaculately preserved throwback to the fine regional cuisine of yesteryear. The restaurant is acclaimed among local vignerons for its sharp Beaujolais-Maconnais wine list, its delicate fried fish, and its heaping portions of whole frogs.
Yet over a round of eau de vie, long after sundown when mosquitos began urging everyone homewards, I was dismayed to learn that L’Auberge du Moulin, too, will soon close. From September, iron-haired owner Patrick Piron will convert the restaurant, which presently offers lunch and dinner service and one rentable room, into a table d’hôte offering four rooms and private meal service by request. I may be getting distraught over what is merely a modification in service-style, but the fact is that the restaurant, already rather hidden, will become almost imperceptible. And this is indeed a shame, for like its only nearby peer, the Auberge du Col du Truges in Villié-Morgon, L’Auberge du Moulin is a moving demonstration of the heights of Beaujolais cuisine.
27 July 2016
Complaining is a national pastime throughout France, along with labour strikes, cigarette-smoking, and pétanque. Vignerons, whose livelihoods are utterly dependent upon climatic forces beyond their control, have throughout the generations developed their own nuanced sub-genre of fatalistic groaning, comparable to that which wizened sailors practice regarding the fickleness of the sea.
Yet even in this context of universal grievance, Leynes vigneron Jean-François Promonet stands alone.
An expert mechanic specialising agricultural machines, he has long roots in the Beaujolais and Maconnais, and as he tells it, he arrived at his present, tenuous situation of quasi-vigneronnage on the dangerously steep hillsides of Leynes almost against his will, through a series of misfortunes. Nowadays he speaks of his soaring, wind-swept old-vine granite vineyards the way Ahab spoke of the white whale, with the same mixture of devotion and loathing.
02 June 2016
My time in Beaujolais has left me with a strong distaste for the appellation of Beaujolais-Villages. Not for the wines themselves, of course. Just the appellation, its haziness. It began well enough, in 1946, when it was decreed that certain communes could append their names to the basic appellation of Beaujolais. But a later decree in 1950 created the blanket appellation Beaujolais-Villages - a designation that might as well have been conceived expressly to play down the influence of terroir in the region.
The -Villages designation was once useful for allowing large-scale négoçiant enterprises to indicate mainly granite-soil, gobelet-trained fruit sourced from throughout the region at large. But these companies set the market expectation, such that it's now rare to find vignerons who take advantage of the 1946 decree to promote their individual commune's terroir: Beauojolais-Lancié, Beaujolais-Quincié, or Beaujolais-Marchampt, for example. It's a shame, because the traditionally vinified wines of individual Beaujolais communes do indeed possess a character all their own. Where Quincié B-V often tends toward the rusticity and richness of nearby Régnié, Marchampt B-V is unique in its altitudinous, high mountain fruit.
Hervé Ravera, a sulfur-free natural winemaker who set up shop in Marchampt in 2007, avoids the appellation system altogether, bottling his tiny Beaujolais-Villages production as Vin de France. Ironically, alongside those of his neighbor Nicolas Chemarin, Ravera's wines are just about the purest expression of Marchampt terroir available today.
23 May 2016
"It's not very charming, as a terroir," says young Fleurie vigneron Justin Dutraive, as we tramp down a muddy path to the 8000m of Beaujolais vines he began leasing in 2015. "But it was a good terroir to start: all flat, very mechanizable, with low rent. And no one wanted to take it, so it was going to be uprooted otherwise."
Dutraive isn't being modest. The parcel from which he produced his first wine in 2015 hugs the Duboeuf-dominated village of Maison Blanche so closely it practically constitutes urban farming. To the south is a copse of trees and a stream; to the east, train tracks; to the west, a cornfield. To the north is the Hotel Les Maritonnes. "In the summer, when you're on the tractor, you stare at the pool," jokes Dutraive.
From this unlikely patch of what is known locally as "corn terroir," Dutraive produced a powerful Beaujolais tout-court as well as a pétillant-naturel. The parcel's poor drainage and proximity to the stream paid off in 2015's scorching dry-spell: he brought in a solid 42HL/ha. Less bountiful, but no less notable, was the micro-parcel of Fleurie "Chapelle des Bois" he also vinified that year. Just two barrels were produced, a small but very successful addition to his family's renowned range of wines from the cru.
12 May 2016
Entering southern Beaujolais winemaker Julien Merle's cellar in Legny, I noted the low wooden ceilings above the cement vats and asked if he'd ever had issues with brettonamyces developing in tank. (Bret - the wild yeast often responsible for horsey aromas in wine - has been known to inhabit wood, sometimes causing entire cellars to be razed and reconstructed.) Merle shook his head.
"I think finally the bret is more of a worry for the vineyards higher up in Beaujolais, because the plants are very low," he explained. "We have the plants much higher, it’s cordon trained."
Cordon-training in the crus of Beaujolais is relatively rare - almost all vines are in traditional gobelet training, closer to the earth, where bret is said to reside. Few great vignerons in the crus cordon-train their vines, considering it anathema to quality-minded viticulture. If it's a cliché that many winemakers insist 'there are no rules' governing the production of great wine, it's because of seeming contradictions like this: in viticulture as in vinification, things go topsy-turvy as one travels between regions, or as here, between sub-regions of the same region. In Legny, on the faultline between the granite of north of Beaujolais and the clay-limestone of the south, Julien Merle is making stunningly pure and sturdy wines of the sort that renew my confidence that Beaujolais is worth a book-length study. And he does it by adapting the insights of natural-wine pioneers to the north to his own unique circumstances in the south.