04 February 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: nicolas chemarin, marchampt

Expect to hear a lot of bitching and moaning about Beaujolais in 2015. Alcohol levels are abnormally high for the region, in some cases turning what ought to be elegant, light-spirited wines into the Incredible Hulk. I tasted some primeurs this year that could overturn tractor-trailers.

More recently I've tasted tank samples from various cru producers that were more encouraging: the best wines manage to integrate the heat of the vintage into a kinetic, powerful whole. Furthermore, the unusual ripeness of the vintage wasn't bad news for everyone. 

In the backwoods Beaujolais-Villages hamlet of Marchampt, young natural winemaker Nicolas Chemarin stands to benefit. Marchampt lies southwest of Régnié at the foot of the Beaujolais vert, the mountains bordering the region's west, which serve not for viticulture, but rather for hunting and goat cheese production. Marchampt is at high elevation in the shadow of a mountain range, highly exposed to the north wind, meaning it's always about 3°C cooler than Morgon or Fleurie. So a little extra ripeness shows nicely on the wines from Chemarin's Beaujolais-Villages parcels. From the highest, a 600m altitude old-vine parcel called "Le Rocher," Chemarin has since 2012 quietly been producing a minor classic of the region. 

22 January 2016

the seven sins of wine and social media

It's that time of year again. The Loire salons are approaching, and with them, the annual tempest of facile social media emissions recording an infinity of superficial encounters between historical wine cultures and contemporary social media. We're all guilty: journalists, sommeliers, retailers, importers, distributors, even a few winemakers.

Every gesture on social media is necessarily an advertisement for oneself. But there's good advertising and bad advertising. Bad self-promotion is wearisome and slowly turns us against the perpetrator. When we engage in it ourselves, it can turn us against the wine industry as a whole, which in dark moments can resemble a festering cesspit of forced enthusiasm and transactional endorsements.

In the interest of elevating the general discourse, I've assembled here a list of seven things to bear in mind before hitting "Share." You could call them the Seven Sins, but the list is assuredly incomplete. (Before anyone points it out, I'm no saint myself.)

19 January 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: anthony thévenet, villié-morgon

Almost everyone in Beaujolais has at least one nickname. To an outsider, it makes it difficult to follow conversations, because one has to remember all the variations on the ways people refer to any given local personage. (Furthermore one is sometimes unsure if one is entitled to employ all the nicknames.) Some nicknames are relatively straightforward: Morgon grand-master Jean Foillard, for example, is called, alternately, "Le P'tit Jean," a reference to his Napoleonic build, and "Jeff," a simple pronunciation of his initials.

Other nicknames are completely insane. Anthony Thévenet - no relation to Jean-Paul "Polpo" Thévenet, or any of the other more prominent local Thévenets - is an energetic, good-natured young natural winemaker who established his domaine in 2012, the same year he began working as a cellarhand for Foillard. I heard Thévenet's friend Romain Zordan refer to Thévenet as "Nioche," which, he later explained, derives originally from "Tête d'Hyène," or "Hyena's head," a comment on Thévenet's easy laughter and the sonics of his family name. "Tête d'Hyène" got abbreviated to "Hyène," which, in the programmatic Franco-slanguage Verlan, came out as "Nioche."

Easy to remember, right? Perhaps easier than the name Thévenet. At any rate, it's worth remembering Anthony Thévenet A.K.A. Nioche's name, because since 2013 he's been making some very promising Morgon's from his family's vines in the climat of Douby, and this year he's set to release his first vintage from the renowned Côte du Py.

15 January 2016

a quiet revolution: le zingam, 75011

When Voltaire-area greengrocer Le Zingam first opened in April 2014, I gave it a wide berth, because it seemed like yet another overpriced organic-locavore bear-trap. A messenger bicycle forms part of the outdoor vegetable display, while the interior's rough-hewn furniture recalls Big Sur. Proprietors Sonny Lac and Lelio Stettin are two young guys from the neighborhood whose combined food and wine experience could be recorded on the back of a short receipt. (Lac used to work at folkloric neighborhood wine bistrot Mélac.)

I first visited Le Zingam simply because it was open Sunday. It was far less expensive than I anticipated. A year or so later, I realised, in something like astonishment, that Lac and Stettin's little shop has slowly taken over my entire diet. Its products have all become staples: its trios of slender saucisses, its tomme de chèvre and its Saint Nectaire, its Sicilian clementines, its yogurt pots, its onions, its turnips and leeks, its craft beers, its natural wines. For foodstuffs I no longer shop anywhere else, save for the occasional foray to Belleville for Asian and Middle-Eastern ingredients.

In their surprisingly astute product selection and their ironclad commitment to affordability, Lac and Stettin have done something that runs up against my most basic principles as a Parisian consumer: they've created a place that supersedes the weekly street markets. Le Zingam's products are better, and just as cheap, if not cheaper.

11 January 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: romain zordan, fleurie

Claude Zordan and Romain Zordan
Such are the nuances at play within natural winemaking in Beaujolais that the two young winemakers of the two families of the Château de Grand Pré, Romain Zordan and his cousin Yann Bertrand, express very distinct voices in their work, despite organically farming the same terroir, sharing much of the same cellar and equipment, and benefitting from the advice of some of the same mentors.

The differences in the wines are to some extent a reflection of differences in age and temperament. Yann Bertrand is a better student of biodynamics. Romain Zordan gets more invitations on hunting trips. Beaujolais is all the richer for containing both approaches.

Bertrand's wines have seen rapid success with his embrace of the aforementioned farming methods and of rigorously-controlled, cool-carbonic maceration techniques. Romain Zordan, at 29 the elder of the two winemakers by a half-decade, has been slower to adopt the same practices, though he appreciates their impact and applies them in certain cases. He's a genial, salt-of-the-earth dude whose empathy with the wider Beaujolais wine community seems to moderate his work at the side of the domaine he farms with his father Claude. Yet the wines he's making are already formidable and, indeed, necessary to an understanding of the terroir of Grand Pré.

07 January 2016

the evolution of: ô divin épicerie, 75020

It took me over a year to get around to visiting restaurateur Naoufel Zaïm's miniscule gourmet shop in the high nothingsphere of Jourdain. I arrived to find that Ô Divin Epicerie - indeed, Zaïm's business overall - has undergone a few shake-ups since it opened in summer 2014.

Contrary to prior reports, Ô Divin Epicerie is not a bar, one can't show up and drink. Its take-out sandwiches have scaled down in complexity since the departure of the former chef. The bad news - or, news to me, at least - is that Zaïm shut his excellent nearby restaurant Ô Divin, and now uses the space and its kitchen only for private parties upon demand.

Hot prepared dishes are no longer regularly available at Ô Divin Epicerie, but many will be soon - from a new space just down the road, where Zaïm and his new chef Paul Houet will shortly open Ô Divin Traiteur. The epicerie, installed in a former tripe shop, will remain just what it is today: a destination for well-sourced sandwiches, cheeses, occasional vegetables, a range of Houet's house-prepared meats, and the best natural wine selection in Belleville. The latter is really an embarrassment of riches, for a neighborhood deli.

04 January 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: yann bertrand, fleurie

During pressing with Yvon and Jules Métras this September we were often joined around apéro hour by Jules' good friend Yann Bertrand, an extremely talented young Fleurie winemaker who lives a stone's throw away in Grand Pré. He often wore a vaguely pained expression when he arrived. 2015 in Beaujolais was a touch-and-go year for many winemakers, but Yann and his family suffered more than most.

"My grandfather died, we buried him, then the next day I heard that all my tanks had bret. Then my car broke down," he says, wincing. "I said to myself, 'Sometimes it’s best not even to think about it.'"

The Bertrand family shares cellar facilities with Yann's cousin and uncle, Romain Zordan and his father Claude, who make their own range of estimable natural Beaujolais under the name Château de Grand Pré. The story of the two winemaking families of the Château de Grand Pré is one I plan to explore in greater depth elsewhere. (Expect a post about the Zordans soon, too.) For now it seems worthwhile to discuss Yann Bertrand's work at at time when what many locals were calling his "beginner's luck" is being tested like never before.

29 December 2015

a new age: la cave de belleville, 75019

Gentrification in Paris seems to happen with the handbrake on. There ought to be a different word for it, one with less negative connotations. Our sympathy for displaced bodegas and barber shops derives largely from the catastrophic swiftness with which their rents get jacked or their clients disappear. Whereas in Paris' handful of perpetually mid-gentrification neighborhoods - Belleville, Ménilmontant, Montreuil, Charonne, Pigalle, and so on - fate takes its time. If one lives and works and searches for decent coffee in these neighborhoods, change can seem damnably imperceptible.

The pork-bun menagerie of Belleville showed new colours last year, however, with the opening of an ambitious wine shop and wine bar,* La Cave de Belleville. The project of three friends from the neighborhood, François Braouezec, Aline Geller, and Thomas Perlmutter - a pharmacist, a gallerist, and a sound engineer, respectively - Le Cave de Belleville is an enthusiastic, accessible enterprise, offering an épicerie counter, a blitheringly large wine selection, and light apéro snacks every day of the week.

I pass by the storefront often. I almost entered once in summertime but was put off by the heat, a disaster for a caviste.** I finally visited for an apéro this December. Almost everything was bad, but I would still return, and would encourage others to do the same. Good wines is in stock, and amid the overall mediocrity sparkles real promise.

16 December 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: domaine thillardon, chénas

Paul-Henri Thillardon in the vines he rents from Château Les Boccards.
Contemporary Beaujolais is rife with opportunity - overlooked terroirs, abandoned vines, appellations ripe for rehabilitation. But few young vignerons have committed to such ambitious challenges as Paul-Henri and Charles Thillardon, who have positioned themselves as the future of Beaujolais' smallest, sleepiest cru, Chénas.

After graduating with a BTS viti-oeno from the Lycée Bel-Air, Paul-Henri says his initial, outmoded goal was to make all ten crus. Much has changed since he founded the domaine in 2008. "We even used select yeast, our first year," he says. "Because I didn't know how to make natural wine, I'd never seen it in my life, and I'd never drunk it."

Then in 2009 he met Fleurie winemaker Jean-Louis Dutraive, a lynchpin of the Fleurie natural winemaking scene who himself had just attained organic certification for his own domaine. "He was the most open," says Paul-Henri, citing Dutraive as introducing him to the aesthetics of natural Beaujolais. "From there I met Julie Balagny, and everyone else." Gradually, as his domaine has grown to its present 12ha, Paul-Henri's winemaking has aligned with those of his mentors. 2015 is the first year he's aimed for long, cool semi-carbonic macerations, refrigerating the harvest for the first time, and vinifying entirely whole-cluster.

01 December 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: sylvain chanudet, fleurie

The most famous man in Beaujolais is not who you might think. His wines remain under-acknowledged on the market, but in terms of sheer physical presence in the region - in vineyards, at other domaines, at the cafés of Villié-Morgon and Fleurie - no one compares with
Domaine de Prion's Sylvain Chanudet: his tousled iron hair, NBA frame, and impish grin could be a trademark for the region.

His ubiquity is partly attributable to his side business, a nursery in nearby Drancy that supplies many of the region's natural winemakers (among many others) with massal selection vine grafts. It is literally his business to know other winemakers and remain aware of their vineyard conditions.*

But Chanudet, like his friend Jean-Louis Dutraive, also clearly relishes the Beaujolais community. Very few know it better. From the purebred terroir of his own high, steep parcels, Chanudet creates muscular, unfiltered wines that often belie the cliché of his cru's femininity. Recent years have seen a refinement of his style, one that I expect to accelerate since the domaine, formerly run jointly, was separated between him and his brother Christian in 2014. But among Sylvain Chanudet's eccentricities is a devil-may-care attitude towards his commercial calendar. He releases the wines when he feels they're finished, not before. When I visited after harvest this year, he'd just bottled the 2012's and 2013's.

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 remained 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.