11 August 2011

strange but true: françois blanchard at le bistral, 75017

I have to thank my friend the natural Loire vigneron François Blanchard and his brother J3* for their high spirits and admirable fortitude during our dinner at 17ème bistro-à-vin Le Bistral a couple weeks back. François was in town for leisure purposes (a Roger Waters show) but had run into legendary natural Sologne-based Loire vigneron Claude Courtois earlier that day while lunching at @2eme haute-cave-à-manger Saturne, and they had proceeded to drink for most of the afternoon. Sensible mortals would have called it quits there; instead François and J3 went ahead as planned with the big chaotic dinner we'd arranged.

I get to the 17ème about as often as François gets to Paris, which, what with his insanely demanding, rigorously natural vineyard work in Lémére, near Chinon, and my preference for less timewarpy parts of town, is not very often at all. But I'm always grateful for the chance to discover another natural wine spot, and it's even more of a pleasure to check in with François to see what sort semi-visionary strangeness he's been coaxing from his vines lately.

I don't use the term 'strange' lightly when speaking of natural wines. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with natural wine culture is assuredly sick unto death of reading patronizing mass-market articles exalting the 'boldness' or 'weirdness' of this-or-that natural winemaker who got picked out of a hat - as though natural methods were a form of picturesque madness, rather than a rational response to the destructive excesses of 20th-century agriculture. It does a disservice to write-off inspiration as eccentricity.

That said, François is still out there on the fringe. If his turbid, bass-heavy range of Sauvignons and Cabernet Francs named after musical phrases weren't proof enough, there is also the weighty fact, communicated to me over a dinner once like it was nothing, that due to poor harvests he made no wine whatsoever in 2008. His vines just didn't produce fruit, for whatever reason. What impressed me was that his principles are such that even amid hardship like that he took no recourse to coercive i.e. chemical methods. (Soon enough he plans to expand into brewing a beer using natural grains and methods. Partly so there remains some source of income in catastrophic off-years.)

Another unconventional feature of François' operation is his idiosyncratic, damn-near-incomprehensible labeling system. I find myself continually unable to remember the vintage of what I am drinking, with his wines, because where most natural vignerons conceal the year in their wines' lot numbers, François elects instead to mark each year with a different illustration, known, as far as I can tell, only to him. Additionally the wines undergo different procedures of elevage according to the year and the individual bottling.

After dinner at Le Bistral that evening we tasted through some of his 2009's and nearly-finished 2010's.  A 2009 Cabernet Franc VDT was named after the vineyard it derived from, "Le Grand Cléré," whereas the other red we tasted, a 2010 Cabernet Franc VDT from same vineyard, was to be bottled with the additional name of "Violoncélite." A 2006 of same wine I'd tasted on another occasion was entitled "Contrebasse." Impossible to follow, really. What drew me to these wines originally, however, was a certain dense, powdery quality to their tannins, a je ne sais quoi stuffing that elsewhere I seem to detect in good younger Brunello. The 2009 and 2010 that evening were both displaying markedly fresher black fruit and a lovely persistent acidity.

More surprising to me were the Sauvignons, which showed a stark improvement that night. Previous vintages I'd tasted had at times been intensely barrique-ed à la Robinot, or else had strayed too far into Jura-style oxidation and lost expressiveness. But the two he poured that evening, a "Grand Cléré" from 2009 and a soon-to-be-finished 2010 from same vineyard called "Free Jazz," were lithe, sun-kissed Sauvignons, lucid and melodic.

It's like the different between bass as played as support for a guitar, and bass as expressive melodic leader in and of itself, like in "Sunshower" off of Ron Carter's 1977 album Piccolo.

Throughout the meal itself we drank wines from Le Bistral's superb list, mostly as a gesture of thanks to the folks there, who had kindly agreed to let us open all the above wines after the meal.

Re: that meal: I'd taken le menu, which at Le Bistral is notable for being way cheaper and somewhat less appetizing than the choices available à la carte.

This is another reason I don't get to the 17ème very often. I really liked Le Bistral, except for a creeping suspicion that their menu pricing (not, thankfully, their wine pricing) was suited to what the neighborhood could pay, rather than what the restaurant was providing the neighborhood.

For instance, my hilarious starter of Everything Salad, which contained: shell pasta, basil, bonito, shrimp,  duck, salad greens, and parmesan. It was like Noah had decided to make a salad with his Ark's contents, two of everything.

It wasn't unpleasant. But it was uncomfortably reminiscent of the sort of dish that gets created, and usually served in heaps to staff, after the cooks break down the garde mangé station.

Nothing was more insulting than the dessert, to which I'll just skip ahead, in order to press this point: a lump of crème fraîche floating in what they were terming a "soupe de fruits rouge 'sangria' glacée," which is pure gobbledygook.

It was the worst dessert in the entire world, a spoonful of cream in red wine with some old fruit, a real sweet cynical middle-finger. Kitchen cost: probably less than the effort required to dump out old wine. I couldn't help laughing.

Not everything was so awfully memorable. A pavé de colin was A-okay, as was a gazpacho one of my friends ordered.

In general the items available were of higher quality, if also considerably more expensive. With this in mind, and the terrific wine list, I could envision returning to the restaurant if one day I make sick cash and live in the 17ème and so do all my friends.

As a kind of grand finale that night François produced perhaps the weirdest Kangaroo of a wine I've ever encountered. I'm unfortunately not allowed to write about it directly, because he's worried the regional viticultural authorities will demand he tear out the vines that produce the wine. (I'll cover it obliquely in a post to follow, without mentioning his name, perhaps.)

Towards the end of the meal we ran into more wine industry friends, folks from Le Garde Robe and La Robe et le Palais.

I was very happy to have my friend S from the former establishment taste François' wines, although later I wondered whether it may have come across like we were trying to sell them. S was nice about it, anyway. I wandered off with my friend C to purchase cigarettes under the table from a local convenience store and upon returning we smoked many of them as we finished the bottles, later thanking the Blanchard brothers and wishing them bon courage and minimal hangovers for the Roger Waters show the next day.

Le Bistral
80, rue Lemercier
75017 PARIS
Metro: La Fourche
Tel: 01 42 63 59 61

Related Links:

The 2010 "Buvons Nature" Tasting, where François Blanchard and I first met

A great 2007 tasting at Blanchard's estate @ WineTerroirs

A very brief piece on Le Bistral @ FoodIntelligence

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