30 November 2011

illegal sauvignon, and other surprises: ma cave, 75019

In need of dinner ingredients a few Sundays ago, I decided to check out the Marché de la Place des Fêtes, high up above Belleville in the 19ème arrondissement. The market itself was a bit of a disappointment that morning - endless lines, not especially cheap prices, fully one half the big market taken up by shoddy produce and knick-knack stands. Notably absent was the fellow from well-regarded neighborhood cave à manger Ô Divin, who I'd read sometimes has a stand there selling natural wines.*

What redeemed the excursion turned out to be the Velib ride up rue de Belleville past Pyrénées and Jourdain Metro stations, where I was delighted to find a bustling little quartier, with many shops actually open until one or two in the afternoon. Just a few minutes north of the pork buns, lacquered ducks, and leering street creeps of Belleville one encounters decent-looking boulangeries, an Italian épicerie, and butchers that don't look like health hazards.

Since I hadn't found any wine at the market, I skidded to a halt during my descent down rue de Belleville in front of Ma Cave, a pokey wine shop without much to recommend itself, at first glance, beyond the fact that it was open. All I sought was a bottle of potable cooking wine - something I could sip uncritically and employ in a sausage ragù. The bottle I took home in the end, from what turned out to be a very decent wine shop, both met and exceeded my low expectations: a dirt-cheap but totally fascinating bottle of Sauvignon, illegally grown in Marsannay and falsely labeled Aligoté.

28 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: stefano bellotti & cascina degli ulivi, novi liguri

Throughout the recent trip to Piedmont, the Native Companion and my friend J's wife C would ask us before each scheduled visit to a vigneron whether we thought it would be worth their coming along. What they meant is: would visiting vigneron X be better than a dip in the pool? Would it be better than thirty pages of a novel? Would it beat viewing certain rural churches?

Unfortunately, since it was our first time in the region, J and I could offer them only the Gump-like but invariably true answer that you just never know what you are going to get, visiting vignerons. Sometimes you never see the vigneron and a cellar hand just explains what fermentation is. Sometimes it's an all-business experience and you leave after fifteen minutes clutching a price list. As wine geeks we continue to nose around wine estates because oftentimes it's better than that. As much as can be learned from books and the internet and copious tasting, there's just no substitute for the ambient knowledge that gets transmitted when you visit winemakers in their element, and hear how they themselves feel about their wines and their methods of production.

I had an inkling it would be worthwhile visiting pioneering Gavi producer Stefano Bellotti at his Cascina degli Ulivi estate in Novi Liguri. It wasn't a convenient trip from Monforte - almost two hours by car - but J and I were both fans of Bellotti's wines, and furthermore we were curious to meet one Italy's premier biodynamicists. In retrospect I can say that, while Gavi is kind of remote, and the rest of the region's wines have yet to interest me in the slightest, a visit to Cascina degli Ulivi is indeed a rewarding and inspiring experience, an entry into a freewheeling ecological community that, among other achievements, makes some utterly enchanting wines.

23 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: trattoria della posta, monforte d'alba

I'm trying to remember where it was I first saw the enormous, old-school Italo-swag menu of Trattoria della Posta, a restaurant renowned for serving Monforte's most traditional meal. It was either as wall-art in the bathroom at Paris wine bistro Le Bistral, or it was in a collection of menus maintained by a former employer back in LA. Or was it the collection of the former employer in Boston who collected old menus?* Suffice it to say the menu is memorably huge.

Opening it brings the same sensation one gets stepping into the vast, stately restaurant itself, situated just east of town, with a parking lot to itself. It is the feeling of entering a proud, entrenched culinary tradition, hermetically sealed against outside influence. One wishes one had a mustache, or at least a cigar.

Trattoria della Posta was founded by the Massolino family in 1875, and continues to be owned and operated by the same family today. Mindful of how much we'd been spending, my friends and I allowed ourselves one last serious grandstanding meal before leaving Piedmont, and went with TdP out of two restaurant recommendations we'd received from Roberto Conterno, saving the less historied establishment for some future visit.

21 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: g.d. vajra, vergne

I'm not often told I should be more critical. At times however I do sense that in covering winemakers on this blog I tend to be a bit polite and circumspect, at the expense of clarity or humor. I'm not unique in this; it is an industry norm, as far as I know. Because, no matter what one may think of the wines one tastes with winemakers, in writing about the experience afterwards one always owes a small debt of gratitude for their welcome, and for their time. This is to say nothing of how wine writers, due to the structure of the industry, usually need to maintain positive relationships with their subjects in order to guarantee continued access, and thus their livelihoods...*

With that in mind, I can say I had a really enjoyable time this past August visiting the G.D. Vajra winery in Vergne, west of the town of Barolo, where my friend J and I toured the facilities and tasted through current vintages with the family's sunny tasting coordinator Sabrina. We met briefly with Aldo, Giuseppe, and Milena Vaira, and thanked them for making time for us during such a busy period. It was the first day of harvest - Pinot Noir destined for spumante first, as I recall - and there was a genuine electricity in the air.

But, it has** to be said that, with certain notable exceptions, I do not like the wines.

18 November 2011

more than enough: le vin au vert, 75009

An unfortunate consequence of the success of the cave-à-manger concept - the hybridization of wine shop and restaurant / bar, ubiquitous in Paris - is that the term has lost a bit of specificity, and now encompasses everything from the 11ème's tiny Au Nouveau Nez, which serves only cheeses and meats, to the comically pretentious team of radish-fetish nitwits at 2ème restaurant Saturne. Before actually entering a place, it can be tricky to differentiate those with 36€ set market menus from the ones where one can just chill and nibble on things.

I'd cite this as the reason why it took me so long to check out Le Vin Au Vert, a magnetically down-to-earth cave-à-manger on the mangy side of the 9ème. It wasn't clear to me whether the place was a wine bar or a restaurant, and I don't get to the 9ème often enough to chance a night out on a possible misconception. When I finally did drop by with friend J, seeking better drinks than were available at the launch of my friend's literary magazine nearby, our hearts sunk upon noting through the windows that almost all tables were occupied with folks eating. We asked with exaggerated trepidation whether it was cool if we just sat and had drinks.

"No problem," we were told, because it turns out we'd arrived at one of the few* genuinely chill natural wine joints in Paris, one run by extremely nice fellows, another rarity.

16 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: giorgio barovero, monforte d'alba

The great wines of Piedmont are a popular counter-argument to the concept of natural wine. As much as wine geeks like myself might advocate use of wild yeasts, low sulfur, and total disavowal of pesticides, herbicides, anti-mildew agents and so on, we're still uniformly unable to refute the majesty of good Barolo and Barbaresco, appellations in which these virtuous habits are rare to non-existent. So visiting Piedmont recently I maintained a sort of hopeless mini-agenda to sniff out whatever natural or organic wines I could find in the area, out of curiosity for how Piemontese grapes would be affected by more or less natural viticulture.

What I tasted was, on the whole, immensely intriguing. Like, potential-business-opportunity intriguing, for someone with more means and patience and Italian skills than I presently possess.

There are apparently three small organic producers in Monforte alone. One, I'm told, is Francesco Clerico, a cousin of the more famous Domenico, neither of whose wines we were unable to taste on this trip. Another is Enrico Boggione, whose rich and vibrant Nebbiolo d'Alba is available for a song at the little organic boutique run by his wife off the main square in Monforte. The third is Giorgio Barovero, to whose stunning 2005 Nebbiolo d'Alba we were introduced by the excellent bartender at Casa della Saracca. My friend J and I enjoyed the wine so much we set up a tasting appointment for the next day, and drove the short distance to Barovero's spare cellars in the valley just south-east of Monforte, outside of the Barolo appellation, on the frontiers of Piemontese natural wine.

14 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: case della saracca, monforte d'alba

Midway through our stay in Piedmont I was delighted to add Monforte d'Alba to my list of towns home to better wine bars than Paris. On the recommendation of Roberto Conterno we ascended the steep narrow paths into the old town to visit Case della Saracca, a multivalent establishment whose many other functions - restaurant, wine shop, boutique hotel - do not prevent it's ground-floor wine bar from being a social hub of the town's winemakers.

We found ourselves returning night after night, partly because it was just uphill from our rented rooms (providing an easy slide home), and partly because we befriended the delightful bartender, Emanuela, who was full of inspired recommendations.

On more than one occasion we were impressed by something we tried by the glass, only to encounter the winemaker passing through that same evening - the sort of charming coincidences that can only occur in a very small community.

10 November 2011

good neighbors: ludwig bindernagel at aux deux amis, 75011

As I shuffled home from work on a recent Friday afternoon with my face in my iPhone, holding a sack of cheese, a familiar Australian voice hailed me from the terrace of 11ème bar à vin Aux Deux Amis. It was my friend James Henry, who's presently raking in high praise as chef at a different 11ème wine bar, Au Passage.

I was meant to meet the Native Companion nearby for a self-consciously healthy juice-bar lunch, intended to allay our respective hangovers. But who should James turn out to be dining with, but my friend the Jura vigneron Ludwig Bindernagel, whose 2011 harvest was recently my first real experience with grape-clippers. It turns out Ludwig and James know each other from the latter's days in the kitchen at 1èr arrondissement restaurant Spring.

Well, there were two extra seats at the table. I had the NC meet us and we did the hair-of-the-dog cure with Ludwig's razor-fine 2009 Poulsard throughout lunch, which meal now provides a nice opportunity to clarify my stance on Aux Deux Amis, a place I've sort of slagged off in the past.

08 November 2011

labors of love: terroir santo domingo at les pipos, 75005

The wine list at 5ème bistro à vin Les Pipos is not presented when you take a table. Nor is it always presented when you ask for it; often you are just handed the menu, on the back of which are listed a few easy-drinking natural selections.

The other day when I met my friend Cesar E. Castro Pou and his wife M on Les Pipos' terrace, I had to specifically mention foreknowledge of its existence before receiving the Les Pipos bottle list, which in its devotion to serious natural producers is assuredly someone's labor of love. There are more than a few back vintages of rare crus and micro-cuvées, probably the result of lack of turnover. The place is situated in the shadow of the Pantheon, so they're accustomed to tour groups and students, two demographics known to avoid all but the cheapest, least challenging wines.

I had chosen the place because I knew Cesar would dig the list. He's a natural wine aficionado, like me, and furthermore he's no stranger to quixotic endeavors: for the past two years or so he's been the sole importer of natural wine to the Dominican Republic.

02 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: walter porasso at bovio, la morra

J and I pulled up in his in-laws' Audi at Azienda Agricola Bovio at what we were pretty sure was the agreed-upon time. There had been some language-related confusion. "That's not Walter," I said to J, as a short, smiling, heavily-tanned fellow in a wife-beater and plaid shorts ambled over to the car. 

Bovio is owned by a La Morra family more famous for their restaurants than their wine; we were to meet their longtime winemaker Walter Porasso, about whom I knew only that he spoke very little English, and that he'd been responsible for a heavenly half-bottle of 1998 "Gattera" I used to sell quite often at the restaurant where I used to work in LA. While the Bovio wines have a fine reputation, they don't regularly receive superstar acclaim, at least not in the states, and accordingly my expectations for this visit were about ankle-high. 

Well, I was wrong about everything. It was indeed Walter Porasso, more salt-of-the-earth than I'd imagined. And the whole visit turned out to be an object lesson in why it's worth visiting more than just the grand names of Barolo.