03 August 2012

a godsend: bacchus et ariane, 75006

Since my impolitic skewering of whopper misnomer wine bar La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels last summer, a number of that restaurant group's staff have approached me attempting to explain the bar's name. "Don't you get it?" they've asked me. "Sur-natural wine. Supernatural. It's not saying it is natural wine. It means it's better than natural wine !"

How on earth this is meant to make me appreciate the place any more is beyond me. These people seem to be telling me that instead of making a dupicitous play on words on behalf of the entrenched conservative wine establishment, the owners were making a boorish claim on the behalf of the entrenched conservative wine establishment. Complicating things further, I'm told that La Compagnie Yadda Yadda have in the interim actually added to their wine list a small selection of what are widely recognised as vins naturels. The whole affair is Romneyesque in its backtracking and inventive rationalisation, and frankly I wish I'd never said anything in the first place. (I'd certainly be on better terms with the owners, who are by all accounts good people at heart, and whose first three projects I genuinely appreciate.)

If I'm dredging it up now, it's only by way introducing my very belated discovery, via my friend Meg Zimbeck, editor founder of Paris By Mouth, of Bacchus et Ariane, a cave in the marché Saint Germain, just around the corner from La Compagnie des Vins Conventionels. Unbeknownst to me throughout the whole natural / surnaturel huff and my own extravagant complaints about the surrounding arrondissement, Bacchus et Ariane's proprietor Georges Castellato has for the past 14 years been quietly doing much of what that other bar ostensibly claims to: offering a magnificent, well priced selection of wines, drawn evenly from the ranks of acclaimed greats and itinerant sulfur-free upstarts, in a setting that, on a sunny afternoon in summertime, is among the most pleasant in Paris.

Meg had invited me along on one of her acclaimed cheese tours, which begin at various famous fromageries (depending on the season) in the surrounding quartiers and finish at Bacchus et Ariane, which is seemingly one of the rare wine bars in Paris whose license permits (or effectively permits) consumption on premises without purchase of food. Castellato doesn't sell food, in fact, but I'm told patrons often bring plates of ham from nearby market stalls, and by prior arrangement Meg is able to commandeer a few tables to support the enormous array of cheeses she purchases during each tour.

She lets Georges choose the initial wine accompaniment, and on the day I visited he'd picked a marvelously geeky bottle: a 2010 Saint-Bris by Auxerre-based estate Domaine Goisot. Jean-Hugues and Ghislaine Goisot's range of steely, consummately crafted natural burgundies from Chardonnay and Aligoté are at home on just about any list, regardless of natural focus, for their quality / price ratio alone. But the estate's marquee wines are those produced under Burgundy's lone Sauvignon appellation, Saint-Bris, which the Goisots themselves helped achieve AOC status in 2003.

Saint-Bris in general - all 100ha of it - produces a more pear-shaped, less concentrated style of Sauvignon than the one found in the Loire. Despite the best efforts of the Goisots, and other vignerons including Alice and Olivier de Moor and Christian Venier, it remains an appellation wherein finding real typicity is the exception rather than the norm. Goisot's bottles are basically the benchmarks: athletic Sauvignons of minerally profile in which the grape's exotic tendencies are subdued in favor of salinity and sinewy poise.

All this I knew before the bottle was opened at Bacchus et Ariane. What I hadn't forseen was the splendid opportunity Meg's cheese smorgasbord would provide for determining what cheese tastes best with Burgundian Sauvignon. It may not come up often in Trivial Pursuit, but still, you never know when such information will prove fantastically useful.*

Actually, the only reason this excited me was because we happened to arrive, for once, at a clear answer. The Goisot's Saint-Bris's flavors positively tsunamied when paired with the salty, savoury richness of a Brie de Melun.

All the other fine cheeses - a panoply that included Saint Marcellin, Valençay, Osau-Iraty, two ages of comté, and a Brie de Meaux - came and went in calm waters, provoking no explosions.

A Brie-f diregression: Brie, because it is widely available in an altogether adulterated blah version in most English-speaking nations, isn't usually what most educated tourists reach for first in Paris. This is a shame, because it's made rather close to Paris, and what you find here is often of a strikingly good quality. Brie from the town of Melun differs from Brie from the town of Meaux in that the former is aged on average two weeks longer, and its curds are separated from its whey in via lactic fermentation, rather than use of cow rennet.

After the Saint-Bris, we went through two more bottles, both of which I took great pleasure in choosing, because the selection at Bacchus et Ariane is magnificent.

On Castellato's shelves, established legends like the wines of the late Didier Dageneau sit comfortably besides bottles by potential legends-to-come like Domaine des Cavarhodes's Etienne Thibault and itinerant metalhead winemaker Anthony Tortul of La Sorga.

My visit to Bacchus et Ariane was also notable for introducing me, at last, to a La Sorga wine I genuinely enjoyed, the 2009 "Chat-Zen," a frankly oxidative, RS-laden Sauvignon from the Carcasson that, despite oxidation, possessed an astonishing ray-of-God floral projection that seemed fresher than all tomorrow.

That a wine like this is discoverable a stone's throw from the Odéon is laudable. That a wine shop like this continues to offer challenging, small production wines at reasonable prices quite literally in the face of plainly-demonstrated financial incentives to do the opposite is almost miraculous.

Meg Zimbeck with Bacchus et Ariane owner Georges Castellato.

All Paris should be proud.

* It will mostly likely prove useful the next time I need to shut down some blitheringly obscure repartée about  wine and cheese pairing, which, as this example proves, is a complete wash-out 90% of the time. The counterintuitive truth is that wine is actually harder to match with cheese than many other types of food. It requires two complex expressive elements interact, and not like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. With this Saint-Bris gem in my back pocket, I'll be able to prove conclusively that I possess the capacity to care about wine and cheese pairings, at which point I can decisively change the subject to something more interesting, like electoral college reform. 

Bacchus et Ariane
4, rue Lobineau
75006 PARIS
Métro: Odéon
Tel: 01 46 34 12 94

Related Links:

A write-up of a very similar experience with Meg Zimbeck at Bacchus et Ariane @ DorieGreenspan

An uncharacteristically brief account of a 2005 visit to Domaine Goisot's 14th century cellars @ WineTerroirs

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