I used to complain often about a dearth of actual wine bars in Paris. I defined them as places where quality wine could be enjoyed standing up, without the obligation to book in advance or consume a multi-course meal. But nowadays my old screeds ring a bit shrill, since such places are no longer so rare in the city. In certain quartiers, they exist in densities sufficient to fill a guided tour.
Ironically, with certain exceptions, I still find myself frequenting the ones that have been there all along. This has less to do with the quality of wine on offer than with the character of the company. I learn more from older sommeliers and restaurateurs than I do from their younger, more stylish peers.
One such example is Ma Cave Fleury, the unfailingly festive caviste and wine bar on rue Saint Denis, founded in 2009 by Morgane Fleury, global ambassador of biodynamic Champagne producers Champagne Fleury. The bar contains nothing more to eat than rudimentary charcuterie and cheese plates. And I can admit to liking the Fleury Champagnes, in most cases, for reasons more political than aesthetic. Ma Cave Fleury nonetheless remains very relevant for its central location and for the central role its proprietor plays in the city's natural wine scene. Morgane Fleury is like its fairy godmother, her unpretentiousness and warmth constituting an antidote to the conservative froideur that typifies the public faces of most Champagne houses.
Fleury is a former stage actress, who upon deciding to work for her family's domaine, studied for official sommelier certification at the Université du Vin de Suze-la-Rousse. At the wine bar she proposes a vast, well-priced range of her family's Champagnes, supplemented by the wines of her friends and peers.
She has excellent taste. I can think of few greater or more reliable pleasures in French natural wine than Lise and Bertrand Jousset's 100-year-old-vine Montlouis "Singulière," a taut, pear-fruited Chenin as concentrated as it is pure. Every year, it is a pearl of the region.
If my feelings about the Fleury Champagnes themselves are mixed, it's because the domaine's practices are so noble, and its range so exotic, that it's hard not to have high expectations. The estate covers 15ha, of which 80% is Pinot Noir. Morgane's father Jean-Pierre Fleury began converting to biodynamic viticulture in 1989, making them among the first in the region.
How many houses bottle a 100% Pinot Blanc Champagne ? It's fascinating as a specimen, but slightly less so as a Champagne, being a bit one-dimensional and brief on the palate. (With rare exceptions, I find the bubble structure of Fleury Champagnes slightly unruly, and I wonder if they would benefit from longer, slower secondary fermentation.)
Where else can one so easily and affordably access magnums of multiple back-vintages? But I had a bad experience with a frightfully oxidised bottle of the 1996 one New Year's Eve, and have been reluctant to try again since.
The estate's Brut "Fleur de l'Europe" cuvée is more successful, a rich and reliable blanc des noirs. I also find their Rosé de Saignée Brut to be among the best values in rosé Champagne, which as a category otherwise tends to be pretty overpriced.
Fleury also recently released a 2004 non-dosed blanc des noirs called "Bolèro," which was downright majestic: a rosy, perfumed nose and a long, complex palate of pain d'épice.
Interestingly, a Loire winemaker friend with whom I tasted this wine later explained that 2004 was a highly productive year in Champagne - record-breaking at the time - which is why Champagne houses like Fleury have so much '04 wine stocked in their reserves individuelles. He reasoned that the "Bolèro" benefitted from its long aging in tank and barrel, and was probably being released in response to relatively low yields in 2012 and 2013. (Whatever Champagne domaines produce over a collectively-determined yearly yield limit can be added to their reserve individuelle for later release in years with lower yields. No other regions enjoy such a useful insurance system.)
Whatever the explanation, the wine is a highly sophisticated outlier in a Champagne range whose charms lie principally in their Huckleberry Finn simplicity. They taste honest and unpolished, which in the gleaming, confected realm of Champagne, is itself a rare virtue. Ma Cave Fleury, with its casual, communal terrace on a street known for porn and grit, is, in turn, a rarity in Paris: an unpretentious and egalitarian venue in which to enjoy France's most famous luxury product.
177, rue Saint Denis
Métro: Réaumur-Sebastopol or Sentier
Tel: 01 40 28 03 39
A 2013 piece in the NYTimes T Magazine about Ma Cave Fleury.
A 2010 piece in BK Wine Magazine on Ma Cave Fleury.
A 2010 account of same visit to Ma Cave Fleury by Stuart George at Worcester Sauce.
A 2009 piece in Marie Claire France about Ma Cave Fleury.
A nice endorsement of Ma Cave Fleury by Emmanuel Rubin in Le Figaro.
A hearty 2008 endorsement of Champagne Fleury replete with tasting notes by Jamie Goode at Wine Anorak.
A concise producer profile of Champagne Fleury at Domaine Select.