12 May 2015
Paris has streets that hide in plain sight - overlooked byways that, due to poor sun exposition or traffic redundancy, get circumvented by pedestrians. The forever-shaded length of rue de Chateau d'Eau north of République is one. Another is the Aligre-adjacent rue de Prague, the quiet side street where French culinary journalist Bruno Verjus opened his ambitious restaurant Table in 2013. Despite receiving praise from Verjus' fellow journalists, Table still has its namesakes available most nights, partly due to its discreet location.
Similarly, the Paris natural wine scene has certain esteemed personalities that seem to bend the limelight whenever it nears them, and disappear. Natural wine as we know it in Paris - and increasingly, worldwide - was shaped in its adolescence by the palates of low-key dégustateurs with zero flair for self-promotion: people like La Cave de l'Insolite's Michel Moulherat, now at Issy-les-Mouleaux's La Poudrière, or Olivier Camus, whose struggling Belleville restaurant Le Chapeau Melon is an abandoned goldmine of old bottles.
Another such quietly influential personage is Franck Carré, formerly of La Cave des Papilles and Café Trama. Four months ago Carré opened, in partnership with Bruno Verjus, Table à Côté, a cave-à-manger so discreet and uncommercial as to make one suspect wine sales are secondary to some private creative endeavor requiring office space. (Perhaps he is writing a novel?) Table à Côté seats six on rue de Prague's forgotten sidewalk, and a dozen more inside on a leaden communal table. The menu consists of generous portions of highly-pedigreed meats and cheeses. The only real draw is Carré himself, whose long experience is evident in a slender wine selection containing bottles to marvel the most jaded palate. The other night, for instance, he introduced me to the apotheosis of pineau d'aunis.
It was the most sublime little wine I've tasted all year: Philippe Chidaine's 2013 "Bois Freslon," a Vin de France made from half a hectare of biodynamically-farmed pineau d'aunis near Ternay in the Loir-et-Cher.
Tasting it was a curious experience, because a few weeks ago I'd heard just this sort of wine described in a conversation with my part-time négoçiant friend Chris Santini of Santini Frères. Santini had had a disappointing experience with some pineau d'aunis that had changed drastically after a magnificent initial tasting. His description of the initial tasting articulated a certain pineau d'aunis ideal - perfumey, reddish-orange in colour, low-alcohol, exotic as all get-out - that I didn't fully understand at the time. I'd told him that most of the quality pineau d'aunis I'd tasted had been more extracted than that. (Renaud Guettier's, for example.)
Loire winemaker Jean-Pierre Robinot, in a separate conversation, compared the grape to Pinot Noir, a description I still don't find convincing, although wine writer Richard Kelley echoes it in his impressively thorough writing on the grape. (The grapes both yield aromatic wines, light in colour, but the similarities seem to stop there, and one would never confuse one for the other. Pineau d'aunis's aromas are more savoury, its textural grain more evident, than the comparatively polished and cherried pinot noir.) In another separate conversation, California winemaker Doug Shafer found the wine's black-peppery nose notably syrah-like. Indeed, the more extractive iterations of the grape can scan as a sort of black-hearted, spicy Northern syrah.
I relayed all this to Carré, who gave credit to Guettier's pineau d'aunis, but considered Philippe Chidaine's wine to be, in stylistic terms, a truer expression of the grape's potential. Tasting the latter, I couldn't agree more. "Bois Freslon" is a beguiling, mysterious creation, its soft palate of dried roses and strawberry belied by a finely-etched aromas of gun flint, incense, and baseball mitt. Misty, brick-red, with 11° alcohol, the wine was like a cross between fresh Beaujolais tout court and 1950's Barbaresco.
Philippe Chidaine - no relation to François - is a Paris-based management consultant who apparently tends his vines only part-time. "Bois Freslon," his only wine, retails for 13€. With wines so brilliant and inexpensive, it's easy to overlook Table à Côté's somewhat extravagant 10€ corkage fee.
Menu items aren't inexpensive either, but with an exacting gourmand like Verjus involved, their fine provenance is assured, and the hefty portion sizes seem to indicate Carré is doing his best to give bang for buck. A football-sized portion of rillettes de porc preceeded a rabbit terrine that seemed to have included the entire cast of Watership Down.
We sat sawing at that terrine for the duration of a few bottles the other evening, greatly enjoying, with each new selection, Carré's sagacious commentary. It's what's lacking in the present-day profusion of natural wine in Paris. In the 10ème, 11ème, and 12ème arrondissements, there must be a hundred establishments where I can consume a good bottle of natural wine. But there are no more than a dozen where I can learn anything about it.
Table à Coté
3, rue de Prague
Tel: 01 43 43 12 26
Franck Carré's former workplaces:
La Cave des Papilles, 75014
Café Trama, 75006
A terrific discussion of Pineau d'Aunis from Richard Kelley, who almost visited Philippe Chidaine.