27 April 2016

the f word: the curse of filtration

A kieselguhr filtration system.

I love natural wine. But I understand why the phrase "natural wine" and the sulfur discussion it entails can sometimes infuriate even its own supporters. In natural wine circles, the wine conversation has become so fixated on sulfur that other, equally fundamental questions are often getting overlooked. I refer mainly to the F-word: filtration.

I've been perplexed to see journalists and sommeliers I respect embracing filtered natural wines. And I was recently disappointed when one of my favorite wine writers, New York Times critic Eric Asimov, in his recent blind tasting of 2014 Morgon and Fleurie, duly quoted Kermit Lynch - the original champion of unfiltered wines - before awarding the two highest scores to plainly filtered wines.

To be fair, blind tastings are tough.* Beaujolais, and gamay overall, begins with a reputation for lightness, which might cause some tasters to presume a filtered wine is naturally light. But one of the more noble challenges of wine appreciation lies in preserving one's palate from habituation to technological shortcuts in vinification. This includes filtration, no less than sulfur overdoses or lab-cultured yeasts. In each instance, the potential quality of a wine is being sacrificed for the sake of a regularity more amenable to industrial distribution norms. The fact is that Kermit's 1980's crusade against wine filtration is still relevant today - particularly with regards to gamay, which seems to lose more from filtration than many other red varieties. Filtration of gamay is stylistically determinative: once you become attuned to it in a wine, it's as obvious as the difference between the burnish of real wood and the sheen of a plastic substitute.

25 April 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: xavier benier, saint-julien

Saint-Julien vigneron and négoçiant Xavier Benier has long been an enigma to me. His unsulfured, unfiltered range of wines are well-represented around Paris, and nearly always offer excellent value for money. But for various reasons Benier's winemaking defies easy categorisation. The wine range seems to change every year; he has no website; the labels are a heterogenous hodgepodge; and Benier himself doesn't quite belong to any particular social group of like-minded winemakers, à la the 'Microscope Gang' of Villié-Morgon, or the wayward cult gathered around Philippe Jambon up north.

Until my visit to his cuvage last October, I didn't really know what to make of Benier.

I was to learn that part of the distance between Benier and his peers is merely geographic. Saint-Julien is quite far removed from the crus; it lies where the granite of Beaujolais-Villages cedes to the clay-limestone of Beaujolais tout court. Habitation is sparser and many mustard-yellow buildings evidence the proximity of the quarries of the pierres dorées. Benier is from Saint-Julien, and in something like the way libertarianism increases as one heads into the emptiness of the western US, his character reflects his surroundings, evincing a fierce independence that belies his diminutive, office-clerk figure. Over a glass of his remarkably good négoçiant Régnié, in the course of an anecdote about a dispute with the appellation, he'll casually recall arming himself with a sledgehammer.

18 April 2016

the grown-ups' table: le petit keller, 75011

If I were ten years younger, I'd probably spend a lot of time on rue Keller. Recent years have seen a cornucopia of earnest young bars and restaurants open on this Voltaire-area side street, some pristine and intelligent (Aux Deux Cygnes), others less so (Barcardi Mojito Lab). I'd dig rue Keller's slew of vintage boutiques, book shops, and records shops, and the curious contrast between the innocence of these endeavors and the heavily-armed soldiers patrolling the street for the safety of its most famous and incongruous resident, Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

As things stand in this lifetime, however, I haven't spent much time on rue Keller. I do most of my shopping on Amazon, and when I dine out, I seem to gravitate towards businesses run by my elders. My reasoning for the latter is simple: I have more to learn from them. Paris' younger bars and bistrots can blur together at times, particularly if, as is often the case, they're sourcing their wines from the same handful of agents.

But now rue Keller, too, is growing up. The celebrated Franco-Japanese chef Kaori Endo (ex-Nanashi, ex-Rose Bakery) and her husband, the hyper-discreet O.G. natural wine caviste Michael Lemasle (Crus et Découvertes), have transformed quaint bistrot Le Petit Keller into something new and intriguing in the Paris restaurant scene. With ambitious opening hours, refined cuisine drawing equally on western health-consciousness and eastern home-cooking, and a smart natural wine list, the new Le Petit Keller is a savvy small-plates restaurant that dials down the masculine indulgence of the format without sacrificing an iota of sophistication.

13 April 2016

sign of the times: jones, 75011

When the partners involved in Voltaire gastronome-magnet Restaurant Bones decided to go their separate ways last summer, remaining co-owner and Père Populaire kingpin Florent Ciccoli considered selling the business. Instead, after what seemed like months of faintly dubious "close-out" sales of the restaurant's wine cellar, Ciccoli decided to hop in the kitchen himself and reopen the restaurant with a very, very slight name change.

It's a daring move for a number of reasons, not least because very few chefs would relish withstanding direct comparison with the sophisticated culinary highs of previous chef James Henry. But a flair for improvisation has long been both the Pères Populaires group's greatest asset and its most wobbly liability.

For anyone wondering, Ciccoli's cuisine at the newly-rebaptised restaurant Jones does not withstand direct comparison to Henry's at Bones. But nor should it. Jones succeeds most convincingly where it departs most from the former restaurant's blueprint. Gone is Bones' sometimes churlish service; gone is the maximalist glass-pour selection; gone are set-menus and mandatory reservations. What one finds in place of these things is an inviting and unpretentious spot for free-form, last-minute dinners, enlivened by an undiminished natural wine list and, one presumes, many of the former restaurant's product purveyors. The populist format fits the times: the citizens of Paris' 11ème arrondissement can be proud that, in 2016, things like skin-macerated Savoie wines and fish heads have become almost mainstream.

01 April 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: domaine leonis (raphael champier & cristelle lucca), villié-morgon

Odenas-born natural vigneron Raphael Champier decamped to a fixer-upper house and cellar on the outskirts of Villié-Morgon late last year. When I visited him and his girlfriend-slash-business partner Cristelle Lucca in January I asked him how he liked it in his new neighborhood, which is famously home to Beaujolais' most significant concentration of natural winemakers.

"Well," he said, scratching his head. "It's more complicated to go work in the vines."

The couples vines are in Brouilly, near Saint-Lager, and on the Côte de Brouilly, and in the Beaujolais-Villages appellation near Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières. It's about a twenty-minute drive to the nearest parcel. The couple agree that it's more than worth the commute to have their own cellar. Previously they worked in shared cellar facilities with other métayers at the Chateau de Lacarelle. While Champier derives from an extensive winemaking family and worked six years full-time for Saint-Etienne-de-la-Varenne's influential Jean-Claude Lapalu, his career trajectory has been anything but easy. His family is vast - he has fourteen brothers and sisters - and, in terms of winemaking, very conservative.

"We're making progress," Lucca jokes. "Now when we bring natural wine to the dinner table, they don't grimace anymore."