21 December 2018

01 October 2018

let's talk about aix: the côteaux d'aix en provence AOC

When I spoke to Var natural vigneron Jean-Christophe Comor back in July, he aired certain criticisms of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence, or CIVP: chiefly, that tended to market rosé colour over rosé terroir. He found it absurd that the rosés of Provence are divided into the appellations Côtes de Provence, Côteaux Varois en Provence, and Côteaux d'Aix en Provence. "They don't all have the same terroir," he said. "But they all do the same [vinification] techniques."

As an itinerant wine writer and bystander to the scenario, I'm actually perfectly happy there are three distinct Provençal appellations, because it apparently means there are several distinct promotional budgets. So it was that, in the wake of a press junket to the Côteaux Varois this past May, I was invited to return to Provence in late September to attend a tasting of the wines of the adjacent Côteaux d'Aix en Provence appellation. The kicker - in fact, the trip's redeeming feature - was that this time we were to principally taste the region's oft-overlooked red wines.

At 4127ha, the Côteaux d'Aix en Provence appellation has only about a fifth of the planted surface as the adjacent Côtes de Provence, while covering a similar area. This testifies to the more urbanized landscape of the Côteaux d'Aix en Provence appellation, which extends from Arles and Saint-Rémy to the respective outskirts of Marseille and Aix. The terroir is, to put it lightly, diverse, varying from hilly sites bordering the Côteaux Varois to lowlands bordering the Étang de Berre and coastal sites west of Marseille. That's not to say the appellation's reds lack identity. The tasting of the appellation's red wines, held at the Château Vignelaure, revealed a slightly anachronistic Bordeaux fascination, presumably attributable to the fabulous wealth and conservatism of local landowners. But there were highlights, too.

30 August 2018

la courtille, tavel

The renown of Paris 20ème-arrondissement bistrot Le Baratin has a firm basis in the indisputable finesse of chef Raquel Carena's cuisine and the marksman-like natural wine instincts of her partner Philippe Pinoteau. Oft-overlooked amid the accolades surrounding the restaurateur couple is their savvy in human resources. Decades of hiring staff dedicated to natural wine - if not deriving directly from winemaking families, as in the case of front-of-house alums Inès Métras and Thibault Pfifferling - has helped the restaurant's influence expand far beyond Paris.

This summer, the southern Rhône village of Tavel saw the opening of La Courtille, a seasonal restaurant by two other talented Le Baratin alumnae, server-chef Natalia Crozon, and chef Marie Lézouret. Housed in the courtyard of an historic building formerly dedicated to silkworm production, La Courtille offers a menu that, in Crozon's own telling, is kind of another Le Baratin.

Bravo to that, my friends and I responded, over lunch back in July. Who wouldn't be overjoyed to find an homage to Carena's rustic preparations of veal kidney and beef cheeks transposed to a spacious sunlit courtyard provisioned with an unending supply of natural and organic Tavel rosé ?

22 August 2018

restaurant éphémère, vauxrenard

This coming Saturday will be the last service of the season at Restaurant Éphémère, a lovely and unexpected pop-up lunch restaurant tucked in the Beaujolais-Villages hamlet of Vauxrenard.

Run by the Dutch duo of legal recruiter-turned-restauratrice Gusta van Walsem and chef Jessie Ydo, Éphémère is housed in the backyard of Gusta's boyfriend, the acclaimed natural Fleurie vigneron Yvon Métras. Opening his farmhouse home to a stream of friends, neighbors, and tourist clientele all summer was perhaps the last thing I would have expected Métras to do, short of perform in a ballet. But by all accounts the restaurant has been a success. When this past weekend I asked Métras' son Jules how it was going, he replied, "It's full every day, and there's even people we don't know coming!" 

His mild surprise is a testament more to the isolation of Vauxrenard (population: 318) and the near-total absence of promotion behind the project than the quality of the wine and cuisine, which are both splendid. I visited in early July, shortly after Restaurant Éphémère opened, and found the Métras backyard transformed into a dining terrace, where sat, at tables shielded from the sun by a stark yellow tarp, a small cavalcade of natural winemaking peers: van Walsem's friend and fellow Dutch émigrée Florien Kleine Snuverink, a partner at Domaine Les Bottes Rouges in the Jura, Villié-Morgon's Georges Descombes, David and Michele Chapel of Domaine Chapel, along with Métras himself, bemused as ever.

16 August 2018

the tavel rosé of today: couleur tavel 2018

"Couleur Tavel" is an annual tasting festival held in the Gard village of Tavel to celebrate its eponymous rosé appellation. I had the pleasure of attending this July on the invitation of the Lyonnais press agency Clair de Lune. The public tasting itself, held in the warren of ancient gardens in Tavel's town center, was a labyrinthine clusterfuck, choked with giddy wandering families; it was followed by dinner at a wagon circle of food trucks surrounding a sort of dance-free dance-party, resembling a nocturnal exercise video, held in the Place du Président Leroy.

Given that the appellation comprises just 930ha, and is devoted exclusively to rosé wine, the "Couleur Tavel" event is not particularly diverse, nor does it appear to be aimed at a professional market. I was still delighted to attend, because it offered an occasion to familiarize myself with the prevailing norms of the Tavel appellation. The only Tavels I ever seem to drink are the wines of the appellation's black sheep, Eric Pfifferling, and as magnificent as his deep red rosés are, they are unrepresentative of the appellation at large.

Perhaps it is better to say Pfifferling's wines are unrepresentative of the Tavel appellation as it exists today. As I've come to understand it, a rosé wine, at the time the Tavel appellation was decreed in 1936, resembled more a light red wine than the transparent pink wine present-day drinkers have come to know as rosé. The overwhelming majority of the vignerons of Tavel, meanwhile, are producing something in-between, but closer to the latter, a watermelon-coloured rosé neither quite of the present era, nor of tradition.

01 August 2018

jean-christophe comor on natural rosé vinification

In early July I decided on the spur of the moment to join the Native Companion for an evening in the Provençal seaside town of Hyères, where she'd gone for work. The sojourn presented a fine occasion to follow up on my recent chat with Var natural winemaker Jean-Christophe Comor, who I'd run into at the Côteaux Varois AOC 25th Anniversary party back in late May. His 15-hectare domaine in La Roquebrussanne is just a 45 minute drive north from Hyères.

I've bought Comor's wines for several restaurant wine lists in Paris over the years, having initially made his acquaintance at various tasting salons. As a vigneron, he cuts a peculiar figure: owl-eyed, eloquent, slightly hunched, he's a former souverainiste politician and law professor who renounced politics in 2002 to make natural wine in the Côteaux Varois.

Today his idiosyncratic range of wines - 11 cuvées in all - includes highlights like the lightly-macerated, foudre-aged carignan blanc "Analepse" and a suavely powerful Bandol bearing the silly pun "L'Amourvèdre." But I have a special fascination with Comor's two natural rosés, simply because the category itself has grown so scarce in the present era of ultramodern colour-corrected Provençal Stepford-Wife rosé. In the cellar of his beautiful newly-constructed cuverie - built from local stone along the same foundations as an ancient sheepfold - we discussed what it means to produce natural rosé in Provence today.

19 June 2018

as var as I know: 25 years of the côteaux varois en provence AOC

My first move, upon being freed from my recent restaurant work somewhat sooner than anticipated, was to belatedly accept a lot of press junket invitations. This is how at the end of May I found myself spending two days shuttling around the Var with a gaggle of other journalists and bloggers, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Côteaux Varois en Provence AOC

The Côteaux Varois en Provence, a predominantly red wine appellation at its ascension to AOC in 1993, now devotes a whopping 91% of its production to rosé. I had mentally prepared myself for two days of industry doublespeak intended to pass off the effects of highly invasive vinification as the result of unique terroir and know-how. Perversely, this the reason rosé production holds such fascination for me: in no other wine category is there such a vast, irreconcilable gulf between what the mass wine market wants and what can feasibly be produced via natural vinification methods.

Natural rosé is one thing. The Provençal rosé currently soaring in popularity - salmon-coloured, dewdrop-clear, fruit-basket-flavored - is a different product entirely. In a surprisingly double-edged speech he gave at the AOC’s anniversary party in Saint-Julien, Gilles Masson, director of the Center of Research and Experimentation on Rosé Wine, called the “Provençal rosé idéotype” - a wine that is “transparent, fruity, round” - “almost an invention.” He went further than his prepared slides, saying it was “a type of wine that never existed in history.”

24 April 2018

a divorce with la vieille

Well, that was quick. As of earlier this month, I've left the manager and wine director position I held for the past eight months at the 1èr arrondissement restaurant Chez La Vieille.

In writing about the restaurant, before and after beginning to work there, I used to emphasise the involvement of American chef Daniel Rose, to differentiate this iteration of Chez La Vieille from the mediocre ones that preceded it at the historic Les Halles bistrot site. Alas, not even the involvement of Rose, who I've been tempted to consider a friend at times, was enough to save my job from his Parisian business partners. Many restaurants have investors who display zero familiarity with restaurant culture or the quotidian rhythms of a food service establishment, people whose actual involvement extends no further than dining as VIP clients from time to time and volunteering hilariously uninformed commentary on the cuisine and wine. Investors of this sort are no more than a benign nuisance when a more informed stakeholder is working on-site. At Chez La Vieille, I realised soon enough, the only informed stakeholder lives in New York.

As it happened, the task Rose had hired me to perform at Chez La Vieille - to turn the restaurant into a fun, raucous natural wine destination - ran counter to the wishes of his Parisian partners, who, like many of their generation and socioeconomic bracket, remain mystified by natural wine and find informal service slightly unsettling. The end result is, I'm back on the job market. Chez La Vieille will chug along, just with less natural wine, and bereft of the talents of the ace chef de cuisine Oleg Olexin, who left shortly after I did (for different reasons). I am poorer than when I began, having made less money working maniac 90-hour weeks than I used to make from stray gigs and writing assignments. Am I richer for the experience of having managed a restaurant on this side of the Atlantic? It has certainly left me cagier about the prospect of ever opening one of my own. Perhaps that is a form of wisdom.