Monday, October 31, 2011

A natural wine dinner at Bell's Diner

I've mentioned before that my other half (Trevor Vibert, right) is the eminence grise behind this blog - the one who got me - nay, dragged me kicking and screaming - into natural wine in the first place. It was his passion and persistence that converted me so it was good to see him pull off the same trick on an audience of natural wine newbies at a talk he gave at a dinner at Bell's Diner in Bristol last week.

I'll leave him to write about some of the ground he covered in his talk. He's already posted on this blog and I still have high hopes of getting him to write a couple of others so I'll confine myself to writing about the wine and food we ate, with a few extra notes (in italics) on the wines from Trevor.

Chris Wicks (above, left), Bell's chef is actually no slouch when it comes to wine himself - quite unusual in a chef. They tend either to have no interest in wine or abstain altogether having indulged over-heavily in their youth. Chris, by contrast, is an avid reader of Decanter, fascinated by natural wine and has an excellent palate so the food he produced to match with the wines Trevor and he had selected was perfectly pitched.

We kicked off with a glass of Cerdon Bugey 'Methode Ancestrale' (above) from Raphael Bartucci in the Savoie, a very pretty pet nat which tasted of strawberries - but not in a sickly way. It went particularly well with a shot of creamily delicious sweetcorn and hay soup, one of a number of 'amuses' that were handed round.

Bartucci’s Bugey Cerdon is only 8% - a blend of 80% gamay, 15% poulsard and 5% chardonnay. Fermentation is spontaneous with natural yeasts and no chaptalisation. When it is two thirds complete the wine is bottled and stoppered with about 70g of residual sugar. The bottles are then stacked upright for about 3 months. Fermentation stops spontaneously when there is between 30 and 40g of residual sugar. No sulfites are added at any stage.

The wine is a delight with an explosion of red fruits on the palate. The kind of wine that makes you want to smile! The essential sweetness is balanced by a superb natural acidity. (TV)

Then a clever conceit - a red wine that tasted like a white - Nacaret Les Cailloux Le Paradis 2010 from Claude Courtois in the Loire which went perfectly with a starter of salt-baked beetroot, black olive, goats cheese and pinenut. I liked the bitter elements of the dish which stopped the beets stripping out the beet and cherry flavours from the wine

When Courtois bought his vineyards in the Loire they had been farmed chemically and were in dreadful condition. It took him him ten years to turn things round. He doesn't do biodynamics although he follows a number of biodynamic practices - no chemicals and and a diverse ecosystem which includes woods, fruit trees, wheat, animals etc.

Nacarat is supposed to be just Gamay, but depending on the vintage may include Pinot Noir or Cabernet Franc and even forbidden old grapes like Cesar and Gascon. 

Next came a stunning dish of seared scallops and seaweed, cucumber, fennel and spring onion, the perfect foil for a lush, waxy Rhone white, the Eric Texier Domaine de Pergault Roussanne 2009 from Brézème

Eric Texier worked for many years in the nuclear industry, all the while trying to find the best place to make wine. In the end he rediscovered an almost totally forgotten area in the northern Rhone near Hermitage called Brézème which apparently harvests three weeks later than Hermitage in late September or early October.

All the fruit is grown without any use of chemicals, only natural yeasts are used and the wine is neither fined nor filtered.

Then probably the best pairing of all and our favourite wine - a rabbit ballotine with carrot, walnut, ginger and plum purée with the fantastic 2010 Wildman Pinot Noir (above) from Domaine Lucci in the Adelaide Hills which knocks spots of many burgundies at twice the price. (Who said Australia couldn't do Pinot Noir?)

Domaine Lucci is part of Lucy Margaux Vineyards which is run by Anton von Klopper his wife Sally and daughter Lucy in the Adelaide Hills. Anton studied oenology at the university of Adelaide before working in Germany, New Zealand and Oregon.

He has become one of the leading lights of the Australian natural wine movement and part of a group called Natural Selection Theory, a wine movement that he describes as 'like free flow jazz'. You can read more about his philosophy here.

The Wildman Pinot Noir is a wine of extraordinary complexity and refinement. Straight as an arrow with none of that confected overwhelming sweetness of much modern Pinot it nonetheless renders every aspect of the velvety richness which ha s made pinot one of the world's great grapes. Sweet without sweetness, bone dry without aridity it is hard to imagine or remember a better expression of Pinot Noir.

Trevor then bravely switched back to white (a slightly funky South African Chenin called Testalonga el Bandito Cortez 2009 for the cheese - a Berkswell and a Little Ryding - with some very good flatbread. (A great success, this match)

Craig Hawkins - still in his 20's - is impossibly young to be as good as he is (you can see a picture of him on Tim James’s blog here) However he’s spent time with some very good mentors - Stéphane Ogier in Cote Rotie, and Cornelissen, Cos and Franchetti in Sicily. Cortez comes from old chenin bush vines on poor granitic soil. The grapes are not de-stemmed, foot-pressed in a basked, fermented with wild yeasts with no temperature control. fining, filtration or sulphur. The wine is placed in old barrels and left on the lees for 24 months. The resulting wine is totally unlike the generic South African chenin style, pushing the boundaries of the possibilities of white wine in SA.

And we finished with a chocolate millefeuille, praline, salted caramel and pain au chocolat with a Jour de Fête rancio from Jean Francois Nicq (great idea to have an unsweet wine with chocolate).

Everyone knows about Nicq and the uniquely glorious feat of setting up a co-op at Esterzargues where all the production is totally natural. Proof of his achievement - it still continues after his departure and continues to go from strength to strength. Less well known is what he has done since at Les Foulards Rouges in the Roussillon where he has managed to produce biodynamic wines with a lightness of touch and grace that are unusual in the arid and sunblasted land where he now operates.

He calls all his wines "vins de soif" and manages to produce a range of cuvées that are distinguished by great length, purity and elegance. Jour de Fête is a superb rancio with something of the quality of a fine old dry amontillado. It has length and sweetness without being at all cloying, its superb acidity making it the perfect partner to desserts for those who like richness without the excessive sweetness that often accompanies it. It would also be superb with cheddar or an old Comté  

I have to say I couldn't have come up with better pairings myself - and I'm supposed to be the expert!

It was also great to see how excited the other people at the dinner were about the wines they'd tasted and how it had made them look at natural wine in an entirely new way. None of the wines was off-puttingly weird - all were, frankly, amazing.

I suspect Trevor could get a taste for this natural wine dinners lark.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Vivant: Paris's newest natural wine bistro

Of all the natural wine haunts we planned to get to this past week Vivant was the one we thought we were most likely to miss out on having read that you needed to book 1-2 weeks in advance. Happily that proved not to be the case. We just walked in off the street on a Monday lunchtime and got a table.

There are several reasons for its popularity, the most significant of which is that it's owned by Pierre Jancou, founder of the iconic wine bar Racines and author of Vin Vivant, the most influential French natural wine handbook. It's also relatively new (it opened back in April) and tiny as is the way with the most fashionable Parisian joints these days.

It's in an unprepossessing street in the 10th but you can see why Jancou fell for the premises which are covered with the most beautiful art deco tiles (it apparently used to be a oiselerie or bird shop according to this post on the excellent Wine Terroirs)

The wines are chalked up on a board and are as good a list of natural wines as any you'll find in Paris. We had three that were standouts - two 'orange' wines - Les Barrieux 2009 from Jean-Yves Peron in Savoie, a deliciously hazy peachy blend of Roussanne and Jacquère and Montemagro, a Durello from Danielle Piccini which I've already written about here and an extraordinarily exotic, scented light red/rosé (depending which way you look at it) called Fanino Catarrato e Pignatello from Gabrio Bini of Serragghia in Pantelleria*. All the wines they stock are unfined and unfiltered with no added yeasts or sulphites.

Foodwise it is more a restaurant than a bar though you could, I suspect, go in for one of the starters - a plate of wafer-thin sweet fiocco ham or burrata which seems to be the must-have entrée on every Parisian restaurant menu at the moment - later in the day or if the restaurant is quiet. We opted to have a main course of sausage en cocotte with root vegetables and milk fed pork with polenta and aubergines, however, both generous and delicious. And a plate of 3 year old parmesan, managing to run up a bill over over €100.

There are cheaper places to drink natural wine in Paris but this must without a doubt be of the best.

Note: Vivant is closed on Saturdays and Sundays.

* about whom you can again read more on Wine Terroirs here (scroll down the post).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

When is a wine bar not a wine bar?

One of the more mysterious aspects of this pilgrimage through Parisien natural wine haunts is how few of them are actually wine bars in the conventional sense - i.e. somewhere you can go for a glass of wine and, perhaps, a nibble. Most have turned themselves - for obvious commercial reasons, I guess - into bistros or restaurants. Many have a wine shop on the side.

The most obvious example was Le Verre Volé, one of the original band of Paris's natural wine bars where we hoped to stop for a drink before we ate at Philou, a neighbourhood restaurant on the Canal St Martin the other night.

The omens weren't good when we saw every table laid up for dinner but that had happened to us already at the Chapeau Melon so we weren't unduly deterred. We asked for a glass of wine. They said we couldn't have one, despite the fact that two people were already in the corner tucking into a bottle and a plate of sausage. All the tables - completely empty - were fully booked they said. We said we'd eat a course but it made no difference.

My husband who has spent the last three months researching the Parisien natural wine scene remarked that was odd since they made their reputation as a wine bar (in perfect French, I should add. They can't have thought we were tourists). No, they said, they'd never been a wine bar*. And that was the end of that.

At the Chapeau Melon by contrast they said they hadn't got any bottles open but asked what would we like to try. They opened a bottle of Puzelat's Touraine La Tesnière (a blend of Menu Pineau and Chenin Blanc), poured us a couple of glasses, expressed regret that we couldn't eat with them that night because they were full but would we like to come back on Sunday as they were one of the few restaurants in Paris to open on a Sunday night. Which, given the very appetising smells coming out of the kitchen we're going to do. Now that's the way to get a customer.

Moral: Eat at Le Chapeau Melon, avoid Le Verre Volé**. (Sadly this proves not to be the case. We had a really disappointing meal at Chapeau Melon last night. Very long wait. Poor food. Great wine list though - a good place to buy a bottle 17/10/11)

Incidentally you can have a very well priced glass at Inaki Aizpitarte's modern bistro and bar Le Dauphin which is next to his uber-famous Chateaubriand. A Mauzac pet nat from Domaine Plageoles in Gaillac and a Chez Charles 2009, a curious slightly botrytised sauvignon from Noella Morantin in Touraine, both for just 5€ a glass. Can't say I was crazy about the marble and mirrors decor which looked like a celebrity hairdressers but at least the natives were friendly. And we think we spotted Inaki although since almost all the servers sported beards or designer stubble it was hard to tell.

* Proof here on the Wine Terroirs blog which said back in 2004 you could have wine by the glass and charcuterie between 7 and 8 pm. (We were there just after 7). Also I'd forgotten that we ran into the guy who used to run the Verre Vole in Banyuls back in April (see here) who said he'd left Paris for exactly that reason: that wine bars had lost touch with their roots.

** Although I have to admit we're in a minority here. Most critics love it as you can see from this round up on Paris by Mouth.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Why you shouldn't be scared of Le Baratin

We'd heard so many bad things about Le Baratin we almost didn't get there. It was only reading an interview with Bertrand Grebaut of Septime, one of Paris's most highly rated new restaurants, in a funky food magazine called Fricote saying that is was his favourite restaurant in Paris that made us think twice. That and the fact that Le Baratin is still the main place of pilgrimage in Paris for natural wine lovers.

We'd heard bad reports though from friends who had found the owner insupportably rude so we arrived with some trepidation. We were sat next to a group of very noisy Americans of the sort that might just account for his attitude.

Fortunately my husband speaks French like a native so we were fine. When we asked to move to a quieter table there wasn't a problem. He actually got a smile out of the gaffer. And the rest of the staff couldn't have been more charming or helpful.

And the food and wine are terrific - well worth the trek up to the 20th. I had a simple crab and green bean salad and my husband a ragout of artichoke hearts and carrots which miraculously survived the bottle of Yoyo KM31, a glorious rich, heady grenache/carignan blend from the Roussillon we had ordered from the tempting list on the board. It was better though, admittedly, with our two main courses a braised veal cheek (below) and the most amazing joue de boeuf (beef cheek) I've ever eaten which managed to be fall-apart tender and crisp on the outside. I find it rare these days to find main courses better than starters but these were both brilliant.

We finished by sharing a perfectly matured Brie - ripe right the way through but not bitter as Brie can become if it's allowed to go too far.

A really super meal - not cheap* but totally delicious. French chefs love it. Brave the boss and go.

Le Baratin is at 3, rue Jouye-Rouve in the Belleville area in the north of the city. (20th arrondissement). Nearest metro: Pyrenées Tél: 01 43 49 39 70. It's closed Sunday and Monday

* They do a lunchtime menu for 16€ from Tuesday to Friday.

If you're in that part of town and can't get in to Le Baratin try Le Chapeau Melon the other side of the road (evenings only)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Paris wine bars, like buses, come in threes

Day one of a week in Paris, largely to suss out its natural wine bar scene. We've been meaning to do this for a while and have already had to cancel two trips for reasons too complicated and tedious to go in into so I still can't quite believe we're here.

Actually Paris is swamped with wine bars, natural or not so it's not particularly hard to track one down. But what we're already discovering is that the natural ones seem to come in clusters. Maybe they feel they need the moral support, that their unnatural neighbours will persecute them if they're all on their own.

Today we discovered two hotspots, one in rue des Lavandières Ste Opportune in the 1st arrondissment which we hit rather too soon to start drinking but which includes Aux Vieux Comptoirs and La Robe et le Palais, which we definitely plan to go back to. (Aux Vieux Comptoirs looks quite pricey)

And then the rue de l'Arbre Sec where you can find Le Garde Robe and Spring's bottle shop and wine bar. (Spring itself, one of the most fashionable restaurants in town, is down the rue Balleul opposite.)

We had a cheeky glass of Parigot crémant de Bourgogne rosé at Spring for 6€ each which I'd happily drink instead of champagne and chatted to Brendan from Oregon who had developed a passion for natural wine and was manning the shop in place of the manager, Josh.

Then we drifted over the road and had a plate of saucisson sec and terrine at the dimly lit Le Garde Robe which is far more what you expect a natural wine bar to be like. We tried a glass of a typically Provencal blend of Cabernet and Syrah called Champs de la Truffière which I really enjoyed, and a Caladoc from the Rhone called (I think) Ze Pepe Red Ouane which I can't find anything about on Google so I probably wrote it down wrong. Not that interesting anyway.

And finally a glass of Puzelat Sauvignon Blanc '10 at another bar and restaurant called Les Fines Gueules up the rue Croix des Petits Champs the other side of the rue Rivoli. No horrid confected gooseberry and asparagus flavours - one of the nicest wines I've had from Puzelat.

What strikes me so far:

* how easy it is to find somewhere to drink natural wine in Paris

* Paris winebars are not cheap. Main courses are around 20-25€ (admittedly including service) so it's better to do what we're doing and have a starter and a glass of wine - around 4-6€ a (140ml) glass on average which is good value by UK standards.

* We've eaten a LOT of charcuterie. Vegetables are still sparse in France

* every wine bar seems to have a Japanese girl behind the bar or in the kitchen. Curious, that.

* a lot of Parisiens have small dogs. Can't get to the bottom of that, either.

Incidentally there's this rather good map of Paris wine bars and bistros compliled by Dr Vino. Not all natural but you see what I mean about clusters.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Unravelling the Cousin case

Since I posted rather speedily on Sunday night it's become clear that the Olivier Cousin case is quite a bit more complicated than it first appeared.

The trigger might have been the cheeky description of his wine as an AOC (Anjou Olivier Cousin) for which he says his distributors are responsible, but there's history, as they say. As Jim Budd explains on today Cousin has chosen not to label his wines AOC since 2005 because he rejects the methods by which they are produced. But he still in their view, owes them money as a past member of the association, a case they've successfully prosecuted in the courts. Cousin hasn't paid and his bank account has been frozen.

More seriously - and ludicrously - they're after him for labelling his Cabernet Franc ‘Anjou Pur Breton’, the local name for Cabernet Franc. This has incurred the wrath of the DGCCRF - Direction Générale de la Concurrence, de la Consommation et de la Répression des Fraudes - which has charged him with bringing the appellation into dispute. If convicted he could face a fine of €37,500 or up to two years in prison. Apparently the prosecutor is now deciding whether to pursue the case.

I'm not totally surprised to hear of this saga. When I asked if the CIVL (the body that represents Loire producers) could arrange some producer visits this time last year they were enthusiastic until they saw my suggested list which included a number of natural winemakers (understandable in the Loire). They then came back and said they were very sorry but it was impossible because all the producers concerned - all of them - were busy harvesting. (I went anyway and went round a number of producers with Jim Budd). I had no such problems with the CIVB who arranged a comparable set of visits in Burgundy a couple of weeks later or the CIVA in Alsace earlier this summer who arranged for me to see a number of biodynamic winemakers along with more conventional ones.

I can't think why the people who run the Anjou AOC would want to drive a small producer out of business. I'm sure Cousin is a pain in the butt but there must be more imaginative ways to deal with cases like this which will only grow in number as more winemakers reject the rigid AOC system but still feel they have a right to talk about the place where their wines are made. Frankly the authorities make themselves look ridiculous.

If you haven't already done so do leave a comment on Sylvie Augereau's site Glougueule which now carries over 500 messages of support for Cousin.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Why Olivier Cousin needs your support

Photo of Olivier Cousin by Jim Budd

What is it with the French wine authorities? I've heard tales of them harassing natural winemakers before, not allowing them to use a recognised appellation for their wines because they're 'untypical'.

The latest example is Olivier Cousin in Anjou who decided to cock a snook at the authorities by putting AOC on his bottles - not appellation d'origine contrôlée but Anjou Olivier Cousin. Possibly unwise given French bureaucrats appear to suffer from a sense of humour failure but surely not serious enough to land him in court. He was apparently already in trouble for non-payment of a levy to the body which administers the appellation on the grounds that he disagreed with their aims. According to Jim's Loire which carries a full account of what's been going on he lost his case, has had his bank account frozen and now faces a fine of up to €45,000.

What can one do to help? Well for a start you could leave a comment in support of Cousin on Sylvie Augereau's site Glougueule. The weight of international opinion, including other winemakers and journalists hopefully counts for something. And you could make a point of buying some of Cousin's wine or ordering some next time you go to a natural wine bar as we will be doing in Paris next week.

Surely there are less draconian ways to deal with non-compliance.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How natural wine changes your palate

One of the things I’ve noticed since I started drinking natural wine regularly is how much it’s affected my palate. I can not only spot a natural wine in a tasting line-up but am also much more aware of winemaking practices such as chaptalisation and acidification and of what I now regard as excess levels of alcohol.

I wince at the harsh artificial acidity of a warm climate white and what now seems the excessive dosage of many champagnes which suddenly taste uncomfortably sweet. It’s like the moment when you realise you don’t need that spoonful of sugar in your tea. I really don’t like reds so lush that they taste like a fruit liqueur. I feel the effect the morning after when I drink wines that have commercially acceptable levels of sulphur.

Conversely I love the pure, pristine flavours of many natural whites and the vivid, delicious fruit of so many reds - like eating a bowl of freshly picked berries. It’s got to the stage where the wines we buy for our own consumption are almost all organic or biodynamic or made following similar practices. (I’m not religious about sulphur or certification.)

Is this a problem for a wine writer (for those of you who don’t know I write a weekly column for the Guardian)? I like to think not. Wine writers have probably always had a different taste in wine from their readers if for no other reason that we get to taste a great many more wines. And our passion for wine means we tend to spend more disposable income on it than many of them will choose to do.

Jancis Robinson, for example, has a passion for riesling and I seem to recall her stating that she's not a big fan of Sauvignon Blanc. Tim Atkin has a weakness for white burgundy.

A generation ago patrician wine writers like Edmund Penning-Rowsell would have had a superb cellar made up largely of Bordeaux. Critics who review cars probably drive a more expensive car than their readers. Enthusiasts invest in their hobby.

Your tastebuds also change. I remember in the early ‘90s when I first started taking an interest in wine I was crazy about New Zealand Sauvignon. Now I find the flavours of many of the cheaper examples overpowering and unsubtle. Even in the states there’s a move away from the ‘Parkerised’ reds to which so many producers and consumers were in thrall just a few years ago. The article Eric Asimov wrote in the New York Times last week on the lack of structure of many New Zealand Pinot Noirs almost certainly wouldn't have been written in 2005.

There’s an element of fashion about all this. We don’t drink the same wines as we did just as we don’t wear the same clothes - though I’m obviously waiting for someone (probably my husband) to tell me he still wears the same coat he bought 20 years ago.

So how - if at all - have your tastebuds changed and if so what wines do you like now and which have you left behind?