Saturday, March 28, 2015

Jean-Pierre Robinot: the wild man of L’Angevin

I visited Jean-Pierre Robinot back in July 2013 at a time when I was struggling to keep up the blog so the account I wrote at the time never got posted. But looking back on it I think it captures something about the man and his wines worth recording so here it is. Better late than never, I guess.

I would think twice about Jean-Pierre Robinot unless you a) speak French b) are unusually persistent. He’s not big on answering emails or calls and it was only because my husband, a natural wine nut, was particularly determined, spoke fluent French and had a French mobile that I think we got through to him at all.

Even when we arrived for a pre-arranged meeting he’d ‘just left’ according to the people working on the house next door. So we rang him again and he turned up in a battered old van with a set of keys that looked as if they opened the doors of a mediaeval castle.

Unfortunately I lost most of my pictures of the domaine which runs across several rambling buildings and are kept in a condition that would give any supermarket buyer a heart attack. Was it possible to make drinkable wine in such a chaotic environment? Turns out it was.

I run ahead of myself. A bit of history. Robinot ran one of the first natural wine bars in Paris called L’Ange Vin - which also means one who comes from Anjou - the French like a good pun. He then decided he wanted to make wine himself and after looking for vineyards all over France pitched up in Chahaignes, the village in which he was brought up. ‘I looked all over to find somewhere and heaven was under my nose.” he declared dramatically.

From there he makes a bewildering series of wines from the indigenous chenin blanc and pineau d’aunis, some from his own vineyards, others from bought in fruit but without any additions, including sulphur (“It’s just not  an issue - I don’t even think about it”) A fair number are sparkling - methode ancestrale - and all spend at least 18 months in his warren of limestones caves or ‘sa cave troglodyte’ as one retailer put it - more often considerably longer. As Robinot himself said ironically “It’s not Mouton Rothschild, is it?”

He feels passionately that natural wine is the only way forward. "There’s a generation of winemakers dying of cancer because they were using chemicals without any protection. There are 350 products you can add to wine and 100 even if it’s organic.” He shrugs with despair.

He hasn’t been afraid to put his head above the parapet and campaign for the natural wine movement. He founded a natural wine magazine called Le Rouge et le Blanc (which my husband, Trevor rates highly) and co-founded an organisation called Les Vins S.A.I.N.S. - Sans Aucun Intrant Ni Sulfites for producers who make no additions to their wines which includes fellow Loire winemaker Olivier Cousin.

Here are the wines we tasted - from unlabelled bottles so I may have got the odd name or vintage wrong. I was expecting there to be more recent releases but have struggled to find more than a couple. Bear in mind there are likely to be inconsistencies from one bottle to the next so some may underwhelm but the best will absolutely sing.

"This is the Art House movie of wines and appeals to a similar demographic" PJ Wines

Les Vignes de l’Ange Fetembulles 2011
20 months sur latte. Very chenin, peachy but totally dry. (Amber). Current vintage 2013 if you can find it

Les Années Folles blanc 2010 (I think) Not so immediately seductive on the nose but very aromatic on the palate with a lovely flavour of peach skins or pêches de vigne. Interestingly he recommends it with oysters. Can't see that myself. (Amber)

L’As des Années Folles 2011 50/50 Chenin Blanc/Pineau d’Aunis
Quite green, vegetal dry, austere. More difficult. Quite tannic. Needs food. (Red)

2006 Nocturne Pineau d’Aunis made from 80 y.o. vines
Quite fierce, funky on the nose then explodes with an aroma and flavour of rose petals
Vinisat in France has the 2009 and Metteri the 2011. (Amber to red)

Cuvée Bistrologie 2011 Almost classic Loire Chenin.  Fresh, smooth, lovely acidity. Comparatively easy to drink. (Green to amber)

Charme 2011 More mineral, light, fresh, a lovely dancing acidity. (Amber)

2005 Camille Robinot - Pineau d’Aunis
A big hit of white pepper then dark, rich almost smoky and sweet. (Amber to red)

L’Opera des Vins Les Quatres Vents 2005
Extraordinary Chenin that spends 4 years in barrel and tastes of quince and honey.  Not quite sweet but not dry either. He reckons it goes with ‘grands poissons and white meats - I was thinking more of roast guineafowl, wild duck or cheese. Red. We also tasted the 2010 - which was still dark and smoky. "Not yet ready" he said. (Amber to red)

Regard du Loir, Cuvée P 2009
We managed to buy a couple of these and drank one at the Auberge de Chassignolles Fête du Vin. It may have been the occasion but it seemed of the most bewitching natural wines I've tasted - exotic and headily scented. Les Caves de Pyrène has the 2010 for £19.80
Not only is it difficult to get hold of Robinot, it’s incredibly difficult to get hold of his wines but persist*. If you spot one, buy or order it. 

*St John stocks three of his older vintages in the UK, Les Caves de Pyrene a couple of the more recent ones. In France has a good selection.  In Australia check out Living Wines (although many of the wines are sold out) and in the US PJ Wines.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

9 natural wines I’ve enjoyed in Paris this week

It’s not often I spend a whole week drinking natural wine but I’ve been in Paris with my husband who drinks nothing else, given the chance. And we’ve been hanging out in restaurants and bars that have natural wine lists.

So here are a few things we’ve enjoyed, where we’ve drunk them and what we ate with them. As usual I’ve rated them from green to red - see my traffic lights system, right.

X Bulles at Le Mary Celeste 

A  super bone-dry pet nat made from melon de Bourgogne from muscadet producer Vincent Caillé  Great with oysters. (See my recently updated review of the restaurant). N/A in the UK. GREEN TO AMBER

Le Temps d’Aimer Sorcellerie 2012 at Sauvage

A new one on me, this dry chenin from Francois Maudet’s Le Temps d’Aimer just south of Angers was delicately peachy but with the acidity to make it a great match with oysters (yes, again). See my review of Sauvage in the previous post - I think only they stock it. GREEN TO AMBER

Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet 2013 Vin de Pays de l’Ardèche Blanc at Au Passage

I’ve enjoyed Hervé Souhaut’s syrah before but not tried this richly textured blend of Roussanne and Viognier. It sailed through our starters of salmon with beets and horseradish, salt cod with saffron aioli. and roast Jerusalem artichokes. Les Caves de Pyrène GREEN TO AMBER

Le Vendangeur Masque 2013 Bourgogne Blanc, de Moor at Le Servan

Confusingly this seems to be labelled as Chablis in some markets and Bourgogne in France but it’s very fine either way - beautifully crisp and precise. My mate Fiona ordered a case (from Les Caves de Pyrène) she enjoyed it so much. Spot on with tête de porc with cockles and celery and gravlax of trout with endive and orange. GREEN

Muxagat Tinta Barrocca 2013 at Le Servan
One of the few non-French wines on this list, a deliciously vibrant unoaked Portuguese red from Mateus Nicolau de Almeida of Quinta do Monte Xisto in the Douro (see this interesting background profile from Wine Detective Sarah Ahmed.)  Very good with a robust, sticky beef stew with carrots and black sesame. GREEN

La Stoppa Ageno 2005 at Le Baratin

No real excuse for ordering this as we have several bottles at home but it’s rare to come across a 2005 let alone for €7.50 a glass. Deep, deep orange (as you can see below) with an exotic flavour of quince. Perfect with paté, braised duck and gorgonzola (not all on the same plate, obviously). Les Caves de Pyrène. AMBER

Camerlengo Accamilla 2013 at Heimat

Not quite in the same league as the Ageno but still very young, a beguilingly floral skin contact Malvasia from Basilicata. Very good with a deeply savoury starter of veal tongue. Vini Italiani in the UK has the 2011vintage for £21. AMBER

Sang Neuf, Vuillaud 2013, Beaujolais at Heimat

The name says it all. This unusual Beaujolais really did smell of blood, iron and freshly dug earth which obviously won’t make it to everyone’s taste. Great with a robustly spicy seafood pasta though. AMBER TO RED

Koforobé 2013 Gregory Guillaume from L’Etiquette

L’Etiquette on L’isle Saint-Louis is one of our favourite wine shops (pop by if you’re in the neighbourhood for their Saturday tastings). An unusual blend from Alba La Romaine in the Rhône, marrying peppery syrah with fresh redcurranty merlot. No added sulphur, fining or filtering - a simple vin de soif. 17€ GREEN TO AMBER

Interestingly when I went through my notes and snaps I found we drank more white than red, maybe a reflection of the style of food we were eating. A topic I’ll return to in due course.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sauvage, a new natural wine bar discovery in rue du Cherche Midi, Paris

While we pick up most of our recommendations online, it’s always good to discover somewhere for yourself as we did a couple of months back heading back up the rue du Cherche Midi and stumbling upon Sauvage.

Having recently opened it consisted of a few shelves of natural wines and the standard wine bar fare of cheese and charcuterie. Now it has a few hot dishes too prepared in a minute space at the back by the owner Sebastien Leroy with the aid of a sharp knife, a microwave and a slow cooker.

Given the fact that Leroy has to combine the roles of salesman, sommelier, chef and front of house (and presumably washer-upper) the operation runs surprisingly smoothly. If you sit down and order a couple of glasses of wine (a slightly wild pet nat - La Buelloise from La Grapperie in our case) you get a few slices of excellent saucisson with it.

Leroy rattles off the menu - there’s no written version so it pays to have a smattering of French - which includes oysters, mackerel, some kind of fish I didn’t catch and sausage de Morteau with carrots. The oysters which we could hear being shucked in the background were wonderfully fresh and salty, perfect with the utterly delicious 2012 Sorcellerie dry chenin from Francois Maudet’s Le Temps d’Aimer (GREEN TO AMBER - see my traffic light ratings on the right) that he suggested to go with them, a generous hunk of beurre de sel and some thickly sliced dark rye bread.

The satisfyingly meaty, slightly smokey sausage came with sweet-tasting heritage carrots which I gather from the ‘ping’ were microwaved (nothing wrong with that) then had some shavings of carrot added to the hot broth for an interesting textural contrast. Very simple but a first class use of good seasonal ingredients, following the natural wine philosophy of adding nothing and taking nothing away. Considering his background is apparently in film rather than a restaurant kitchen according to this review in Le Fooding, Leroy can cook a bit.

A selection of Sauvage's wines - not the ones we tasted
The wine selection is modest but eclectic with not many names i recognised apart from Sebastien Riffault but Leroy says he tries to stock wines that aren’t available elsewhere. The ‘Malice’ Cab Franc we had with the sausage, also from Maudet was delicious too though slightly funkier (AMBER). I can’t find out much about the domaine at all other than that he’s just south of Angers. Certainly one to look out for.

It was hard to keep track of exactly what we spent because there wasn’t a bill and we the took the remains of the two bottles we started away to finish over the weekend. But I’m guessing the wine came to about half our €112 total. You could certainly get away with a lot less.

Sauvage is at 60 rue du Cherche Midi, 76006 Paris (the 6e) and on Facebook at cave.sauvage. Closed Sunday after 3 and Mondays. Open 10-3 Tues & Wednesday and 10-11pm Thursday-Saturday

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Are women more tolerant of natural wine?

I’m not sure what’s in the air but there’s been a lot of impassioned debate about natural wine this week - both pro and anti.

Natural wine advocate Isabelle Legeron referred to it in the Guardian as ‘life in a glass’. Jay Rayner countered that they were ‘brutal’ (scroll down to the comments below the piece). Wine critic Tim Atkin referred to it on Twitter as ‘primitive wine’, his fellow writer Jamie Goode poked gentle fun at both while baker and food stylist Claire Ptak enthused about her favourite natural wine diners in the FT.

It’s possible to detect a couple of patterns here. One is - and it's tempting to  argue this on International Women's Day -  that women are more tolerant than men of natural wine. At one level that’s true. I think women are generally less inclined to be confrontational about their preferences and accepting of those who don’t share them. But the people who make natural wine - and other types of wine - are mainly male, as are many of the young sommeliers who champion them.

No, the big divide I think is between people who have a food background and those whose background is in wine. By and large the wine establishment (Jamie and a handful of others apart) is anti and I can see why. Regardless of whether you approve or not of the ’N’ word about which I blogged myself a couple of weeks ago the implication for many is that if these wines are good then there’s something wrong with the rest of the wines we drink. (Not a view I share. I think it’s perfectly possible to enjoy both pet nat and champagne for example but the establishment seems to feel you can't do both.)

Food writers, chefs and younger consumers, are more open-minded. Their reaction to an unfamiliar taste or ingredient they haven’t come across is ‘bring it on’. If they don’t like it to start with (as many of us don’t take to olives or anchovies, say) their response is to try it again to see what the fuss is about. It helps to explain why many of the new wave of restaurants and wine bars serve natural wines. The chefs are into them just as much as their wine guys (or gals).

Regardless of the merits - or demerits - of natural wines, and there are good and bad examples of each, I just don’t see why people (especially middle-aged men in the wine trade) get so angry about them. No-one forces them to drink them or to go to restaurants that serve them. Almost every restaurant - even those with a 100% natural wine list - serves some other beverage - beer, cider, cocktails - that they could drink. Or they could simply say to the sommelier "I’m not that keen on natural wine, can you suggest one I might enjoy?" They might even - and this might come as a shock to them - actually find one they liked.

Image © nicoletaionescu -