I’ve just been over to Paris for a long weekend, my first trip there since November 2016. The city was bathed in early summer warmth and sunshine, which can rather make it seem like the best city on earth at times. I’m sure the sunshine helped make it seem like my best trip in years.
I know that many readers would be straight off the train and down to visit Camille at La Buvette, or in for a bottle of Métras at Septime La Cave, within the hour. It wasn’t that kind of trip for us. Staying with friends, we largely gorged ourselves on art (with a little opera). Nevertheless, we still managed some wine shopping, a lot of eating, naturally, and some very good wines. Most of them were in a more classic style, but they were all of the highest quality.
First of all I need to tell you about three Champagnes, one of which (the Val Frison) was a new discovery for me (thanks go to Peter Liem’s recent book). Bérêche Campania Remensis Rosé is probably my second favourite of Raphaël’s wines, after Reflet d’Antan. The colour is almost bronze, and reminds me of the metallic glaze on lustre ware pottery. Blending Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Ormes on the Petite Montagne, it is a true terroir rosé, and it almost tastes, albeit subtly, of that terroir in a way very few pink Champagnes do. Colour is obtained by adding a touch of red wine, dosage is low at 3g/l. It is lace-like, with a well defined backbone of acidity. If you want an elegant rosé this is a benchmark.
Agrapart “Terroirs” is a contrast, but in many ways similar too. Pascal’s Grand Cru is a blanc de blancs, with fruit coming from Oiry, Oger, Avize and Cramant in the Côte des Blancs. It is one of Agrapart’s fuller wines, but it shares with the Bérêche a precision and a rapier-like thrust of balanced acidity which gives structure, and seems to bring out the terroir (the latter being, after all, the raison d’être for Grower Champagne). It’s another massively impressive wine, no less so the quarter of a bottle we had left for the next day.
What I find interesting with the Agrapart wines is that all this precision and frame/structure comes from wines aged not in stainless steel, but in large old oak, and I believe they really do reflect the land on which the grapes are grown, as well as the skill, if not genius, of their creator.
The third Champagne was my first taste of the wines of Val Frison, who is based at Ville-sur-Arce in the Aube/Côte des Bar. I think Valérie’s “Goustan” blanc de noirs may be available at The Good Wine Shop in Chiswick, but I spotted this blanc de blancs rarity at La Cave des Papilles, where they had several of her cuvées. Val Frison “Lalore” is unusual for Val in that most of her six hectares or so of vines are Pinot Noir. This comes from a single plot of Chardonnay vines called Les Cotannes, which is on Portlandian soils, as opposed to Kimmeridgean, more common down there.
It sounds a little mean to say that Lalore was not quite in the same class as the previous two Champagnes, and that would in fact give the wrong impression. This was very good indeed, good enough to spur me on to seek out more of Valérie Frison’s wines. It had a little more weight than the previous two Champagnes, but also such magnificent Chardonnay fruit. A year or two will add further complexity, but some is already showing.
What makes this wine is terroir, again. It is so difficult, in the face of this word being outlawed by so many commentators of a scientific bent, not to bring in the “M” word, but the acidity and texture cannot be better described than by “minerality”. Yup, I’m after more of these! Being a Brut Nature seems to suit this wine and its ripe southern fruit.
Speaking of southern fruit, with temperatures up in the mid-twenties or higher it was a good idea to break out some Provençal wines, but no pale coral rosé I’m afraid. I adore the wines of Château Simone (we even tried, unsucessfully, to find the property once), but I have drunk the white far less often than the red and the pink.
This estate sits among wooded hills to the east of Aix-en-Provence, within sight of Mont Ste-Victoire (you could certainly at one time catch a glimpse as you whizzed past on the Autoroute), and the vines are on north facing limestone slopes.
Château Simone Blanc 2014, Palette is as distinguished as its lovely label. Although young, you can begin to taste and smell the herbs and beeswax which also give the wine a distinctive texture. The scent is gentle too, but both bouquet and palate have real presence, and of course length as well. The grape mix is around 80% Clairette with a little Muscat, Bourboulenc, Furmint and very ancient varieties. The vines at Simone are incredibly old, some 160 to 170 years of age. It certainly used to be the mantra here that vines were only replaced if they died.
The power of suggestion is just too much – you look at the label and can imagine yourself inside the old château when sipping this, with the smell of wood and leather and just a hint of dusty furniture…yet there’s a lemon water freshness too, which lifts you out of the dream like a cup of lemon tea. I used the word “wondrous” on my original IG post, and it is.
As a total contrast we drank a big Bandol another night, but why is it that big Bandols don’t seem, to me at least, to be a bad choice in the heat (albeit with a touch of breeze drifting languorously through the large open windows of a Paris apartment)?
Domaine Tempier Bandol “Cuvée Spéciale Cabassaou” 1988 was a rare chance to drink a top Bandol with proper age to it. This is very important. Cabassou is a tiny parcel of around 1.2 hectares just below the larger Tourtine, and is said to represent the best wine at Tempier. Vines are quite high up here, over 100 metres altitude. The plot, and cuvée, is mainly Mourvèdre, with five percent made up from Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah. It has, at this age, a softness that you don’t see with Mourvèdre until the edge is taken off it with time.
It has a meaty, almost feral, quality yet in retaining its structure, that never escapes the fence which the wine has built to contain it. I’ve seen it described as “earthy”. Maybe that texture has left it at this age, but there is something of an iron or blood note which adds intense spice, though in tiny measure. For me this will match any Bordeaux or Northern Rhône, although I’d say it is drinking nicely now.
I am not massively familiar with the wines of Martin Tesch from Langenlonsheim in the Nahe, though naturally I’ve known him by reputation for many years. I was kindly sold the next wine by an acquaintance a few years ago when I mentioned this on the Winepages Forum. In view of who I was staying with, I thought it a good wine to bring to Paris (and also, not least, because it isn’t French).
St Remiguisberg Riesling Trocken 2006, Weingut Tesch, Nahe comes from what some commentators say is the Tesch vineyard which produces his most complex wines. The soils are decomposed volcanic rock and they seem to give the wine a very fine spine of structure and hardness, over which the body is finely toned but not without just an ounce or two of fat.
The fruit is spectacular, even at over a decade old, but more remarkable is the zippy lime and lemon acidity, which to me seemed to have the freshness of a younger wine. Again, I’m sure that this is very much a terroir wine. The word to sum it up though is “purity”. It’s a wine that’s not quite in your face (no doubt age sees to that), but it’s still shouting out until the afterglow slowly subsides more sedately, with a slightly oily texture replacing the attack, and a more complex herby flavour replacing the citrus.
Occasionally a treat is, unexpectedly, even better than you hoped. When someone pulls out an old wine you feel honoured. When that person is an expert on the wine region in question your hopes are raised. But old Burgundy is fickle and you need to be prepared for anything. Or do you? How many times does a slightly unfancied wine from Burgundy, especially a red one, come up trumps?
Beaune Hospices de Beaune “Cuvée Hugues et Louis Bétault” 1964, Jacques Delaporte was such a wine. The colour was magnificent to begin with. It lacked any hardness and there was fruit there, both on nose and palate. The most definite sign of age was the sediment, compacted and hard. Definitely a John McEnroe wine (“you cannot be serious”). There’s little more to say really, except that I’m sure it wasn’t made by Rudi. Astonishing for a wine of more than fifty years of age. Why on earth should you believe me? I wouldn’t. Wow!
Paris has changed quite a bit over the past few years, and no more so than for the lovers of natural wines. All the old haunts are still just as good, for me the twin retail summits being La Cave des Papilles on rue Daguerre in the 14th, and the Caves du Panthéon on rue Saint-Jacques in the 5th. I will just mention here a couple of new discoveries (to me, at least).
There seems to have been a move in Paris of late to combine a wine shop with something random. There’s one near the Bastille which has an art gallery/shop attached, and a remarkable place near Les Papilles that sells wine and accordions. Also reasonably near to Les Papilles is Mi-fugue, Mi-raisin, which is a music and wine shop. To be fair, the wine side (which takes up most of the physical space) was so exciting that I only gave the CD racks a cursory glance. Particular strengths are in Jura and Savoie (for me), and next visit to Paris I will be heading here before I’m loaded with almost too much to carry. Like the man below!
Another new (to me) cave worth looking in at if you are near to a branch is Divino. I know some of you are ahead of me here. There are two branches, the first on rue Elzevir in the Marais, about half way between the Cognacq-Jay and Picasso Museums. The second branch is on the Boulevard Voltaire, close to the Charonne Métro Station, which is probably more out of the way for most people.
That’s not to say, of course, that the old favourites are not still attractive. Verre Volé has a larger wine shop on rue Oberkampf (half way between Oberkampf and Parmentier Métros, and of course this area has become natural wine central, with the two places I mentioned at the top of this article within walking distance), but the Verre Volé restaurant on rue de Lancry up on the Canal Saint-Martin (not far from Place de la République) remains the number one place for Paris first timers, and for many years after for many visitors.
Take away prices are still reasonable. They won’t sell any unicorn wines…if they get just half a dozen they’ll save them for the restaurant, but I bought a delicious Ginglinger Pinot Noir from Alsace (I say delicious because we drank it last night). The canal itself remains one of the most pleasurable places to stroll on a dimanche, along with the city’s markets.
Of course these high profile places are all well and good if you can blag a table, but what does the natural wine obsessive do if you can’t. Paris has not only opened more good wine shops than I can ever remember over the past few years, but all sorts of random restaurants have been bitten by the natural wine bug too.
Okay, we are in Oberkampf here (naturally the best place to stay in Paris), but local friends took us to a neighbourhood North African restaurant. I was bursting for a tagine and I didn’t give the wine for lunch a lot of thought. What a gem Le Tagine (13 rue de Crussol, Métros – Filles du Calvaire or Oberkampf) turned out to be.
Okay, be warned, the tagines don’t come with couscous, but the food is delicious and the wines…take a look at this mere part of their selection…not bad. The Arena was a good match.
I’ll leave you with a flavour of our weekend of art and music. The architecture exhibition was Junya Ishigami – Freeing Architecture at the Fondation Cartier (again, in the 14th). It has been extended into September, such is its success, and it is highly recommended assuming you are open to this sort of thing. I loved it. Fondation Cartier was designed by Jean Nouvel, who also designed the fabulous Institute du Monde Arabe, over in the 5th near the Pont de Sully.
One final word of warning – the queues at Eurostar‘s Gare du Nord terminal seem to get longer and longer. The fairly recent admonition to arrive at least an hour early should be taken as a minimum now, or at least that was our experience this week. I’ve heard of a couple of people missing trains and having to pay a hefty supplement to catch a later one.