My favourite part of Paris is that around Oberkampf, and one of the most interesting streets is Rue Popincourt, which tracks down from Boulevard Voltaire, just south of Oberkampf Métro Station, until you are almost as far south as the Opéra-Bastille, but about half a kilometre to the east. Once, the whole area from The Bataclan to Bastille was actually better known as Popincourt, and it’s a fascinating area to explore.
Small businesses abound today and the area mixes a vibe of diversity with hidden alleys of workshops and antique yards. This used to be an area full of small industry, when the immigrant population was largely Auvergnat, who brought their metal working skills to the capital, something that has not wholly disappeared today. It was also an area known for radical politics, especially anarcho-syndicalism and unionisation.
When Rue Popincourt reaches Avenue Ledru-Rollin it becomes Rue Basfroi, and when you reach the end of Basfroi as it hits the Rue de Charonne, you will find my favourite natural wine bar in Paris, Septime La Cave. I missed out coming here last year, so this time I was determined to pop in, even if only for a late afternoon visit.
Every capital city I know has a number of wonderful natural wine bars, but Paris is so awash with them it’s ridiculous. My annual visits, lasting usually three or four days, give me little time to visit old friends, many of which are within very little walking distance of Oberkampf Métro. Everyone has their own favourites.
La Cave de L’Insolite in Rue de la Folie Méricourt was my first love, the first natural wine place I visited, around a dozen years ago. Naturally Verre Volé, up on the Canal Saint-Martin, has been everyone’s favourite at some point, but to go on would be to list more than a dozen other worthy names in the top tier. Aaron Ayscough is a wine writer based mostly in Paris, with his finger on the pulse, and he reckons Chambre Noire, also in Rue de la Folie Méricourt (achingly close to Oberkampf Métro) is the liveliest, but lively isn’t always what you want (though it does look like a place to bump into winemakers and wine writers).
What, for me, makes for the perfect natural wine bar to turn up to for a drink is pretty simple. The wine has to shape up, whether hard to find classics or new discoveries (take a look at the random photos from the red wine shelves, below). Then the staff have to be friendly and welcoming. This excludes those places where you are told that a choice bottle on the list is not available (reason – it’s reserved for mates and I don’t know who the hell you are), though to be fair having all your unicorn wines hoovered up by one-time visiting tourists is understandably a pain, and I know of one bar where a friend was allowed to buy a bottle so long as he promised not to put a photo on Instagram, honestly, it’s true.
I did read one comment on the Raisin app from someone who said they’d experienced unfriendly service as an English-only speaker, but I must stress that my friends and I have only seen the super-friendly side of Septime La Cave. It doesn’t have an air of insularity that some people feel in other places. For a start, the clientele is pretty international. When we were there on Monday there were several Scandinavians, Americans and others, but no English. However, if there’s anywhere in Paris I might expect to bump into someone I know who has headed out for a few glasses right after stepping off Eurostar, it is likely to be this place.
Another advantage Septime La Cave has is its opening hours. They open at 4.00pm every day (easy to remember), and at this sort of time the place isn’t packed. If you want a relaxing glass or two, then around five-ish is a good time to come. It’s also good for a few nibbles if, as in our case, you are heading off to a restaurant later in the evening, although there’s enough in the way of calories (cheese and charcuterie etc) to keep you going if you decide to hang in for the duration (they close at eleven).
So what did I order to accompany, first, some olives, and second, some gorgeous 30-month Comté? I love to try new things, and when I asked Pernille what they had open in the way of petnat she pulled out something I’d never tried before. La Barbaterre Besmein Capolegh Frizzante Rosé (a NV, yet in reality a 2017 vintage, with 11.5% abv) is a lovely gently sparkling wine made from Marzemino, a variety from which I’ve only previously drunk still red wine. This is a wonderful shade of radioactive pink. Besmein is local dialect for Marzemino.
La Barbaterre is based in Emilia-Romagna, in Lambrusco country in fact, up in the hills at around 350 metres above sea level. The philosophy here extends beyond natural wine. They have an Agriturismo, and all the electricity used there and at the winery is generated on site. The restaurant looks as if it has wonderful panoramic views of Emilia’s rolling landscape, bucolic…tempting!
What about the wine? I mentioned the colour. There’s something so appealing about a vibrant pink wine on a hot afternoon, when the desire to quench your thirst with something mildly alcoholic yet refreshing takes hold. This fitted the bill absolutely perfectly. Here, one is not looking at drinking sophisticated fane wane, just a beverage that hits the spot, and that’s exactly what this did.
The red fruits here are soft, but concentrated, and they are lifted by exquisite fruit acids, giving just the right degree of sharpness. The bubbles accentuate that perception on the tongue, and multiply the refreshment potential several times over. You could glug this like a fruit juice, but the bubbles make it pleasant to sip. The fruit sweetness didn’t clash with the bitterness of the olives I was eating. If anything, even though it’s only frizzante, I think the bubbles had diminished in a bottle that was only a third full, but I don’t mind that. I’ll happily enjoy Champagne on day two, when the bubbles become just a gentle prickle.
I couldn’t resist the Comté, even though in retrospect I was not doing myself any favours for later, but what to accompany it? I was tempted to go orange, but the Georgian they had open was from Pheasant’s Tears, and I know it too well. I spotted another wine on the BTG list that I know, but hadn’t drunk for many years…so I went for Domaine Plageoles Mauzac Vert, Gaillac Premières Côtes 2016.
Domaine Plageoles (aka Domaine Tres Cantou) is based in the Southwestern French AOP of Gaillac, a small region not far from the beautiful town of Albi, with its famous fortress cathedral from the times of the crusade against the Cathars. The Plageoles family is famous for having been one of the first in Gaillac to take autochthonous grapes seriously. Robert Plageoles planted more than a dozen rare varieties on the silex, limestone and clay soils of the region, to increase the family holdings to around 30 hectares of vines, pretty much all of which were on their own roots, the vineyards having been spared a visit from the phylloxera louse. This included seven different varieties of Mauzac (Blanc, Vert etc). He even had to search out wild vines in the woods. I remember tasting my way through a number of them back in the early days of Les Caves de Pyrene, who I hope still import from this producer.
This Mauzac Vert (I’ve never tasted any other, but I believe they exist) is made from bush vines which are at least 50-years old, some quite a bit older. The fruit undergoes whole bunch pressing with a cuvaison in fibeglass-lined concrete tanks, and is then softened through full malo. The result is unusual. At first it doesn’t shout out at you. It seems softly spoken and a little reticent. Then you begin to notice its apple freshness, as if someone had put a few concentrated droplets in a glass of mineral water. Next, is a finish that has just a hint of quince, and a similar hint of chalky texture. Is that the argilo-calcaire soils this cuvée comes off?
It’s a gentle wine. It doesn’t have the nuttiness of the Savagnin that we’d usually pair with Comté, but it doesn’t fight the salty, strong, flavours of the well-aged cheese. And surprisingly, nor does the cheese dominate the wine. Florent and Romain Plageoles (Robert’s Grandsons) continue the family tradition of making wine that surely reflects the place it comes from. Indeed, they call themselves “Terroirists” here. Yes, that’s what this wine does, reflects the terroir. But it doesn’t shout silex, nor growl granite. It is restrained and modest, although that refers emphatically to character, not quality. It was a perfect note on which to saunter home for a half hour rest before dinner.
To be continued…
Septime La Cave is at 3 Rue Basfroi, Paris 11. Opening hours: 16.00 to 23.00 every day of the week (though presumably not 365 days a year). Septime, the restaurant, is close-by at 80 Rue de Charonne.
Pernille and Lea – Super Friendly people
Nice “by-the-glass” list. Anything from Emmanuel Lassaigne for 12€ is going to be a good shout, but that Argile Rosé from Domaine L’Ardoissières looked really interesting. Never seen their pink before.