It’s an inescapable fact that the wine trade is, despite occasional deviations, one of the friendliest professions you could imagine working in. For some reason people in wine just seem on the whole to be extremely friendly, supportive, co-operative, and fun to be around, so it is inevitable that from time to time you come to write about people you know, and some of those must count as friends. I think that there’s nothing wrong with this so long as the writer fulfils two criteria.
First, of course, is that the subject stands scrutiny as being of interest to your readers. The second is that you are completely open about any relationship you have with the subject. Whenever I go to visit any city in Europe, I’m always looking for a new place to buy natural wine, and plenty of these have been reviewed on wideworldofwine, so I don’t feel in the slightest bit guilty about plugging this one.
I’ve known Russell Faulkner and his wife, Sema, for approaching a couple of decades. We met via the Online Forum on Tom Cannavan’s winepages.com, and in person at their offline wine lunches and dinners. I think at that time the interest we shared was for Champagne, especially Pierre Péters if I recall. Then, around a decade ago, Russell and his family left the UK to work overseas, but we kind of kept in touch, more so after we realised that we were both moving towards the appreciation of natural wines. In fact, we both share the same journey, from a passion for exploring fine wine, towards a different philosophy of wine appreciation and what wine means to us.
We also share something else, and that is both having been able to turn our hobby (for me, an obsession) into some approximation of work. I became a wine writer (of sorts) and Russell and Sema have just opened a wine shop. In fact, Feral – Art et Vin is unusual, not because it sells predominantly natural wine (with a little organic/biodynamic) alongside Art, but because it’s a natural wine shop selling a good proportion of foreign wines in the heart of Bordeaux.
Feral is situated in the heart of the medieval city, on the Rue Buhan, close to the famous Grosse Cloche, the large 18th century bell tower, one of the city’s major landmarks. In fact, we are in the Quartier Saint-Paul here, part of the old city on the left bank which is often described as a centre of religion and education. It contains some of Bordeaux’s largest churches and a number of colleges. Montaigne studied and lived here as a student before he moved out to his famous tower, northeast of the city close to Castillon-la-Bataille. The neighbourhood is one of attractive small businesses and cafés, a couple of theatres and the odd museum, which reminds me a little of the area just north of the Marais in Paris, as you walk up towards the Marché des Enfants Rouges.
I think Russell and Sema were looking for a while to find a good location with a reasonable footfall. You might think Bordeaux is the last place in France to have a following for natural wine, though I’m fairly sure that most people reading this will be aware of the standout producers making wine there in a different way to the herd, whether that be the biodynamics of Château Pontet-Canet, the longstanding natural wine estate, Château Le Puy, or the micro-producer currently riding a wave to stardom, Osamu Uchida.
Most of these natural and natural-leaning wines, and more, are represented, on account of their quality, in the many more traditional wine shops in the city, as well as the surprising number of wine bars and bistros which focus on natural wine. What Bordeaux has perhaps lacked until now is a retail outlet which introduces a far wider spread of natural wines, both from elsewhere in France and, perhaps bravely considering the attitude of many locals to wine from abroad, some gems from the rest of Europe and the world.
I asked Russell why Bordeaux? “As every Bordelais knows, or may think they know, Bordeaux is the centre of the wine universe. So, after eight years spent overseas, moving to Bordeaux as a lifestyle choice seemed very attractive. A beautiful, vibrant city, close to the mountains, the beaches, perfect for a good family life.”
The natural wine itch can be scratched in Bordeaux, but as I’ve already said, mostly in bars and restaurants. So, for a couple impassioned about natural wine, the idea of starting a wine shop with a natural wine focus once Covid Lockdown home schooling had finished seemed the, er, natural course to take.
You’ll see from the photos that the space they have found, after it must be said some major tidying up, looks pretty smart. I asked Russell about the design of the space and what they wanted to achieve.
“When thinking about how to present the wines, we wanted to keep things exceptionally clean and simple, just a single bottle on display of each of the sixty-to-eighty references, and to keep it fresh by ordering in small quantities and changing stock frequently”.
This, of course, not only gives regular customers a reason to keep coming back, it also allows Feral to stock some pretty rare wines, available in tiny quantities. Bordeaux has all of a sudden become remarkably lucky because Russell has already lined up a few wines you’d probably be pushed to find in London right now. When prospective producers ask what else they stock it isn’t difficult to entice them in.
The clean lines are created by storing most of the stock in wine fridges, out of sight, so that they don’t spoil the aesthetic. It’s something they have seen working well in Germany, but it’s less common in France. This also allows for a large part of the wall space to be set aside for art exhibitions. The first exhibition, to coincide with the shop opening just over a week ago, is by a Romanian female artist (living in France but currently in Canada), Lali Torma. Sema has lined up three female artists to exhibit in the space. The plan for the art, which is of course for sale, is to change every couple of months. They are also selling a few selected periodicals (Pipette, for example), wine books, and high-class chocolate from Friis Holm (Denmark).
I wanted to know what were the main challenges in setting up in France. Remarkably, decisions as to any change to the shop frontage have to go to national level. Then there’s the small issue of architects (I think they had to change theirs) and builders. Setting up in an historic quarter means they can’t do just whatever they want with the premises. But from the photographs I think they’ve done a very smart job.
“Assembling a small range of wines is in many ways more challenging than a big one. It means you can’t really go deep into any single producer. You have to constantly think about the shape of the whole portfolio, the balance between red, white, orange, pink and fizz. We also want an equal representation for women winemakers. But we primarily want to offer wines we love, with commercial appeal important, but secondary to that. But it does mean having to exclude certain producers which we really want on the shelves merely because we are not able to offer them at a reasonable price. The distribution network is not always efficient, and the paperwork required to import from certain countries creates its own problems.”
Russell did say he was grateful to all his friends who have helped with a flood of suggestions. Having weighed in myself, I imagine they have been fairly swamped with ideas, but I know very well that Russell has both the knowledge and the passion to select his stock without too much outside badgering. Some of their first sales were wines from Meinklang (Austria), Partida Creus (Spain) and Lucy Margaux/Anton Von Klopper (Australia), which not only illustrates Russell and Sema’s fine taste in wine, but also suggests there is indeed a market for more adventurous wines in Bordeaux. Of course there is!
I thought I’d better give you a small selection of producers from their list, both to whet the appetite for anyone able to visit, and I suppose to justify taking your time to draw attention to the shop. From France they have the likes of Fanny Sabre, Kumpf & Meyer, Ormiale, Uchida, Domaine Dandelion, Charles Dufour, Timothée Stroebel and a host of producers I’ve never come across. From further afield the very wide choice covers Gut Oggau, Preisinger, Radikon, Envinate, Nestarec, Trossen, and Costador, from Europe, Lucy Margaux, Testalonga and Ruth Lewandowski (Evan Lewandowski) from further afield. L’Octavin should arrive this week. They stock a healthy side line in magnums, which is always encouraging.
Plans for the future? Russell says that “we are very pleased with progress so far, with customers praising not just the wine selection, but also the whole aesthetic (and the music on the turntable). Longer-term we will consider sales by the glass, events, etc, but for now we are just a little gallery and wine shop selling the things we love.
If you are in Bordeaux, I suggest checking them out. Feral Art et Vin is at 22 rue Buhan, Bordeaux. See www.feralartetvin.com and on Instagram at @feralartetvin . Feral also appears on the Raisin App for natural wine makers and vendors.
Below, a few photos to give a feel for the Quartier Saint-Paul immediately around the shop…books, coffee, tea, a “Bistrot Bordelais”, a Japanese store and natural wine…what more could you want?