Here is a very cool wine bar/restaurant in Tokyo : Shonzui. It's located in Roppongi, but it's almost like if it was another Roppongi than the one we usually think to. Far from being in the buzzing neighborhood favored by foreign expats, it's on a side alley in the periphery of Roppongi which has a flavor of authenticity. The street where it sits looks very quiet and to add one more touch of remoteness, the bar is located on the 2nd story of a modern building (the white building on the left), without any hint on the street level other than a discreet sign (see on right). I'm always amazed in Japan at how bars and restaurants sitting away from the street level and from the public eye, sometimes in the upper stories of anonymous and bland buildings, can still find their clients to the point that they are packed. Here there was only a flight of stairs to climb but for the unsuspecting passerby it's just the same, If you hadn't heard about this place before, there's little chance you walk up and push the door...
This outstanding wine bar/restaurant offers a wide range of French natural wines, for which the Japanese consumers have developped a taste along the last years. Let's remind that Japan alone buys a huge share of the natural-wine production, most of which originating from France. For reasons ranging from a better pairing with their food, their love for raw, unprocessed products, taste trends bending more on lightness rather than aromatic bombs, and what could be a physical intolerance for the many additives used in the commercial winemaking (first and foremost SO2), the Japanese have been among the pioneers to plebiscite the nascent natural-wine movement. This resulted into the fact that Japan was almost from the start the first most important buyer of French natural wines. More than anywhere else, I think that the Japanese chose these wines because like their food, these wines were all about freshness and liveness, having had the least possible human intervention and at least no interference with any of the correcting tools and miracle powders used by the mainstream wineries.
Tokyo lovers will be happy to listen to my now-ritual microtrack recording of the audio ambiance along the Yamanote line...
The venue looks like a sober-furnished restaurant with a few wooden tables and a deep bar counter. The design is casual, with a few framed labels, drawings and in a corner on the wall lots of signatures and graffiti writings and signatures left by visitors, some being French winemakers like Thierry Michon, reading in French "Friendly thoughts from Vendée, to Shonzui, the best nature wine bar with unforgetable encounters and passion for wine". Another graffiti says in French "Watch out, Bordelais, here we're partying..." There's another lauding graffiti by Taka & Masami from Deux Cochons, a natural-wine bar in Kyoto. I later tried to find this wine bar in Kyoto but walked up and down this street without finding it alas. There's another sentence reading (also in French) "Le vin nature est notre future", with an intended-or-not misspelling on futur. I couldn't decipher the signature here.
They even managed to get the iconic poster made by Tolmer for Catherine & Pierre Breton : "Apprenez le geste qui sauve les vignerons" or Learn the gesture that saves the life of the vignerons. On the picture on left with the Tolmer poster, you can also see some of the wines (empty bottles) served here, you'll find them all, Cousin, Pfifferling, Overnoy, Carmarans, Simonutti, Courtois, Brun, Thevenet and many others.
The wines are well taken care of, and they have a large wine fridge to keep them at a suitable temperature. The temperature in Japan is quite hot in summer and that's a base precaution for a restaurant or a bar serving natural wine to keep the wine in proper conditions. From what I heard when speaking with the vignerons back in France, Japanese importers are known to spend what it takes for the shipping in airconditionned containers, and at the end of the road, the cool storage in the wine bar is comparatively a very affordable measure.
I asked what this bright redish/pink wine was at the next table and when we were said it was Bugey Cerdon, we knew that this was it. I really love these super-light Bugey Cerdon wines, they're tasting like candy with the small red fruits aromas and the residual sugar and they're swallowed so easily. Kudos to Raphaël Bartucci for this Bugey Cerdon Pet'Nat sparkling, it's made from Gamay (80 %) and Poulsard (20 %) and it sports only 8% in alcohol. I noticed several times that the color is often a hint on what the wine will feel like, and here like for the iconic Nacarat or other such wines with a vibrant pink/light-red color, the drinking experience is pure pleasure with no second thoughts. This sparkling gamay/poulsard is the result of spontaneous fermentation in the bottle. It's made with organic grapes (Ecocert certified).
I spoke a bit with Shigeno, finding bits of time during the buzzing activity of the bar/restaurant. He is the friend of Hirotake Oooka I talked about, and because of his passion for natural wines, he decided in 1999 to go to France where he ended up staying 7 years. While studying in France, he went to work with several artisan winemakers, people like Schueller, Thierry Allemand and Hirotake Ooka. He may be managing a wine place in Tokyo now but he learned the real thing at the source. I guess one day he might as well decide to go back to the source and try his skills...
Here are a few dishes and prices (1000 Y = 9 € or 12 USD). Assiette de Charcuterie 2000 Y - Pavé de Porc au Foie Gras de Pigeon 1500 Y - Légumes Macérés au Vinaigre 800 Y - Choux de Bruxelles (very rare in Japan), Frites 800 Y - Cake Salé et Tête de Fromage [for Fromage de Tête I guess] 1600 Y - Boudin Noir 1500 Y - Saucisse Maison Grillée 2800 Y - Pavé de Rumsteak 3400 Y - Chèvre Frais Salade 1700 Y - Gratin de Trévise 1800 Y.
We had the "Cake salé (home made) and Fromage de Tête" and it was a treat, especially that we had more wines coming thereafter.
The excellent bread at Shonzui come from Levain, a very good bakery of Tokyo (map). See street view of the bakery.
Picture on right : main thoroughfare at Roppongi.
Read Robbie Swinnerton's article about Shonzui in the Japan Times.