Blois, Loire valley
Wine bars & restaurants entirely focused of natural wines have almost become mainstream in Paris today, and even conventional and established venues can’t eschew having a selection of these wines if they pretend to have a demanding food menu made with real, old-fashioned-grown vegetables and meat. But you may know that the phenomenon isn't restricted to the French capital (where it all started in the 1990s') and is spreading to regional capitals and cities (even, more and more, in villages), most regional towns having now at least a bistrot, a restaurant or a wine bar centered on these authentic wines, and that’s encouraging because it’s a new way to discover your own local products, I’ve met so many artisan vignerons who told me that their wines were snubbed by local restaurants although they found a vibrant customer base in Paris and abroad as far as Japan and the United States, it’s quite a shame actually, you may have expercienced this yourself : you sit in a restaurant where you feel a pretention to be classy and above the flock, and all their wines are conventional, mainstream crap (but of course with the right, established appellations on the labels), you wonder, maybe they source their food the same way, that’s unsettling, let’s go somewhere else, or : no, after all, I’ll take a draft beer....
Les 400 Coups is one of these new vinous venues popping up in the French provinces and bring fresh air in the diluted wine-bar format. It opened a year ago, july 9 2015 thanks to the will and backing of several vignerons of the area.
There wasn't really until then a venue in Blois serving 100 % of artisan/natural wines and this was the first. The wine bar/bistrot (you also can eat) isn't flashing its nature colors on the street sign, it's a wine bar and people can come here to enjoy the' wines and learn more in the way, they didn't want to make it right away a club where only people-in-the-know would venture, you don't need to know all the intricacies of the natural-wine scene to enjoy these wines...
Blois is a beautiful mid-size city sitting along the Loire river between Orleans and Tours, it's smaller than these two Loire heavy weights, smaller than Anger also and it's easier to get to the countryside from there, you basically cross the mighty river and you're in Sologne, just a handful of miles from iconic domaines like Claude Courtois, Hervé Villemade, Thierry Puzelat and many others, you might rent a bicycle, tour all these wineries (byuing a bottle in each for the next evening) and be back in your hotel or whatever in Blois. Speaking of cycling, Blois can be a good start to do the long bicycle trip along the Loire as there's a bike lane along the river. Here is the complete map, you can cycle safely as far as Nevers in the east or Saint Nazaire along the Atlantic.
The city is nicknamed the white city (la ville blanche) because it's so white with this soft limestone. It's large enough to spend time if you're a visitor, and small enough to be free of many of the annoyances of large French urban centers.
If you're tired of Paris and look for a respite, just take the train, it's 40 minutes from the Gare Montparnasse in TGV and 1 hour 40 minutes from Gare d'Austerlitz in a regular train. If you justifyingly think that the French train is overpriced, choose car sharing, you'll pay as low as 7 € one way, and that's a good way to meet people.
If you listen to the local fm radio Plus FM (the radio of the Loir et Cher), remember that it was started in 1981 with the help of Brendan Tracey, another vigneron (also a Californian) who lives & work in the area
Watch the man in blue sitting in the background, this is another reson to pay a visit to this cobbled street : Hugues de Froberville is a local personality, a bouquiniste who has been running a bookshop on the other side of the wine bar, the place is full with second-hand books of all style as well as vinyl records, it's considered a gold mine where you'll always find a good pick.
I visited the bistrot at around 7pm on my way back to Paris, I parked my motorbike in a street nearby (this one is pedestrian). The venue is named from Truffault's 1959 first movie Les 400 Coups (which founded the the nouvelle vague), which features runaway, rebelling boys in the streets of Paris. It is located in the central, historic part of Blois, and close to the Loire as well.
It was quite early when I showed up and regulars or occasional patrons weren't many yet, the bar is open till 2am, 3am or even 4am (depending of the patrons) and it has much of its visits later in the evening.
Jeremy Quastana is the one who manages the bar, the odd thing is that he is also a vigneron (22 km from here in Sologne), albeit with a very small vineyard surface (2 hectares), which leaves him time to live this second life. He works in the morning in his vineyard, has a nap in the afternoon so that he can handle the long workday in Blois, he drives here every day, so does his girlfriend, but they drive separate because of different working hours. She drops here though now and then (I saw her that day). At harvest time he also finds time to help Olivier Lemasson at the cellar (his domaine les Vins Contés is very close to his own), something he has done for years (and he knows these wines very well).
The room is long with a few tables, and they offer the walls for free to artists who want to show their work. they don't charge for that, Jeremy says it's a win-win relation, people come to see the exhibition and order wine, and the artist has an opportunity to have an exhibition in the oldest street of Blois.
Jeremy had told me before that two other vignerons were behind the venture, Thierry Puzelat and Philippe Tessier, both being key historic actors of the nature-wine scene in the area. Philippe Tessier was present when I visited that day, and he explained that it's hard to remember who made the first step, Philippe says that he had discussed the issue with Thierry Puzelat (who had already co-fathered les Becs à Vin, the wine bar in Orléans, 60 km away). Jeremy also thought about it, there was no such wine bar serving real wines in this city, he remembers having spoken about this idea with Philippe Tessier a few years ago when he worked at his domaine, Philippe Tessier knew he hadn't time to do the thing himself but he was ready to help someone start it and both Philippe and Thierry Puzelat backed Jeremy, the deal being that Jeremy would be the one to manage the venue. What I like in this place it's that it's been set up by 3 vignerons and the guy behind the counter is one of them, at least you're sure to get pretty good answers when you ask something about the winemaking behind such or such cuvée, I remember having had comments on wines in some of the newest wine bars in Paris and it looked like sketchy understanding what the vinification is about.
The bottles here can be sold to go or to drink here, the wine selection being entirely natural wine (and organic farming), with many wines of the area and from the larger Loire region, but also from other French wine regions and even a
few foreign wines. They have from 50 to 80 different wines depending when you visit and the stocks in the cellar, and for the by-the-glass selection they have usually 3 whites and 3 reds, plus a rosé and a pet-nat, the short list changing every couple of weeks. If you visit with a few people the right move is of course to choose a bottle not in the glass list and share it. The prices listed on the bottles (pictured above & below) include the 8€ cork fee, so if it's to go, just take 8 € off this price. Another nice thing about les 400 Coups : if you live in Blois and need a bottle [of real wine, that is] in the late hours of the day, you can just come here, it's basically a late-hours wine shop that doubles up as a wine bar. Jeremy says that people often feel obliged to order a glass even if they came to buy a bottle.
You can see on the picture on right the list of the wines by the glass (12 cl), as you see prices begin at 3,5 € which is reasonable for artisan wines and sulfur-free wines.
Here are the natural sparklings, Champagne and the whites on display on the shelves that day (take 8 € off for the price to go) :
Les Maisons Bullées (pet-nat) 22 €; Astrobale de Cant'Alauze 24 €; Francis Boulard Les Rachais (Champagne) 60 €; Francis Boulard Les Murgiers 40 €; Piège à Filles (les Capriades, pet-nat) 24 €; Etoile Filante 23 €; Pet Sec (pet-nat les Capriades) 27 €; Phil en Bulle (pet nat by Philippe Tessier) 24 €; Philippe Bornard (Jura) le Rouge Queue 2013 Melon 39 €;Bulle Hervé Villemade 24 €; Binner (Alsace) Hinterberg Pinot Gris 30 €; Domaine Perrault-Jadaud (Vouvray) les Grives Soûles 2014 24 €; Bera Mosca d'Asti 30 €; Occhipinti SP68 30 €; Sébastien Brunet Vouvray Renaissance 23 €; La Grapperie Aphrodite 30 €; Tessier Cheverny la Charbonnerie 2014 20 €; Tessier Cour-Cheverny les Sables 2013 24 €; Villemade la Bodice 2014 28 €; Villemade Cour-Cheverny les Saules 2013 23 €; La Tesnière Puzelat-Bonhomme 27 €
They have a few dishes that can be ordered with the wines, including cheese and charcuterie plates of course.Jeremy says with a grin about the wine list that there isn't a single Bordeaux, don't see prejudice here, it's just that the wines they like in this region would be too pricey for this casual bistrot list, they tended to offer wines that are both nature and affordable.
The charcuterie is sourced from the Maison Conquet in the Aveyron and some come from Italy through an importer named Marc David. The cheese come from the affineurs Ô Di Vins in Blois and from Au Gré du Lait in Tours (got a terrific assortment to drink with the few whites I got that day, including Tessier's Cheverny 2015, a blend of sauvignn, chardonnay and menu pineau (orbois).
Here are the red wines on the shelves (that day - again, this includes the 8€ cork fee). Some hadn't prices marked on the bottle but I guess most were in the low 20s'. :
Foillard Morgon Côde du Py 2013 32 €; Lapierre Morgon 2014 28 €; Jean-Pierre Thevenet Morgon Vieilles Vignes 2013 27 €; Serres Montagut Laureano Mendall 29 €; Lapierre Morgon cuvée Camille 50 €; Olivier Lemasson (Vins Contés) Cheville de Fer Côt 24 €; Puzelat-Bonhomme Ko, In Côt We Trust 23 €; Clos du Tue Boeuf Cheverny la Caillère 28 €; Haut les Choeurs Vouvray; Domaine Chahut et Prodiges la Mule 22 €; Cyrille Sevin Cheverny la Quadrature du Rouge 20 €; Tessier Cheverny 2014 20 €; Thierry Navarre Vin d'Oeillade 2014 20 €; Philippe Bornard Trousseau le Garde-Corps 2013 20 €; Overnoy-Houillon Arbois Pupillin 38 €; Tue Boeuf (Puzelat) Vin Rouge 20 €; Le Telquel 18 €; Remi Dufaitre Brouilly 28 €; Antoine Arena 30 €; Occhipinti Il Frappato 45 €; Plageoles Braucol 2014 20 €; Raphael Champier Côtes de Brouilly Mont Brulius 2014 25 €; Tessier Cheverny le Point du Jour 2014; Quastana Côt Lectif; Tue Boeuf Cheverny la Gravotte; Tue Boeuf Cheverny Rouillon; Jeremy Quastana L'Insurgé 20 €; Clos Fantine Faugères cuvée Courtiol 2013; Les Foulards Rouges Glaneurs 29 €; Christian Venier Cabernet les Cormiers 2013 20 €; Kalys Khalkhal-Pamiès Minervois 20 €; Olivier Lemasson (les Vins Contés) Poivre et Sel; Clos Fantine la Lanterne Rouge.
The wine bar is of course visited now and then by the artisan vignerons of the area, Thierry Puzelat and others, even Christian Venier who rarely ventures into town came here 3 times, Jeremy says with a grin. Also Noëlla Morantin, Gregory Leclerc, Moses Gadouche (les Capriades) and others. Most of the visitors here are locals, there's the early visitors who come at the end of the afternoon and the ones who come later with friends, looking for a casual, friendly place that is open late. The bar doesn't brag openly on the natural vinifications, it's just signaled as pouring organic wines, which in France means the vineyard is organic, and when the patrons want to learn more, Jeremy can tell them about the non-interventionist, no-additives, no-SO2 vinification which explains why these wines are so different from the commercial wines found in mainstream cavistes and supermarket shelves. But there's no pushing, people also sometimes look for a nice friendly place with wine, and they'll certainly learn to love these wines before intellectualizing their making.
Asked about the interesting wine fairs in the area that could indirectly bring more wine-wise visitors to the bar, Philippe says there's the Salon des Vins de France at Villebarou just at the northern edge of Blois, this is incidently the oldest natural wine fair in France (26 years) and it is little known by the general public. The other oldest such nature fair is the Salon des Vignerons de Groslay, north of Paris which was held for the 25th year in 2016. Philippe Tessier also helped set up this Villebarou/Blois wine fair 26 years ago, at the time there wasn't even the word "natural wine" around but the focus was samely on real, artisan wines. They chose the Salle des Fêtes f the community, a large-enough room to accomodate it. There are about 35 nature vigneron who come to Villebarou every year and you can also buy the wines there, lots of people come to refurbish their cellar with artisan wines and meet the vignerons all the while sipping wine. You can take a taxi to reach Villebarou from downtown Blois or the train station, it's only 6 km away.
I asked about the prospects for the next harvest and both Jeremy and Philippe said they expected a very small volume because of the weather conditions, frost, rain, disease, everything, Philippe says that they had such rain last june with the floodings that they couldn't even drive the tractor in the vineyard, he says he never saw that in 35 years of work. And as the new buds are more fragile, mildew settled in easily. And the last 5 years except 2015 have been troublesome with low volumes, so it's problematic as they have less wine to sell.
Article in Loir & Cher magazine about the opening of this wine bar with Jeremy Quastana, Philippe Tessier and Thierry Puzelat