The ultimate place to go for an unlimited drink
This is the season for the Salon de l'Agriculture, the once-a-year event where the farm country set up camp at the door of Paris. This Paris Farm Fair is a
not-to-miss event, not only because of all these farm animals that you can see from so close and even touch (even if it's better not to
for their psychic health). It is a place where the mood is lighter than it uses to in Paris, because all these farmers and their families, plus many of the visitors who are farmers themselves bring the authenticity of their way of life with themselves. It's moving to see these families wandering along the exposed cows, bulls and other animals and learning about the work of their fellow farmers.
This year, B. and I went at the Salon for the nocturne, the day with a late-evening opening. This was B.'s idea, as I usually visit the agriculture fair or farm fair whatever you call it in the day time. Whilst the entry ticket costs 13 € for a whole day, it's only 6 € for the nocturne, which starts at 7pm on friday to 11pm. We were surprised to see so many young people in groups in the thick crowd waiting at the ticket booths at 7pm, but we were to discover later why these young folks (who seemed to come from the best neighborhoods of Paris) had this crush for the farm life...
But read first about what the Farm Fair is officially known for...
Cité Bergère, Paris
Au Limonaire is located in a surprising little street near the Grands Boulevards in Paris. There are so many hotels in this short angled street (all of them seem quite nice and well-mannered) that B. and I wondered if this was some kind of red district in the 19th century when it was obviously built, but several buildings
seem to have been wealthy town houses at the origin. When you reach the
first leg of the street from the rue Montmartre, you pass under an impressive porch and beyond that it's so peaceful compared ro the noisy grands boulevards.
Au limonaire is a bar/restaurant where you can sip wine, eat and listen to live music and songs, in short, it's a cabaret. This lively place looks like it's remained unchanged for decades, I mean you don't see here the devastation which ruined so many venues from the 1960s' to the 1980s' (don't tell, but they probably don't comply to the EU norms if this place feels so real). Even the outside (picture on right) seems eerily from another time, like if the pressure for this luxury-renovation urge never made it to here. That's a good thing because many venues have lost their soul through an excessive modernization. Here you don't hesitate to walk in, you feel at home.
Oh and I forgot an important detail : this place is cheap (2,4 € for a glass of wine is indeed cheap in Paris), making you feel easy to let you go and really enjoy your evening without second thoughts.
Angers, Loire valley
This is the time of the year (early february) when Angers turns intos some sort of wine capital of the world. It all began with the Salon des Vins de Loire, short-named here as the Salon d'Angers. Created in 1987, this major wine tasting event began at the turn of the century (1998-1999) to be surrounded by parrallel, more counter-cultural tasting events, mostly centered on natural wines and organic, biodynamic wines from the Loire and beyond. The first
was La Dive Bouteille if I'm right, then Renaissance (the biodynamic group headed by Nicolas Joly), then Vins Bio de Loire and others. And others are indeed appearing, there seems almost to be a new such tasting event every other year. These are small or medium-size tasting events, all of them
professional and all all them courted by the wine enthusiasts, importers and restaurateurs of much of the wine-wise world, who jump at the opportunity to double up their scouting and tasting trip by adding in their schedule these side fairs on top of the mighty Salon d'Angers.
Les Vins Anonymes is one such new tasting event, it has been set up by Babass (alias Sébastien Dervieux) and Jean-Christophe Garnier (both from Anjou, Loire) with the goal to provide professional tasters the oportunity to meet (and taste the wines from) a small group of mostly-unknown vintners, or anonymous vintners if you prefer, that's why the name of the event. All these winemakers/growers share the love for real products made from organic grapes and vinified with indigenous yeast and little or no sulfites.
The other unusual trait of this wine tasting event was that it took place in a church, namely the Collégiale Saint Martin in the heart of Angers. Tasting wine in a church is quite unusual, I must recognize that there's something more profound in such a setting compared to tasting on a barge, even though I don't want to disparage the latter. The church went through the upheavals of History and ended up being acquired by the Maine-et-Loire département in 1986 and it was turned into a museum / concert-hall /special-events room in 2006.
Wine always held a particular place in the church rituals, and I find it is a welcome if unexpected return that vintners that are not at all into religious things somehow raise their glass in such a pious monument loaded with History...
When mass production was still associated with wooden containers
We know that the slow demise of many French wine regions was caused a century ago by both the phylloxera and the development of railroad transportation which helped bring the high-yield wines of Languedoc and Algeria to the big cities and to Paris. Here is a photo story about these barrels on wheels which helped quench the thirst of the working masses.
As header photo I chose this one featuring workers of the Paris-Bercy wine hub celebrating on a wine tank car the end of the alcohol prohibition in the United States. This is december 1933 (80 years ago at the end of this year) and this is good news for the people and businesses of the Entrepots de Bercy, this "wine town" thriving on the eastern edge of Paris where most of the wine négoce was conducted. The lifting of the prohibition opened wide the gates to the United States markets, and was a welcome boost for the wine sector in France.
This type of tank car was seemingly still widely used then in the 1930s' to transport wine from the producing region to the French capital. It is basically a huge foudre (a large-capacity barrel) mounted on a railroad-car chassis.
Le Chateaubriand, Paris 11th
I had been emailed about this tasting a few weeks prior to the event, and I decided to attend, given that the weather wouldn't be too tough and allow me to ride there on motorbike from work. I must confess that I occasionally give up on a few tastings because either torrential rains or snowy/icy conditions. I arrived at the place at around 4:30pm, the
day had been bright and almost warm, especially compared with the freezing temperatures of a week before. Very good for the tasting, tastings in freezing temperatures are always hard on the wines.
Thierry Puzelat who manages to make and organize so many things beyond his own winery and his négoce, had put up this tasting centered on Georgia wines, with the help of the people of Le Chateaubriand, a restaurant of the 11th arrondissement known for its food and wine list (see picture at the bottom of this page). The emailing of Puzelat about the event highlighted the fact that these artisan winegrowers worked organicly and vinified the kvevri way, using buried amphorae as fermenters. Most of these vintners had never travelled to France and that was an opportunity to meet them as well as to taste their wines. They came from several regions of Georgia, from Kakhetia near Azerbaidjan (a hot and dry region), from Imeretia (in the west, a more humid area near the black sea) and from near Tbilissi at the border with breakaway-region Ossetia. There would be also wine from a monestary, the leading monk/cellar master not coming alas in person.
Georgia, as we could read in the invitation email, has a vibrant winemaking culture and no less than 500 indigenous grape varieties still in place. While Georgia like Russia has big, modern wineries set up from the ashes of former industrial soviet kholkoz, all using international grape varieties for mass-bottling markets, the small country has also all these artisan wine farms which represent a real, age-old winemaking with a philosophy similar to the natural wine ethic, although the style of the resulting wines is so different.
When even the home winemaker is made to believe that he can't make wine without additives...
Wine brewing kits are the miniature equivalent of our modern wineries. They allow people to make wine from frozen grape juice or concentrate, with the perspective for them at the end to enjoy their own wines. It seems that the apprentice winemaker loves to follow the steps of the efficient, square enologist who doesn't leave a chance to the juice to become wine by itself (never leave free reins to
your wines, they'll get faulty, everyone
I don't know if this is the trend worldwide but in France I noticed that the home gardener is the biggest user of weedkillers when you consider the ratio of herbicide volumes to the treated surface. I'm wondering if home winemakers are similarly mimicking the wineries by using the full range of pharmacopoeia developed by the additives companies, only that they overdo the corrections and use this stuff in even larger dosage than wine-school-educated professional vintners. On the weedkillers issue like on the winemaking additives, it seems that a large part of the problem is the propensity of the average citizen to prefer the straightforward chemical approach, the fight-and-get-them philosophy, rather than the pragmatic, more easygoing mindset. Of course the additives companies have been pushing a lot in this direction, but they wouldn't have much leverage if there weren't so many of us addicted to this spraying/correction rationale with which we're mostly shooting ourselves in the foot with dead soils and fake wines.
Just have a look at this range of additives found on a now-offline webpage. These are designed for home brewing but they're more or less the types of products used discretly by our modern commercial wineries worldwide.
In conclusion, I'd like to ask : what's the point for an individual to make the leap to set up his own miniature winemaking operation if he ends up correcting his wine at every turn like it's done for the wines he buys in the wine aisles ?
Somewhere in the Loire
The pictures in this story were all shot in a single location in the Loire valley last december. This is a limestone cliff in the back of a house in a village sitting along the Cher river to be more precise, let's say in the vicinity of Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. But you can find remains like these in the backyard of virtually every old farm in France, because not so long ago almost everyone
living in the villages across the country would make
some wine for his own consumption. The farmer would grow various crops and raise farm animals but he would usually also have some vineyards and make wine, partly to sell in bulk, partly for family use, including non-farmers like, say, the postman. It was common then to own a couple of rows and make a few barrels of wine for oneself, like your forefathers had done before you.
Depending of the region and geological conditions, these improvised farm wineries were set up in a barn, an outbuilding, some sort of cellar, or like here in a cave. The loire valley has lots of such caves which are actually former quarries where a couple centuries ago the villagers extracted all the stones that were used to build their houses or to sell for the construction of these now-famous Loire chateaux. The stone type here in the region is a chalk-like limestone named tuffeau in French. The people living in the houses in front of these quarries would turn them naturally afterward into outbuildings for vegetable storage, mushroom growing and winemaking.
We'll visit two caves of which you can see the doors on the picture on left (the door in the center and the one on the left), and we'll begin with the smallest cave, the door of which is singled out on the picture at right. What you see on the picture above is this first cave. You can see the vertical press with the small decantation vat on its left and the larger fermentation vat in the back (the dark hole).
Mailly le Chateau, Yonne (Burgundy)
François Ecot makes wine in eastern Burgundy south of Auxerre and north of Vezelay. The Yonne département is one of these "minor" Burgundy regions that you must watch closely as a few inspired vintners have been doing a lot to prop up the quality of the wines, often through just hard work in a cluster of parcels that they purchased or replanted. This area was also a
vibrant wine region in a former life, say a century or a century and a
half ago. François has old family roots in the area, he now by the way lives in his grandfather's house in Mailly-le-Chateau, but he came back to his wine roots through an indirect landing : François is the French half of François & Jenny, a transatlantic wine import business which is dedicated to artisan wines made the most natural way from healthy vines and soils. He set up his small winery in parallel with the import operation and to this day he keeps managing the company with his former wife Jenny, helping select new vintners in France or Italy.
François had met Jenny Lefcourt (who is from New York) in 1991 when she visited France a few years ago and at that time Francois used to go drink interesting wines here and there in Paris, for example at Le Baratin which was among the first bars/restaurants to offer these types of vivid and often-unsulfured wines which were not yet framed under the term "natural wine". Life went its course and they got the idea to share these great wines that they had been enjoying in a string of selected venues in Paris and which were not well-known in New York at all (and not even in France by the way). After a couple of test tries when Jenny visited a few cavistes in New York, François quit his job of accordion tuner and they set up their import business, first with French-only natural wines, then adding wines sourced in Italy, Spain and even more recently in the U.S.A., all these wines being made through a philosophy of truth and artisanship. In short, they imported the wines they loved themselves, wines which were mostly unknown in New York then.
Pic on right : the house (Google street view). On left : the village church and square.
Saint-Père, Yonne département (eastern Burgundy)
Saint-Père is a small village near Vezelay south of Auxerre with beautiful old houses (pic on right) and a bridge over the Cure river (pic on left). The Cure valley is in my opinion one the most beautiful and quietest regions of Burgundy and it is happily mostly under the tourist radar. Vezelay sits on the north-eastern edge of the Morvan mountain range, a remote and deeply wooded area of central Burgundy.
Vezelay is foremost known today for its abbey but the region has also been the cradle of the wine culture in Burgundy with of course the monks as the principal initiators of the trade. The wine and vineyard culture started with the Gallo-Romans and was further
developped by the abbey of Vezelay, wine being at the time an
exchangeable commodity. The landscape around here was for centuries dotted with planted parcels although there was no monoculture then, but winemaking was as relevant here then as in the Burgundy regions (Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuits) now considered by wine amateurs as the sole roots of the wine tradition. This story is about the revitalizing of Vezelay's wine culture and about a man who was the principal actor in this rebirth.
Viticulture never recovered from the phylloxera in Vezelay, the Yonne region (we're here in the Yonne département) being the last French region to be struck by the vine plague. The down thing of being the last to have been afflicted is that instead of grafting Pinot, Chardonnay and Melon on American roots, the locals "benefited" (that proved to be a curse) from the frantic research led by the nurseries to release hybrids that allowed to promptly revive the economy and augment the yields. For the anecdote, the construction of the Paris metro (subway) in Paris created a big demand for cheap wine to satisfy the workers' needs and any wine made the deal. These hybrids were not only more productive but they were also more resistant to other diseases like mildew and oidium which happen to have started to be a real problem in the early 20th century. Locally, some growers even planted American vines right away, I mean, not American rootstock with grafted varieties atop of them, but whole American varieties which made terrible wines. Both experiments turned to be catastrophic in terms of quality and with on top of that the bloodshed of WWI which deprived all these villages of their male workforce, the viticulture dwindled rapidly in this part of Burgundy. The final blow (but most of you probably know all that already) was the creation of the PLM (for Paris-Lyon-Marseille) railway thanks to which the Languedoc and Algerian wines could reach Paris in big railroad tank cars (the excavation of the Metro tunnels reached a faster pace, then...).
This was at Les Beaux Macs, a tasting that took place near the Grands Boulevards in Paris, in the Salle des Miroirs (pic on right) which is located in the Passage Joffroy, a Napoleon-era covered street designed for cosy shopping, 19th-century style (worth the detour if you come to Paris - pic on left). Les Beaux Macs is a yearly tasting featuring wines from the Maconnais and the Beaujolais, its access is free but for professionals only, and with about 30 wineries taking part
you can reasonably hope to taste most of the wines without running. Still, as I went there after work, I had to make choices among
the wineries, most being unfamiliar to me. In that regard, luck or inspiration helped, like when I spotted Mathieu Lapierre (who was himself presenting his wines that day) having his glass filled by a young vigneronne which I learned later was named France Gonzalez. Remember : when you have no clues, trust your inspiration or check who is standing at a given table, it sometimes helps...
__ France Gonzalvez Escapade, white vin de France 2011. Chardonnay. 30-are, 20-30-year-old vineyards farmed organic on granite (usually ist's limestone with clay). 5,5 € without tax. Hand picked. Wild yeast, no SO2 added on the incoming grapes, just 1 gram added at bottling. No stirring of the lees. The wuine has a living feel. She had 600 bottles left when the tasting took place.
__ France Gonzalvez Cueillette, red vin de France (Gamay). She asked for the Beaujolais Appellation but it was refused. Nice nose of peony and faded flowers. High acidity. France set up her winery in 2008 with 1/2 hectare, she had her first baby in 2009 and added 1 1/2 hectare then which made a 2-hectare surface, after which she grew by another 2 hectares in fermage in 2011, which makes 4 hectares. And she has now a 2nd baby...
__ France Gonzalvez .G (or G spot), vin de France 2011, the name is misleading as the cuvée is not a table wine but an AOC Beaujolais villages, "vin de France" referring here to her first name, France. Light wine. 70-year-old vines on granite. 2/3 aged in casks, the rest in vats. Bottled in march 2012. Unfiltered and unfined.
this year was a tough one, she made as much volume on 4 hectares than last year on 2 hectares. She had also to spray 13 times compared to 5 times last year.