Taisuke Iketani (VinsCoeur) pouring to Eishi Okamoto (Beau Paysage)
Wine craze in Tokyo
Tokyo was pretty cold and even rainy on this first sunday of march, and happily rain in this city means good shots of crowds with umbrellas; I know it's been made thousands of times but I can't resist it, and Omotesando was a good change from the compulsory Hachiko-crossing umbrellas at Shibuya. But I needed something extra, exciting enough to get over the damp, cold weather. And Festivin, the wine event which took place in Omotesando, was really the best thing to warm up that day, but it was also an awakening experience to feel how real and vibrant the natural-wine
crowd is in Tokyo.
For years along my meeting and discussing with
French artisan winemakers I learnt that Japan was the first to respond massively when the first natural wines were produced in the 1990s' and the French market (even in Paris) was still unaware. Many of these early wine farms of the so-called natural-wine movement stayed afloat in these difficult years because Japan was buying all their wine, so there is really a lot of gratitude in France for the consumers and importers of this faraway country who connected immediately to these uncorrected wines.
This scene above was also another surprise for me : imagine, here is Taisuke Iketani of VinsCoeur (one of the Japanese importers of French natural wines) pouring wines from La Bohême (Auvergne, Loire) to Eishi Okamoto, the young winemaker behind Beau Paysage, a small natural-wine farm from Japan whose cult wines are virtually sold out as soon as they're produced. Okamoto-san's obvious interest for Patrick Bouju's wines was for me a symbol of the brotherhood and common passion that fuels these demanding winemakers who live, literally, worlds apart. That's another side of the story : the Japanese are beginning to have now quite a few domestic artisan wineries following the organic/non-interventionist philosophy, and the best of them take part to the yearly natural-wine fair in Tokyo. Fine restaurants in Tokyo (check for example the wine list of Tsu-Shi-Mi) now serve routinely the best Japanese wines as their quality pair with what Europe and other wine regions can offer, and a good number of these fit into what we could call the natural wine category.
Ogawa, Saitama (Japan)
This is probably the smallest beer brewery in Japan and it was founded by a man, Baba-san (pictured above left), who has been very inventive and audacious in the pursuit of beer making using crops he mostly grows himself. I found out the existence of this artisanal brewery thanks to Romain whom I visited a year ago in the Coco Farm Winery in the Toshigi Prefecture north of Tokyo. He had told me then that there was a small
brewery making possibly the best craft beer of Japan using only organic products it grew in the vicinity. Back in
Tokyo for a short stay, I saw that the Zakkoku brewery was one hour by train from Tokyo and I thought a visit would be nice.
Craft beer is said to be expanding in Japan, with about 200 artisanal breweries operating today, from a subjective point of view it's still very marginal compared to North America where it really took off and where you can notice the weird-labelled bottles in places like Walmart and Safeway. If you read the Japan Beer Times there are a few worries here like the soon-to-be-implemented new 8 % VAT on consumer products this april, a big jump from the current 5 % (would they aim to reach the French 20 % VAT one day ?); plus the Yen has been diving steadily these last months, which is pretty good news for foreign visitors in Japan but a hard one for brewers who import most of the ingredients used for craft beer. Whatever, things move in that field and given the big success of natural wine in this country I wouldn't be surprised that artisanal beer follows suit at whatever end price.
The small brewery is located in the small town of Ogawa (Saitama prefecture), an hour or so from Ikebukuro (Tokyo) on the Tobu Tojo line, a swift trip across the endless suburbs of Tokyo ending on the foothills of the Saitama region. The weather was colder than usual in early march in Japan and there were still patches of snow here and there in the fields around Ogawamachi.
The leçons de chose were some sort of simplified scientific teachings given in the past to the first classes in the French school system. These courses on sciences naturelles (nature sciences)
have been part of the curriculum in the elementary
school for decades, and they were also the opportunity for children to study the outside world using basic subjects like a plant, a leaf or an egg.
The concept was devised in 1867 by Marie Pape-Carpantier who was overlooking the écoles maternelles (nursery schools) of that time and who thoroughly renovated the instruction for the early childhood [source - Pdf in French]. She was some sort of radical who wanted to turn the early school into something more plesant where you could learn in contact with real things. Among the real-life objects proposed to the children's attention was the farm, an important thing in the late 19th century, the farm being also an economic structure where both nature and science played a role. You guess it, children were offered along these leçons de choses to take a closer look at viticulture and winemaking. We need to be reminded that virtually every farm would make wine then, the beverage was really mainstream in the nation's daily diet and it would have been unthinkable to shun this economic and cultural sector from the young children's view.
I found this old school book in a street flea market in the Loire. the 126-page book was printed in 1953. Its 62 lessons are divided into 4 seasons, autumn, winter, spring and summer. The leçon de choses dealing with wine is the 9th (page 16) but somehow it proved important enough to appear symbolically on the cover page under the form of a bunch of grapes with leaves, which would be an anathema for school authorities today. The school system was probably more austere than today, with a curriculum more focused on writing skills and simple learnings based on everyday life than on shaping their political views. Children had also less opportunitiess in terms of education in these years without the huge possibilities brought by certain TV programs or the Internet.
Paris, 18th arrondissement
I happen to have attended two unrelated private tasting events in private appartments recently where Japanese sommeliers were letting amateurs/professionals like me and others taste and experience what Japan had to offer in terms of fermented beverage. The coincidence was interesting and I thought it might make a good story.
France is considered as being a bit chauvinistic in terms of wine choice and selection; I'm not sure it's right to say that after all even though I used to believe this myself,
it could be just that the choice here is such and the price range so wide (especially in the mid- and lower price range)
that people need to be really explorative and daring to look elsewhere, especially when the prices of imported wines are higher. They can't even really handle already the variety of all what's in inside their borders, and their lack of interest for foreign wine is a natural consequence.
On other liquid varieties (so to say), the French can be adventurous, like they've proved in the last few year with the Japanese whisky (Nikka in particular) which has made inroads in Europe largely through the French market (and the initiative of La Maison du Whisky). But for both Japanese wine and sake, this is another matter, think of swimming against the tide or fight an uphill battle, the outcome of which is more difficult to predict.
This nice private tasting took place in the Paris appartment of a young British woman, Emma Bentley, who works for La Maison du Whisky (but will soon start her own job as agent for artisan wineries). It's always great to discover Paris through other appartments, and her views over the roofs or the Sacré coeur was terrific. I was tipped about the event by another whisky geek, Nicholas Sikorski who is Mr Japanese-whisky at this company, otherwise the attendance was very international with also a German wine professional and several Japanese women in addition to the master of ceremonies Mr Kei Miyagawa, a Japanese sommelier who lives in France and helps distribute Japanese drinks in high-end Restaurants.
We're not yet a Knights vs Samourai situation but the Japanese wines are serious stuff, at least that's we experienced again.
Paris, 18th arrondissement
Envrac is another concept of wine shop serving food, this venue also sells wine in bulk, either in bottle or in any larger container that you might bring yourself. I knew about another place in Paris with this sort of service, Le Baron Rouge, they also sell in bulk the old way there, but Envrac is a fairly recent place which opened 15 months ago at the corner of rue l'Olive and rue Riquet, in an area of Paris with both islands of gentrified streets and large stretches of neighborhoods populated by non-european migrants. The owner first opened this venue in the covered market nearby (marché couvert de L'Olive)
in 2011 but resettled to an independent street address a couple
years later. This covered market is worth a visit, you find a large choice of cheese, charcuterie, meat and vegetables, plus a couple or more of traiteurs and restaurants. Rain or shine, this is a market you can enjoy in all seasons.
Envrac, or "en vrac", means in bulk in French. While buying wine in bulk is still very commonplace in many wineries in the French provinces, it has mostly disappeared in the cities, but it was also very easy in Paris from what I know until probably the 1950s' or earl 1960s', and if you are familiar with the work of the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson you may remember this great picture of his featuring a boy coming home proudly with two liter-size bottles of red wine that his father had probably sent him get from the wine shop around the corner. The Vin de table (table wine) was then a simple, light wine (often diluted at 9% or 8% alcohol) which was probably much more drinkable than much of what you find today among those in the lowest price bracket. In the 1970s' and 1980s' bottling became much cheaper and bulk wine as well as returnable bottles (with deposit) vanished : Even everyday table wines were purchased in their own sealed bottles (the quality of what was inside was incindently beginning to change for the worse due to the growing number of winemaking additives on the market, but this is another story...)
The wine shop/bistrot Envrac was created by Thierry Poincin who began his wine adventures by opening a wine shop at the covered market marché des Enfants Rouges in 2000, adding a wine restaurant (L'Estaminet) in this same market. In 2011, he opened an import business in Hong Kong, and in 2011 he opened a first version of Envrac in the covered market of L'Olive (video on the left) a hundred meters away, before moving it to the present location at the corner of rue l'Olive & rue Riquet.
Pouillé, Loir-et-Cher (Loire)
Laurent Saillard is beginning to make his own wines under his own labels, and he turns a new page in his new life as a winegrower, having found recently a cellar to rent to store his own facility.
To rewind a few years earlier, Laurent had discovered a new life in the Loire after years working as a chef in New York and co-managing Ici in Brooklyn with his former wife. His restaurant was already a venue where the farmers' market produces (he was proven visitor of Brooklyn's farmers' markets) paired well with the natural wines he was familiar with, and when he settled in the Loire to work with Noella Morantin, there was a continuum in the philosophy, just that this time he was on the other side of the production line, working on the vineyard for Noella and taking care of the vines & grapes so that they could yield these real wines he loved. Learning the wine farm job the hard way, beginning with the vineyatd tasks
(the organic way), he learned all the while the winemaking and tried his hand one day with a batch of grapes that
Noella gave him so that he could make a barrel of wine.
When Noella bought a few hectares of vineyards from Junko Arai recently, she transferred part of the vineyards that she rented from Clos Roche Blanche to Laurent, so that he could have his own rented parcels to make his wine. He keeps working all the while for Noella Morantin and uses his weekends to tend his own surface. This makes a pretty tight working week but many artisan wineries have started this way.
When I showed up that day, Laurent and Noella helped by Juliette and Julien were busy bottling a vat of Gamay, and I was greeted like usual by Panache (pic on left, shot that day), an authentic Newyorker (actually born in 2007 in Connecticut) who seems to have become a successful transplant on the southern bank of the Cher river. This dog is very affectionate and loves also the outdoor, in short an excellent and silent companion for a winegrower.
Greniers Saint Jean, Angers (Loire)
The Salon des Vins de Loire in the outskirts of Angers is a very large event centered around the many wines produced in the Loire region, but this yearly event is also the occasion for smaller simultaneous tasting events scheduled in roughly the same time frame, and where the focus is more on organic/biodynamic, natural wines from domaines of all the wine regions and even from abroad. This particular wine fair took place
downtown Angers in what is called the Greniers Saint Jean, a historic building
built circa 1188 that looks much like a church but was actually originally a food-storage building for the hospital of Angers. It was home that day for another healthy food that heals many ailments : real wine. There was another resourceful tasting event that weekend, Les Vins Anonymes, which I attended last year and it takes place in a real church (actually decommissioned).
This tasting was organized by Nicolas Joly's Winegrowers group Renaissance des Appellations and many of the participâting domaines are biodynamic. The biodynamic farming rules have beyond the farming side very strict rules in terms of additives use and other winemaking tricks, and you can be reasonably pretty sure that these wineries don't fool you about the way they make their wines That could be a simple and common-sense reason to be comfortable with biodynamic wines in the first place. Looking at the rules for winemaking on this Demeter-USA document (page 38 to 42) makes you understand why I'm myself more comfortable when I deal with biodynamic-certified wines. Among many other requirements : handpicking preferred, limitations to SO2 use, no pasteurization, no concentration of must, yeast nutrients approved in case-per-case, acid and sugar ajustment not permitted, All other processing additives are not permitted : enzymes, tannin, casein, silica dioxide, isinglass,
blood, gelatin, gum arabic, carbon, copper sulfate, etc.. This by the way sheds light indirectly on what you get behind the curtains in the mainstream wineries.
Look at the list of 155 domaines who take part to this Grenier-Saint-Jean tasting, domaines from all over France plus a few from Spain, Italy and Austria. It may be a side tasting event compared to the Salon des Vins de Loire but this place was thick with talent and hard-working growers. You can't in my view taste them all in a single day, and even in two days. In addition to gathering so many top winemakers, this tasting event was very affordable : 5 € for professionals with an invitation and 20 € for the others, and the pours were generally very generous.
Le Chateaubriand, 11th arrondissement
The wines of Georgia are having their show again in Paris, first here in Chateaubriand, the wine-wise restaurant on Avenue Parmentier in the 11th, then in several other wine events including in the ones popping up around the Loire Wines Fair in Angers,
namely Les Pénitentes in Angers and La Dive Bouteille in
Saumur. That's why Angers is a good wine destination at this time of the year, because in addition to the wines of the Loire region, you can taste the wines from many other regions and meet these winemakers who share the passion for real wines.
This event was organized by Thierry Puzelat and the owners of Chateaubriand, Thierry Puzelat playing an important role in the awakening of the European public to these wines of Georgia and to their antique winemaking techniques. This free tasting event took place on a monday like most professional tasting events, it lasted from 10am to 6pm and featured the wines of 10 winegrowers from Georgia, many of them being present in person :
Ramaz Nikoladze, John Wurdeman, Lago Bitarishvili, Nika Bakhia, Kakhaber Berishvili, Zurab Topuridze,Nikoloz Antadze, Malkhaz Jakeli, Jani Okruashvili and temuri Dakishvili. I managed to get there after work like last year and taste a few wines before they packed up at about 6:40.
At one point at the end of the event, Béatrice of Chateaubriand and John Wurdeman (of Pheasant's Tears) cross-drinked Georgian wine using drinking horns like people used to do in Georgia in the past.
Not a typo, this is about testing, not only tasting
France and Paris may look late on the craft-beer issue compared to the United States but some people are discreetly working on it, and there has been here in the recent years actually a burgeoning number of new artisan breweries all over the country, which could help us rub elbows with older members of the club on the continent, like Germany and Belgium
(still way ahead for sure).
France had actually in the past a strong local-beer sector but I guess that the same ill-fated economic choices that dismantled our Mittelstand industry after WW2 also threw out the small breweries with the bathwater, leaving us in the 1970s' and 1980s' with only a handful of industrial breweries, which paved the way later for Heineken's inroad in this desertified beer landscape.
When you intend to create a beer, the flavor-testing stage is very important, it usually involves peers and associates or friends who are called for advice and opinions. I'm new to it and it looks like tasting but it is more like testing because you'll be finetuning the aromatic edge and other parameters that will make your beer stand out through a unique recipe.
Pierre Guigui who is the Wine Man at Gault & Millau and heads the Concours Amphore (an international competition for organic wines) is currently in the process of making a beer of his own. This is still the experimental stage of the project and Pierre and his wife Laurence wanted us to taste 5 versions of their beer.
Charline, the cheesemaker, showing her Tomme cheese
WineTerroirs isn't converting to cheese but wines are asleep in winter...
Saint Leger Vauban, Burgundy
The Abbaye de la Pierre Qui Vire is a Benedictine monastery nestled in a corner of the thickly-wooded Morvan hills in central Burgundy. It was founded in 1850 in a beautifully- remote area with lots of forests and pastures. The abbey itself is opened to visitors year around except
january, and some people use the accommodation wing
of the monastery for a retreat.
In 1938 a neighboring farm was purchased by the abbey in order to provide work and revenues to the monks. In 1950 the farm worked closely with the INRA, the then-recently-created French research body dealing with agro sciences. This collaboration led to massive use of chemical fertilizers to compensate with the poor local soils of the area, and in 1969 the monks overlooking the farming decided to stop working with the INRA and turn the farm organic, which was not common or trendy at the time. Starting in 1980 the farm specialized into cheese, using the farm's cows for the milk and later in 1994 added a goat cheese wing, also sourcing the milk from the goats of the farm. The name of this abbey has thus been now associated with their raw-milk cheese, which is very different in its texture and qualities from the époisses, it doesn't run for example and stays firm. This cheese is not an AOC but it has a similar status in the mind of cheese lovers, it is a registered brand and holds quality standards that can largely compete with AOCs.
The road to the abbey, while much more comfortable than when this monastery was built in the mid 19th century, has still this feel of remoteness and forest immersion that was probably dear to the founders.
Pic on left : Philippe de L'Escalier