The wine merchant stiffened, his head snapping a bit backwards. The air chilled. I knew I had just said the wrong thing, and now I would have to face his wrath.
We were standing in the L’Etiquette Cave a Vins wine shop on the Ile St.-Louis, in the very center of Paris. I had wandered in simply because it was a wine store, only to find they sold natural wines, sometimes called bio wines (biodynamic). While I browsed, I had just listened to him give his spiel to some other would-be customers, how they are a shop that only sold natural wines. He flipped through photos of vineyards, showing them the difference in the vines, before explaining that they offer a tasting, a degustation. It costs €20, he told them, in a voice that conveyed the finality of the price. Natural wine is not cheap. “I say the same thing to everyone,” he is telling them. “If I change my speech, you cannot trust me.”
At the time, I was renting a short-term apartment in Paris, hanging out for a while, and had noticed this trend already around the city, natural wine. Let’s define: Natural wine is organic, but it’s much more than that. It’s vinification done without any of the dozens of additives that wine can contain, as little filtration as possible, and either no or minimal sulfur usage. Look at a bottle of wine and you’ll notice it may read “Contains sulfites”. Sulfites especially is a dirty word for natural wine makers, though some do use a little. Wine doesn’t always travel well without it.
Natural wine thus is less controlled, the taste less uniform. The first thing you’ll notice may be the color. The reds are less dark, less intensive, and the whites can be darker, even cloudy. The taste is rather different. It tastes more of the grape juice that it is. It’s less musty and deep. There’s a freshness to it that I image, if you get used to it, could make regular wine taste seem almost contrived. Some still taste yeasty. I can see why some people don’t take it seriously, thinking it’s just trendy. I had been seeing wine bars featuring natural wines around Paris for a bit, and I liked the taste.
I told this to the wine merchant standing in front of me there at L’Etiquette Cave a Vins, how natural wines seemed to be popular now, that it seemed to be a growing trend here in Paris, and that’s when I realized I had said the wrong thing.
Oops. He stiffened visibly, and returned fire. “Trend?” he challenged, letting me know I had certainly used the wrong word. There was a bit of a silence. It was not unawkward. “No, this is not a trend,” he finally went on. “It’s been going on for 16 years, so 16 years now is not a trend. And then of course eight thousand years before that. No, I’ll tell you what a trend is—a trend is something that makes you look good on the dance floor.”
Touchy, this guy, but I loved his last phrase, and I wanted to know more about the natural wines. He filled me in, showed me the photos of natural versus unnatural vineyards, and gave me the song and dance. I bought a bottle, a Burgundy for about €20. It was delicious.
He’s a bit wrong about the timeline. What Europe usually calls biodynamic wine (bio wine) got its big push in the 1920s in Austria, an anti-chemical agricultural movement that pre-dates the interest in organic farming and of course isn’t just limited to wine. But applied to wine, it supposedly makes the vineyard more sustainable as well as the wine being better balanced. Bio wines express their terroir far better than those using additives.
Nota Bene: Many would say there’s a difference between bio wines and natural wines. Bio involves more ecological holistic concepts of growing, such as maintaining the soil fertility and not hurting the surrounding areas, as opposed to natural wines, which focus more on not using additives in the winemaking process. I don’t feel the need to overly parse the two. This is all opposed to merely being organic wine, which just applies to the growing process.
Why go au naturel?
The movie “A Good Year” (based on the Peter Mayle book) has a scene where the wise old Uncle Henry, sitting outside his mansion in the south of France, is saying to his young nephew Max, “…I enjoy making wine because this sublime nectar is quite simply incapable of lying. Picked too early, picked too late, it matters not – the wine will always whisper into your mouth with complete, unabashed honesty every time you take a sip.”
Eh, perhaps not. Wine additives are a big business. Besides the preservatives and stabilizers, winemakers have a choice of many additives to change or enhance the flavor. They can alter the tannins and acidity of the wine, with things such as powdered tartaric acid. Flavor additives are used, enzymes that can accent fruit tastes, yeast strains that will boost other flavors, as well as finishing agents such as egg whites and fish bladders to clarify the wine.
Take a product called Mega Purple, made from the concentrated syrup of Rubired grapes. It takes weak-colored red wine and turns it a dark crimson. That’s why your Yellowtail wine is always the same color. Other additives will take white wine and filter the color out of it so it looks pristine. Not using these things is why natural wines come in with lighter reds and more straw-colored whites.
The problem with natural wines is that the producers are quite small and they often work outside the appellation system that other wines use to tell you the region or style. When buying bottles, it’s hard to tell what you’re getting, but even if you knew, the taste would be different. I find it best to hit the wine bars where your friendly pourer can explain things and guide you, or find a patient wine merchant (not the one above).
Lunch at Coinstot Vino, pavé de laip avec buerre citron, and a bio wine – sauvignon blanc
I’ve written before about how France in general is no longer on the front line of culinary trends, and indeed, seems to be standing still on its food, so Paris is probably awfully glad to be out in front on this movement. Paris is more of a beer city than most people think, not overly skewed towards wine. Natural and bio wines, along with an increase of wine bars in general, may help push it back to the grape.
People who get hooked on natural wine usually remember the epiphany. They remember the outlandish labels as well, perhaps the whimsical names. Natural wine makers don’t stand on ceremony, such as naming their wines Chateau Aix-en-Quelque-chose with a formal white label. A natural wine may have a name such as “Courage, my love” with a label that looks closer to a Matisse painting than a framed certificate.
Outside of being trendy on the dance floor, Paris for some time has had wine shops that served food, and the last handful of years has seen more wine bars opening. They almost always serve food as well, but it’s usually more like tapas, little snacks, rather than full meals. They are neither cafés nor bistros. Many are dedicated to natural or bio wines, and many more include them alongside their regular wine.
Vin et fromage, sur Ma Cave Fleury
A wine bar called Ma Cave Fleury at No. 177 Rue St. Denis was one of my first encounters with bio wine. It sits on a street once known for its sex shops, though it’s a bit tamer now. The laid-back place serves nothing but wine and meat/cheese plates, but still I managed to confuse them.
I have a talent. I am able to walk into a place that does specific things, such as a wine bar in Paris. I ask for that specific thing (wine). And yet, they seemingly don’t know what to do with me. “You want wine?” their looks tell me. Here? The staff glances at each other. Imagine, this guy just wanders in and wants wine. Well, they seem to finally conclude, I guess we are indeed a wine bar, so maybe we could dredge up … something for you. This happens to me all the time.
The proprietress eventually helps me and is very cool, once she figures out that I want wine and that by coincidence they have it. She sets me up with a plate of cheese as well and I’m happy. I stay for another glass, and another, ones she chooses for me.
Another good place, with full meals, is the small restaurant Coinstot Vino, in the Passage des Panoramas. The Passages of Paris are a hot thing now. They are the original galleries, the shopping alleys that were covered and the interior decorated. The food is amazing, changing every day. There’s no regular menu, just a portable blackboard with today’s choices on it, which they carry from table to table.
The wine there is bio, and a short conversation with the waiter brought me something from Alsace, quite good. Later, he brought me another choice, and wasn’t shy about charging me a great deal for them. The second glass was a sauvignon blanc, very yellow but very dry. A bit bitter even. The menu was €17 for two courses or €19.5 with dessert. I chatted with the waiter as I left, about the wine, and when I inquired about the number of choices, the answer was 200.
The selection board at Le Baron Bouge
Le Baron Bouge is the best wine bar in the city. Period. Full stop. Carriage return and line break. Perhaps nowhere else in Paris was I so relaxed, nowhere did I feel more taken care of, welcomed. It was like Audrey Hepburn talking about Tiffany’s; you felt like nothing very bad could happen to you there. Its name used to be Baron Rouge and was changed for some reason that I’m sure makes either an interesting story or a stupid one.
The serving bar here is small, with more than a dozen different small, rectangular chalkboards around listing wine by the glass, lots of them, awfully cheap. I started with a bio rosé, a mix of grenache and viognier from Rhône, €2.5 a glass. The music here is wonderful, a mix of 30s and 50s classics. They have regular wine and bio wine, and my counterman had a mixed reaction to the bio stuff. “But sometimes it simply doesn’t taste good,” was his most damming praise. He’s on the fence about this. I tried more: Saumur, Cour-Cheverny, a rosé from domaine Garrefor, a Chenin D’Anjou. Almost nothing is more than five euro a glass and many choices are half that. This is what wine should be. Plentiful, cheap, celebrated without pretention.
At Baron Bouge, you can buy wine by the bottle, or by the liter
Baron Bouge has cheese or meat platers for €16 but that’s too much. Right outside is not only a large outdoor market, Marché Aligre, but also cheese shops and bakeries such as Le pain Au Naturel (if you’re trying to keep everything natural). Buy a snack there and eat it with some bio wine while perching in the window seat at Baron Bouge, as I happily did.
The comprehensive list of natural and bio wine bars type of article has been written many times, and there’s no point in me redoing it, especially as they have more info on each place than I would. If you’re heading to Paris and this article has convinced you to try some, I’ll simply list some links. Try this list from Punch, or this list from The Culture Trip, or this list from Food & Wine, or hey this list from Paris by Mouth. Or hell, just google it yourself, because things change.
And because natural and bio wines are indeed trendy, you will look good on the dance floor.