17 novembre @ Nicolas Wine Shop: What will the new vintage bring? Strawberries? Cherries?
For all of the years that I've sported flashing red and purple lapel pins and lavished in the craziness that accompanies the annual celebration of a trés simple vin being released in France, I've never actually been in France when the fateful third Thursday of November arrives. The parties I have been to and/or have thrown look like New Year's Eve, with banners and balloons and confetti and feather boas and the encouragement of donning festive hats.
We in the wine community of America love that we can feel some sense of solidarity with our older, wiser, more elegant wine cousin, France, as the bars and brasseries along the Champs Elysées await the first boxes of the new vintage to arrive and be pillaged upon midnight of the 17th. So it was with great curiosity and excitement that I set out on the third Thursday of November to experience this day of carbonic maceration celebration. And I was met with....well, I guess you could say a faint enthusiasm for tasting the first finished wine of the vintage.
Most French nationals (or at least Parisians who do know and love wine) detest the day. But for me, I was quite excited to see what the vintage that I had just put to bed down in the Rhône Valley would taste like. And, actually, I quite like Beaujolais. Nouveau can be good, depending on your producer and the vintage, and can be easily enjoyed as an aperitif before delving into the smashed taters and turkey. Really, what better to pair with Aunt Margaret's Ritz crackers and cheddar cheese chunks than Beaujolais Nouveau? Ok, perhaps maybe if a single malt Scotch isn't available....
But like the charming window display says, today is the day that the debates on the vintage are open for discussion. Will 2011 bring notes of cherries, strawberries or small woodland animals to the older siblings of Beaujolais, dutifully resting in their barrels the way proper wine should behave? Or is 2011 a complete bust, worthy of no inflated wine prices on the auction blocks at Christie's? Well, after several stops in various arrondissements in Paris, I felt I hit a good cross-section of the selections available, and found a few lovely newbies, worthy of scribbling down a note or two.
Stop No°1: Le Tire Bouchon in the 10éme. That clay jar is filled with cornichons. Yum.
Walking south from the 18éme and passing the Gare du Nord to my left, I entered into my bordering neighborhood, the 10éme, which is actually quite a lively neighborhood, with lots of cool little hang-out nooks. I was recommended to try Le Tire Bouchon at Place Franz Liszt, which was rumored to have a creative wine list. They were showcasing the Laurent Thevenet Beaujolais Nouveau from Morgon, which actually had a bright, fresh palate of strawberries, a balanced midpalate with good tannin and even a little bit of dirt on the finish. With the assiette de charcuterie, featuring pate, jamon pays, rillette et saucisson sec, it brought out the spicier notes of the wine and downplayed the overdramatic young fruit. Not a bad start, I thought...
Next on the itinerary was to venture to the epicenter of many quite decent and notable wine bars, le Palais Royale. In this remarkable neighborhood you can find the likes of Les Fines Gueules, ô Chateau, Alfred, Racines, Juveniles, Willi's, and, oh yes, Le Grand Vefour.
Clearly not dressed for Vefour, I headed just north of the arcade passage that opens up onto one of the loveliest - and wonderfully tourist free - courtyard gardens in all of Paris, to Rue des Petits Champs. We're in the 1er now, the center of Paris and the chicest of neighborhoods. This is where you will find the Ritz, the Louvre, the Rue Rivoli, Place Vendome. And so of course, I had to visit the most famous wine bar in Paris known Stateside, Willi's Wine Bar.
Which was dreadfully silent. The sound of two people tenderly placing their glass on the polished oak bar was the only sound I heard. I am used to 'wine bars' being active at all hours of the day, especially 6:30 - 7:00pm. But the bar à vins in Paris act a little more like restaurants, in that they close during the afternoon and really don't get going until 9pm or so. However, I had no time to wait until then.
So I ordered a glass of the BN** (at which time the bartender asked if I really, really wanted to try this wine? Perhaps something more complex from their carte du vins?), in dutiful research mode. It ended up to be a rich jammy number from Domaine de Bacarra, a Beaujolais Villages producer (who is also a Vigneron Independent). With rich forest floor notes and bright plums and cherises flambé, it was the kind of elegant BN I was hoping to find at a place like Willi's.
And if you've ever been, you know their wine selection is fresh and dynamic, and I did feel kind of ashamed going in to ask for this slop of a wine, but it proves my theory that IF the producer cares and IF the bar or restaurant is discerning in their selections (and serves in proper glassware), there are many lovely BN wines to experience.
But unfortunately that was not the case at my next stop. All the corner bars and brasseries were fully decked out in party mode, so I just had to pause at one. Streamers, balloons, posters, even wine barrels lining the streets as makeshift bar tables. And the patrons were spilling out onto the street, spilling electric red wine on each other as they went merrily from one table to the next. Music pumping - strangely a lot of American 80's tunes - and young and old alike celebrating the birth of a new vintage.
This was the action I was looking for. But, alas, dreadful glassware prepared me for dreadful BN. I saw them pour it from a bottle, but other than that, I never bothered to find out what it was. Oh well, at least I got to hear Billie Jean.
If you see this in your glass, run.
Meandering back north from the 1er, I detoured through a fabulous little pedestrian shopping district, the Rue Montorgueil which is anchored by some of the most famous cookware magasins in Paris, namely La Bovida and E. Dehillerin (where Julia Child used to shop for her famous copper cookware). Avoiding the lusty pull of copper pots gleaming in the window, I traversed up the Rue past the many market stalls, friendly cafés, famed patisseries (i.e. Stohrer) and stumbled upon two fantastic little wine shops holding tastings of the BN right outside on the sidewalk.
With cute marketing gimmicks and free saucisson, I had to stop for just a sip. The Miss Vicky Wine slogan (in English) 'I'm Cool Because I Drink Wine' and the girl pouring the liquid in a neon pink mini-skirt made it all worth it. In fact, it wasn't all that terrible, but at 8€ a bottle, I knew I would just be paying for marketing.
Tasting the Miss Vicky BN
But I had one stop to go - and I had been looking forward to experiencing this place for myself ever since Uncle Tony* told me about it on his travel network show. And although reservations at the main restaurant are impossible to get (perhaps the hype from the show, or perhaps because there are only 35 seats and the food really is good), there is a little wine bar that part of the family, just across the way in the same dark alley. Yes, Frenchie has a wine bar. And a damn good one at that.
Just like 'big' brother across the street, the place is minuscule (so small that there are no stools at the zinc bar - the few you do see belong to the bar tables), but they make every effort to squeeze as many people in as possible. Even with all of us bellying up to the bar asking for a glass of Alphonse Mellot to go with our freshly sliced charcuterie plate, the guys behind the bar were quite patient and helpful. After getting used to the service levels in France, I thought they gave fantastic service. And the Carte du Vin is pretty wonderful. Conterno, Breuer, Fichet, Leguin-Colin, Cos, even Calera made the list. And the by-the-glass selections? They ask you what you are looking for, what from the list might interest you, and (within some boundaries), that's what they open for you.
Frenchie Bar à Vins, with Chinon
I opted for a glass of the Mas del Périé Chinon, which was decidedly NOT a BN. And it paired perfectly with the Burratta et Boudin Noir avec Pomme.
The bread tasted like it was baked in a huge brick oven just a few hours before, with a lovely chocolatey-crunchy crust. And more than once Chef Gregory Marchand came from across the street to check on the bar and chat with guests. He asked me about the Cascina Zerbetta Barbera del Monferrato that I had moved on to. And of course, my French failed me.
'Ah, trés bon, bien sur! C'est trés jolie cave!' was all I could get out, I believe.
Busy Little Wine Bar
Beautiful Buratta and Boudin Noir
So perhaps I wasn't a complete purist in my pursuit of bon Beaujolais Nouveau on this third Thursday in November. But there are times when you just have to draw the line and drink good wine. Life is too short - and a spot at the Frenchie Bar à Vin is hart to get. But it was fantastic to get a sneak peek to what vintage 2011 will be like for many of the wines now sleeping away the winter in their barrels. I for one will be very excited to taste the Northern Rhônes this year. So enjoy a glass of 2011 Beaujolais Nouveau with your cheese cubes, and love it for exactly what it is: a preview into a truly fantastic vintage.
Salute, and Abaluche!
*You know you wish Anthony Bourdain was your crazy uncle too.
**Beaujolais Nouveau. Got pretty tired writing it out all those times.