"The French wine world seems to have been bitten by a bug," observed food writer François Simon in Le Figaro recently. The pest in question is a tiny but evangelistic movement devoted to vin naturel wine made completely without chemical intervention. It's an approach that "flies in the face of the practices widely used in viticulture," says Dominique Lacout, author of a natural wine-lovers' guide.
Pioneered in the 1960s by Beaujolais enologist Jules Chauvet, natural wine-making strives for a pure expression of the vintage and land through organic farming and the banning of modern cellar practices like adding laboratory yeasts, chaptalization (adding sugar to increase alcohol content) and filtering. The results range from sublime to suspect: some natural wines go down more easily than fresh grape juice, while others have distinctly earthy, leathery or even barnyardy aromas that can be hard to tolerate. "The more they reflect the specific character of their terroir, the harder it can be for people used to standardized wines to appreciate them," says Lacout.
Perhaps that's why natural-wine bars often brim with newcomers to wine and foreigners from countries without ancient viticultural traditions. "The Japanese are not as infected by the traditional wine culture," says wine importer Yasuko Goda. "And modern, over-concentrated blockbuster wines never go well with Japanese food." In the end, getting too caught up in vinification politics means missing the point of natural wine. "It's not just a protest movement," says Lacout. "It's a search for flavors and authenticity, the real taste of food and wine." Here are three Paris natural-wine bars as vibrant as the wines they serve:
Owner Pierre Jancou gets his wines from 20 of France's best natural winemakers. Quartz, Claude Courtois ($20) is unlike any sauvignon you've ever tasted citrus and fresh-cut hay with walnut notes. Jean-Marc Brignot uses traditional varietals Ploussard and Trousseau to create Cuvée Marc, Arbois ($35), a dark, intense wine with rich red fruits, notes of cacao and smooth tannins. 8 Passage des Panoramas, www.morethanorganic.com
AUTOUR D'UN VERRE Kevin Blackwell and wife Mari serve market-fresh foods as unadulterated as the wines on their menu. The slight cloudiness of Eric Pfifferling's rosé L'Anglore Tavel ($30) belies its purity and complexity a nose of red berries, leather and cedar. And Pierre Overnoy's strawberry-colored Arbois Pupillin ($45) has a nose that hints of wet haystacks, but as critic Simon says, it's a "fabulous, funky wine," and a perennial favorite of natural-wine lovers. 21 Rue de Trévise, www.autourdunverre.net
Lacout calls this bar "the natural-wine mecca." Pilgrims come for Raquel Carena's exquisite cuisine and Philippe Pinoteau's very deep, very natural cellar. Do you scoff at Beaujolais? Try Jean Foillard's Morgon, Côte du Py 2005 ($45). This elegant, expressive, medium-bodied red offers a rich concentration of black cherry, strawberry, spice and flowers and a silky finish so long you may wonder why you never went au naturel before. 3 Rue Jouye-Rouve, www.morethanorganic.com
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