February 17, 2011
The Emmanuel Houillon/Maison Pierre Overnoy 2009 Arbois Pupillon poulsard recently hit the streets in Paris, which means it was a lucky time for me to be there. It’s been a long time since I saw any bottles of Overnoy on a New York retail shelf, which is funny because I used to see them gathering dust on the racks of Chambers Street Wines all the time. Not many people had discovered this unique red wine from the Jura in those days. I enjoyed a bottle from time to time but never had the foresight to cellar any. At some point a Japanese magazine made an Overnoy poulsard its wine of the year, and that event seemed to mark the end of its easy availability at retail. Its following is probably still small, but in that rabidly devoted fashion that makes the wine something of a secret handshake.
Here’s what I mean. It’s late January and I’m standing in Caves Augé, a microscopic little wine shop near the Place de la Madeleine stocked floor-to-high-ceiling with bottles like an old library. You could drink well for years if you were limited to what you could grab off the shelves, but most of the interesting stuff is in the cellar, fetched via a contraption that’s not exactly a dumbwaiter but not quite an elevator, either, and you have to know the wine to ask for it. I manage to irritate one of the cellarmen by inquiring about the possibility of purchasing some Clos Rougeard Le Bourg. If there’s one thing a wine merchant hates, it’s a cherry-picker, the infrequent customer who only comes in to capture the most precious bottles in the store. But then I ask about a few other things and when the name Overnoy crosses my lips it’s like I’ve made a new friend. He disappears to the cellar to fetch a quartet of 2009 Overnoys for me, and we talk about some of the other interesting bottles in the shop long enough for me to secure a cornucopia of cherries like Thierry Allemand’s 2007 Cornas Reynard and Yvon Métras’s 2009 Fleurie L’Ultime. There is even some Rougeard available too, he allows, if I want it.
A few days later I’m with some colleagues trying to get a table for dinner at Le Comptoir. We’re turned away in the traditional frosty Parisian fashion, as if the mere request were an imposition. But I make it back another time and manage to score a table by agreeing to sit outside at the very end just barely within reach of the winter heat lamps. The wine list at Le Comptoir is a catalog of the same familiar natural-wine producers one would find at Augé or Chambers, and, as luck would have it, the 2009 Overnoy is there, too. I order a bottle and the waitress beams with delight and for the next two weeks I don’t experience any more frosty receptions or trouble securing a table for dinner there. As for the Overnoy, it was already a compelling wine, but a bit awkward on account of the carbonic gas intended to protect it from oxidation in lieu of sulfur. It wasn’t until I got the chance to enjoy a second bottle with sufficient time in a decanter that I really began to grok it. The style is pale and featherweight somewhat in the fashion of the much-missed Burgundies of Jacky Truchot, but with an earthiness more stony than funky.
I had learned of Le Comptoir by means of the invaluable “Natural Wine Map of Paris” on the website morethanorganic.com. In the U.S. lately there is a controversy, or a pseudo-controversy, over the propriety of the term “natural wine.” Essentially it describes producers who farm organically and avoid certain kinds of manipulations in the cellar. Occasionally a sophist comes along to complain that the criteria are arbitrary, which misses the point. If you are the type of person trying to find a place to eat or shop by consulting something like the Natural Wine Map of Paris, you are not doing so because you enforce a flowchart of litmus tests dictating how the wines you drink are made. You are doing so because you love wines like Overnoy or Rougeard or Allemand, and you want to find them or something else similarly inspired—and drink with others who share the same passion. There’s no harm in a catchy shorthand for that. Indeed, it struck me several times what a deeply comforting feeling it is, when you’re away from your family and thousands of miles from home, to walk into a restaurant and see every table adorned with a bottle you’d be thrilled to have in your cellar. It doesn’t quite cure the homesickness, but it can make you forget it for an evening.
Anyway, I have the map to thank for leading me to a few other Parisian treasures. One of the best meals I had in Paris was at Le Baratin. Some reviews of the place seem to knock it for its creaky decor, but I actually found the look of the place immensely comfortable, radiating a classic Parisian neighborhood charm without being kitschy about it. Photographs taken there somehow look more appropriate in sepia-tone. The owner posts a menu of the day and a few recommended wines on a blackboard above the bar. There is no actual wine list. Instead, the blackboard instructs: “Nous consultez.” (Consult us.) The consultation can be brief if you just want something nice and easy to go with your food or extensive if you are really in the mood to talk wine. It will be especially extensive if a fondness for natural wine is detected, and an interesting bottle is sure to result. I enjoyed a simply stunning Vouette & Sorbée Champagne Blanc d’Argile there, which happened to be on the blackboard, and some Burgundies from Philippe Pacalet, which were not.
I’ve long resisted getting on the bandwagon for Pacalet; there are plenty of vignerons in Burgundy who work just as “naturally” but only Pacalet seems to have been anointed by the clique. Yet I have to admit the Pacalets offered at Le Baratin made me a convert. I’ve simply never had a Chambolle-Musigny village wine that tasted more typically Chambolle, nor a Gevrey-Chambertin village wine that tasted more typically Gevrey, than the 2007 Pacalets served at Le Baratin, which is to say that the Chambolle was alluringly feminine and sumptuous, the Gevrey rich and earthy. In my experience, the differences in personality between the villages in Burgundy are subtle enough that you can really only apprehend them cumulatively: you don’t get a sense of what Gevrey tastes like from any one bottle but from an ideal image that comes to mind from the accumulated memories of countless Gevreys over time. Pacalet might be the exception. These wines were so terroir-transparent that they told the story of their villages in a single bottle. An all-Pacalet lineup could be a fascinating way to take a whirlwind terroir tour of Burgundy. Needless to say, the overall quality level was well above the norm for village-appellation Burgundy.
The map also led me to Le Severo, and its sister restaurant Le Bis du Severo around the corner, which serves mostly the same cuisine but doesn’t require as much premeditation to get a table. The main attraction at both restaurants is the steak frites, but to put them in the same bucket as any other steak-frites joint in France would be a grave injustice. The owner was a butcher and takes his meat seriously. The steaks are dry-aged for six weeks or more, cut thick, and seared perfectly black-and-blue. With their intense dry-aged taste they reminded me of Peter Luger’s steaks—even better, actually, because the cooking at Luger doesn’t remotely compare, and the wine list at Luger is an unsubtle encouragement to order beer. The wine list at Le Bis du Severo is supplied by Augé and includes names like Breton, Dard & Ribo, Foillard, Métras, and Overnoy. The main branch supplements those standbys with a blackboard listing of higher-end selections, mostly Burgundies.
But on my first visit, I couldn’t resist the Overnoy. It was the 2003 rouge. At first it was nearly indistinguishable from the 2009, nicely refuting the theory that unsulfured wines are destined to croak in the bottle. It had even retained some carbonic spritz. With air it began to flesh out and didn’t show its bones as much as the 2009 did, but didn’t taste noticeably older, either—certainly not in the sense of tasting any less fresh. Perhaps what the extra bottle age had done was to turn the fruit flavors more floral: the taste was essentially equal parts crushed stone and rose petals. It made me glad that I’d used the trip as an opportunity to remedy the lack of Overnoy in my cellar. In addition to the 2009s from Augé, I have a horizontal of the 2004s (a poulsard, chardonnay, and savignin) to look forward to, acquired from Mi Fugue, Mi Raisin, the only store I know of in the world to sell both natural wine and classical music. Some of the wines there were familiar to me; most weren’t. But once I pointed to the Overnoy, the secret handshake did its thing.