There are a ton of things we consider when choosing where to eat out: the ambiance of the restaurant, the chef’s specialties, price, and proximity are a few aspects often that affect my choices. While the quality of the food served is probably the first thing that occurs to us when reserving a table, I would argue that the wine menu is equally, if not more, important when choosing where to dine while in France.
Ever since discovering natural wine in 2012, I have begun to seek it out as a sign of quality and good food and drinks to come when choosing where to eat, and this method rarely lets me down. It also often brings welcome surprises, such as encounters with inspiring food industry professionals and the discovering of off-the-beaten-track addresses.
Natural wine is often misunderstood or unclearly defined, so deserves some explaining if I’m going to make the argument that the carte des vins is central to your dining itinerary. Natural wines are often considered to be merely made from organic grapes, when in fact they are as different from an organic wine found in a large chain supermarket as homemade baked goods are from their plastic-wrapped equivalents in your local cookie aisle. And while I’ve been known to crack for a box of Oreos, since discovering natural wine I can’t accept any substitutes.
Natural wines go beyond organic agriculture and take farming to a new level. Following the principles of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and father of biodynamic agriculture, natural winemakers do practice organic farming, but also apply ethereal concepts such as following a lunar calendar. Biodynamic farming focuses on energy and equilibrium, the goal being to find balance in the soil and surrounding environment and to never take away more energy from the earth than you put back into it.
In France (and other countries like Italy) the craft of cultivating the grapevines and making wines falls to the vigneron, a word we translate to be “winemaker” in English, though true vignerons rarely exist in the United States. Whereas American wines are often made from grapes that are grown and picked by third parties, in France it’s the winemaker and his or her team that cultivate the vines and harvest the grapes when they are ripe.
This organic and biodynamic approach to winemaking doesn’t stop at the vineyards. Unlike organic wines found in the grocery store, the vinification of natural wines is done with the same philosophy as the farming of the vines. It is in the natural winemaker’s fermentation tanks and barrels that the wine will start to express itself unhindered, evolving to become the wine that will be served to you at those carefully chosen bar or restaurant.
If the process of natural winemaking could be summed up in one sentence, it might be “Nothing added, nothing taken away.” This simple motto describes every moment of the winemaking process for low-intervention winemakers. Allowing a wine to tell its story means refraining from interfering in the fermentation process and refusing to mute or alter that wine’s voice.
Natural winemakers monitor the fermenting wine, but they refuse to add chemicals – such as sulfur, artificial yeasts, sugar, or other stabilizers – that will manipulate the wines. By adding nothing, they also take nothing away, which is to say the true essence of the wine, and the terroir that it came from, is allowed to evolve and become something unique, beautiful, and delicious.
Fermented Grape Juice
The sensation of tasting natural wine for the first time is enough of a reason to order a glass right away. A nostalgic experience for some, the taste of pure, fermented grape juice can take you back to the taste of the taste of the pure grape juices of our childhood days. But natural wine remains an adult beverage, as fermentation and aging bring with them not only alcoholic contents, but nuances in taste: acidity, crispness, structure. Though it’s still with a childish glee that we can appreciate this grown up grape juice.
There are so many ways to experience and describe how a wine tastes, and that’s why enjoying natural wine brings lifelong enjoyment. From the first sniff of the glass to the swirl and then a sip, as the taste overtakes your palate and you get to drink in an entire year in a matter of seconds, drinking natural wine is the concentration of a time and place. There are many terms that get used to talk about wine – with references to its acidity, minerality, salinity, complexity, or tension – but my favorite is probably the very French descriptor, glouglou. This onomatopoeic word refers to a wine that’s easy to drink and pairs perfectly with a group of friends. Ask a server at any natural wine bar or restaurant for a glouglou bottle of wine and you’re in for a good time!
Wondering where to try this wonderful type of wine? Here are some of my favorite Paris addresses:
Le Garde Robe
Take a load off after visiting the Louvre or make a wine pit stop while exploring downtown at this centrally located wine bar, an institution in the natural wine scene. Bottles can be bought to go, but if there’s a free space at the bar or tiny terasse out front- you’d be well advised to grab it. This small venue fills up fast, but gets merrier with the more wine lovers who come to taste over plates of cheese and charcuterie.
Located in the trendy 11th arrondissement, La Buvette has a youthful feel to it and attracts locals fitting the same description. Owner Camille Fourmont runs the show on her own, pairing thoughtful small plates with a solid list of natural wines.
The 12th arrondissement is home to the expansive Marché d’Aligre, which has inspired a community of commerce that orbits around the covered and outdoor markets. One of the best watering holes in the ‘hood is Le Siffleur de Ballons, which operates as a wine shop and bar. The lunch menu, one of the best deals in the city, consists of a creative selection of croque monsieur paired with crisp glasses of natural wine.
This Left Bank address pairs classic Parisian bistro plates with some of the brightest stars of the new wave of natural winemaking. By the bottle or by the glass, the wine list at Café de la Nouvelle Mairie provides a perfect introduction to vin nature.
This clown-themed bar, inspired by the neighboring Cirque d’Hiver, is not joking around when it comes to fine food and natural wines. Whether you want to grab a stool at the cozy bar and take in the unique décor or dine à table, the natural wines on the menu – which is made up of exciting selections from France and abroad – will surely put a smile on your face.
The Goutte d’Or neighborhood in the 18th arrondissement, which was famously dubbed a “No-Go Zone” by FOX News a few years back, enjoys being off-the-beaten-path for most tourists. The area, which could more aptly be called a “Locals-Go Zone,” is filled with neighborhood bars, restaurants, and even its own brewery. Le Tout-Monde is one such locals hang-out. The restaurant is ingredient-focused and carefully sources its vegetables, meat, fish, cheese and, of course, wine. Stop in for the apéro and eavesdrop on locals talking about what’s going on in the neighborhood, or tuck into a two-top with a loved one and rest assured that you’ll be well taken care of.