Pure pleasure: the natural wine bar scene
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Natural wine, produced from pure grape juice without additives in the cellar, is not a new phenomenon. It is a practice as old as wine itself and yet today it represents a tiny fraction of global output. Along with Italy, France has led the charge in its production and consumption – so much so that certain bottles by cult producers can be tricky to track down. Some bars and eateries in Paris receive allocations of only a single bottle from France’s most renowned natural vineyards.
In the 1970s, France – like every other wine-producing country – adapted to technological advances and chose to produce wines that valued consistency above all else. A few lone voices stayed true to “pure” wines, which led to the opening of a handful of natural wine bars in 1980s Paris, including the Café de la Nouvelle Mairie. “There were four or five of us back then,” explains Jean-Pierre Robinot, who opened L’Ange Vin in 1988 (he now runs a vineyard in the Loire). “People thought we were out of our minds. We deliberately called it ‘natural’ wine because, while organic, it was also more than that.”
The status quo continued for decades. But about five years ago, natural watering holes began popping up en masse all over the city, an explosion that seems to have mirrored the goings-on chez le vigneron. While examples can be found in almost every neighbourhood, the greatest concentration is in the 11th arrondissement (Paris’s answer to Shoreditch-cum-Islington).
Lots of the bars double as wine shops with a corkage charge (between €6 and €10) that buys you the right to pop the cork there and then. But wherever you go, you’ll see that Paris really knows how to drink. Pop in, sit at the counter, have a glass or two (and perhaps a bite) without any formalities, then up, out and off to the next.
Le Clown Bar
This listed 1902 clown-themed wonder, with its ornate glass ceiling, painted wall tiles and original zinc bar, transports you to a different era. Located next to the iconic Cirque d’Hiver building (from which it gets its name), it was revamped in May this year by the team behind the natural wine restaurant Le Saturne. The staff are warm, welcoming and knowledgeable and the list is perfectly curated, including bottles specially created for the group such as a delicious pétillant naturel from Le Petit Domaine de Gimios.
114 rue Amelot, 11th, +33 1 4355 8735; closed Mon & Tues
Aux Deux Amis
Now in its fifth year, this buzzy bar de quartier is owned by David Vincent-Loyola, who pours his lively energy into his crowded, jovial joint. The extensive list is entirely natural, with bottles bought directly from growers, and by-the-glass options are written up on old mirrors around the place. On a visit in early September I nearly fell off my stool when I saw that their house wines were not only a red and white from one of my all-time favourite growers, Le Casot des Mailloles, but also available for an astonishingly cheap €5.50 a glass.
45 rue Oberkampf, 11th, +33 1 5830 3813; closed Sun & Mon
La Buvette de Camille
This tiny former fruit and veg shop feels like someone’s front room, filled with beautiful curios. You can’t book and, because of licensing, you have to eat as well (mostly cold snacks such as mackerel or saucisson) but it’s well worth the visit. A small but tasty selection of wines is available by the glass and bottle; try the Julien Courtois if it’s on the list. Restaurateurs hang out here on Sunday evenings – always a good sign.
67 rue Saint Maur, 11th, +33 9 8356 9411; closed Mon
Café de la Nouvelle Mairie
On a quiet square behind the Panthéon, this natural wine pioneer has been going strong for 30 years. There’s always at least one wine by the glass for €4 and the 300-bin list features multiple cuvées by the same grower, providing a great overview of a producer’s work. Look out for the collection of one of Jura’s cult vineyards, Domaine Overnoy-Houillon, whose much sought-after wines rarely appear on Parisian wine lists nowadays.
19 rue des Fossés, 5th, +33 1 4407 0441; closed Sat & Sun
Septime La Cave
Part of the Septime portfolio (alongside Clamato – a fish restaurant down the street), this tiny bar-cum-eat-in-wine-shop has been tastefully renovated to retain all its former character. A dozen or so wines are available by the glass (from €4.50). The bottles to take away or drink in (€7 corkage) include an especially strong selection of Italians, including Radikon, the king of orange wines. A good aperitif hangout.
3 rue Basfroi, 11th, +33 1 4367 1487; closed Sun & Mon
Located on a boho street, this year-old venue is more of a restaurant than a bar but guests are welcome to pop in for a drink. The list is largely natural and the team behind it are veterans of the scene. Owners Marion Trama, part of a French culinary dynasty, and Paul Hayat, who runs natural wine magazine Le Rouge et Le Blanc, make a formidable duo. Behind the bar is Frank Carré, who’s been hanging out with natural wine producers for the best part of 30 years. You’re definitely in capable hands.
83 rue du Cherche Midi, 6th, +33 1 4548 3371; closed Sun & Mon.
Set in one of the tunnel-like booths of Le Marché des Enfants Rouges, Paris’s oldest covered market, this cave à manger (wine shop with food) is a great Sunday pitstop. All the wines it serves are natural, with a heavy emphasis on the Loire. Perhaps surprisingly, though, Versant is better known for “le fish & chips”. Owner Jeanne Galinié has created her own version using line-caught fish and Loiret – a delicious French craft beer – for her tempura-style batter. Everything is fresh and home-made, even down to the tartare sauce. Although the kitchen closes at 3.30pm, you can pop in for a glass or bottle (€6 corkage) and a cold snack well after that.
39 rue de Bretagne, 3rd,+33 1 4272 3485; closed Mon & Tues
Isabelle Legeron is a master of wine and author of “Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally” (CICO, £16.99)
Other wine champions to check out
• Au Passage
• La Cave de l’Insolite
• Coinstot Vino
• Le Dauphin
• Le Frenchie Bar à Vins
• Le Garde Robe
• Verre Volé
• Vivant Cave
• Le 117
Photographs: Jérôme Galland; Francois Flohic