The first night was on a tiny quiet street near Cafe de Turin in Nice. Tired after a 7 hour flight + 7 hour train ride from Paris, we had just enough energy to crush a tower of shellfish which thankfully was open till late and still completely packed. Somehow we managed to get a table between the throngs of people crowding the drenched sidewalk, sometime after 10pm. We squeezed in under a large column with a shaky table next to a huge tank of live lobster and a drippy green hose. The column was supporting the alleyway along which the restaurant staged all of its catch, under bright fluorescent lights that showed no mercy. The archway, although painted white, reminded me a lot of the arcades of Bologna. Finishing the last drops of house Muscadet, we melted into the night.
This cantine of wine was hooked directly to a mainline behind the cafe/bio shop at O’Quotidien in the Nouvelle Porte/Bonaparte quarter where, along with over a dozen others, they pour by the glass or bottle on site. Every wine is rotated and imported monthly. Carlo and Laura opened this place a couple years ago in an effort to offer local products from Italy (Piemonte & Liguria) and Provence to the average guy who wants a place to hang, eat and drink.
In the states this would be overrun with trendseekers but here we met a theatre actor, farmer, doctor, producer, and ambiguous Spanish joker who pulled us in for several rounds of wine from the cantines. They’re only concern was that we were game to be human. We drank 2013 Dolcetto from Cooperativo Valli Unite (the best dolcetto to date btw) and a 2010 Barbera Riserva from Azienda Agricola Mario Torelli Bubbio. The wines were all unbelievably fresh, earthy, alive- and all Italian. I was didn’t realize how much the Côte d’Azur leans on Italian influence. We came back for lunch the next day and had lasagna with seasonal vegetables.
Carlo brought an aged Trebbiano to accompany the meal which quickly disappeared and led to dessert, a chocolate cake soaked in some kind of sweet wine (pictured above) that was unbelievably good. Also these guys have incredible espresso.
We talked to Carlo about his market and the biodynamic movement in Italy for a while. He operates from a place of extreme calm, a rarity these days. He doesn’t bother with marketing his place- he doesn’t even want to run it for long. “I look to the next time I can ride my bike to the woods and forage mushrooms, pick grapes in the vineyard, and be away from the chaos of the city.” I hope next time I visit, he’s gone on a foraging trip.
We drove along the coast to Cap Ferrat, Villefranche, the medieval hill town Eze, and Beaulieu-sur-Mer. We climbed down a cliff to the sea, and jumped in the water. We forgot to eat before we left, so after several hours of hiking around the Cap, we hunted down a place to eat. Given that it was 3 in the afternoon in the south of France, there was nothing open. But we managed to find a little market where the guy took pity on us and made some sandwiches. He really hooked it up: bresaola, brebis and tomates confites with butter on a baguette. He also recommended we go next door to the patisserie where to our great joy we found millefueille!
Bistro du Fromager
One of my favorite places in Nice is Bistro du Fromager in Vieux Port, a hidden cave à manger where the entire menu is based on cheese. The Carte des Vins was like the rest of it, delicious, bio, direct, no fuss. The menu handed to you doesn’t have any wine, but at the bottom a little note read “the drinks based in fermented grape juice are located in the large wine menu”. Immediately that made me want them to pick the wine for us; I felt like I could trust them. He brought us a red from Simon Busser in the small village of Prayssac (Cahors in the Midi-Pyrenees). 100% goddamn Merlot! It was deep, inky purple and tasted like smoked blackberry confiture with hints of myrtle and spice, and opened up beautifully the longer we stayed.
Looking around, people had equally local, natural wines, many of which I didn’t recognize but I have the impression most were from lesser-known regions like South West. We had a splash of a wine that was open on the counter on our way out: Domaine de L’Ausseil “P’tit Piaf Blanc” 2014 also from the South West in Latour (Roussillon). A blend of Muscat and Macabeo, it was rather sweet but due to the way it was made (fermented via carbonic maceration), the freshness and tarty twinge carried well.
One of the dishes was two fresh sacks of burrata, each bigger than my fist, with olive oil, pepper and a few haricots verts (green beans). The pasta was delicious too, also having lots of cheese. It was almost like someone was playing a joke on us- “do they really expect us to eat all this?” until I saw another table had the same amount of burrata and that somehow gave me the green light. “Even if I’m sick tomorrow, it will be worth it”.
It’s important to say that not every meal was a wine-centric event. We went to a hole in the wall, a one room restaurant no bigger than 20 x 20 feet. Small prix fixe menu at shared long tables covered in checkered table cloth. Noisy, tight, boards with scribbled in menu items and a bar with no seats, just trinkets and mechanisms from bygone generations lining the walls and keeping score. Without question, we had a carafe of house wine and Durex tumblers. Classic.
And then there was Carbo Culte. Night at the apartment during one of the rainiest, most deathly regional storms in recent history. The thunder and lightning cascaded across the sky and struck the nearby mountains and the sea, while rain came down heavy, thick and loud. We opened a window and looked out onto the piazza below. It was empty, desolate. The trees flashed white as another bolt struck down on the water. We pulled shut the window and opened the Carbo Culte. Another bodilicious babe, the name is a riff on a Serge Gainsbourg song, “Cargo Culte”, which is cute because it’s referring to its “cult charge” aka carb maceration. A small operation in the Roussillon region, Sylvain Respaut is on the wave with vigor and precision. He has a few wines, including Gorgolou and Zumo, using grapes like Carignan, Grenache Gris and Muscat d’Alexandrie. Carbo Culte is a blend of Grenache and Carignan. There’s practically no info on him and I only asked briefly about it with the very friendly guy at La Petit Syrah. From what I understand, he makes a lot of honey and just recently started making wine. Anyway, it was very delicious.
BANDOL: a Timeless Classic
The diversity of wine in the South West makes up for the lack of production around Nice and the rest of eastern Provence. Where Nice has become somewhat of a Souther French gastronomic destination, the western area of the Cote d’Azur remains a rustic spattering often with time travel potholes. While Languedoc-Roussillon seems to be the next big chapter in the natural wine movement (after Loire & Rhône), Provence remains seemingly aloof, concentrating on the perfection of Mourvèdre and the timelessness of the afternoon rosé.
On our trip to Bandol, we visited Chateau Pibarnon which may be considered home to some of the oldest and most prominent Bandol AOC wine available. We tasted through and decided to take home a bottle of Les Restanques 2011, which comes from slightly younger vines on a hillside primarily of clay and limestone. The blend (70% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache) undergoes extended fermentation of 25 days, then is split between large, new French oak casks and smaller barrels.
Part of being included as an AOC is that as a producer, you have to meet certain requirements. In Bandol, one of those is the red wine must be at least 50% Mourvèdre and aged 18 months in oak at minimum. This is already an explanation for the huge disparity between taste profiles of natural and controlled wine. The former often has no contact with oak and is generally drunk very young. Is one better than the other? No- dumb premise. The better question is, how can I learn to appreciate what each have to offer?
In this case I’ll remember sharing that bottle of Pibarnon with newly encountered family, eating grilled lamb and merguez sausages with rosemary and garlic, in our house just down the hill from the vineyard and 10 minutes drive to the Mediterranean.
Au Passage was a perfect example of the success that the natural wine movement has had on the city. It’s more of a lifestyle; informal, conscientious, a sensitive collective of earthy people. Earnest enthusiasm aside, how long will it take for this to turn disingenuous?
VIN DE FRANCE (FLEURIE) GAMAY “DAZIBAO,”LILIAN & SOPHIE BAUCHET 2013
100% Gamay from 60 year old vines in Beaujolais. At with small, lighter dishes, including radishes, sweet greens, liver pâté.
DOMAINE VIRET “RENAISSANCE”, PHILIPPE & ALAIN VIRET 2012
Rhône Valley blend of Grenache, Syrah & Mourvèdre. Maceration over 30 days, matures 24 months in concrete tanks. Ate with roast chicken and mustard. Delicious, rich, elegant but totally natural- cosmic, according to Viret. Old school guys who brought amphora to France.
The trip was confirmation of my observations on the changing landscape of wine, culture, fashion, taste…and how it doesn’t change. Some things- most things – are cyclical in the end. The true evolution is yet to be seen, I think.