Rogov's Ramblings: The Wine Bars of Paris

Daniel Rogov

As a young man, I learned that some of the best schools for learning about and enjoying the wines and foods of France were the quaint and cozy bistrots à vin (wine bars) that are found throughout Paris.

That lesson, learned long ago, is still valid. Owned by men, nearly all of whom have a passionate love of wine and who spend much of their free time traveling in the countryside seek-ing the best of the good little wines of France, there may be no better places in which to taste and test all of those wines you have heard or read about but have not yet discovered.

Rarely fancy, invariably with a friendly neighborhood clientele and almost never expensive, most of these places have between 12 and 50 wines that can be tasted by the glass an any given day. You can start off with a young, crisp Beaujolais; go on to a simple, almost unknown wine such as the Syrah from Domaine Barthes in the region of Languedoc; continue with the good Cotes du Rhone that the owner is bragging about; and then finish off with a glass of les Forts de Latour. You can order your wine by the glass, by the half-carafe, the full carafe, the bottle or the magnum but, because the owners of these wine bars buy in bulk, and thus much more cheaply, you will find that your bill will always be surprisingly low.

The wine bars I most enjoy are those that open early in the morn-ing, have an unpretentious neighborhood atmosphere, and feature good food, friendly people and reasonable prices. I especially those wine bars whose owners recognize that wine is meant to be drunk with food, and whose specialties are simple, bistro style dishes that can range from cold plates of cheese or charcuterie especially designed to match the wines that are being offered. My true favorites have no printed menus, and both the wines and the daily culinary offerings are hand-written on blackboards that are hung behind the bar. Those new to the wine-bar scene will do well to remember that almost all of Paris wine bars are closed on Sunday.

With no apologies at all, Le Tartine is definitely my favorite Parisian wine bar. Located in the Marais, which most Parisians consider the true heart of their city, this wine bar is as close as one can come to the realities of what Paris was like during the 1920s and 30s. The old, almost never polished mirrors and woodwork; the marble topped bar; the eighty year old wood refrigerators; and the smell of fresh cheese that invariably fills the air makes this an ideal place for romantics. So truly Parisian is this place that the three young women who work behind the bar are all dressed in black and give the appearance of being eighty year old war widows.

On my last visit, even though several of the tiny tables were free, I chose to stand at the bar where I started off with a glass of young Gamay from the Valais, continued with a glass of Sancere; and went on to a Crozes-Hermitage. With all of this I had first a platter of paper-thin slices of ham served with good Normandy butter and excellent dark country-style bread and then a small whole cheese, a crottin de sancere that the owner buys directly from a small dairy in the countryside.

A close second in my order of priorities is the Bistro des Augustins, one of the few wine bars owned by a woman. On my last visit I arrived just after the owner had locked her doors for the evening. It took a bit of pleading but I succeeded in convincing her that I would be forever heartbroken if she did not let me have a glass of wine with her. The company with whom I shared this tiny wine bar were two young men, both of whom were quietly but intellectually drunk and an eighty year old street-lady who was just as quietly but not at all intellectually drunk.

As I stood at the bar sipping my first glass, of a Grand Cru Julienas, I reflected on the old metal siding on the walls that over the years have had received at least a hundred coats of paint; the absolutely terrible oil paintings on the walls; and the well worn leather banquettes that lined one wall. I also reflected that this was one of the few places in the Latin Quarter where one can escape from the hordes of tourists. By now, two of the owner's friends had come in, and they challenged me to a blind tasting. I easily identified the first wine served as a white Sancerre. The second, a Saint-Amour, was as easy, but the third, which turned out to be a Puligny-Montrachet eluded me. I managed to console myself for my failure by consuming two generous slices of the excellent home-made Tarte-Tatin.

The Wine Bars of Paris

Le Tartine: 24 rue de Rivoli, Paris 4.
Bistro des Augustins, 39 quai des Grands Augustins, Paris 5.

Caves Petrissans, 30 bis Avenue Niel, Paris 17.
In the same family since 1895, this is a place where clochards and millionaires stand side by side at the bar sipping whatever wines that the Petrissan brothers and sisters have just added to their list or tasting the best of the 1985 Bordeaux vintage. Daily offerings such as the rabbit terrine, lamb stew or rabbit with mustard make for great and reasonable priced lunches or dinners. Some say that the place looks run down. They are probably right, but regulars know that this illusion is maintained primarily to keep too many tourists from invading. Directly attached to the bar is a wine store in which you can find some excellent bargains.

Café de la Nouvelle Marie: 19 rue des Fosses St. Jacques, Paris 5.
Not far from the Pantheon and the Luxembourg gardens, and offering just twelve wines daily (many from Chinon, Saumur-Champigny, and Sancerre), this always crowded but always friendly place is a great place to pass a few hours. If you are hungry feast while standing at the bar on the mixed hors d'oeuvres, the carpaccio of duck breast, or the country style pates. (Prices are nearly double if you take a table).

Les Pipus: 2 rue de l'Ecole Polytechnic. Paris 5.
With its old, well worn wooden bar and 1930s atmosphere, this is the kind of wine bar you would expect to find more in a tiny village than in Paris. That should stop nobody from visiting be-cause one of the specialties here are the best of the least known wines of Bordeaux, and the Loire and Rhone valleys. The Alsatian style food (choucroute garni, pork braised in beer, and quiches) are all worth trying and all cost remarkably little.

Jacques Melac, 42 rue Leon-Front, Paris 11.
Not far from Place de la Bastille, this intimate and lively wine bar specializes in wines from Chinon, Beaujolais, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, Vouvrey and Beajolais. Wine is taken so seriously here that a sign on one wall tells you that "If you want water, you must place your order one day in advance". Lunch time is very crowded here, but you can almost always get a place alongside the bar, there to enjoy either the cold meats or cheeses (try especially the bleu des Causses and the Saint- Nectaire) for which the place is renowned.

Willi's Wine Bar, 13 rue des Petites-Champs, Paris 1.
More expensive than most, largely because it attracts the yuppies of Paris and many visiting tourists, but worth visiting anyhow, this bright, airy place serves great wines and excellent foods. On my own last visit, I sampled four different Hermitage wines, two excellent Julianas, and three really interesting white wines from Chateauneuf du Pape. Food is somewhat expensive here, but if you're on a budget, don't hesitate to order the mixed plate of cold meats and cheeses which will be served with what may be the most delicious bread in all of Paris.

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