Bio-organic, vin du naturel, shizenha, hipster juice – whatever the epithet – like them or not, natural wine is here to stay. There has been much media fanfare surrounding the bevy of new natural wine bistros that have sprung up around the city; most notably Ahiru Store, Beard, Standing Bar Waltz, and – my local – Le Verre Vole. But this boom may didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor did it happen overnight. It was the result of pioneers like wine importer Francois Dumas and Shinsaku Katsuyama, a renowned restauranteur and bon vivant, whose passion and forethought broke open the market and brought this previously undervalued genre to the Japanese public’s attention. In fact, if it weren’t for the efforts of these early Japanese enthusiasts some of the labels we enjoy today wouldn’t be on the market. In the early 90′s, when natural winemakers were struggling to find a market for their wine in France, it was Japanese wine buyers who came to the rescue, buying up to 80% of some of wineries stock, thereby establishing Japan as the biggest importer of natural wine in the world and saving cash strapped winemakers from certain financial ruin. It would seem that the significance of these early vanguards is not lost on the new generation of bistro du vin owners. When I asked Le Verre Vole’s Ryo-san where he choses to dine out on one of his rare nights off, the answer was emphatic: Shonzui – a Roppongi institution run by the aforementioned Katsuyama-san.
Established in 1993, on the ‘right’ side of Roppongi (away from the sleazy strip clubs and gaijin watering holes of Gaienmai-dori), Shonzui has long held a reputation for its excellent wine selection and hearty bistro fare. In days of old, Katsuyama-san, whose unassuming and jovial character belies this incredible wine knowledge, worked the floor as both host and sommelier, serving rustic dishes inspired from his his extensive travels throughout the wine regions of France. These days he has handed these duties over to a young talented team, so he can devote time to his new Chinese BBQ venture, “Lucky”, promoting natural wine through his Festivin project, and pursuing his other great love, jazz. On a chilly spring evening, Ryo-san rallied the troops for an evening at his favourite dining room. We were a curious multi-national and multi-generational coterie, comprised of la families Le Verre Vole (including the angelic, 9 month old, Anjou) the babes of Standing Bar Waltz (wife and newborn – sadly Papa had to work), two Frenchmen, a Norwegian, and yours truly. We were warmly greeted by the dapper maitre d’, Tsubo-san, and immediately treated to a bottle of wine to kick off our festivities. Complements of the house: a bottle of Gilles et Catherine Verge’s Pétillant Naturel Bulle à Zéro, from Viré, in the Mâconnais district of southern Burgundy. The vividly yellow appearance and slightly oxidised apple aromas of this semi-sparkling chardonnay were more reminiscent of a Jura-style than something I would associate with the south of Burgundy. I was later to learn that the Verges, who only make san soufre wine due to sulphur allergies, lift the lids of the vats during the vinification process to encourage oxidisation and to allow nutty flavours and cider aromas to develop. Is it me, or do the bourgeoisie seem to have terribly delicate systems these days? All cynicism aside, the zesty lemon honey and limestone flavours combined with a soft effervescency made it a pleasant enough start to the night. The blackboard menu lists an array of simple, unpretentious and unabashedly meat-driven bistrot fare. But in all my visits I’ve never ordered from it. Instead, I seek inspiration from the counter, where a selection of proteins stand resplendent: whole Bresse chickens trussed and ready for roasting, enormous steaks of aged wagyu, and, on this evening, a huge cross section of kajiki-maguro (swordfish) – a welcome sight to someone with pescatarian tendencies. After preferences were sort, we sat back and relaxed as the kitchen went about plying us with plate after heaping plate of flavoursome rustic food. First up, “The Boucherie’s Plate”. Amongst the charcuterie assortment: roast pork, parma ham, roast pigeon hearts, terrine de campagne, cornichons, and pork rilette, which we liberally heaped onto crusty slices of freshly baked campagne bread. Les Vieilles Vignes des Blanderies 2006, a beautifully composed Chenin Blanc from Domaine Mark Angeli, in Anjou. Like the Verges, Angeli has demoted all of his wine to the humble ‘Vin de Table’ status in protest to the appellation’s rigid regulations and refusal to reduce the use of pesticides in the region. In fact, this became an emerging theme throughout the night. The kajiki-maguro appeared table-side in the form of a protein-packed salad made with rocket and home cured sardines. It was as generous in flavour as it was in proportion. Our lively conversation was briefly interrupted when a pot of live lobster was brought to the table for our inspection. Would this be to our liking? Indeed it would! Quickly dispatched by the chef, the lobster, along with two of its friends, returned grilled with a liberal saucing of herb butter. But where were the claws? They arrived atop a wickedly rich and decadent dish of oven roasted potato gratin. Swoon! Another Chenin, and yet another Vin de Table: Domaine Griottes’ Epona, from Lambert du Lattay, in the Loire. Made by Patrick Desplats and Sebastien Dervieux, two wild and wooly rebels of the natural wine movement, who espouse an ultra-traditionalist non-intervention method; no SO2 or additives, and wild yeast fermentation. The Epona charmed with its subtle bouquet and fresh, mineral taste. A nice counterbalance to the rich creaminess of the lobster gratin. An old friend from the North: Domaine Gérard Schueller. Somewhat of a firebrand, Bruno Schueller’s winemaking philosophy is based on bio-dynamics, but his idiosyncratic style and aversion to regulations, particularly those of the INAO, mean that his wine seems to defy easy classification. His minimal intervention approach; using only a tiny amount of SO2 at bottling, as well as lengthy fermentation & maturation periods results in vivid, lively wine with nice balance & depth. I’ve also noticed a bit of bottle variation – possibly due to poor storage conditions post-dispatch from the winery.
Having enjoyed the Gewurtztraminer & Riesling from Schueller in the past, I was interested to try the Pinot Noir. Pale ruby in hue, with an abundance of fresh raspberry & rhubarb aromas. Slightly petillant with bright acidity and a distinct minerality – this is a great quaffing wine for a summer bbq… but sadly, lacked the body & structure to stand up to our hearty steak dinner. Holy wagyu! We were presented with two strapping sirloin cuts of aged Yamagata-gyu, each weighing around 900 grams. The red meat deprived Norwegian literally started purring at this stage. La vache! Two heaving boards of perfectly rendered sirloin, cooked to the rare side of medium-rare, with simple accompaniments of duck fat roasted potatoes and dressed leaves. A reverent hush fell across our table as members savoured the pleasure of each flavour-releasing chew. From all accounts it was a succulent flavour-bomb of well cooked cow. The mothers and babes bid us farewell, and with their departure the games began – Tsubo-san acting as our incorrigible enabler. Sensing our desire for something more robust, Tsubo-san appeared with a selection of more hearty varietals. After giving a detailed and eloquent description of each wine, a clear winner emerged… Les Baltailles! This san soufre gamay, from the Beaujolis vineyard Domaine Phillipe Jambon, was an absolute stunner: rich and intense with dried fruit, bitter chocolate and umami flavours. In this instance its ‘vin de table’ moniker works well, because has it been labelled ‘Beaujolais’ one might have expected something much lighter and less structured in the glass. As with namazake, I find that when you drink natural wine the aroma and flavour are masked by the haze of it’s fresh unpasteurised character. I register that it’s a natural wine, rather than get any sense of terroir or grape. Not so with this 2008 Domaine Léon Barral Faugères Valinière. Clean and well balanced on the nose, with plum, dark berry and pleasant mineral notes. The flavour was a revelation. Made with 80% Mourvedre and 20% Syrah, and aged two years in barrel, it was full and lush on the palate, with nicely integrated tannins and acidity. The clarity and precision of this wine are a testament to the craftsmanship of Didier Barral, a biodynamic vintner, who eschews the use of sulphur, filtering and fining. Definitely worth seeking out. As the evening progressed, and more bottles were produced, the bacchanalia increased and soon the line between patrons and staff blurred. We took the ‘cheese course’ standing at the bar, the chef shaving slices of aged comte onto our hands in between slugs from his wine glass. Some Roquefort appeared and immediately disappeared, along with bowls of Shizuoka strawberries macerated in balsamic vinegar. And on and on the wine kept following… At 2am, red-cheeked and full-bellied, we reluctantly bid adieu to our generous hosts. It had been an evening of good honest food, vivid wine and exceptional hospitality – a night with good friends that will be indelibly etched in my memory.
At some point during the festivities, a marker had been produced and a drunken message was scrawled amongst the tributes on the wall. “Forget Michelin,” someone had written in wobbly cursive script, “this is the real star dining experience.” Someone may have been seriously sloshed, but as the saying goes, “In vino veritas!”
UPDATE: Sadly, Tsubo-san has departed from Shonzui. You will find him at Le Cabaret, working the floor with his usual charm.