Category Archives: Natural wine

Posts about natural wine specialist restaurants in Tokyo, written by Rebekah Wilson-Lye for Ichi for the Michi.

Shonzui 祥瑞 – Raising the (Natural) Wine Bar

Bio-organic, vin du naturel, shizenha, hipster juice – whatever the epithet – like them or not, natural wine is here to stay. IMG_6640 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. IMG_7736 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. festivin2012_0823_MwebThese 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. Shonzui interior 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. IMG_7689 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. Kajiki maguroThe 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. IMG_7690First 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. IMG_7710Les 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. Kajiki saladThe 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. IMG_7723Our 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! Lobster 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? Lobster gratinThey arrived atop a wickedly rich and decadent dish of oven roasted potato gratin. Swoon! EponaAnother 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. IMG_3865   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. WagyuHoly 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. Steak Frites Steak Frites 2 IMG_7735La 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. Tsubo-san 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 Balatilles 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. 2008 Domaine Léon Barral Faugères Valinière 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. Bacchanalia 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… IMG_3867 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.

 SHONZUI 

03-3405-7478

Tokyo Natural Wine Bistrot: Le Verre Volé à Tokyo, Meguro – ル ヴェール ヴォレ ア 東京、目黒

Still reeling from Paris-syndrome? Well fear not, a little slice of the 10th arrondissement can now be found in the safe confines of Tokyo’s 23 wards. A brisk 10 minute walk from both Meguro and Fudomae stations, Le Verre Volé à Tokyo is located a little off the culinary map, on Meguro-dori – an area more commonly associated with uber-chic design stores than dining options.

Despite the frigid December weather, on the night we visited, it was bustling with patrons. Obviously word has gotten out about the good food, great wine selection and amiable service of this newly opened eatery. (The dim lighting and full capacity meant it was difficult to take interior shots, so here are some I pinched from the designer’s website)

If this tiny wine bistrot looks like it has been transplanted from the streets of Paris, that’s because it has. The original Le Verre Volé, is a thriving wine shop/restaurant hybrid in a hip neighbourhood near Canal St. Martin. Set up in collaboration with the owners and a French designer, Ryotaro Miyauchi, has created a store which is Boho-Parissenne in both taste and aesthetic.

The speciality here is natural wine, thoughtfully selected from France’s major wine areas, as well as some small producers from far-flung corners of the country. The walls of the narrow space are lined with a diverse range of bottles for purchase, as well as blackboard menus which list a few varieties by the glass. Bottles start from ¥3,500, and staff are more than willing to help guide you through the selection process.

We snuggled into our seats at the copper-topped counter, and promptly ordered a glass of ‘Welcome Abroad’, from Domaine Mosse; a small natural winery situated in the heart of the Loire Valley’s Coteaux du Layon appellation. This fragrant, biodynamic Chenin Blanc was initially quite sweet on the palate, but was balanced out by the nice clip of acidity and dry finish. A rich and dangerously drinkable wine.

The menu offers a small selection of entrees and plats of simple French bistro fare, made with local organic produce. As my companion and I had constitutions which were suffering the effects of the bonenkai season, we ordered gingerly.

We started with light, though fairly pedestrian, plate of smoked salmon marinade.

My dinner date became quite animated upon tasting the baguette, declaring it to be as good as the bread she gets from her local Denen-Chofu bakery, Bigot, which we were to discover was exactly where it hailed from.

A pretty plate of hirame (flounder), red daikon and coriander ceviche. The fish was deliciously tender, and a light marinade ensured that its delicate flavour was not overwhelmed.

The slightly reductive nose on Domaine Valette’s MâconVillages 2010 Chardonnay, told me that this was indeed a sans soufre (no added sulphur) natural wine. As I haven’t had the best of luck with non-sulphur wines I was immediately apprehensive. However, my trepidation eased upon tasting its well-balanced, subtle fruit flavour. 
In comparison, the Touraine ‘Le Brin de Chèvre’, Clos de Tue Boeuf, made from the local Menu Pineau grape, was much more aromatic and vibrant. While a little short in the finish, it was a pleasant wine to match with seafood.

After a couple of wines, our resolve to only order entrees melted. Who were we kidding? Christmas isn’t a time for austerity.
From the plats menu: Tara (cod) poêle with bio-organic vegetables and an ume beurre blanc. The fish was moist and flaky, but could have done with some citrus to counteract the intense buttery sauce.

The boudin noir (pork blood sausage – here it is served in a terrine shape) is a popular dish on the Paris bistro’s menu, and judging by the number of plates of it that I saw whizzing out of the kitchen, it’s being enthusiastically received by Tokyo diners, too.

The richness of the mains had done us in, so dessert was off the cards. Instead, we decided to get our calories in liquid form, with a glass of Domaine Mosse Anjou: a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon & Cabernet Franc. It had a wonderful dark berry aroma, and a rich and yet fresh flavour which was supported by a fine tannic structure. An expressive and approachable wine.

Apart from the Domaine Valette, all of the wines we tried that evening listed the addition of sulphur on their labels – something I am sure vin au naturel purists would sniff their noses at in contempt. Intrigued, I asked Miyauchi-san about his personal philosophy towards natural wine. The upshot of our conversation was that his selection process is based solely on taste and quality, not methodology. Some of the wines he stocks are unadulterated san soufre, some are biodynamic and loaded with sulphites, others are somewhere on the spectrum between the two, but all taste good in the glass. This pragmatic approach may have a lot to do with the fact that he spent time working at Domaine Mosse (and also explains why its wines feature prominently on the menu), whose philosophy involves natural fermentation with minimal intervention, along with sparing use of sulphur to avoid the excessive oxidation that is so prevalent in most natural wines. I only wish more natural wine sommeliers adhered to the concept of taste over ideology – it would certainly take the Russian Roulette anxiety out of ordering.

Throughout the evening, service was courteous and professional – none of that infamous brusque French attitude here. As the tables cleared and customers thinned out, I was able to chat with the staff about our favourite places to dine out in the City of Lights. I was delighted to discover that the head waiter had worked in the kitchens of some of Paris’ most lauded bistros: Chez Michel, Les Cocotte and – my personal favourite – Chez L’Ami Jean. Why his experience isn’t being utilised in the kitchen beggars belief! Mottainai, to be sure, but at least it gives you a measure of the talent on offer here. 

Le Verre Volé à Tokyo is the ideal venue for a leisurely boozy meal of small plates and interesting wines. And as the New Year dawns, I have made a resolution to return – in fact, I’ve re-booked already.

Le Verre Volé à Tokyo
03-3713-7505

Tokyo Food & Natural Wine: Ahiru Store, Yoyogi-Koen – アヒルストア、代々木公園


Although it opened in 2008, I only came across Ahiru Store last year, when I made note of its strong ranking on tabelog during one of my regular late night trolls for inspiration. A few days later, it was splashed all over the pages of Brutus magazine’s wine bar edition and,  needless to say, as soon as Ahiru Store was given that local style barometer’s seal of approval, seats (and even standing room) at the tiny bistro were immediately among the most coveted in town.

One year on and the buzz shows no sign of abating. From the moment it opens at 5pm till the last orders are called there is a constant line of customers patiently queued outside Ahiru’s door. 


Standing in line on a small backstreet in Yoyogi-Koen, your appetite is teased by the heavenly aromas of roasting meats & herbs that emanate from the small kitchen and a tempting window display of freshly baked breads – it can be a torturous wait. But persevere and the pay off is some seriously good eats.


If you are lucky you can snag a stool at the counter, otherwise you will have to make do with space around one of the wine barrels that double as tables for standing patrons. 

 
Owner and sommelier, Teruhiko Saito, is a busy man. He spends the entire evening in a state of constant motion: turning over tables, taking orders and preparing appetisers. He also runs a tight ship, so be prepared to order your drinks straight away. You can choose from the selection of bottles (mostly French) displayed on the wall, or from the daily selection of four red and white options by the glass (¥800). Although he is a harried man, Saito-san is generous in giving descriptions and helping customers make selections from his vast selection of shizenha (natural) wines; a genre is he obviously passionate about.
 

‘Natural’ has usurped organic and biodynamic to become the latest buzzword in wine.  But what does it actually mean?
 
Well, there is no official definition of natural wine, but essentially its organic or biodynamic wine made with minimal intervention: no additives or tricks of technology. In other words, natural wine eschews commercial yeasts, preservatives and (in France) sugar – yes, it’s considered a chemical in the natural viticulture world. The result is a naturally fermented ‘naked’ wine, low in sulphur, and, as it is made in small quantities from single vineyards, it is said to better capture the characteristics of the terroir and grape.

 
Hipsters, who love to fetishise the authentic, have been quick to champion the natural wine movement for its old school techniques and anti-establishment ethos. In fact, they will probably delight in telling you that they were drinking it ‘before it was cool’…groan! But its popularity can’t just be attributed to Williamsburg residents and the wearers of ironic spectacles alone; for equally ‘on trend’ individuals and restaurants that adhere to a foraging, slow food philosophy, natural wine has been fervently received as the logical accompaniment to farm-to-table cuisine. 
 
 
Japan has become one of the most enthusiastic importers of natural wines (some French makers saying that it accounts for more than 50% of their exports), which is hardly surprising given the public’s concern about the origin and purity of food in the wake of last year’s Tohoku disasters. Another practical reason for its popularity here is that the Japanese have a hard time metabolising alcohol, so the low sulphur levels in make it an ideal choice for their constitution. A cynic like me would also add that it could also due to Japanese consumers susceptibility to aggressive marketing (the annual Beaujolais Nouveau mania being case in point) and a cultural tendency to equate purity with quality.

Natural wine has been heralded by some as the future of viticulture, and dismissed by others as ‘faddish, fault-indulgent hippie juice’, with Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker going one step further by declaring it “one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers”. It’s hard to disagree with the philosophy and ethics behind the genre, so why does this wine have aficionados so staunchly divided, and more importantly, how does it taste? Well, that’s exactly what I came to Ahiru Store to find out.
 


Intrigued by his description of apples and calvados, I ordered La Treille Muscate’s Vendange Tardive 2008, from the Haute Corbieres area of Languedoc-Roussillion – a blend of macabeu & pinot gris. The wine had a peachy hue, with the taste of over-ripe apples and honeycomb, marred by musty sherry notes and a staleness that I would describe as oxidised. It would seem that Saito-san’s description of calvados was a literal one, as it definitely tasted like a fortified wine – albeit one that had been filtered through an old Gallic sock. Why this was being recommended at the onset of a meal was beyond me. Not a great start to the evening.

On a brighter note the food here is excellent. Saito-san’s sister, Wakako, is at the helm in the kitchen, preparing rustic, home-style French fare with aplomb. 

We started with a basket of their in-house baked breads: potato & rosemary focaccia and a moreish wedge of the onion pain de campagne. Both were outstanding. I should mention that you don’t have to dine-in to sample their selection – it can be bought from the door as take-out.

 

The bread was also put to good use mopping up this simple preparation of haricot beans cooked in olive oil with sage, and a sprinkling of smoked paprika.

A salad of avocado and octopus with a wasabi infused olive oil and garlic dressing. Generously portioned and delicious. 

I still have cravings for the parmesan and sesame studded grissini, which come tied with ribbons of prosciutto ham. Devilishly addictive. 

After requesting something a little dryer, I was served a glass of Cheverny “Les Perrieres” 2011, by Christian Venier. As soon as I put the glass to my nose, I was hit by the pungent smell of wet stone and tarragon vinegar. My first sip only served to confirm my initial suspicion – the wine was spoiled, acetic and all together unpleasant. I didn’t know whether to send it back or toss it over my salad. Of course, I couldn’t send it back as this is how it was suppose to taste; its fermented in a tank with a loose seal to encourage oxidation which, when properly managed, creates umami characteristics – or vinegar, when it’s not.

Down but not out, I ordered a glass of the Cheverny La Pierre aux Chiens, again by Christian Venier (pictured above, next to the La Treille Muscate). It is worth noting that all of the wines at Ahiru Store are served chilled – even the reds – due to their unstable nature and propensity to spoil. It was a smart, light-weight pinot with the flavour of cherry, cranberry and a touch of earthiness. While quite drinkable, it was a little too light in my opinion – more like a grape juice than pinot noir. By this stage I felt like asking, “Can I please have a wine that tastes like wine?

 
I sort solace in a delicious plate of sanma confit. Its slow cooking in oil had rendered the meat meltingly soft, and I greedily devoured it, head, bones, tail and all. 
 

Everything at Ahiru Store is produced in-house, from the pickles to the tasty selection of sausages which Saito-san grinds and stuffs himself. As I don’t eat meat, it was up to my companion to ‘take one for the team’ with a hearty plate of pork and shallot sausage with potato salad. They then proceeded to ignore me as they were transported to piggy heaven. I was informed that it was as substantial in taste as it was proportion.


A subsequent visit resulted in much better luck with the wine. This 2010 Domaine Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé, from Tracy-sur-Loire, had pleasant ripe grape and pear aromas, with a fuller body than one would expect from a sauvignon blanc. It was refreshing with a nice balance of acidity – very drinkable.  

 

There was an audible ‘pop’ on opening of the Vin d’Alsace Laurent Bannwarth Riesling 2010 (second from the left), which indicated this wine was very much ‘alive’. It had a herbaceous nose which opened up to reveal some flinty notes and a touch of calpis (???). The taste was of bright fruit, with a lively yoghurty tang. An unusual expression of riesling, but an interesting one none the less. 

This La Lunotte Haut Plessis, made with a rare Loire grape called Menu Pineau, was a bottle of liquid sunshine. Slighty cloudy in appearance, with aromas of citrus and, err.. sauerkraut. It was light and dry with vibrant acidity that made me wake up and take notice. Something worth revisiting in the hot summer months.

It was the night before a public holiday and, as last orders were called, Saito-san dimmed the lights, turned up the Kraftwerk and popped some bubbles – he clearly had recreation on his mind. Domaine Andre et Mireille Tissot’s 100% chardonnay sparkling Cremant du Jura was fresh and crisp with a complex texture, cut through with a slight acidity and layers of mineral notes. A little more savoury than I like my bubbles, but quite enjoyable.

I applaud the ‘less-is-more’ debate that the natural movement has instigated in the greater wine industry, and believe that a shift backwards, to less chemical intervention and more conscious production, will ultimately be a step forward. Over the past few months, I’ve had some ‘ahh’ moments: well crafted, vibrant wines, such as the Domaine Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé, have definitely opened my eyes to the enormous potential of the natural genre. However, what is stopping me from jumping on the natural wine bandwagon is that when they are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are atrocious! A disproportionate number of the wines I’ve tasted were funky (in a bad way), overly acidic and unpleasantly weird. Rather than being pure expression of the terroir, these wines would best be described as micro-bacterial disasters – a result of natural wine makers focusing too dogmatically on the process, and not enough on the quality of the end result, perhaps? So for now, I remain firmly on the vineyard fence.
 
What I am sure of, however, is that Ahiru Store deserves all of the accolades that have been bestowed upon it. It’s a lovely neigbourhood bistro, serving well prepared, produce-driven food at reasonable prices. I love the buzz the informality here. 
 
So regardless of where you stand on the ‘natural vs. conventional’ spectrum, if you approach the wine with an open mind, you will walk away from an evening at Ahiru Store delighted.  
 
NB: Reservations can be made for no later than 6:30pm. 
 
03-5454-2146