The Pour: A New Restaurant, Frenchette, Stands Up for Natural Wines


Many of the 300 bottles or so on the list may indeed be distinctive and excellent, but they are also relentlessly obscure, with characteristics that some people may find surprising, and occasionally even appalling.

Rather than lard the list with expensive wines, as so many high-end restaurants do, Frenchette has devoted much of its lineup to the extremely reasonable $50- to $85-a-bottle range. That is still a lot to pay for wine, perhaps, but well below the Manhattan destination-restaurant norm, in which the wine list is often used as a cash cow to subsidize other parts of the operation.

In short, it’s a challenging list that may annoy some people who want recognizable names, yet is also brilliant. Mr. Riera, the wine director who came to Frenchette from Contra and Wildair, has built a list full of wonderful discoveries, great values and the sort of direct, unmediated experiences that characterize natural wines at their best. Almost all the wines are low in alcohol as well, 13 percent or less, and they go very well with the cuisine.

But Mr. Riera will have a lot of explaining to do, introducing producers and regions that will largely be unknown to people, no matter how well versed they may be in Burgundy, Barolo or Napa Valley.

“I did that on purpose,” Mr. Riera said. “It’s meant to stimulate a conversation about wine and go from there.”

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Lee Hanson, one of the owners of Frenchette, said he would rather see his patrons progress from a cocktail to “maybe a couple of $50 bottles rather than one $200 power bomb.”

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An Rong Xu for The New York Times

The idea, he said, is to eliminate preconceptions that people may have about how a wine ought to taste, creating the potential for discovery and surprise.

“It’s the same thing I did at Wildair and Contra,” he said. “I was able to delve deeper in this list, expand in areas where I couldn’t before due to size and budget restrictions.”

It’s an idealistic notion. When you don’t know exactly what to expect from a wine, you can experience it at an exhilarating level of intensity.

It reminds me a bit of dining at one of the temples of molecular gastronomy, like the now departed WD-50, where the chef Wylie Dufresne famously served an oyster flattened into something resembling a marble tile. To eat it was like mystery evolving into delight, as flavors long taken for granted were rediscovered, as if for the first time.

“We’ve worked with Jorge before, and we’ve been big fans of his as a natural wine Yoda,” Mr. Hanson said. “Personally, my best wine experiences are just sitting with him and drinking whatever he’s pouring.”

Mr. Nasr and Mr. Riera go back almost 30 years, to the late ’80s when they both worked at Park Bistro, a French restaurant on Park Avenue South that has long since closed. They went on in 1997 to open Balthazar, Keith McNally’s signature downtown restaurant. There, Mr. Riera was introduced to natural wines by Jonathan Nossiter, the sommelier, who went on to a career as a filmmaker and author.

Mr. Riera has become a key force in New York since then, promoting natural wines and building an audience for them, first at 360, an influential though brief-lived restaurant in Red Hook, Brooklyn, then at the Ten Bells, the Lower East Side wine bar, before moving on to Contra and Wildair.

Natural wines are no longer the furtive property of an insurgent group, as they were 15 years ago, when you essentially had to know the secret handshake to find them. Restaurants on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn and wine bars like the Ten Bells and Four Horsemen have built entire identities around natural wines. Eater.com has even published a map showing where you can drink them.

Acclaimed restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen and Joe Beef in Montreal have emphasized natural wines. But rarely, and never in Manhattan, has a restaurant as seemingly mainstream as Frenchette taken such a forthright, unequivocal stand in their favor.

For years, these wines have represented an easy button to push for anyone wanting to ignite a skirmish in the wine culture wars. Back in 2012, Steve Cuozzo, the restaurant critic at The New York Post, wrote a tirade assailing the restaurant Reynard, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for its list focused on obscure natural wines, of which, he said, he recognized not a single bottle.

That same year, mainstream wine critics were arguing that natural wines were foisting a scam on consumers. Nonetheless, the influence and importance of natural wines have grown as some of its favored genres, like pétillant naturel, have become, if not exactly mainstream, at least not uncommon.

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Much of the Frenchette wine list includes bottles in the $50 to $85 range, with characteristics that some people may find surprising, and occasionally even appalling.

Credit
An Rong Xu for The New York Times

For Frenchette, the decision to focus on natural wines had little to do with marketing or the bottom line, its principals say, and all to do with food and atmosphere.

“If we’re going to cook traditional food, slightly more contemporary, lightened up just a touch, it would pair better with a more contemporary, which is really to say a more ancient, approach to winemaking,” Mr. Nasr said. “I think it makes sense, and maybe people can get on board with a sense of discovery. It’s supposed to be fun and provocative to a degree, but in a pleasurable way.”

In both the food and the wine, Mr. Nasr said, the intent was to create a feeling of lightness: slightly smaller portions, clarity and precision, that will not leave guests waking up the next morning feeling hung over from either the food or the wine.

As for the prices, Mr. Nasr said it was a conscious decision to rein them in, particularly for the wine.

“We’re not building a trophy restaurant,” he said. “I’ve been a cook pretty much my whole life, and $200 bottles are not something I really purchase.”

Mr. Hanson said the selection of less expensive, lower-alcohol wines encourages a progression over the course of a meal, “a cocktail, maybe a couple of $50 bottles rather than one $200 power bomb.”

One area where diners can splurge if they choose is Champagne, where critically acclaimed producers like Vouette & Sorbée and Ulysse Collin happen to work naturally. You can drink a naturally made Cornas from Hirotake Ooka that is a lesson in clarity and purity, or a deliciously deep though obviously unfiltered St.-Aubin from Julien Altabar’s Domaine Sextant.

But more often, Mr. Riera has selected producers who, whether because of an independent streak or because their wines don’t conform to a perceived norm, work outside the appellation system. On this list, Cornas and St.-Aubin are the exceptions to the more frequent Vins de France, a catchall category that has gained credibility as more producers have come to rely on the reputation of their own names rather than their regions. He also has more wines from Auvergne, a mountainous region in central France not known for viticulture, than I have ever seen anywhere.

Likewise, outside France, Mr. Riera has chosen to work with small, little-known appellations rather than prestigious ones: Conca de Barberà in Spain rather than Rioja, grignolino and ruché from the Piedmont region of Italy rather than Barolo. And you can find an excellent range of eastern European natural wines, like Strekov 1075 of Slovakia, which makes Rozália, a superb, refreshing rosé pétillant naturel.

“They’re all family farms, working by hand, no herbicides or pesticides, low yields, minimal sulfur or none,” Mr. Riera said. “Farming is the most important thing, and I think what the vines produce, beautiful, positive mineral energy. It’s just a nutritious drink, the way wine should be.”

In a small grace note, Arnaud Erhart, the proprietor of the influential 360 restaurant, is working the floor at Frenchette. He closed 360 in 2007 and, with his wife, Tania Puell, moved to Vieques, P.R., to run a diving business. Vieques was badly hit by Hurricane Maria last year, and the area is still recovering. So Mr. Erhart, who said he still has to pay his bills there, will be at Frenchette for the foreseeable future.

It’s a long way from Red Hook for Mr. Erhart and for natural wines.

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Correction: April 19, 2018

An earlier version of this article misidentified a wine region in Spain. It is Conca de Barberà, not Concer de Barbera.

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Wine School: Ideal Ripeness Varies by Opinion, Not by the Moment


These were the three Rosso di Montalcinos: La Torre, Le Potazzine and Lisini.

Each wine, as is required of all Rossos and Brunellos di Montalcino, was made entirely of the sangiovese grape. At times this rule has caused frustration among some Montalcino producers, who 20 years ago were seeking to soften sangiovese’s naturally high acidity, darken its characteristically ruby color and relax its often angular austerity by adding international grapes like merlot, syrah or cabernet sauvignon.

Those efforts outside the rules came crashing down in scandal in 2008. Since then, Montalcino producers have, outwardly at least, reconciled themselves to the sangiovese rule and have turned to legal, if not always palatable, methods to achieve their aims.

Among those methods, they might age the wine in small barrels of new oak, which can intensify the color. Frankly, I’ve never understood the fixation with dark colors in red wine. Some of the greatest Burgundy, Barolo and sangiovese-based wines are fairly pale.

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From left, La Torre Rosso di Montalcino 2015, Le Potazzine Rosso Di Montalcino 2015 and Lisini Rosso di Montalcino 2015.

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Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

You would think that producers would aim for pale rather than dark. But they have heard from consultants that consumers prefer darker reds. The nonsense apparently flows in both directions.

Producers might also try to address some of their concerns in the vineyard, through how they manage the canopy of leaves, which can be arranged not only to allow a steady movement of air, reducing susceptibility to diseases, but also to shade grapes from the sun or to permit more direct sunlight, affecting the rate at which the grapes ripen. They can vary the yield of the vines, through pruning or thinning grape bunches, which can ultimately achieve greater or lesser intensity in the wines. And they can manipulate aromas, flavors and textures simply by deciding when to pick the grapes.

I’m happy to say that I do not think that any of these three producers is troubled by the natural characteristics of sangiovese, one of the world’s great grapes. Each of these wines showed ample evidence of sangiovese’s vibrant acidity. They were also naturally tannic, meaning that they demonstrated the true tannins of the grape rather than the bitter tannins that can be imparted by new oak barrels. And they showed the true flavors and character of sangiovese, unmitigated by new oak.

But each bottle seemed to adhere to a different definition of ripeness. It seemed to me, judging strictly by the wine, that the Rosso from La Torre had been picked the earliest. Its dominant characteristics were freshness and purity of aromas and flavors.

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Credit
Serge Bloch

I loved its liveliness, its dusty, earthy red fruit flavors with a touch of minerality and bitterness. In current wine parlance, sommeliers might refer to this wine as “crunchy,” like biting into a juicy apple in which the sweetness and the acidity were precisely balanced.

At the other end of this admittedly narrow spectrum, the Lisini Rosso seems much riper. The fruit is a little bit sweeter, as if you are not biting into a piece of fresh fruit but maybe dipping into some compote. It’s also more tannic, as if the juice of the freshly crushed grapes had macerated longer with the tannin-bearing skins, or perhaps the grape skins were a bit thicker and contained more tannic compounds.

I would not call these grapes overripe by any means. Wines made from overripe grapes would be overtly jammy, with less acidity. They can feel thick, give an impression of sweetness and lack zest. Some people enjoy them, but not me.

The Rosso from Le Potazzine seemed to stake out a middle ground. It offered the acid snap of the La Torre but was even more tannic than the Lisini. The fruit was not sweet, but the flavors seemed darker, with almost a licorice tinge.

All of these wines improved with food, fettuccine Bolognese, but Le Potazzine really blossomed, melding beautifully with the rich, meaty sauce.

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Credit
Serge Bloch

Rosso, as I said, is the younger sibling of Brunello di Montalcino. What’s the difference?

Brunello is aged longer, for one thing, four years before it can be released, of which a minimum of two must be in casks. Rosso need only be aged one year before release.

reader perspectives

Eric Asimov, The New York Times
wine critic, is talking about
Rosso di Montalcino this month.
If you would like to join the conversation,
try one of the bottles listed here and as you try them, ask yourself these questions.

Oak

These are generally aged in oak barrels. Do they smell or taste oaky?

Vibrancy

Sangiovese is a naturally acidic grape. Can you sense the acidity?

Food

How does it go with your meal?

respond

Producers often choose to use the fruit from younger vines or from lesser sites in their Rosso, or grapes that simply did not fit into the blend of their Brunello.

Though marketers often try to capitalize on the fame of Brunello by referring to Rossos as “Baby Brunellos,” it’s better to accept Rossos on their own terms. They are lighter, fresher, more easygoing wines, more accessible without aging, though some will evolve and improve over the years. They generally do not require contemplation, and what’s wrong with that? Deliciousness is its own reward.

I have noticed among some consumers a tendency to dismiss Montalcino wines in general as somehow not being authentic enough, much in the same way that many have sneered at Bordeaux. Please. Like any wine region in the world, Montalcino has its share of poseurs, manipulators and fabricators. But the good wines are beautiful and should not be missed.

Readers seemed to enjoy these wines, although several remembered days when they cost $10, not $30. Of course, we could have that conversation about a lot of wines. One reader, VSB in San Francisco, who drank the 2015 La Torre, seemed surprised about one thing, though.

“Oddly, tasted better with the food than by itself,” he said.

Welcome to Italy, where wine is especially constructed to go with food. On their own, most traditionally made Italian reds can taste acidic, tannic and bitter without food. They are meant for the table, not as cocktails or aperitifs. In Italy, that’s what sparkling wine is for.

While I seized on these three wines for the opportunity they offered to talk about ripeness, other factors also play a role. Soils will influence the flavors; those grapes coming from heavier clay sites will be fruitier and denser, while those from sites with more limestone may be more aromatic and less fruity. The altitude of the vineyard plays a role, as does luck.

By that I mean that some things are out of a grower’s control. A crew of grape pickers might not be available at the moment a grower wants to harvest. That unexpected delay can result in riper grapes than envisioned.

But the most important factor is intent. Each of these wines, I believed, represented the intent of the producer, and each differed. So when you hear the next marketer crowing about the “perfect ripeness” of the grapes, simply know that the marketers should add a clause to their claim: “in our opinion.”

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Wealth Matters: Want to Keep Your Wine Collection Safe? Store It in a Bomb Shelter


In the realm of high-end wine collecting, storage is crucial, however mundane that might sound. How people store their wine can ensure it maintains its value. Where they store it brings peace of mind, whether it is in a vault high above the ground or a bomb shelter below it.

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A test bottle used to monitor temperature at Mana Wine Storage.

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Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

“We’re basically providing the optimal environment for the wine,” said Avner Schneur, president and chief executive of GRM Document Management, which owns Mana Wine Storage. “We’re providing the capability to monitor it.”

During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, he noted, personal cellars and several storage facilities were flooded. “Our warehouse is above the ground, so we don’t have the flood risk,” he said.

To people who keep only a few bottles of wine around the house, such focus on storage may seem strange. But collectors take it seriously for several reasons.

Space is an obvious need. Dr. Mark Connolly, a cardiovascular surgeon, has always lived in apartments in and around New York. He has focused his collection on Italian red wine.

But using a storage service has created its own problem: an overabundance of wine. Because Dr. Connolly, 63, never had to worry about managing his inventory, he just kept collecting.

He has 7,000 bottles, and he knows he will never finish them in his lifetime. “I always tell my kids, ‘You can’t sell it,’” Dr. Connolly said. “‘You have to drink it or give it to your friends.’”

Tim Gallagher, 49, has a cellar in his home in New Canaan, Conn., that holds 2,200 bottles of wine. He keeps an additional 1,300 bottles in storage facilities to age before they’re ready to drink, he said.

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Mr. Duarte loading cases for delivery. Mana charges a minimum fee of $40 to deliver wine to Manhattan, whether one bottle or five cases.

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Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Like Dr. Connolly, Mr. Gallagher, who works in finance, uses storage facilities because he is buying more wine than he is drinking.

“I try to buy in quantities of three or six bottles,” he said. “I’m not seeking to acquire a lot more bottles. My goal is to have lots of variety.”

Storage facilities also provide records, or provenance, for people who might want to sell their collection one day. Just as art collectors want to know who has owned a work, wine collectors want to know that rare vintages have not been stored in a car trunk.

Wine can be damaged by excessive heat or cold if it is not stored properly.

“With a wine that is heat damaged, the fruit dries out, and it could be tart,” said Per Holmberg, former head of the wine department at Christie’s auction house and now director of the private client group at Wine Source. “When wine gets too cold, it starts to expand, and you only have a certain amount of space before gases get pushed out through the cork.”

A lack of provenance can affect a wine’s value, particularly when people are bidding for it at an auction, Mr. Holmberg said. Knowing where the wine has been will help increase the bidding, he said.

Shipping wine in the country is tightly controlled by a web of state laws, and it is illegal for individuals to ship wine themselves across state lines. Having wine storage in different states can ensure that collectors get the wine they want regardless of where they live.

That is one of the reasons Mr. Wallick has wine in New York and New Jersey. Mana also has licenses that allow it to ship a bottle to a friend in another state as a gift.

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Mana markets the convenience of its operation.

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Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Mr. Gallagher keeps his wine in four locations. Outside of his own cellar, he has wine at the Chelsea Wine Vault in Manhattan, some of which has been there for more than a decade. Other wine is in River Valley Wine Cellars in Westchester County, which is closer to his home. But recently, he has been storing wine at a facility in northern Connecticut called Horse Ridge Cellars.

Most storage facilities maintain the right humidity and temperature for aging wine, but there is nothing special about them. Horse Ridge, though, has a hook the others cannot match: It stores wine in its nuclear bomb shelters.

One shelter was built by a group of Hartford insurance companies in the 1950s to store their documents and protect their top executives in the event of a nuclear attack.

“When I bought the property in 2000, there were a lot of leftover documents here, and I found all the minutes from board meetings,” said Jed Benedict, president of Horse Ridge Cellars. “They fully intended to have this massive, awesome bomb shelter to hide out in, and then the only thing left in the world would be insurance executives.”

Now the bomb shelter protects hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of some of the greatest wines ever produced. Six years ago, when it filled up, Mr. Benedict built another one.

The natural temperature of these shelters is perfect for wine. The humidity is easy to manage. And security is not difficult to explain: The original bomb shelter has a 12-ton vault door, is eight feet underground and has a series of backup generators that would, well, protect your wine from Armageddon.

But Horse Ridge is two hours from New York, and proximity matters for many collectors. So Mr. Benedict said he was generally in and around New York every week for pickups and deliveries.

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Shipping wine is tightly controlled by state laws. Having wine storage in different states can ensure that collectors get the wine they want regardless of where they live.

Credit
Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Mr. Schneur of Mana markets the convenience of his operation and its climate-controlled vans.

“If you decide you want to get a bottle of wine and ship it from New Jersey to New York, it’s illegal for you, but we have the licensing,” he said. “We can pick it up for you. We can deliver it for you. We can do it in a rush if it’s for tonight’s dinner or tomorrow or next week.”

Delivery fees vary. As with anything else, if you wait until the last minute, it will cost you more. Mana charges a minimum fee of $40 to deliver wine to Manhattan, whether one bottle or five cases, which Mr. Schneur said was reasonable.

“To cross the tunnel, it’s $15 for the toll,” he said. “We’re not nickeling and diming you.”

There are other charges, too. Horse Ridge charges $40 an hour for additional services, like taking an inventory of wine or packing up a collection for shipment.

Storage fees can be as low as $1.25 a month per case of wine, which holds 12 regular bottles or six magnums. Of course, wine collectors rarely store just one box, and they are not putting it there for just a month.

Mana has a monthly minimum of $45, which covers 20 cases of wine. That breaks down to 19 cents a bottle. For people who want their own “wine cage” — a space that holds 100 cases — the cost starts at $100 a month.

But for the serious collectors with hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in wine, these charges are of little matter. They know their wine will be secure for decades.

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