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Drinking Local in Paris: Alternatives to the Usual Brands

wine bottles

There’s no shortage of beers, wines and spirits “Made in France” In fact, some of the biggest internationally-known brands are French. But in these times of Covid, it’s more important than ever to support the smaller beverage companies who can’t weather the economic storm as well as their mass-produced competitors. This four-part article introduces some alternatives to the “usual” French Champagnes, beers, spirits, and wines we usually drink, including brands made right here in Paris.

Support Small Businesses

The pandemic has delivered a huge blow to the wine, beer and spirits industries because of the cancellation of events like music festivals, weddings, and wine fairs, as well as the drastic drop in tourism. On Monday, as a second wave of contaminations hits the country, the French government announced a 10pm closure time for all bars in the city of Paris (and it’s still possible they may close them completely if things continue to get worse).

That doesn’t mean sales of alcohol have completely stopped. Restaurants and supermarkets are still open, and Parisians are not going to forego l’apéro just because of a pandemic. But while the likes of alcohol industry giants such as Moët-Hennessy-Louis-Vuitton (LVMH) and Pernod-Ricard can weather the economic storm, the smaller producers need our support more than ever.

“Made in France” is a great label, but we can take it one step further and give our business to local and independent wines growers, craft beer breweries, and even small-batch spirits “Made in Paris”. Supporting small, local, and independent businesses doesn’t mean you have to pass on quality or pay twice as much. In fact, sometimes the opposite is true. But that’s subjective. Good thing there’s a lot to choose from!

Independent Champagne Growers

Most of us know the big Champagne houses: Veuve Clicquot, Krug, Taittinger, Bollinger, Ruinart, Moët & Chandon, etc. But there are many excellent Champagnes produced by artisan winemakers on small, family-owned estates that aren’t sold through mainstream distribution networks. And unlike the big houses that purchase their grapes from vineyards all over Champagne to “assemble” their bubbly, the smaller growers are producing everything from their own land. So how do you find the best of these lesser-known Champagnes? Not everyone can hop in a car and head out to the vineyards of Champagne in search of these elusive producers.

Dilettantes facade
Dilettantes “Maison du Champagne”

Luckily there’s Dilettantes, “La Maison du Champagne”, right here in Paris’ 6th arrondissement. And they deliver! Dilettantes is the brainchild of Champagne native Fanny Heucq, who wanted to open a Champagne boutique and tasting room in Paris dedicated to helping customers discover rare, high-quality Champagnes from independent growers at affordable prices. She sells over 150 Champagnes from 25 producers, almost all of them available chilled, along with a handful of wines and an épicerie selection of gourmet snacks to enjoy with your bubbly. This is the place to find the perfect gift for your wine snob friends, or learn how to avoid panicking when faced with a Champagne list. If you can’t visit in person, they can deliver anywhere in France (including 3-hour express delivery in Paris), EU, US, Japan, and Montréal.

More Than Just a Taste

Downstairs the gorgeous cellar and tasting room is a place to participate in tastings and learn more about Champagne (there are even cards with essential information about each bottle). There are several options, from Champagne by the glass from €7-€17 (there are six Champagnes each month to choose from), perfect for a chic apéro when you’re in the neighborhood. You can also try all three Champagnes in a flight (starting at €27) or splurge on the Champagne lunch tasting with a plate of artisanal foods accompanying each glass and a “café gourmand” (or tea) to finish off from €49.

Dilletantes Champagne Bar
The Tasting Cellar at Dilettantes

If you’d like to meet the producers, Dilettantes hosts Grower Champagne Tastings each month with the winemakers and a small group of participants (no more than 12 during Covid restrictions) to learn more about a specific Champagne house in a relaxed setting (€15). The next one is Saturday October 17th (noon-1:30pm) with four champagnes presented by Fabien from Champagne Maurice Grumier. Sign up here if you’d like to reserve a spot.

For a more in-depth session, try one of the monthly “Ateliers Oenologiques”, where you learn the art of Champagne tasting featuring four champagnes, each representing the four principle terroirs of Champagne (from €75). The next one is Thursday October 15th (7-8:30pm), with the option to follow with dinner at the neighboring restaurant Le Christine (and you can take one of the bottles you tasted at 10% off the boutique price and no corkage fee). Ten participants, seven spots open as of today. Check here to sign up, or call the Italian-American boutique manager Marie for more info in English: 01 70 69 98 68.

Dilettantes Champagne event flyer

English and French spoken at all events; no prior Champagne knowledge needed.

22 rue de Savoie, 6th
Open Tues-Sat 11am-7:30pm (Thurs until 9pm)

Other Champagne Alternatives

L’Extrabrut – A casual Champagne boutique and bar in the 9th arrondissement, with a good selection of Champagnes from independent growers and Champagne houses, to purchase or drink on-site (just a few tables) by the glass (€7-12) or by the bottle (€36-61). There are tastings and Champagne-food pairing workshops as well.

Delectabulles – A Champagne club that supports women in the male-dominated wine industry through Champagne valley excursions, tasting workshops, and Covid-friendly webinars, all in English.

French Craft Beers

If you live in Paris or visit often, you’ve no doubt noticed how much the craft beer scene has grown here over the past decade. But I know some of you are actually quite surprised to find out that not only are there dozens of noteworthy French craft beers, but that you can even find beers made in breweries right here in Paris and the immediate suburbs. There are a few places you can check out the variety of craft beers available for yourself.

Beer Bar at Ground Control
The Beer Bar at Ground Control

Paris Beer Festival
Despite the recent Covid security measures that all bars in Paris have to close at 10pm, Paris Beer Festival events are still taking place October 3rd-9th in bars, wineries, and specialized restaurants all over Paris, and a huge fair featuring 40 microbreweries the weekend of October 10th-11th at Ground Control to close the festival. Supporting and celebrating independent and artisanal microbreweries is the theme of this 7th annual festival (formerly known as Paris Beer Week). Day passes for the weekend at Ground Control are €5 (€7 at the door), get your in advance online here.

32 rue de l’Espérance, 13th
OpenTues-Sat 11am-8pm (Wed from 4pm)

This small but well-stocked boutique on the south side of the Butte aux Cailles specializes in craft beers from independent breweries, mostly French. They host regular beer tastings, meetups with the brewers, and beer-cheese pairing workshops featuring cheeses from the historic Quatrehomme cheese shop. If you’re interested in home brewing, they also sell brewing kits and a large selection of accessories (including beer glasses).

La Robe et La Mousse
3 Rue Monsieur le Prince, 6th
Open daily from 4pm-1am (until 10pm under Covid restrictions)

A chic little bar near Odéon serving 100% French craft beers on tap and by the bottle, as well as a selection of French spirits, wines, ciders and hydromels. Read the detailed review by Forest Collins of 52 Martinis: La Robe & La Mousse Goes Strictly Local and Beyond Beer.

Parisian Spirits

Many French spirits take their identity from the French town or region where they’re made (ie Chartreuse, Cognac). Following in the footsteps of the Parisian craft beers renaissance, we now have small-batch spirits “Made in Paris” too.

Distillerie de Paris images
From the Distillerie de Paris

One of the more noteworthy ones is the Distillerie de Paris, started in 2015 by Sébastien et Nicolas Julhès of the family-owned Julhès gourmet food shop in the 10th arrondissement. They’ve made extremely limited editions of gin, whisky, rum, brandy, vodka, Agave Spirit, Maple Spirit, and even saké made with rice from France’s Camargue region (check out the video below, en français introducing their saké).

The prices reflect the high-quality, limited-edition production in a city with sky-high rents, but delivery is free. You can order online or visit the shop/distillery in the 10th arrondissement (watch their FB page for tasting events) to find other products made on site such as scented candles, preserves, and perfumes distilled with the same notes as the liquor.

Distillerie de Paris
60 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th
Open Mon-Sat 11:30am-2:30pm & 3:30-7:30pm

More Spirits from Ile-de-France

Distillerie d’Isle de France – Gins, rums, eaux de vie (and soon there will be whisky as well) made in the Ile-de-France’s Seine-et-Marne department (east of Paris): “The Distillerie d’Isle de France is the creation, by three passionate friends, Antonin, Olivier and Michaël, of an artisanal and creative distillery on a farm in Seine et Marne. Our goal: to create a range of original and premium quality spirits in a short circuit, and by favoring biodiversity, agricultural conservation, and local development!”

La Fabrique à Alcools – Organic vodka and gin, and L’Esprit de Bière made by distilling craft beer (well, it’s different!) made in a traditional distillery near the Vallée de Chevreuse Nature Park just south of Paris. La Fabrique à Alcools is run by the father-son team from the Brasserie Parisis. They’ll be launching their first whisky in 2021. They’re open for tours if you reserve in advance.

Shake It Easy – Bottled artisanal cocktails made in the Sentier district of Paris, delivered to your door anywhere in France. Perfect for those who don’t have the time or ingredients to mix up the perfect home cocktails themselves!

Shake it East Store front
Shake it Easy’s Paris Lab

Learn More about the Paris Cocktail & Spirits Scene

If you really want to know what and where to drink in Paris, your best resource is the aforementioned website 52 Martinis, a passion project by the longtime American expat Forest Collins which now includes an app and a podcast where she interviews all of the local movers and shakers in the French cocktail and spirits world. Rather than simply writing about the “latest hot new bar”, she’s serious about the quality, the ingredients, and – as our times now demand – the impact on the planet and the local economy of the brands and bars she writes about.

“For me, drinking local means supporting the businesses in your immediate community, getting something in your glass that doesn’t have to travel as far (smaller carbon footprint) and celebrating local traditions,” said Forest when I asked what “drinking local” means to her. “Fortunately, in France we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to quality domestic products – champagne, wine, cognac, Calvados and countless regional liqueurs and aperitifs. In a larger sense going local can give you a window into the cultural soul of a place and its people, which is worth much more than the cost of a drink.”

Check out her articles or the in-depth podcast interviews if you’re looking for more insight and insider tips. I always learn something new, whether it’s about Paris or drinking. For example, I never really thought of the French as whisky drinkers, but when I read the 52 Martinis article about the Passerelles Cocktail Bar – which carries over 100 whiskies all made in France – I learned that not only is whisky the most popular spirit in France, but that the French also drink more per capita than any other country (2.2 liters per adult per year)! I know I’ve tried a lot of whiskies over the years, but I’m sure I’ve never tried a French one, so I have a lot of catching up to do! And now I know where to do it. Passerelles Bar is in the swanky 5-star Parister Hotel (19 rue Saulnier, 9th), and is reopening October 1st after a six-month Covid-19 closure.

52 Martinis app screenshots

You can also download her free Paris Cocktails app if you’re looking for ideas for a place to meet friends for a drink, searchable by area, by style, and even whether they have a rooftop bar or serve brunch (so far only available on iPhone).

Drinking French Recipes

Drinking French book
The latest from David Lebovitz

Another great resource for those of you who want to know how to make traditional French cocktails and other beverages at home is David Lebovitz’s latest book, “Drinking French: The Iconic Cocktails, Apéritifs, and Café Traditions of France, with 160 Recipes.” More than just recipes, David’s books take you on a historical tour of French liquors and spirits, from Chartreuse to vermouth, and interesting characters in the business today who he interviews along the way. There’s even a chapter of recipes for homemade infusions, liqueurs, cordials, crèmes, and rum punches if you don’t have access to the French products where you live. And if you’re a fan of podcasts and videos, David does a ton of live Instagrams, many which you can still watch on his IGTV channel (especially since his book launched right as the world started locking down for Covid confinement).

Parisian Wines: Just for the Tourists?

Montmartre Vineyard
Montmartre Vineyard

Historically, the hillsides surrounding Paris were covered in vineyards until urbanization in the 19th and 20th centuries pretty much replaced them. You can still find a few symbolic vineyards in Paris in Belleville, Bercy, and Montmartre, where they still celebrate the wine harvest with the annual Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre every fall. You can even purchase a bottle of “Le Clos de Montmartre,” the wine they make from the local grapes and aged in the cellar of the local town hall, for €15-€35 depending on the year, which supports the neighborhood association. It’s relatively expensive because it’s rare (only 1500 bottles) and considered a collector’s item, not because it’s supposed to taste good (although everyone says it’s a lot better than it was 30 years ago). The event is a very important local tradition both socially and economically, even if it’s also popular with the tourists.  

Fete des Vendages poster

The 87th edition of the Fête des Vendanges de Montmartre is October 7th-11th. Events are free, find the full program on their official website. Note that because of Covid, the parade will not happen this year.

Pretenders or Serious Contenders?

Perhaps unable to resist the allure of the “Made in Paris” branding, there are now two professional winemaking companies in Paris, La Winery Parisienne (opened in 2015) and Les Vignerons de Paris (opened in 2016).

What these two companies have in common is that they do not make wine from grapes grown here in Paris, but from grapes grown elsewhere in France. They then “vinify” the wine – including blending and aging – in Paris. I’m no wine expert, and no doubt this part of winemaking is very important…but after sitting through countless long and detailed explanations about the significance of “terroir” in French winemaking over the years, I’ve been thoroughly indoctrinated in the importance of  where and how the grapes are grown. Is this now an outdated idea?

La Winery Parisienne (with its bizarre Franglais name) boasts on their website about bringing the first “chai” (wine cellar) back to Paris since the 1960s. A reminder to all of you that all wines used to arrive in huge barrels in Paris, where they were then blended and bottled by local “experts” before reaching consumers. This practice ended in the 1960s after vineyard owners like Château Lafitte Rothschild in Bordeaux, who felt the Parisian winemakers diluted and ruined their wines, started the now ubiquitous “Bottled at the Château” label to ensure quality. And soon the public wouldn’t buy anything else, so the winemakers in Paris went out of business (Bercy Village was built on its remains).

Why is wine blended and bottled in Paris any better than it being blended and bottled where the grapes are harvested? Maybe it’s not. But maybe it’s no worse, either.

Turbigo wine
From Les Vignerons de Paris

I tried a few bottles from Les Vignerons de Paris, including their Turbigo 2017 (named for the street where their cellars are located in the 3rd arrondissement), a perfectly decent bottle of red made from Cinsault grapes. I bought it because my local wine shop owner assured me that they are serious vintners and that it’s a respectable wine. But it also cost €14, a bit steep for an average bottle of French red wine in Paris. Maybe it’s because real estate in Paris isn’t cheap. So why import grapes here to make wine that might cost a lot less if made elsewhere in France? Is it because the “Made in Paris” brand is so bankable and the “buy local” movement so popular? Would it make a difference if the bottles were only sold within Paris and thus cut down on expensive (and environmentally unfriendly) shipping? Is it a more sustainable alternative to the wines bottled and shipped from elsewhere in France for me to drink? Would my caviste have suggested this wine to me if I didn’t have an American accent?

As an aside, I suppose you could say the same about the locally-made beers. But the price point is quite different, and so I assume the quantities made and consumed are quite different. Not claiming any hard opinions here, I’m still trying to figure this out for myself, so weigh in if you have any thoughts.

Eiffel Tower Wine

That brings me back to La Winery Parisienne, who partnered with the illustrious-sounding Domaine la Bouche du Roi vineyard southwest of Paris to create the Chai de la Tour Eiffel, a merlot blend aged in barrels and stainless steel tanks placed up in the Eiffel Tower last year. The Chai de la Tour Eiffel goes on pre-sale this month for €80 a bottle, to be delivered in October 2020.

I discussed this with a Parisian friend (and thus, default wine snob) as we enjoyed a (different) bottle of red at dinner the other night. “Won’t the tanks get too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer exposed to the elements like that up on the Eiffel Tower?” I ask, adding that they must have some special way of keeping the temperature consistent like they do in wine cellars. My friend waved off the issue as moot. “Wine from the Eiffel Tower at €80 a bottle is just for tourists, no one will care how it tastes.”

Since it hasn’t launched yet, I obviously haven’t tried it (and unless someone wants to buy me a bottle for my birthday, I probably never will), but I wanted to believe that maybe this isn’t just some gimmick, that maybe the wine is actually made by serious winemakers. From what I understand, La Winerie Parisienne just installed the chai on the Eiffel Tower, but the Domaine de la Bouche du Roi are the ones who are growing the grapes.

Marketing Geniuses or Authentic Winemakers?

The name and logo of the Domaine de la Bouche du Roi are “inspired by” Versailles, but they actually have zero connection to Louis XIV’s famous château. Pure marketing based on the barest thread that their vineyards are on the “plain of Versailles.” Which isn’t a lie. But their address is in, Davron, a town in the Yvelines département 35km southwest of Paris and 20km from the Château de Versailles. Paris is closer to the château than this vineyard, but they make sure you know that Louis XIV’s mistress had her house in Davron. As many brands have done, “La Bouche du Roi” tries to establish some kind of history. They claim they’re named after the “handful of sommeliers and butlers select and guarantee the quality of the wines served at Versailles since 1588.” Even if you know the first king to establish a residence at Versailles was Louis XIII in 1623, that doesn’t really matter because – once again – what does this have to do with a modern vineyard created in a different town in 2015? As the doomed Louis XVI once wrote: “Rien.”  

Marketing gimmicks aside, the actual winemaking seems legit. Their vines are grown without pesticides or fertilizers, and they plant local shrubs and maintain bordering wooded areas to provide wildlife habitat. They’re also using some sort of innovative robots to maintain the vines, including – and this is either brilliant or silly – playing music to “stimulate the synthesis of proteins involved in the vine’s natural defenses against disease.” French Baroque, perhaps? 😉

I haven’t tried any of their three wines (all from 2019) because they’re not for sale yet. You can reserve your bottles, starting from €23, on their website. The only other way to try the wines seems to be by scheduling a guided tour of the vineyard (€49/person), available in October on Tuesday and Friday afternoons. It helps to have a car, unless you want to take the RER A to St-Germain-en-Laye then switch to a suburban bus to get there and back (or maybe wait until Covid risk has passed).

The Verdict?

I’m not sure I’m ready to totally write them off. After all, it’s hard to stand out in a sea of French winemakers, so the new ones need to do whatever they can to get the public’s attention for what may be exceptional wines (I’ll let the experts decide on that). But maybe the problem is really that we just don’t need another wine. I mean, when’s the last time you were at your local wine shop or wine fair and thought, “Dang, there just aren’t enough choices!” Is it more socially responsible to support families who have been trying to keep their vineyard going for several generations?

A Shout Out for the “Ethical” Bordeaux Winemakers

Earlier this month I went to Ground Control with friends and got to try Bordeaux wines from Les Vignobles Gabriel & Co. who were on site to promote their new approach to the wine trade. Usually winemakers sell their wines through distributors, but Les Vignobles Gabriel & Co is a collective between two dozen vineyards on the lesser-known Right Bank of Bordeaux that negotiate directly with buyers in order to better control the sales and distribution of their wines, rather than going through the powerful “Bordeaux Wine Exchange” (dominated by the famous Bordeaux winemakers for over a century). They also control their own production chain from harvest to bottling, making the process more reliable and cost-effective.

Les Vignobles Gabriel & Co was started in 2009 by François Réaud, a winemaker in Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, whose initial seven hectares were inherited from his great-great grandfather, Gabriel Bruneteau in 1985. He eventually grew the estate to 25 hectares and converted to organic farming. He created the collective to partner with neighboring estates so that they could compete with the larger winemakers while maintaining their independence.

wine bottles
Wines from Vignobles Gabriel & Co

Wine collectives aren’t rare in France, but they don’t always have the best reputation for quality. The partners of this collective are all maintaining their own production and branding, but adhere to the charter of Les Vignobles Gabriel & Co for quality of the wine and stewardship of the land. Many of them use environmentally responsible, organic, and even biodynamic winegrowing techniques.

In September they announced their wines are the first in France awarded the “Fair for Life” label, recognizing “ethical winemaking” practices: fair remuneration, environment sustainability and corporate social responsibility. At Ground Control I was able to test a few of these wines, poured by the vineyard owners themselves, who were on hand to answer questions. My favorite was the Saint-Emilion Grand Cru from Château Lafleur Tapon.

I asked where to find the wines and what the price range would be, assuming I’d have to go to some fancy wine shops and pay somewhere in the €15-25 range. But their wines are sold at big supermarkets like Carrefour, Intermarché, and U Express for €5-€15. I will admit that when faced with a wall of wines at a supermarket (we can’t always go to the local wine shop), I tend to look for labels that show they won an award, and bonus points if they’re organic. Now I can just look for the Gabriel & Co label at the neck of the bottle (or the little orange “Fair for Life” sticker since September) to get a good quality Bordeaux by an environmentally and socially responsible, independent winemaker.

I found a bottle of Côtes-de-Bourg Bordeaux for €8 from my local Carrefour Bio (a shop that only sells organic food, mostly but not exclusively Carrefour brand…not my first choice but better than nothing). This is the time of year when all of the supermarkets in France have their wine sales, so if you’re faced with the “wall of wine,” keep an eye out for the Vignobles Gabriel & Co wines; I’ve seen some on available for under €5!  

Do you have any favorites we’ve missed here? Let us know in the comments below!

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