Gentrification in Paris seems to happen with the handbrake on. There ought to be a different word for it, one with less negative connotations. Our sympathy for displaced bodegas and barber shops derives largely from the catastrophic swiftness with which their rents get jacked or their clients disappear. Whereas in Paris’ handful of perpetually mid-gentrification neighborhoods – Belleville, Ménilmontant, Montreuil, Charonne, Pigalle, and so on – fate takes its time. If one lives and works and searches for decent coffee in these neighborhoods, change can seem damnably imperceptible.
The pork-bun menagerie of Belleville showed new colours last year, however, with the opening of an ambitious wine shop and wine bar,* La Cave de Belleville. The project of three friends from the neighborhood, François Braouezec, Aline Geller, and Thomas Perlmutter – a pharmacist, a gallerist, and a sound engineer, respectively – Le Cave de Belleville is an enthusiastic, accessible enterprise, offering an épicerie counter, a blitheringly large wine selection, and light apéro snacks every day of the week.
I pass by the storefront often. I almost entered once in summertime but was put off by the heat, a disaster for a caviste.** I finally visited for an apéro this December. Almost everything was bad, but I would still return, and would encourage others to do the same. Good wines is in stock, and amid the overall mediocrity sparkles real promise.
The charcuterie on offer at La Cave de Belleville is inexpensive, but dry as old beach sandals, and less flavourful. Given the wine bar seems to do brisk business, neither I nor my apéro companion could fathom how the charcuterie could have been too old. It seemed to be a problem with the product itself.
The rest of the menu consists of more tinned and sliced things, along with the ubiquitous burrata, which I continue to avoid everywhere except Italy. One probably wouldn’t go wrong with a tinned pâté. Service is as prompt and sincere as preparation and product selection are blundersome. That is already a success! Glass-pour selections are regionally diverse, if a bit simplistic, and a ‘wine of the month’ program promotes a certain selection of bottles by offering them sans the customary 7€ corkage.
La Cave de Belleville’s under-edited wine bottle selection towers over the first room. Good and good-value natural wine selections abound, from Marcel Joubert’s soulful Beaujolais to Eric Pfifferling’s keen Tavel to Marcel Richaud‘s Cairanne. But alongside their august ranks are wedged, well, wines from pretty much any Tom, Dick, or Harry, not always identifiably natural. To anyone seeking an introduction to wine, or natural wine specifically, the vast selection is a minefield. Ditto the beers on offer, which range from the genuinely artisanal (Deck & Donahue beers) to brews one can find in Monoprix (Orval). It’s as though all three owners have a hand in the buying, and they’re consenting to take anything even one of them kind of appreciates.
I can’t help suspecting that La Cave de Belleville’s architectural considerations – its grand shelving, and the challenge to fill it – for now preside over aesthetic considerations.
My friend and I drank a 2013 Savennières by Patrick Baudoin, a Loire winemaker whose passionate and articulate writings on organic agriculture and appellation law have always stirred me more than his wines. This was no exception, although I have a suspicion the bottle had been affected by heat. Savennières, with the exception of Nicolas Joly’s brontosaurus versions, rarely overwhelm with fruit or big flavour. The appellation’s pleasures are starker and more savoury. But this bottle of Baudouin was lumpen and void; what fruit there was felt scraped from the bottom of a burned tarte tatin. (We ought probably to have switched registers entirely and gone for a bottle of Le Petit Domaine‘s « Myrmidon, » a racy Languedoc Syrah that goes for a mere 12€ before corkage at La Cave de Belleville.)
Perhaps best to stick to more recently delivered bottles, until temperature control issues get sorted out. I read that La Cave de Belleville’s cavernous, high-ceilinged space was formerly a leather wholesale business. On the plus side, I can’t imagine longtime neighbors getting too sentimental about what the former tenant brought to the neighborhood.
That La Cave de Belleville opened the same year as noted caviste Olivier Camus finally shut his nearby restaurant and wine shop Le Chapeau Melon is more bittersweet. Camus maintains a terrific, discriminating palate and a vast knowledge of natural wine, two assets La Cave de Belleville transparently lacks.
La Cave de Belleville compensates with a superior concept and more consistent execution. It is a business built to serve a growing community of young(ish) French professionals who have begun to reflect upon the products they consume. They comprise the face of the changing natural wine market within France. It’s no longer a côterie of hard-drinking eccentrics with mud on their shoes. « Wu-Tang, » as Ol’ Dirty Bastard once said, « is for the children. » At apéro hour on a Friday, La Cave de Belleville’s deep wine bar is almost full and abuzz with friends refining evening plans and drinking better things than Tsingtao. I got no real objections.
* « Cave-à-manger » is a term that is outliving its usefulness, as it fails to make the critical distinction between wine shop restaurants, like Le Verre Volé or Bistrot Les Papilles, and wine shop wine bars, like Septime La Cave or La Buvette.
** I can’t help observing that this design flaw renders rather ironic the fact that all press outlets were apparently instructed to cite the names of the shop’s interior designers.
La Cave de Belleville
51, rue de Belleville
Tel: 01 40 34 12 95