‘Which one do you like?’ says Mark Williamson, striding towards the back of his much loved wine bar, just north of the Louvre in Paris. It’s late, almost closing time, but having emailed from London saying I’m going to be in Paris, Mark has stayed on, keen to have a natter and share a few glasses from his eclectic wine list. It’s almost 36 years since he opened Willi’s, his wine bar on the rue des Petits Champs, behind the Palais Royal in the 1st arrondisment. Since then he has been written about, celebrated, described as having a bigger influence on what Parisians drink than perhaps anybody else, not to mention playing host as the watering hole of choice for any passing Brit, journalist or wine writer. In the early days, he would correspond with everyone whether it was the American critic Robert Parker (discussing a latest discovery in the Rhône via fax) or Steven Spurrier, who he briefly worked with at Le Caves Madelaine. The shop made famous by the Judgement of Paris in which the greatest French wines were roundly beaten by California’s upstarts in a blind tasting organized by Mr. Spurrier.
Today the wine scene in Paris has changed immeasurably but some things remain the same. Williamson still commissions a contemporary wine themed poster, (a practice he has done since he first opened) which is where we’re heading now, to the back of the bar to take the obligatory snap for social media.
Every wine lover should spend some time in Paris. Especially now. The city feels fragile as it comes to terms with the aftermath of the atrocities of last year and it’s eerily empty, admittedly it is January, but every restaurateur I spoke to said that business was down – in some cases by more than 50 per cent. I wanted to visit before Christmas but my schedule didn’t allow so we are here today to celebrate all that this magnificent city has to offer.
What I like about the Parisian wine scene is not just the diversity- you can find anything from a small little bistro tucked down a backstreet, to somewhere as magical as the lively, intimate room that is Juveniles, founded by Scotsman Tim Johnston and now run by his daughter Margaux. No, what I love about the Parisian wine scene is its point of difference.
Walk into Juveniles and there isn’t a Bordeaux or Burgundy on the list, as Tim ‘doesn’t like Pinot Noir,’ says Margaux. Willi’s list is packed full of wines from the southern Rhône, Beaujolais and the Jura. I could write a book on the number of obscure organic wines from the Loire valley found in the city’s many ‘natural’ wine bars. In short, there is a wine philosophy shorn of the Bordeaux bias and snobbery found elsewhere. As Williamson says, good wine is made everywhere and is there to be celebrated.
“Good wine requires balance, energy and structure,” he says. “Great wine needs all this but also: pedigree, individuality and potential.”
We’re drinking two remarkable wines. A seriously smart Condrieu from André Perret in the Rhône and a Beaujolais nouveau which doesn’t smell like banana skin and candy, but is serious. André Perret was the first wine I started collecting. His wines are superb, the reds are graceful and smell of raspberries, cracked black pepper and spice. His Condrieu, made from the Viognier grape variety, is world class, offering notes of white flowers, a heavy peach scent and a taught mineral, citrus complexity. They are by no means cheap, around £45 a bottle retail, but they are some of the finest wines you can buy.
“The new bad is slavish conformity,” says Williamson, ‘not realising the potential of particular vineyard qualities, but preferring to strangle it into an idyllic submission. ‘Badly made’ occurs today less through ignorance and accidental misfortune but increasingly through misguided principal and the necessity not just to make a beautiful wine, but to be recognised as a luminary.”
He says Paris is now in the third era of wine bars. The first being the boom which led him to open his, then the city moved onto to the arrival of cult natural wines (in short a sort of uber organic wine) and now it is the turn of the wine shop/bar.
“A lot of the pomp has gone out of the service and communication about wine in restaurants,” he says. “and wine lists have refreshingly become less predictable. But there is now a noticeable, deplorable part of the population that imitates ‘political correctness’ and drinks no wine at all. This was unthinkable in 1980. Wine is after all part of our ‘patrimone national’. What are they thinking ?”
However, he says this is countered by a visible and passionate younger generation of wine lovers, less in tune with scoring wines and more into the fun of pushing the boundaries of discovery.
I ask him what regions are exciting him at the moment. He says that vintage is important as it introduces a huge level of excitement rather like putting the lights on or turning them off.
“France is all about the renaissance unfolding in the Jura, dryer more balanced, driven and focused whites at last coming out of Alsace and the gradual discovery that great in Bandol (in Provence) means red.”
Then there is of course, his beloved Rhône. “I am always excited, thrilled by what can be obtained – without fluff and pantomime – from the southern Rhône,” he says. “Where lesser known villages deliver delicious, rewarding wines in unbeatable volumes. Appellations like Rousset les Vignes being an example.”
I couldn’t agree more and with that we raise a glass, the next time you’re in Paris, do pop in. It will open your vinous eyes.
Willi’s Wine Bar 13 rue des Petits Champs
Three to Buy
A remarkable wine. What hits you first is a heavy, floral scent replete with elderflower, ripe peach and some citrus fruit. Once sipped the magic of the Viognier grape shines through with a balanced, dry finish. An intriguing wine this goes very well with terrine and foie gras.
Coming in at a reasonable 12% this shows just how good Beaujolais can be. There is none of the candy fruit or banana peel smell you can get. Instead this has a deep red colour and a dry, savoury character.
Dark, ruby red this has a wild nose that smells of cracked black pepper, black currant, cedar and herbs. In the mouth one gets a pleasing, cooked fruit aroma with a refreshing, fruity finish. Very good.