MIKE RICE

is Fish & Game’s beverage director.


For four days in early February I was lucky to descend, along with the natural wine cognoscenti, upon France’s Loire Valley. For years now, several increasingly popular wine salons—gatherings for producers to show their latest offering to consumers, distributors, and friends—have taken place in the old communes of the Loire, during these relatively quiet days in the winemaking calendar.

By now, the legion of desperate sip-and-spitters sojourning to Saumur for the most notorious of these salons—La Dive Bouteille—has grown so big that for this year’s event (my first), shuttle buses were deployed to take the faithful on a short ride from a muddy parking area on the outskirts of town to the vast Caves Ackerman, on the banks of the shallow river Thouet. There, the winemakers waited at the ready. Winding through the deep and crowded caves, I found the smiling faces and tired hands of so many people whose work has been represented on our little list at F&G over the years: Jean-Pierre Robinot, Laurent Saillard, Andrea Calek, Franz Strohmeier, and on, and on.

Luckily for our small crew, the devastating uncool of the shuttle bus was suffered only in one direction. Due to the protestations of a certain loveable importer of many of your favorite wines (“I don’t do shuttle buses”), our journey back to the car through the early evening light, tasting glasses in hand, came in the form of a pleasant stroll along the river, a Loire tributary.

Other, smaller salons – La Renaissance, Les Pénitentes, Les Anonymes – took place in Angers, and were no more subdued or less packed full of brilliant and beautiful winemakers sharing their latest juice, despite their lower profile. But as incredible as it was to be among such talent, and such wine, at each of these events, it was upon setting off south and east, into the stunning hills of Southern Beaujolais, that things really started to get good. And it’s there that I found what I offer here, a few wines to drink should you find them (and you should find them, at Fish & Game and BackBar, in the coming season).

We arrived at the home of ever endearing winemakers Nathalie Banes and Julien Merle in the early afternoon. After we all shared a lunch of Alsatian sausages and local beer at a new bistro just up the street, Nathalie showed us to her small plot of Gamay vines just outside the village. After a walk through the vines, a discussion of the soil here, the obligatory comparison between her organically farmed vines and the conventionally farmed examples in the next plot over, and a brief visit with her soon-to-be work horses, we arrived back at the home and cellar to taste her wines (and Julien’s too).

Nathalie Banes, “Nathalitre”

This was being bottled as we first pulled into the driveway of the Banes/Merle property. By the time we were back from lunch and the vineyard, the bottling line was packed up, and the bottles stowed. This is to say it won’t be long now before Nathalitre—Nathalie’s delicious liter-bottled cuvée of pure, unadulterated, Southern Beaujolais Gamay—is in New York. This is the big bottle of red wine to keep in your hands (and in your ice bucket) all summer long.

While we could have sat and tasted with Nathalie and Julien all night, we headed out as the sun started to duck behind the golden limestone hills, to be sure we’d make our next appointment, with Xavier Benier in Saint-Julien. When we arrived, we were greeted by the charming XB in his cellar, a big barn-like structure attached to his house. As we sat, tasting first through what was bottled, then through what was still in barrel, a gaggle of his friends and neighbors streamed in through the big barn doors. Their reason for being there seemed to be equal parts assisting with a little remodeling project, and glugging wine. This gathering felt less like a show and more like something that just tends to happen here – friends gather, lend a hand, and share in the wine of the house. At some point, a board full of charcuterie landed in the room, and for us, too, tasting turned to drinking.

Out past the barn and the house are several hectares of vines tended by XB, who also purchases grapes from like-minded growers to produce an impressive and varied lineup. Over dinner, prepared by XB’s wife, we tasted and drank through it all. We listened as he waxed on about the incredible aging ability of Beaujolais Nouveau (we’re all believers, now). And I, trying hard to keep from my mind thoughts of the long trip back to the Hudson Valley that was to start the next morning, took solace in knowing XB’s full lineup of Côte de Brouilly, Vieilles Vignes, Pinot Noir, and others, would follow closely behind me.

Xavier Benier, “Pur Jus”

I really would highlight just about any one of the many red cuvées XB turns out—his Cote de Brouilly and Vieilles Vignes are both elegant, grippy, earthy examples of Gamay—wines that prove that this is a place to be taken seriously, and a place that’s capable of producing wines worthy of aging, too.  But in the spirit of the boisterous and light-hearted atmosphere on that chilly February night, I’ll use this opportunity to highlight the boisterous, light-hearted, and simply delicious Pur Jus. Done with carbonic maceration and bottled in the early winter, it’s fresh, peppery, and alive. It’s pure juice. And with a bottle of it sharing your ice bucket with Nathalitre this summer, you’ll never go thirsty.