Just In Time for New Years: Xavier Burini from Montreal Restaurant Les Trois Petits Bouchons Talks Natural Wines and Champagnes

Click here to download the interview I did for CKUT with Xavier Burini of Montreal Wine Bar Les Ttrois Petits Bouchons on natural wines and champagnes. These are not just "organic" wines.

Here are the links to the wines Xavier recommends and contact info for the restaurant:
At the SAQ:
Drappier Champagne: Pinot Noir Brut Zero-Dosage ($43.50)
Drappier Carte D’Or Champagne ($40.75)
Jacquesson Cuvée No 734 Brut Champagne ($60.25)

Other Wines
Chateau Le Puy Bordeaux Cotes de Francs 2005 ($24.45)
Chateau Le Puy Bordeaux Cotes de Francs 2004 ($17.15)
J P Amoreau

Private Importation:
Vouette et Sorbee Fidèle Vintage
Marcel LaPierre

Casa Coste Piane
Trois Petits Bouchons is located at 4669 St-Denis
Le Comptoir Charcuteries et Vins is located at 4807 St-Laurent

And here's the script of the interview, in case you can't download:

AW: You may have heard of organic wines or biodynamic wines, labeled “agro-bio” at the SAQ, but natural wines are in a league of their own. As Xavier Burini of Montreal natural wine bar Les Trois Petits Bouchons explains, your choice of reds, whites, and bubbles this New Years could make more of a difference than you think on how resolved you’re going to feel the Saturday morning after…

Xavier Burini: “My name is Xavier Burini. I’m a sommelier originally, but I’m a restauranteur.”

AW: At Trois Petits Bouchons wine is an integral part of the meal.

XB: “We believe that wine is ‘alimentaire’, that is to say it’s a social part of the meal. Everything you don’t actually want to find in meat – you’ll maybe avoid buying too much meat at the supermarket, you buy direct from farmers, you buy local, you maybe want an organic vegetable basket. You make an effort. Not everyone does it, because yes, it’s more expensive than the normal price at the grocery store, but all of that effort you make, most of the time because you’re not aware of it – no one ever told you - you buy wine that has all the products in it that you don’t want in food. And you’ll drink them and say, “I don’t feel well. I ate something that didn’t agree with me, etc.” People tell us. They come on a Wednesday night, they really have a good time at the bistro, at Trois Petits Bouchons. Then the next morning they get up at 7am and they feel fine. They’re a little tired because they celebrated the night before, but they’re fine. They don’t have a headache, or a stomache ache from what’s in the wine. Heartburn - often the sulfites do that. Not that it’s hard to breathe, but it burns a little. “

AW: So if you’re getting pounding headaches the morning after one or two glasses of wine, when you know you should be fine, natural wines might be something to try. All wines have sulfites, but natural wines don’t have any added sulfites. That’s an important differentiation when shopping for non-head-ache inducing wines. You may think that everything in the agro-bio section or everything marked “organic” is fair game, but “organic” wines can have as many sulfites added as your average $10 Australian Merlot, your $15 Californian Cardonnay, or your $35 Alsatian Reisling.   

XB: “But you need to know that “natural wine” encompasses everything. That includes the culture of the vine and most importantly the wine-making process. So a vine culture that has to be organic or something very close to it, so as to have the most beautiful grapes possible, with the best balance possible. So that you can skip all the chemistry – all the chemical products that are currently allowed in the wine-making process – all the sulfites, different acids that permit acidification, the de-acidification, the yeasts, the enzymes. There’s an insane pharmacological arsenal used to make wines these days.

Biodynamic refers to the culture of the grape, as with organic wines. Biodynamic wines are also organic, but it’s the culture of the grape that’s organic. But after that, everything I just mentioned could still apply for how it’s made. So how is it actually made? Did they just press the grapes? The grape started fermenting, then was placed in tanks or barrels, then add just a very small amount of sulfites when putting the wine in bottles, and that’s it? Or are you instead going to take average grapes? Then since the grapes are average you’re going to start to add products to hide the quality of the grapes? So you add a little yeast so the juice starts fermenting. Then you add enzymes to select the right yeasts. You add some sulfites to stop it from oxidizing. After, if there’s more or less acidity or no acidity then you’ll add potassium bicarbonate. They’re chemical products, but they’re products that are found a lot in wines. 98% of the volume is made - manufactured I mean, not let evolve – people don’t have a hands-off approach to making wine anymore. They manufacture it. It’s human intervention that takes place.

But we go against that (at Trois Petits Bouchons). We want to have clean wines, wines that reflect a terroir, a place, according to the enzymes, according to the types of grapes used, whether they’re red or white. So that’s “natural wine”, to not use all these products that mask the terroir, the expression of a vintage, and the taste, simply.

After having sulfites in high doses, that’s what’s responsible for your headaches. The big headaches where you’re not well on     the next morning, “Oh I’m not well. I didn’t drink that much!” That’s sulfites….Legally, wine makers are allowed to use 200mg per litre for white wines and 170-180 for reds.

AW: “Why the difference?”

XB: Because whites are less stable, they’re more likely to start re-fermenting because they often have a little more sugar. There are no tannins, so they’re more fragile even though they’re more acidic. The more you go towards a sweeter wines, the more sulfites it will contain. A little overly-sweetened cheap wine can have 350 or 400mg. The World Health Organization set the recommended daily amount of sulfites per average person at 25mg per litre. Any more than that is dangerous. So if you do a simple calculation really quickly, if you drink a little sweet wine every day that’s full of sulfites, you’ll easily hit your limit.”

AW: In a country that drinks a lot of cheap sparkling wine, New Years can be a bit dangerous. A way to hide the flaws of a lower quality sparkling wine or champagne is by adding sulfites and by adding sugar, but sulfites also stabilize the wine, and make transportation less risky. That’s why the SAQ requires a minimum amount of sulfites to be added to all wines. Because of this regulation you actually can’t find any wines in the province’s stores that have zero sulfites added. You can find them in private importation through several of the city’s wine agencies, however. Still, many producers that sell to the SAQ do keep to the bare minimum of sulfites required. In champagnes, Xavier explains that producers really don’t need to add as much sulfites to champagne as they do, because of the properties of the champagne itself.

AW: So if you’re going to be drinking champagne at midnight this New Years, you may want to consider the amount of sulfites in your cheap bubbly for health reasons, but you may also want to consider the amount of sugar. Any wine that leaves you dehydrated can give you a headache, despite your best natural wine, no sulfur-added intentions. You may want to look at the sweetness levels of the wines. A Brut champagne or brut zéro has less than 3 grams per litre. Extra-brut means less than 6 grams. Brut is less than 15 (the standard for fine champagne), extra sec or extra dry is 12 to 20 grams, sec or dry is 17-35 grams. And a demi-sec or crémant can be 33-50 grams of sugar per litre bottle of wine. 50 grams. A “doux” champagne, more like an ice wine, can have any amount over 50 grams!

XB: “There aren’t a lot of sec, demi-sec, and doux champagnes. What there are a lot of at the SAQ are bruts and extra-bruts. There are one or two doux champagnes, but it’s rare.”

AW: Now the important question for all those in Quebec: What champagnes would you recommend for New Years partiers?

XB: “Something that’s really nice at the SAQ is Domaine Jacquesson. It’s a big producer and it costs somewhere in the $60 range. Champagne Drappier. It’s a brut, natural, zero-dosage. Zero-dosage means that no sugar is added after the disgorgement, so it will be dry, crisp, right from the start, perfect for an aperitif.”

AW: So these aren’t cheap, but you definitely pay for quality. You probably won’t be drinking bottles and bottles of the stuff all night. There are other natural, or almost natural wines at the SAQ that will get you through the rest of the night at a much lower cost (in the $20 range) such as Domaine Le Puy Cotes de Francs 2004 for $17.15, or the 2005 vintage for $24.45. There is also a large selection from J. P Amoreau that runs from the low $20’s on up.

For less expensive bubbly options, there are also Italian Prosecco and Spanish Cava, made following the same traditional champagne-making method, but the terroir – the climate in France, Italy or Spain where it’s made - and the kinds of grapes used to make the wines are different.

XB: Yes it’s different. It’s like comparing a merlot from Venezia, Italy with a merlot from Bordeaux and a merlot from South America. They’ll be completely different. There’ll maybe be one – the wine-making process comes into play. You can have merlots that are really easy to drink. You can have merlots that are tannic, concentrated, or somewhere in the middle. There are really no rules. The truth is really in the glass. You need to taste. You can never say that’s like that, this is like this. There are so many factors that make a difference. There are no general rules.”

AW: Xavier mentions that Prosecco and Cava have the same ups and downs with sulfites as champagnes, but if you choose carefully you can find a good bargain.

XB: “We have a Prosecco here at Trois Petits Bouchons – Casa Coste Piane, that’s a private importation. Prosecco that’s not too acidic, not too sweet. Very balanced. Unfiltered. Almost no sulfites. We have that open right now. We’re really enjoying it.

AW: As Xavier said, there are so many factors to what makes a good wine, from the grapes, to the terroir, to the wine-making process, to personal taste. So what’s the perfect New Year’s wine?

XB: It’s the one you like, I think anyway. It’s up to your own tastes. There are people who love huge Bordeaux, big Bordeaux, some people love big Burgundies, some people love South African, some people love Australian wine.”

AW: And, of course when you’re speaking with a sommelier, you have to ask what they would drink. So I asked Xavier what he’ll be sipping on New Year’s Eve.

XB: “Personally I like whites, I really like bubbles. So for me, sparkling wines – vibrant, bright. I love champagne. Vouette et Sorbee, the Fidèle vintage from Bertrand Gautherot.  It’s magic. It’s very affordable. Drappier, it’s very good. Jacquesson, I mentioned before. It’s really good. In the SAQ , there’s Domaine Valette. The Macon-Chaintré is sublime.”

AW: So if you’re at the SAQ looking for something to drink this New Year’s Eve, or any other night of the year, really, since you should be able to wake up bright and early without a pounding headache after a bottle of natural wine, make sure you do your research first. It’s rarely indicated in the store or even on the bottles if a wine is natural. And natural wines may not be placed in the “agro-bio/organic” section. Also, notes Xavier, you may have concerns with the more well-known, larger producers of organic wines. One person can look after 4 to 5 hectares of vines. Two employees maybe look after 8 or 10. But the big vineyards, the kind you see in the southern hemisphere, they have 600 hectares and they say they’re organic. It’s less expensive to produce per hectare because there’s more land, but it’s still a little peculiar.

Still, it’s all about taste. So enjoy your last night of 2010 with whatever you choose to drink. Then maybe in the New Year your best bet would be to go to Trois Petits Bouchons for a few glasses of what they have open at the moment and let your tastebuds guide you.

Trois Petits Bouchons is located at 4669 St-Denis, just north of Mont-Royal. Another natural wine bar in Montreal with a sommelier as passionate about healthy wines as Xavier is Comptoir Charcuteries et Vins, located at 4807 St-Laurent, south of St-Joseph. Links to the wines recommended by Xavier are on the CKUT Friday Morning After blog at ckutmorningafter.wordpress.com.  For CKUT, this is Amie Watson.