Many of the 300 bottles or so on the list may indeed be distinctive and excellent, but they are also relentlessly obscure, with characteristics that some people may find surprising, and occasionally even appalling.
Rather than lard the list with expensive wines, as so many high-end restaurants do, Frenchette has devoted much of its lineup to the extremely reasonable $ 50- to $ 85-a-bottle range. That is still a lot to pay for wine, perhaps, but well below the Manhattan destination-restaurant norm, in which the wine list is often used as a cash cow to subsidize other parts of the operation.
In short, it’s a challenging list that may annoy some people who want recognizable names, yet is also brilliant. Mr. Riera, the wine director who came to Frenchette from Contra and Wildair, has built a list full of wonderful discoveries, great values and the sort of direct, unmediated experiences that characterize natural wines at their best. Almost all the wines are low in alcohol as well, 13 percent or less, and they go very well with the cuisine.
But Mr. Riera will have a lot of explaining to do, introducing producers and regions that will largely be unknown to people, no matter how well versed they may be in Burgundy, Barolo or Napa Valley.
“I did that on purpose,” Mr. Riera said. “It’s meant to stimulate a conversation about wine and go from there.”
The idea, he said, is to eliminate preconceptions that people may have about how a wine ought to taste, creating the potential for discovery and surprise.
“It’s the same thing I did at Wildair and Contra,” he said. “I was able to delve deeper in this list, expand in areas where I couldn’t before due to size and budget restrictions.”
It’s an idealistic notion. When you don’t know exactly what to expect from a wine, you can experience it at an exhilarating level of intensity.
It reminds me a bit of dining at one of the temples of molecular gastronomy, like the now departed WD-50, where the chef Wylie Dufresne famously served an oyster flattened into something resembling a marble tile. To eat it was like mystery evolving into delight, as flavors long taken for granted were rediscovered, as if for the first time.
“We’ve worked with Jorge before, and we’ve been big fans of his as a natural wine Yoda,” Mr. Hanson said. “Personally, my best wine experiences are just sitting with him and drinking whatever he’s pouring.”
Mr. Nasr and Mr. Riera go back almost 30 years, to the late ’80s when they both worked at Park Bistro, a French restaurant on Park Avenue South that has long since closed. They went on in 1997 to open Balthazar, Keith McNally’s signature downtown restaurant. There, Mr. Riera was introduced to natural wines by Jonathan Nossiter, the sommelier, who went on to a career as a filmmaker and author.
Mr. Riera has become a key force in New York since then, promoting natural wines and building an audience for them, first at 360, an influential though brief-lived restaurant in Red Hook, Brooklyn, then at the Ten Bells, the Lower East Side wine bar, before moving on to Contra and Wildair.
Natural wines are no longer the furtive property of an insurgent group, as they were 15 years ago, when you essentially had to know the secret handshake to find them. Restaurants on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn and wine bars like the Ten Bells and Four Horsemen have built entire identities around natural wines. Eater.com has even published a map showing where you can drink them.
Acclaimed restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen and Joe Beef in Montreal have emphasized natural wines. But rarely, and never in Manhattan, has a restaurant as seemingly mainstream as Frenchette taken such a forthright, unequivocal stand in their favor.
For years, these wines have represented an easy button to push for anyone wanting to ignite a skirmish in the wine culture wars. Back in 2012, Steve Cuozzo, the restaurant critic at The New York Post, wrote a tirade assailing the restaurant Reynard, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for its list focused on obscure natural wines, of which, he said, he recognized not a single bottle.
That same year, mainstream wine critics were arguing that natural wines were foisting a scam on consumers. Nonetheless, the influence and importance of natural wines have grown as some of its favored genres, like pétillant naturel, have become, if not exactly mainstream, at least not uncommon.
For Frenchette, the decision to focus on natural wines had little to do with marketing or the bottom line, its principals say, and all to do with food and atmosphere.
“If we’re going to cook traditional food, slightly more contemporary, lightened up just a touch, it would pair better with a more contemporary, which is really to say a more ancient, approach to winemaking,” Mr. Nasr said. “I think it makes sense, and maybe people can get on board with a sense of discovery. It’s supposed to be fun and provocative to a degree, but in a pleasurable way.”
In both the food and the wine, Mr. Nasr said, the intent was to create a feeling of lightness: slightly smaller portions, clarity and precision, that will not leave guests waking up the next morning feeling hung over from either the food or the wine.
As for the prices, Mr. Nasr said it was a conscious decision to rein them in, particularly for the wine.
“We’re not building a trophy restaurant,” he said. “I’ve been a cook pretty much my whole life, and $ 200 bottles are not something I really purchase.”
Mr. Hanson said the selection of less expensive, lower-alcohol wines encourages a progression over the course of a meal, “a cocktail, maybe a couple of $ 50 bottles rather than one $ 200 power bomb.”
One area where diners can splurge if they choose is Champagne, where critically acclaimed producers like Vouette & Sorbée and Ulysse Collin happen to work naturally. You can drink a naturally made Cornas from Hirotake Ooka that is a lesson in clarity and purity, or a deliciously deep though obviously unfiltered St.-Aubin from Julien Altabar’s Domaine Sextant.
But more often, Mr. Riera has selected producers who, whether because of an independent streak or because their wines don’t conform to a perceived norm, work outside the appellation system. On this list, Cornas and St.-Aubin are the exceptions to the more frequent Vins de France, a catchall category that has gained credibility as more producers have come to rely on the reputation of their own names rather than their regions. He also has more wines from Auvergne, a mountainous region in central France not known for viticulture, than I have ever seen anywhere.
Likewise, outside France, Mr. Riera has chosen to work with small, little-known appellations rather than prestigious ones: Conca de Barberà in Spain rather than Rioja, grignolino and ruché from the Piedmont region of Italy rather than Barolo. And you can find an excellent range of eastern European natural wines, like Strekov 1075 of Slovakia, which makes Rozália, a superb, refreshing rosé pétillant naturel.
“They’re all family farms, working by hand, no herbicides or pesticides, low yields, minimal sulfur or none,” Mr. Riera said. “Farming is the most important thing, and I think what the vines produce, beautiful, positive mineral energy. It’s just a nutritious drink, the way wine should be.”
In a small grace note, Arnaud Erhart, the proprietor of the influential 360 restaurant, is working the floor at Frenchette. He closed 360 in 2007 and, with his wife, Tania Puell, moved to Vieques, P.R., to run a diving business. Vieques was badly hit by Hurricane Maria last year, and the area is still recovering. So Mr. Erhart, who said he still has to pay his bills there, will be at Frenchette for the foreseeable future.
It’s a long way from Red Hook for Mr. Erhart and for natural wines.NYT > Food