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The Origins of Aux Crieurs de Vin
A chat with Jean-Michel Wilmès, co-founder of Troyes natural wine institution Aux Crieurs de Vin.
In 1998, Troyes native Jean-Michel Wilmès partnered with his friend Nicolas Vauthier to found the seminal natural wine cave-à-manger Aux Crieurs de Vin. Over the next decade, their inviting, informal, and beautifully-stocked bistrot and wine shop would go on to inspire a generation of natural vignerons in the Aube and the Yonne, including Emmanuel Lassaigne, Charles Dufour, Alice and Olivier de Moor, among many others. Vauthier departed in 2008 to become a négoçiant in Avallon. Wilmès ran the show for another decade and alongside partner Franck Windel, who in 2019 sold his part of the business to longtime server Nicolas Urbanowicz.
Aux Crieurs de Vin under Wilmès and Urbanowicz remains as influential as ever: in December they hosted a fascinating tasting of natural Côteaux Champenois wines.
I caught up with Wilmès just afterwards to learn a little more about the origins of Aux Crieurs de Vin.
JEAN MICHEL WILMES: AN INTERVIEW
This interview was conducted in December 2021. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you and Nicolas Vauthier (a.k.a. Kikro) first meet?
Kikro was from Troyes, too. We were young. We’d see each other around when we were out drinking. In Troyes, there were three bistrots at the time. You know, when you’re drunk, you’re friends with everyone.
He did winemaking studies, and he’d gone to the USA. I can’t remember which region. When he came back, he was looking for work, and he came to see me. I got him hired where I was working, at [conventional French wine shop chain] Repaire de Bacchus. So we saw a lot more of each other then.
Were you already aware of natural wine then?
At the time, I drank especially grands vins. Bordeaux, Burgundy. It was Nicolas who had more of a taste for simpler wines. He started talking to me about the wines of Marcel Richaud, and things like that. Things with more fruit, and less oak barrel.
Around the same time, I went to Beaune, and there was a restaurant run by a guy called Eric, who’s in Orléans now. He had a Michelin-starred restaurant in Burgundy, and that’s where I drank my first bottles of Gramenon, Lapierre, and Overnoy. He told me once he’d rather do a tasting at Overnoy than at Romanée-Conti. This was in the 1990s. I said to myself, “What’s he talking about?”
So you became curious.
With Nicolas, I started to drink natural wine. Then there was an encounter I did with Nicolas. We went to see Marcel Lapierre.
He was strong in communication, Marcel. At his place, you’d taste his filtered, sulfited cuvée, his sulfited cuvée, and his natural cuvée. And he explained things no one had ever explained to us. There were no vignerons in Bordeaux or Burgundy who explained that they added tartaric acid. I never studied oenology, so for me it was like Chinese.
But there's a thing. You feel it in the wine when there's no sulfur. Even when there's a little, it changes the aesthetic of the wine. Even a wine that is sulfited at 15-20mg/L. The profile of wine is different to when there's really no sulfitage.
So with Nico, we said we'd open a bistrot. We didn't reflect too much, but we went for it. I was thirty and I had just gotten married. I liked to cook. Today I still wonder how we manage to still be here.
Manu Lassaigne told me you and Kikro got him into natural wine. Have there been many champagne vignerons that have shown interest in natural wines over the years?
Manu, he came to introduce himself, and he'd made a champagne that wasn’t too dosed. It was really interesting.
At the time there, weren't many vignerons working naturally. Marcel Lapierre was considered very extreme. I had an approach to natural wine, but my approach to champagne was something else at the time. I didn’t really understand non-dosed champagnes back then. We still drank dosed champagnes. And we weren’t making a big difference between what was farmed organically and what wasn’t. It was more a spirit of wine: the wines of friendship, wines that are easy to drink.
When did that become something we call natural wine?
It took a long time. What we liked was the anarchic side, the different, rock-and-roll side. Natural wine was alternative and underground. But it became democratized when it became known by a lot more people.
I’d say that, in the countryside, the acceptance of natural wine is really recent. It’s only since seven or eight years that we’ve really begun succeeding as a business.
For you, how do the aesthetics of natural wine apply to a champagne?
For me, one discovery was with Drappier, with their brut nature cuvée. It’s not organic, and there's sulfur. But there was already an association that “nature” meant not dosed. Whereas for something to be natural is very different.
Nowadays, a natural wine in Champagne, it means rather that something is organic, undosed, and unsulfited. That starts to arise now, in the last five or six years. But yeasting is important in Champagne, of course. Champagne is still something else.
Would you say there’s less willingness to experiment, due to the threat of having one’s wine rejected from the appellation and sent to the distillery?
Nowadays in the Aube and the Marne, you can find champagnes with mouse and volatile acidity. But it's because they're small producers who aren't checked up on. But the day they get checked [by the CIVC], it'll be really painful. Even Manu Lassaigne, who makes really correct wines, he’s regularly bothered by the CIVC.
We have to remember that in Champagne, vignerons [who grow and bottle their own champagne] represent nothing in terms of the region’s production.
Aux Crieurs de Vin
4 Pl. Jean Jaurès
Tel: +33 3 25 40 01 01
A 2013 visit to Nicolas Vauthier.