Inside the Illegal Natural Wine Bar Run by a French Sommelier

Hidden behind a nondescript garage door in the neighborhood of Palermo, sommelier Nicolas Ronceray serves the country’s best bottles of natural wine.

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Apr 15 2017, 4:00pm

It's 8 o'clock on a Friday night, and we've arrived to our destination: a nondescript garage door in the Palermo barrio of Buenos Aires. This is the address Nicolas Ronceray provided us by email, but from the unassuming exterior, you'd never guess what's inside.

All photos by Charles-Henry Salmon.

I ring once, then a second time, before the peephole finally slides back. We identify ourselves and the door swings wide open. "Hold on, I need to water the plants," Nicolas says. "Have a glass of the Chardonnay from Alberto" (Cecchin, a winemaker in Mendoza). "Start without me; I'll be right back."

You can't just show up to Los Divinos on a whim; it's a puerta cerrada, one of the illegal "closed-door" restaurants that are rapidly gaining popularity in Buenos Aires.

But this isn't your run-of-the-mill puerta cerrada. We are inside what resembles a true Parisian cave à manger, founded by a guy who used to work at Le Verre Volé, the beloved hangout of natural wine aficionados in the 10th arrondissement. It's safe to assume they know a thing or two about wine here.

Ten minutes after our arrival, Nicolas, an energetic native of Brittany, is back by our side. He starts unpacking his resume: "I realized that when you work for other people, you accomplish other people's dreams." With that in mind, he said "ciao" to his salaried job, hit the road, and toured France's small-scale wineries for two years in an RV before leaving for Buenos Aires for the first time, where he learned the tango and shacked up with a real "firecracker" along the way. Then he was off to Hong Kong to help open a wine bar before settling back down in Argentina, where he's been living for the last six years.

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Ten minutes after our arrival, Nicolas, an energetic native of Brittany, is back by our side. He starts unpacking his resume: "I realized that when you work for other people, you accomplish other people's dreams." With that in mind, he said "ciao" to his salaried job, hit the road, and toured France's small-scale wineries for two years in an RV before leaving for Buenos Aires for the first time, where he learned the tango and shacked up with a real "firecracker" along the way. Then he was off to Hong Kong to help open a wine bar before settling back down in Argentina, where he's been living for the last six years.

Nicolas never compromises when it comes to his selection, and his network of winemakers includes everyone from a rugby player in the outskirts of Córdoba, who ploughed his vineyard with dynamite, to a ceramic artist from Cafayate who has been making wine ever since he learned how to walk. There's not much room for hesitation when it comes time to choose a wine—he calls all the shots: a glass for you, one for him.

We talk and talk while the space—a former ironworks transformed into a stylish bistro/bar—fills up. An artist friend has drawn a naked woman on the blackboard, a cigarette hanging from her lips, seated on the edge of a bucket. An old-fashioned scale, filled with magnums, is hung from the ceiling.

READ MORE: The Fine Art of Making Natural Wine in Quebec

The bar snakes out from the tiny kitchen where he works, and a vintage Berkel slicer sits atop the mezzanine. "The brand had production factories in Argentina, so I started selling them, which allowed me to finance Los Divinos," he reveals when asked about the machine's origins.

We realize that it might be time to get a little solid food in our stomachs, now that the potatoes have finally been peeled and bottled after bottle has vanished into thin air. "Food should be self-evident," he says. We navigate between roast ham and his famous mashed potatoes, grouper infused with pink peppercorns, and a plate of local cheeses sourced with the same care as the wines.

READ MORE: Argentina's Best Restaurants Are Illegal

The hands of the clock keep turning, and finally it's 2:30 in the morning, probably time to call it a night. But we hadn't counted on the cash-only policy, so we are forced to return shamefaced the next day to settle our debts—as good an excuse as any to have another glass.

Nicolas' selection of 5 good Argentinian wines:

Alberto Cecchin, Graciana 2015, Maipú, Mendoza: "Graciana is a very little-known varietal, and Alberto, the driving force behind natural wines in Argentina, vinifies it in a very gentle way so that it yields all of its delicacy and finesse. A true delight."

Bodega Taller Utama, produced by Sacha Haro Galli, Mural 2015, Cafayate, Salta: "A 50 percent Criolla, 25 percent Malbec, and 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Sacha is an artist and sculptor from the Calchaquí Valleys. He has an incredible gift for making light, fascinating wines. This is an astonishing wine with delicate aromas of summer fruits, and floral notes as well. Spellbinding, and absolutely exquisite on the tongue."

Finca La Rosendo, Criollo 2015, San Rafael, Mendoza: "Virginia and Alejandro, two photographers from Buenos Aires, decided to leave the city 13 years ago in order to look after a farm in the countryside, which had 4 hectares of grape vines. So they started making wine, among other things! Criollo is a typical Argentinian varietal—one that's often disparaged and rarely praised. But they produce a wine that's light, gourmet, and very crisp. It's the ideal wine for sipping under an apple tree with your sweetheart or for drinking all night long with friends!"

Vipa Nacuma, produced by Fabian Salese, Barbera 2014, San Rafael, Mendoza: "Fabian's self-effacement is only matched by the simultaneous wildness and depth of the contents of his bottles. This Barbera is voluptuously spicy, carnal, and blood-red, but there's a certain lightness to its density. It's one of a kind."

Manuel Garcia Riccardi, Malbec 2014, Las Heras, Mendoza: "Manuel decided, for various reasons, to transform his house into a wine cellar where he could produce wine. His living room, bedrooms, and garage are overrun with all kinds of barrels. He raises various robust wines much like he would his own children. This one here is deep, complex, and full-bodied, but it has managed to maintain a natural balance that a lot of commercial Argentinian wines often lack. It's like a big slap in the face that really gets your blood flowing! It just goes to show…"

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