November 22, 2013

Talking Natural Wines with Rouge Tomate's Pascaline Lepeltier

Not long ago, I spoke with Pascaline Lepeltier, beverage director at Rouge Tomate, about her love for organic and biodynamic wines, and the restaurant’s holistic approach to beverages, food and nutrition.

A native of Brittany raised in the Loire Valley, she admits she’s been heavily influence by the great winemakers of that region. Hence the heavy representation of Loire wines on Rouge Tomate’s list, such as the organic 2012 muscadet Melon de Bourgogne from Domaine de la Pepiere ($11/glass) and Domaine Huet’s 2008 chenin blanc “Le Haut-Lieu Demi-Sec” Vouvray ($21/glass). By the bottle there’s the biodynamic 2010 Sancerre Domaine Vacheron for $39.

Vin naturel, a term in France that straddles both the domains of “organic” and “biodynamic” wines, is both a very old and a very new phenomenon in her country, says Lepeltier. Before the industrialization of farming and the advent of chemical fertilizers, apart from a little bit of sulphur dioxide, all wines were natural. But technology “went too far” she says, and now a subset of winemakers are looking beyond just increasing productivity, to a “more thoughtful, conscious way” of making wine.

She calls conventional wine, with its yeasts and additives “ready-to-drink” wines analogous to ready-to-wear clothes. They yield “no surprises because the wine will taste the same” at any point and in any vintage. Natural wines, by contrast, are akin to “the freshest orange or tomato, one day super sweet, flavorful, the next a little more subtle, maybe not as ready.” Lepeltier adds, “You need to accept that, work a bit, give a bit.”

 If natural wines sound like the high-maintenance-relationship version of wine compared to the more predictable partner you'll find in conventional wine, Lepeltier is in the game for the highs and lows.  She also speaks what some sommeliers may consider heresy: “I don’t think any more in terms of the consumer. I sell a lot of [natural] wine to a lot of people not used to it. It just takes a couple minutes to explain.”

In keeping with its overall focus on flavor, nutrition and sustainability, Rouge Tomate has on staff a nutritionist who tries to maximize the nutrient content of both food and beverages. Similarly, head bartender Christian Molina incorporates a healthy amount of fruits and vegetables in his cocktails, coming up with combination like his Smoking Sazerac made with bourbon, crab apple, grapefruit, Paychaud’s bitters, and ginger syrup.

The restaurant also offers cocktail and non-alcoholic drink pairings. “A lot of people don’t want to drink all the time,” explains Lepeltier, noting that it’s far more difficult to pair non-alcoholic drinks than their buzz-inducing siblings. “It’s way more difficult in fact,” she says, “because those drinks don't have the structure of alcohol.”