11 Questions for a Natural-Wine Evangelist
French-born sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier of NYC’s Rouge Tomate explains her devotion to unadulterated wines.
First things first: What is natural wine?
It’s a wine made with grapes grown with organic or biodynamic farming, then transformed in the winery without any additives—no chemical intervention. You can have physical intervention—cool it down, pump it from one place to another—but no chemical intervention. So…it’s fermented grape juice. And that’s it.
Is it better than other wines?
In terms of taste? That’s something very personal, taste. I think the interesting thing about natural wine is that it backs away from a whole approach to farming that became the norm after World War II. Wine moved from being something agricultural to something manufactured: a product. That led to wines that are well made but that don’t really express or embody variations in site, in year or in the talents of the craftsmen making them.
If a wine tastes good, though, does it matter how it’s made?
There are very few things in this world that can express the landscape, the year and so on, that you can also eat or drink. Wine is one of them. And it’s an extraordinary one, because you can enjoy wine the day it’s made, or you can enjoy it years after it’s been made. So, do you want to let it become something that’s just an alcoholic beverage made with grape juice to fit a marketing plan? That’s why I’d rather not say that natural wine tastes better, but that it’s more interesting.
What’s your favorite wine region?
Ah—the Loire! Over and over again. If I think of one region where I can buy great dry whites for $10, and great reds, and sparkling, and sweet wines, both full-bodied and lighter wines—really everything—that’s the one. Plus, it’s my home. I grew up in Angers.
What about your favorite grape variety?
Chenin Blanc. It’s a grape that can do everything—from dry table wines to late-harvest sweet wines to dessert styles to crisp sparkling wines. It has the ability to express the soil; also, it’s a grape with structure. And I love the aromas! It’s not only fruit. There are a lot of vegetal, herbal notes. A lot of earth notes. A lot of spice.
And favorite pairings?
Lobster and Chenin Blanc! Roast a lobster and serve it with a Savennières [which is made with Chenin Blanc]. Or poach the lobster and use some Thai spices, then go with Vouvray [also made with Chenin Blanc]. Or oysters and Muscadet—so much better than oysters and Chablis. Or, for a red, pork with Cabernet Franc. Roast pork, charcuterie, rillettes—all awesome. And I love Pineau d’Aunis and eel.
I’ll pass on the eel, thanks.
It’s wonderful. But any river fish with Pineau d’Aunis works very well.
As a sommelier, do you ever get strange wine requests?
A customer did ask for a red Chardonnay one time. She was positive she’d had one the night before! I try to have a diverse enough list to provide anything…but not red Chardonnay. She ended up having Pinot Noir.
That does raise a question, though: What do you do when someone wants one of the big, familiar names?
My idea is to have something for every palate. I won’t necessarily have ultra-familiar wines, like Cakebread Chardonnay, at Rouge Tomate [the restaurant will reopen at a new downtown location this summer]. But that doesn’t mean I won’t have a Chardonnay in that richer, broader, sweeter style. I just look for wines that are more in tune with my philosophy. So, for example, I work a lot with Porter Creek’s Chardonnay, which is made using organically farmed grapes and is about the same price as Cakebread.
How did you get into wine?
My first philosophy teacher! Whom I fell in love with the way everyone falls in love with their first philosophy teacher. He loved wine. And when I passed my exams with the highest grades possible, he got me a bottle of Veuve Clicquot rosé and we drank it together in the courtyard of the high school. I was 16.
Sixteen? Was that even legal?
Oh, you know, my grandparents live in Calvados, they sold their apples to make Calvados, I had Calvados touched to my lips at three weeks old. It’s France.
7 of Pascaline Lepeltier's Favorite Wines
2012 Champ Des Treilles Vin Passion Blanc ($18)
“This little gem is what delicious Bordeaux with elegance should be, and so affordable! And everything is organically farmed.”
2013 Dashe Cellars Les Enfants Terribles Heart Arrow Ranch Zinfandel ($24)
“For his Les Enfants Terribles wines, Mike Dashe uses natural yeasts, very little sulfur and, in this case, grapes from a biodynamic vineyard. It’s light and fruity but with some earthy depth, and fairly priced, too.”
2012 Frantz Saumon Montlouis Minéral + ($27)
“This organically farmed Loire Valley wine is so precise—a wonderful expression of Chenin grown on limestone and flint.”
2008 Cascina Degli Ulivi Nibiô Dolcetto ($28)
“Stefano Bellotti is one of Italy’s strongest voices in favor of respectful farming practices and biodiversity. I love his Dolcetto—it’s deep, muscular and a little dirty (in a good way).”
2013 Clemens Busch Marienburg Kabinett Riesling ($30)
“We should just applaud these guys, because they’re among the only ones trying to farm biodynamically in Germany’s Mosel region. This ’13 Riesling? Boom! It has incredible acidity and beautifully intense fruit.”
Nv Valentin Zusslin CréMant D’Alsace Brut Zéro Sans Soufre ($32)
“Zusslin’s Crémant (sparkling wine) is just spectacular; anyone who thinks that a wine made without sulfur will always end up stinky needs to try it. In fact, it has an elegance that certain Champagne guys ought to take note of.”
2013 Bedrock Wine Co. The Bedrock Heritage Red ($55)
“When you walk in this 1880s vineyard, you’re right at the historical beginning of winemaking in California. And the wine, for me, is a naked taste of what California’s all about: a little rusticity, plus ripe black fruit and great structure.”