Category Archives: Natural Wine

Rock and Roll Survives With Chef Fred Ménager, Poultry Breeder Extraordinaire At La Ferme de la Ruchotte

Rock and Roll Survives With Chef Fred Ménager, Poultry Breeder Extraordinaire At La Ferme de la Ruchotte

Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in Burgundy’s Mâcon region, Frédéric Ménager dreamed of one day ripping guitar solos in a rock and roll band. His family had more immediate ideas, and so Ménager began the long, hard quest to become a chef in France. He worked in Paris and at Restaurant Alain Chapel (with a Michelin-three star rating) before eventually becoming executive chef at Castel de Très Girard, a respected gastronomic restaurant in Morey-Saint-Denis, Burgundy.

One of La Ferme de la Ruchotte’s free-range “ancient race” birds. Photo Credit: Juliette Ranck

But as a rocker at heart with an urge for creative independence, Ménager made a life changing decision to leave the restaurant in 2002. He and his wife, Eva, took a major risk by buying La Ferme de la Ruchotte, a farm where Ménager could chart his own unique path as a poultry breeder and part-time chef. Fifteen years later Ménager has emerged as a respected  champion of the “farm to plate” model not only in Burgundy, but around France and internationally. And his passion for heavy metal, hard rock, popular and classical music flourishes stronger than ever.

The 12.5 acre La Ferme de la Ruchotte lies at the end of a serpentine road on top of a hill above the village of Bligny-sur-Ouche, 25 kilometers from Beaune. The farm provides a free-range paradise for Ménager’s passion and specialty—chickens, coqs vierges, and poulardes descended from colorful, ancient French lines such as the Gaulloise Dorée, Barbezieux, Le Mans, La Flèche, and Coucou de Rennes. He also raises rare, ancient breeds of turkeys, guinea fowl, and ducks—over 2,000 poultry in all—along with ten rugged Solognot sheep and twenty black Gascon pigs. One llama, an ostrich, a big black dog and various felines keep them all company. For good measure, Ménager tends an extensive potager garden with greens, carrots, leeks, radishes, celery, beets, peppers….you name it. He also grows diverse fruits.

Everything thAB pubrives in the farm’s self-contained, organic environment which is certified by the bright green and white “AB”—Agriculture Biologique—sign at the entrance. Vegetables and fruits grow without synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Animals breed and mature without synthetic antibiotics and genetically modified methods. Ménager sees a critical rapport between a healthy, uncontaminated farm and high quality poultry.

“Organic farming guarantees a healthy diet to the animals and a life in the best conditions,” he says. “The breeding time is also longer, and the slaughter is done according to very precise criteria. Ultimately the product is healthier and therefore better for the consumer.”

“A chicken of quality must have firm and muscular flesh, be flavorful and properly fattened,” Ménager adds. “The skin must be fine and well oiled.”

la ruchotte table
A ceramic bird in the dining room.

Chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants around Burgundy covet Ménager’s tasty bounty, but he also sells to more casual, but excellent culinary destinations such as Caves Madelaine Beaune. Individual customers order poultry for holidays and special occasions. And on Saturdays and Sundays only, Ménager and Eva welcome guests by reservation into their home for a lunchtime meal unlike any other.

On a Sunday in May, Eva greets guests warmly into the cheerfully decorated farmhouse dining room. Inviting aromas fill the snug room while Fred works in the well appointed professional kitchen just through an open doorway. A chalkboard near the fire place features the fixed menu which this day offers Poule en Gelée with new Spring greens, Coq au Vin with Spring vegetables, cheese, and a dessert of chocolate ice cream, gingerbread and gaufrette, a wafer thin, slightly sweet cone.

Homemade, crusty bread and silky pork rillettes await guests who sit at either a large communal table or several smaller tables. My wife and I sat at the communal table next to a couple of American restaurant owners and sommeliers on one side. On our other side sat organic/biodynamic winegrower Yann Durieux with his wife and charming, young daughter. The affable Durieux worked and trained with some of Burgundy’s leading “bio” wine producers. His own domaine, Recrue des Sens, has a rapidly growing reputation for producing deliciously pure and fresh Hautes-Côtes de Nuits wines. Dureiux makes wines “naturally” with little intervention and no added sulfites.

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Fred Ménager reveals a bit of his hard rock inspired tattoos otherwise concealed by the white chef’s jacket. Another tattoo–in vivid green, of course—refers to his “100% Organic” commitment. Photo Credit: Juliette Ranck

Back in the kitchen Ménager plates the first course as the sounds of AC/DC’s hard rock anthems play at modest volume. The chef is a picture of concentration. The music helps keep him focused and inspired.

“Music remains indispensable and inseparable in my life,’ says Ménager who recalls Django Reinhardt’s distinctive, unforgettable guitar playing in his childhood. “Then I took a slap listening to Led Zeppelin’s first album. Jimmy Page remains an incomparable genius. I also remain very impressed by Elvis’ incredible voice, and the unique Steven Tyler”

Other favorites on his eclectic playlist include Serge Gainsbourg, Van Halen’s first album, Jimi Hendrix, Ozzy Osbourne, the Beatles, Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi.

Black Label Society lead man Zakk Wylde, a Bayonne, New Jersey native whom Ménager has met twice, also sits atop the list. “A man of great kindness who has immense respect for his fans.” Ménager notes.

He credits Chef Philippe Jousse at Restaurant Alain Chapel with teaching hard work, commitment and discipline as values essential for a chef to show similar respect for dinner guests.

“At Restaurant Alain Chapel I learned that good food is not possible without good products,” Ménager recalls. “In the kitchen I learned camaraderie and the great techniques of French cooking. Philippe Jousse remains for me the greatest technician.”

As the chef at Castel de Très Girard, Ménager constantly searched for quality products to produce quality food. After starting to raise chickens as a hobby, a fellow poultry breeder introduced him to France’s “ancient races.”

“I raised, ate and discovered something exceptional. The chickens just turned my life upside down!” Ménager says.

He and his wife took the plunge at La Ferme de la Ruchotte unsure of the economic viability of their “farm to plate” model. But they envisioned potential benefits, too.

“We decided to reorient our lives to a more ethical ideal with more autonomy and independence,” he recalls. “I try to show my clients and guests that self-sufficiency is possible. You no longer have to depend on big agribusiness.”

Coq au vin made from an "ancient race" chicken.
Coq au vin made from an “ancient race” chicken. Photo Credit: Kate DeSimone

By controlling the production channel from birth of the animals through slaughter, Ménager maintains the genetic diversity that is critical to quality.

“Year after year I have observed and tasted my animals. We now know how to make a great chicken, but work still remains to be done,” he says. “Genetic diversity remains the most important thing in order to maintain a livestock with a strong capacity to adapt to its environment.”

At our Sunday lunch, the succulent Coq au Vin and vegetables are a revelation. The bird’s firm, flavorful dark meat and rich sauce marry seamlessly. The fresh Spring vegetables cooked to perfection add savory accents. It is a delicious, hearty course where traditional simplicity allows sublime ingredients to hold center stage.

The 2015 Domaine Rougeot Bourgogne rouge.
The delicious 2015 Domaine Rougeot Bourgogne rouge made with whole grape clusters and minimal sulfites.

On the wine list, Ménager offers bottles made primarily from organically cultivated grapes. Well known producers such Domaine des Comtes Lafon and Domaine Dujac jump out.  But lesser known yet terrific producers such as Yann Durieux at Recrue des Sens and Marc Rougeot at Domaine Rougeot Père & Fils in Meursault also catch the eye.

“Wine is very important for us. It is in our genes and is an integral part of our Burgundy culture,” Ménager says. “I love wines that tell a story about the history of Burgundy terroir and the work of soils. Plus many of our wines come from growers who have become friends and who love what we do here. So there is coherence in our collaboration.”

As the Sunday meal draws to a close, sated guests linger under La Ferme de la Ruchotte’s spell. We are all happy savoring the pleasure of this memorable culinary moment.

“Being able to feed our guests with animals we saw born and that we cook as best we can is without doubt my best achievement,” Ménager says. “I love to live on farm with the people who work here and share great moments of happiness like the birth of animals. Slaughtering the animals is not easy, you know, but I live this as a sacrifice.”

“I like to make a kitchen that puts forward my products. As a cook, I am only a courier,” he adds.”The cook should fade in front of an animal that by his sacrifice will feed customers. Great products do not need much. The stars should be the product and the peasant.”

Rock on, Monsieur!

“Hey there, all you middle men,
Throw away your fancy clothes.
And while you’re out there sittin’ on a fence,
Get off your ass and come down here.
‘Cause rock ‘n’ roll ain’t no riddle man
To me it makes good, good sense.

Rock ‘N’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution
by AC/DC

(Photo Credit to Juliette Ranck for portrait of Fred Ménager.)

 

 

 

 

Leroy Delivers Startling, Delightful Moment at Burgundy Wine Lunch–Theme: Pommard.

Leroy Delivers Startling, Delightful Moment at Burgundy Wine Lunch–Theme: Pommard.

Each Tuesday our little tasting group in Pittsburgh dreams of our favorite wine region, Burgundy, by sharing wines over a modest lunch at a local bistro. This week’s theme happened to be Pommard, and as usual we tasted the wines “blind” without foreknowledge of the producer, specific climat and vintage. The experience is always instructive and fun, and occasionally delightful with startling surprises. This week was no exception.

The first wine offered a promising start. Its ruddy color showed cellar aging and smelled of ripe red fruits with meaty, earthy notes. In the mouth, pure, ripe dark red fruit with good concentration and fine freshness suggested a good older vintage. A touch of firm tannins remained on the finish, but the wine’s overall balance led to guesses of a premier cru from 1998, 1999 or 2002.

Indeed it was the 1999 Domaine Jean-Marc Bouley, Pommard “Les Rugiens” 1er cru, and what a wonder delight it was to drink. Many of our little group of 7 or 8 Burgundy fans have purchased wines from Jean-Marc Bouley since the early 1990’s. In the past the wines’ firm tannins resolved reluctantly, but this lovely wine from the great 1999 vintage was completely on point. (Now with the son, Thomas Bouley working with meticulous care in the vineyards, this domaine is on the rise, so do not hesitate to buy.) The first wine, as it turned out, was only a prologue to the next miraculous wine.

1990 Domaine Leroy, Pommard "Les Vignots"--a miraculously fresh and delicious village from a good vintage.
1990 Domaine Leroy, Pommard “Les Vignots”–a miraculously fresh and delicious village wine from a good vintage.

The second wine showed a dark, youthful ruby color in the glass. Fresh, ripe red fruit and pleasant earthy notes wafted from the glass. The wine’s pure red fruits had marvelous concentration brought into perfect focus and balance with startlingly fresh acidity and minerality wrapped in elegant tannins. Tasters’ guesses ranged across 2013 to 2005 to 2002 for vintage and most assuredly a premier cru.

Wrong and wrong! The 1990 Domaine Leroy, Pommard :”Les Vignots” was 27 years “young” and from a well placed village lieu-dit. It left our experienced group of Burgundy tasters shaking our heads. The vibrant color, the pure fruit, the unbridled freshness, and the wine’s sheer vitality in the glass delivered pleasure second to none.

As for the reasons, certainly the bottle was purchased directly at the time of release and cellar aged properly for decades. The “Vignots” climat is a fine terroir,  rich in clay and limestone on a slope with good drainage But in the end, one concludes that only a vigneron with the passion and savoir-faire of Lalou Bize-Leroy could make such the wine.

Her legendary vineyard practices rely on a biodynamic approach and incorporate meticulously detailed work by hand on each vine. Chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and pesticides never touch either the soils or the vines. Only natural teas and herbal mixtures are applied to tap into the vines’ natural energies and capacities to resist diseases on their own.

Early in the season–often during raw weather in April–time consuming ébourgeonnage by hand removes buds selectively from each vine to maintain low yields. As the season progresses the tips of the vines are neither clipped nor trimmed to maximize energy within the vines. Additional removal of buds occurs after flowering.

Selection of only ripe fruit occurs during hand harvesting followed by a meticulous second selection in the cuverie to ensure only the best fruit goes into wooden vats. Fermentation occurs with native yeasts and whole bunches of grapes, stems and all. Gentle punch downs and remontage occur during slow fermentation. After pressing, the new wines go by gravity for aging first into one cellar and then into an even deeper, colder cellar until final bottling.

But all this description of process matters little to the ultimate dazzling reality of the wine in the glass, in this case after twenty seven years in bottle. It was yet another blind tasting demonstrating that Lalou Bize-Leroy can produce spectacular wines of unrivaled pleasure and refinement. So pity the wines that followed.

Pommard lunch wines at Paris 66 French bistro in Pittsburgh.
Pommard lunch wines at Paris 66 French bistro in Pittsburgh.

Yet both wines held their own. The 2010 Domaine de Courcel, Pommard “Grand Clos des Épenots” 1er cru offered pretty red fruit aromas a hint of smokiness leading to fresh, correct red fruit flavors with modest concentration.Plenty of fresh acidity and firm tannins will allow the wine to age gracefully for another 5 to 10 uears.

The 1998 Domaine de Courcel, Pommard “Grand Clos des Épenots” 1er cru had a dusky ruby color with some brown at the rim. Ripe dark plum and red fruit aromas and plenty of earthy notes led to ripe, round red fruit and meaty flavors. Fine acidity and resolved tannins added good balance and structure.

Next Tuesday’s Burgundy Lunch–Volnay. Stay tuned!

 

Brothers at Burgundy’s Domaine Chevrot Highlight and Reclaim Maranges’ Distinctive Terroirs

Brothers at Burgundy’s Domaine Chevrot Highlight and Reclaim Maranges’ Distinctive Terroirs

To visit Dochevrot3-3maine Chevrot’s Maranges 1er cru vineyards of “Le Croix Moines” and “La Fussière,” winegrower Pablo Chevrot locks in the four-wheel drive on his truck and buckles the seatbelt. He navigates up a rocky, steep slope to the high terrasse where the marvelous climats lie in serenity and sunshine.

For Pablo and his brother Vincent, the enthralling panoramic views from this beautiful place are a bonus. Cultivating vines in the distinctive terroir holds the primary attraction. The vineyards hug the southern tip of Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune and extend over three villages—Dezize, Sampigny and Cheilly.

The Chevrot’s cultivate mainly “old vine” Pinot Noir plants here. But seven years ago they jumped at the chance to plant Chardonnay vines at the top of the hillside, just below the forest in a site abandoned for nearly sixty years.

chevrot-maranges“It was an unique opportunity to cultivate and reclaim premier cru vineyards, so I was very happy to do it,” Pablo recalls. “But the work was longer and much harder than we expected.”

They cleared dense scrub and trees and removed huge stones from the soils before planting the vineyard with diverse selection masssale cuttings from the best vines in their existing vineyards. The method decreases yields compared to using commercial clones, but it enhances the chances for more flavorful wines with distinct personality.

The forest shelters the vines from cold north winds from above, while consistent warm air from below prevents damaging frosts.  But its the complex soils that Pablo and Vincent find especially intriguing.

Marls—a mix of clay and fossilized limestone—predominate in the subsoils, while the covering scree holds limestone rocks mixed with significant numbers of chailles. The latter are small, reddish, flinty stones rich in silica that regulates moisture. Pablo says the complex soils convey refreshing minerality and smokiness to complement the grapes’ ripe fruitiness and ample acidity.

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To maximize the best quality fruit, the Chervot’s have long worked organically without applying chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. The process requires year round, tricky vineyard work that over time results in healthy, vital soils and naturally vigorous vines.

Until 2016. Domaine Chevrot maintained ECOCERT certification, but this year’s extraordinary mildew attacks during flowering required extreme measures.

“We sprayed chemicals to combat the incredible mildew. We still lost 50% rather than the entire crop,” Pablo notes. “It was very difficult, but the final quality was good in 2016.”

The vineyards will lose organic certification for three years because of the extraordinary measures. But Pablo remains optimistic.

“This year alone did not completely undo the good effects of the hard organic work we’ve done on the vines for many years before,” he adds.

Down the hillside on a  lower terrasse near the Cosanne River, the brothers cultivate both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Maranges “Sur le Chene,” a village lieu dit.
chevrot

Again the vines hug a steep slope, but here the soils combine Jurassic limestone and alluvial, decomposed granite sands and rocks. Large stones and gravelly soils predominate nearer the bottom as the vineyard approaches the river.

Across the small river closer to the Chevrot family homestead, the domaine has vines classified as Haut Côtes de Beaune and Bourgogne. Pablo and Vincent also make a dry white Aligoté from 50-old vines as well as dry, sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne. The domaine produces other red and white wines from vines in the neighboring village of Santenay.

Over a casual, but tasty lunch of Jambon Persillé and Bœuf Bourguignon, the brothers join their affable parents, Fernand and Catherine. The parents began expanding the domaine significantly in 1973, and they clearly passed along a passion for the soils, vines and wines to their sons.

The brothers work with dedication and precision to produce pure, delicious wines as naturally as possible. Now the circle remains unbroken. Pablo and Vincent are introducing their own young children to the passions, pleasures and traditions of winegrowing.

Reasonable US domestic prices for Domaine Chevrot’s high quality wines create tremendous value.

Tasting Notes:
2015 Domaine Chevrot Maranges Blanc:
The fruit comes from gravelly soils, and in the warm 2015 vintage ad touches of botrytis mold which according to Pablo further concentrated the Chardonnay. The juice was barrel fermented. Bottling occurred with minimal sulfites. Ripe peach. apricot and orange aromas balanced with pure, rich fruit and fresh acidity. Outstanding wine.
2014 Domaine Chevrot Maranges “La Fussière” 1er cru Blanc: Made from the younger Chardonnay vines planted at top of the steep hillside in limestone and “Chaille” soils. Fresh grapefruit and smoky aromas lead to crisp citrus and apple flavors. Well balanced, pure fruit in the dry finish.
2014 Domaine Chevrot Bourgogne Aligoté, Cuvée Speciale “Tilleul”: Made from 50-year old vines in a site farmed with a horse. The wine is barrel aged for fifteen months. Aromas of quince and peach open to ripe fruit of citrus and ginger spice. Fresh acidity and refreshing mineral notes balance the clean, direct and dry finish.
2014 Domaine Chevrot Maranges “Le Croix Moines” 1er cru: Fifty percent of the hand harvested Pinot Noir grapes for this wine fermented in whole bunches with stems to create balanced texture. Ripe, black fruit aromas open to black cherry flavors. Vibrant acidity and firm, elegant tannins frame the long, fruity finish. A few years of cellar aging will round out the wine beautifully.
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2013 Domaine Chevrot Maranges “Le Croix Moines” 1er Cru: The dark red cherry color unfolds fresh cherry and raspberry aromas with violet floral notes and subtle nuances of oak. Absolutely delicious, pure red fruit flavors—wild strawberries, ripe cherries and pomegranate– balance with uplifting, fresh acidity. Terrific wine for drinking now while the 2014 ages.

2010 Domaine Chevrot Maranges “Le Croix Moines” 1er Cru:
The light ruby color offers enticing, bright red fruit aromas. Fresh red fruit and vibrant, fresh acidity, balance with smooth, elegant tannins. The wine has matured nicely for pleasurable drinking.

 

 

 

 

 

L’Acino Vini Gives a Taste of Calabria’s Underappreciated Terroir and Culture

L’Acino Vini Gives a Taste of Calabria’s Underappreciated Terroir and Culture

In 2006, Dino Briglio, Antonello Canonico and Emilio Di Cianni, native sons of the mountains in Calabria, Italy, followed their dream. With plenty of passion but no formal winegrowing background, they launched L’Acino Winery near the ancient fortified town of San Marco Argentano. They aimed to produce traditional wines worthy of Calabria’s noble, under-appreciated terroir and ancient culture.

After 10 years of working tirelessly to reclaim vineyards with indigenous Calabrian grape varieties, the partners’ international reputation for delicious, organic wines has blossomed. L’Acino ships wine throughout Italy, Europe, Asia and the United States, and it participates in “Raw Wine,” London’s artisan wine fare.

For the partners, it begins vigna-mantonicowith their love for Calabria, the often misunderstood southern region occupying the “toe” of Italy’s famous “boot.” This rugged land of incomparable beauty is rich in olives, figs, vineyards and diverse ancient culture. In October during the 2016 harvest, I returned to “la bella Calabria” and visited L’Acino to see the team in action expressing their rich heritage through wine.

The winery operates at Masseria Perugini, a working agriculture estate featuring an acclaimed restaurant, charming grounds and overnight accommodations as an “agriturismo” site. Two young, friendly dogs and their feisty companion, an adorable kitten, welcome visitors. In the winery, heady smells of fermenting grapes fill the air as Antonello Canonico leads the winemaking team. They work virtually around the clock with grapes ripened in nearby vineyards.

acino-ferment“In our village of San Marco Argentano, almost every farmer growing fruits, olives and vegetables also has their own little vineyard to make wines they drink themselves,” says Dino Briglio, who trained as a historian. “The vineyards usually last 40 to 90 years and have never been grafted onto native American rootstocks.”

For their initial white, L’Acino purchased a rugged, hillside vineyard near mountainous Pollino National Park. The site featured relatively young Mantonico Bianco vines, an indigenous white-skinned grape. The partners then purchased another patch planted with Magliocco, an indigenous red-skinned grape.

To improve quality, they farmed organically, using plowing and natural treatments instead of chemical herbicides and pesticides. Both sites have high altitudes above sea level to create large temperature swings between day and night. The grapes ripen slowly for optimal balance between fruit, acidity and mature tannins. Manual harvesting minimizes bruising the grapes while also permitting sorting.

“For us, producing natural wines has never been dictated by a passing trend,” says Briglio. “We only work by traditional ways, the way of our families and neighbors.”

Encouraged by the quality and commercial reception of their initial wines, the partners purchased another 12 acres on a windy, dramatically sloped site enjoying plentiful sun. Its sandy soils cover solid sandstone rock below.

“In any other place, this would be considered a grand cru site,” Briglio notes. The partners planted native Mantonico Bianco and Magliocco vines, along with Guernaccia Bianco and Guernaccia Nera. According to Briglio, the latter two came from Spain in the 1500s when the Kingdom of Aragon ruled the region. L’Acino continues to plant more vines in anticipation of keeping pace with growing global demand for their wines.acino-chora

The entry level white, L’Acino Chora Bianco, Calabria I.G.P., blends Mantonico, Guernaccia and Pecorello for a fleshy yet fresh dry finish. The L’Acino Chora Rosso, Calabria I.G.P. blends Magliocco and Guernaccia Nera for a juicy red with soft tannins. Both wines have pure, fresh fruit and floral aromas leading to juicy, refreshing flavors balanced by zesty acidity and mouthwatering minerality.

tre-cipolleThese easy-drinking, delicious and captivating wines call for the soups, antipasti, pork and seafood dishes prevalent in Calabria. A visit to the charming little bistro, Tre Cipolle sul Comò in Rende offers a fun opportunity to pair the wines with traditional food. The restaurant’s charming hosts, Andrea and Carlotta, have passion for their work and a light sense of humor reflected in the fun ambiance.To whet the appetito, they use Vecchio Magazzino Doganale’s locally produced spirits such as “Jefferson Amaro Importante” and “Roger Bitter Extra Strong” for delicious “Doppolavoro” cocktails. The restaurant’s inventive dishes highlighting local produce include fresh, perfectly cooked pasta with roasted chestnuts and pig cheeks. A flavorful hint of Calabrese spiciness peeks through.

The dish pairs beautifully with the 2015 L’Acino “G”, a delicious white from very old  Guernaccia Bianco vines. The wine’s golden color unfolds enticing peach and honey aromas leading to fresh, fleshy fruit flavors. Tremendous acidity and mouthwatering minerality balance the dry finish. And like all L’Acino wines, it is made completely naturally without additives and technological tricks in the winery. It’s a wine worth tracking, and L’Acino Winery is definitely a producer to put on your pleasure seeking radar.