Burgundy is not an easy place to become a vigneron and begin making wine when you consider the issue of buying parcels, newcomers usually settle in the Loire or in the Beaujolais, in the Languedoc too where viticultural real estate can be very cheap, but Oronce de Beler, the founder of La Maison Romane, didn’t shy of starting his operation right here in Burgundy, the trick being that he buys grapes, not land. That's what we call négoce, this is not a nice name but when you choose carefully the growers with the right vineyard management and parcels you can end up making nice wines without the hurdle of owning the land and the bank mortgages, Philippe Pacalet is a good example in Burgundy for a winemaker with no land. Oronce de beler named his négoce la Maison Romane as this is the local name of the very old house in Vosne-Romanée where he rents his cellar and living quarters (pictured on left).
I discovered a few of his wines at the Ominivore event which took place in Paris a couple months ago (story here, scroll down to 10th picture), a few winemakers were taking part and I franky loved his wines. I was going to later that Oronce was involved into several projects including the raising of quality dark-skin pigs and that he had the creator of Equivinum, this niche manufacturer of draft-horse plows and other tools favored by growers working organic and biodynamic. We are often surprised to learn that many of our favorite natural wines are made by outsiders, people with no family connection to the world of wine or agriculture, and Oronce is one good example, proving that if you have the right energy and feeling, you can be working in Paris for years and change course to design and weld plows, vinify beatiful wines and raise real pigs, oh, and I forgot all the process of making artisan ham, saucissons and other natural pork products….
In his former life Oronce worked for the magazine la Revue des Vins de France, this was from 2001 to 2004, he was selling advertisings there, and he didn't see himself doing that forever (he was there for the wine, not for dealing with ads), so he enrolled in the wineschool in Beaune from mid 2004 to mid 2005. This training wasn't actually with the firm resolve to start making wine himself right away afterwards, rather, he wanted to find employment somewhere in the region and learn while working for a winery. He looked for bigger wineries because they're the type that can afford hiring and during his job interviews he was sometimes told that maybe he'd not enjoy the job so much considering his interest in artisan wine, because for example such big structure had a cellar of 600 casks and when you're doing the topping-up thing you'll do it for 3 consecutive days. He was said to look for a smaller domaine but couldn't find a position, so in the summer of 2005 with fellow aspiring winemaker David Juillard they had the idea to why not make wine themselves. They still had nothing to capitalize on but had already plans, like Oronce wanted for a try to make 3 barrels of a Villages wine while David who was married to Axelle Machard de Gramont wanted to make a Premier Cru. Oronce happened to meet Jeremy Seysses one week later and he told him his family just had bought some parcels, some of them they didn't want to vinify right away, so Oronce and David found themselves with exactly what they were looking for, a Villages and one Premier Cru.
We walk through one of the parcels Oronce gets fruit from, in the terroir Aux Réas near Vosne-Romanée, this is a parcel in conversion to organic certification. Oronce pokes fun at the now-common narrative of saying that all the work is done in the vineyard : of course 95 % of the energy spent is on the vineyard he says, but still, the central work will take place during the vinification, you may be farming biodynamically, he you don't vinify correctly you'll miss the point. Here on this parcel he trusts the grower, there's no specifications [cahier des charges] given to the grower. Specifications given by the négociant (the buyer of grapes) to the grower is another common narrative supposedly meaning that the vineyard management can't be but perfect, he says. There's no one who knows better than the grower how to tend and take care of vines and soil, and especially in Burgundy it's very tricky to impose something to the grower, he could right away feel stepped over and decide to sell to someone else.
What counts for Oronce is that this parcel is farmed organic and that the soil is plowed. The vines are around 55 and he buys just enough grapes to make two barrels. He works with 10 pickers and fills 25 boxes of grapes which they weigh. He usually gets his load of grapes early, like at 9 am and he will have the whole day if necessary to carefully sort the grapes and vinify fruit in perfect conditions.
Speaking of frost this year (2016) Vosne-Romanée came out unscathed, same on the whole for Gevrey-Chambertin. On the other hand Marsannay lost much with the frost, he's not sure to get any fruit from there in 2016. Beaune, Meursault, Volnay, Pommard are even worse affected, it's lunar now over there, this is something unheard of, elders in the region say. What is dramatic, he says, is that this recent frost destruction may hamper even next year's harvest, because when you prune you direct sap flows in the vine, and when these sap flows froze, the vine has to work a way around and a normal yield may take years to rebound. You can't see this right now it will take a few month before the damage inventory is done.
Oronce's interest in the world of vineyards increased after he met Nicolas Joly and he thinks the energy and life of the soil and vineyards is central to make wine. Althugh he doesn't own vineyards for now, if/when he will buy a wine farm (not necessarily in Burgundy), he'll work on biodynamics and energy flows, he still considers he's learning right now with all the living he's experiencing, fropm the dark pigs he raises to the sourdough bread he makes at home.
After having a look at the parcel in the vicinity of Vosne-Romanée we drove back to the center of the village, precisely to his place which is known in the Vosne-Romanée as the Maison Romane. It's a 16th century Burgundy village house complete with a beautiful cellar anchored in the rock table, a vaulted cellar which remained untouched by the renovation [my critic on the building's renovation itself is that the plastered walls (cement or whatever) outside don't fit with this beautiful historic buiding, they should have left the walls in their original condition, too bad]. Oronce vinified his wines here beginning with his 3rd vintage, he found the place by chance and lobbied to keep the cellars whole (the owners wanted to divide them in three so that the three to-be-rented appartments in the house get a portion...).
The cellar which your reach going down a steep stone stairway is composed of two consecutive rooms, very beautiful cellar indeed dating also from the 16th century at a time when winemaking was all done in the center of the village (each vigneron having small surfaces to tend). Oronce made me taste a few 2015 wines which are still in their barrel élevage stage. 2015 is certainly a good vintage but with more concentration because of the long summer drought, the grapes being smaller and with less juice.
__ Macon, Chateau de Berzé 2015. 100 % Gamay. Oronce says that usually he makes 18 or 20 casks of this one-hectare parcel but in 2015 he got only the equivalent of 10 barrels because the yields were around 18-20 hectoliters/hectare. He picks this parcels in two runs usually with 15 days in between so as to get the right maturity each time. Vinified whole-clustered but not a carbo, there's still some vinification taking place inside intact grapes. But he also makes some pumping over even if with little aeration. No pigeage except at the end of the fermentation. He says that when the juice reaches 995, when an enologist would have stated that it's the end, for Oronce it's just the beginning : that's when he begins to stomp the grapes, which will release some sugar and will help the fermentation keep going on. Then the trick will be to decide when to stop the pigeage and do the pressing, and with each vintage it will be different, when he begins to feel some tannin he stops and that's it. I love hearing these details because from my tasting of his wines at Omnivore I feel that what I loved in all his wines must be rooted in something particular, and this is certainly this long, quiet fermentation.
Beautiful nose with maybe a bit of volatile at this stage. My stomach loves the wine, in the mouth it's a gentle fruit with delicateness. Asked about when he plans to bottle the wine as it seems already beautiful right now, Oronce says that as he works with these barrels for the next vintage and doesn't wxant to use a sulphur wick on them he ideally waits for the next wine to bottle this one, so that he can fill the caks right away, the same day or the following day. He says that's the best way he found in order to keep his barrels in good condition for the wines. He says that by chance this modus operandi fits perfectly the typicity of his wines, he likes his pinot noir to be feminine, aerial and light, more on refineness than on extraction and he can make these wines without waiting more than a year (in which case he'd have to find other casks and 6 months later to use a sulphur wick for the first batch). Asked about what he thinks of this wine at this stage he says it will have southern features compared to a normal vintage. I object that I feel much freshness here but he says it's just that it will sound more like a Grenache than the usual Gamay of Macon.
Oronce says that what counts at la Maison Romane is the cumulation of these small details, including the fact that all the wines here are racked by gravity or with pushing the wine out of the cask (without going through a pump). Typically he parks a van outside on the street, has the wine pushed into a 1000-liter stainless-steel vat that can hold 3 barrels and he drives to the vatroom where its bottled later. The bottling is made with a 4-spout gravity filler (these tools are at the vatroom which I didn't visit).
__ Bourgogne Premeaux-Prissey 2015 Ru en Chotte (not sure of the spelling). Whole parcel of 42 ares, aged about 40. Very juicy wine, appealing mouth. Speaking of the aromatic description of his wines, Oronce says he doesnt pay attention to his wines at this stage, he wants to focuse on what they say after 2 years in bottles. He says that unlike most vignerons and winemakers who keep tasting their wines all the time in the cask stage, he leaves motsly the wine unattended. He also noticed that his malolactic comes very fast, usually starting under the press, sometimes even at the end of fermentation before the pressing, that's mostly because of the lack of sulfur. Many vignerons add sulfur on the incoming grapes and during the vinification and this sort of keep the juice and the wine on tracks which deprives it of its own impetus and initial energy. When you make wine you work with a living material and any input of sulfur will break its life force and you will feel a huge difference at the end in the wine.
__ Marsannay Les Longeroies 2015, from another cask. Vines aged around 40, on deeper soil. The vigneronne has a 2,5-hectare parcel there but of course Oronce makes only a few casks.
The color is a bit more light here. Vivid nose with notes of small red fruits. Delicious wine.
__ Fixin Les Clos 2015, vines are 55, nice old pinot noir he says, on stony terroir (limestone). Compared to the charming Marsannay he says you have here a wine which is sharper, more cistercian. The parcel makes a bit more than one hectare but he picks only a portion of it, enough to make 4 casks. Different wine indeed compared to the Marsannay, somehow closed at this stage. Oronce says that he discovers the wine when he taste the barrels with professionals, he never tastes them otherwise in the cellar. He says that the basic enology principle is to trust Nature and you don't have accidents. He trusts more Nature than his palate or someone else's palate. When you leave Nature do its job you may sometimes go to your cellar and be bewildered by what you taste but the right thing to do is not be afraid and have trust. You don't do great things if you don't have trust, if you want to have control on everything. He remembers having had friends and professionals taste the barrels ans sometimes they're worried and say you have to do this or that and intervene, but he stays the course and the wines clearly reward him for that trust.
Asked if he has an enologist who makes analysis on his wines, Oronce says that he has one to do some analysis but today no more during the vinification stage, and at the time he was still asking him to, he took care that he didn't set a foot in the vatroom even though he had good relations with this guy, just that he didn't want any interference or vibes : Oronce says that you must be zen in the vatroom during the vinification and not bring your anxiousness and doubts, so at that time he'd bring the samples outside for the enologist to conduct his lab tests.
Speaking of the topping over of barrels in the cellar to compensate for the evaporatiion of wine, Oronce also doesn't follow the standard protocol. He was taught at the wine school to top up every week but he now tops the barrels every two months because he realized that the more you top up and the more you expose the wine to accidents. For example regarding the volatile acidity which you have to be sure it doesn't go up too fast (a risk when you vinify without SO2), Oronce realized that volatile was going up more when you did more topping-ups, because when you open the bung you bring oxygen, when you pour wine through the opening you bring even more oxygen and this contributes to pushing up the volatile. Of course by not topping up there's a bit of air on the surface of the wine but with the hovering CO2 the wine is safe.
__ Gevrey-Chambertin la Justice 2015, he makes 6 casks of this. Very seducing and exciting nose. Oronce says that he was very lucky to get beautiful terroirs, to have growers let him have the chance to vinify a few barrels of them. He says this particular parcel for example is located on the other side of the nationale (the highway), not on the good side, but it's actually on the terroir vein of the Combe de Lavaux, an alluvial fan of limestone debris and it gives beautiful wines.
That's a beautiful wine indeed, again my stomach tells it noisily, it's so good... Superb young wine. I ask him if that's minerality which we feel here, and Oronce says that the term minerality is much overrated, adding that pinot noir is not a minerality transmitter, what we call minerality is usually a balance on acidity, for him minerality can be better found in Pouilly Fumé, Mosel or Alsace, Sauvignon or Riesling being genuine transmitters of minerality.
__ Vosne-Romanée Aux Réas 2015. Two barrels of this. Also seducing fruit on the nose, what I call also meat juice notes, love it ! Onctuous wine, velvety treat...
The good side of buying grapes is that you don't spend that time doing the farming management and you have time for much of the year, and Oronce could thus devote time to one of his other passions : raising brown pigs and make hams and other pork products. It seems that when he is into something he does it seriously and I was stunned to see the expanding extent of his pig farm. He started this thing 5 or 6 years ago
Oronce learnt the trade through repeated stays in Corsica where he befriended 3 farmers in the Massif de Bavella (a mountain range with lots of wilderness). Corsica has its own indigenous breed of pig named porc Corse, a type of breed that yields muscle and quality meat for high-end hams and charcuterie products. He used a couple hectares of woods which he rented before for his draft horses (at the time he had his walk-plow manufacturing business Equivinum). This wooded plot is located above the vineyard slopes and he used it to raise his black pigs who today number around 60. This seems a lot but many are very young and you have to plan for the future because he says unlike industrial pig farms who use breeds that reach full adult weight in just a handful of months, these pigs and the way he raises them need 2 years to attain the same adult weight. At the end the meat is full muscle and the hams and products are just a world away in terms of quality and taste.
When we drove there Oronce brought the food, this was that day in the form of a few buckets of féveroles (beans - pic on right) which he intently spreads here and there including under the bushes in places hard to access. He says with a grin that professional stock breeders wouldn't understand what he does here because they'd considers some of the beans are lost or eaten by the birds, but he says it's part of the real life of these pigs, they have to forage for their food and struggle, it makes a difference from giving the food clean in a big bowl, plus pigs love to search for food in the mud, they can pretty well isolate with their lips the food from the mud.
He says that his goal is to get muscle in these pigs, not easy fat and they have to work hard for their food, they're outside all day and run. The beans are the right thing for them right now he says because the pigs are in a breeding stage and there's a lot of proteins in these beans, but it's merely a feed supplement, the pigs rely on these woods and their own foraging for their needs.
We walk along the mud trail on the other side of the electric fence to the fenced stable where he keeps a mother with its 7 piglets, and, in a separate enclosure, a "teenager" pig that has been quite unruly and has a few times managed to jump over the fence and wander on the road. The mother is kept there with its piglets so that she can enjoy a larger share of food, she will soon go back with the flock with her piglets. Oronce built the log fence by himself.
Oronce makes his own breeds and he has more planning ahead in this matter but it's his trademark and he doesn't communicate on the details, he says it will involve Black Iberian pig as well and he will stop using the Gascon pig because the breed has been too much molded by man, it's already somehow an engineered pig although not to the scale of the industrial pigs.
You don't find any other similar real-pig farm in Burgundy, except for the Ferme de la Ruchotte where Fred raises also ancient breeds of pigs (it's also an inn where you can eat). There is also the Domaine Prieuré-Roch who is developping its farm side and raises farm animals (Fred is helping him with his consulting). You may discover soon Burgundy under a whole new light... Oronce says with enthusiasm that pigs are wonderful animals, they're sensitive intelligent, a bit like dogs. This year he'll have only 6 of them killed because they're the only ones right now that will reach the good size.
This was time to go and eat something in the house with his wife Victorine who was taking care of the baby (I was to experience first-hand that Oronce is also a great cook), and he showed me the bread we were about to have for lunch. He is also an experienced baker and this is spelt bread, what we call épeautre and petit épeautre (einkorn) in French, ancient varieties of wheat. He uses also malted barley to make this bread. He explained me in detail the process, adding that he has a real passion for fermentation-related products. By the way he had prepared once a batch of barley for a brew but stopped short of making it by lack of time, he may come back at it another time...
Here he says that for a 2-kg pâton de pain (dough bread) you have typically 1 kg of petit épautre, 300 grams of rye, 250 grams of malt and 50 grams of chestnuts, plus of course sourdough (and salt I guess). He doesn't add any yeast. He sources his wheat from an organic farm in Burgundy, the Ferme de Ceres, and for the malt he buys it from friends who have a 200-hectare farm.
The bread tastes great, he succedded to have it not too tightly compacted (an issue for these ancient varieties of wheat when you don't use yeast), plus it was so smooth and fresh (the ones you buy at these organic shops are often quite a few days old and are not as enjoyable to eat). All his bread making is for family consumption and although he seems be be quite talented at it he doesn't sell any (I'm sure there'd be a potential customer base in the Côtes de Beaune for the bread).
You can see the petit-épeautre loaf on the picture on left, along two jars where he keeps the surdough (he keeps the jars in the fridge when he's not making bread).
The other passion of Oronce de Beler is making ham and saucisson from his own pigs, I tasted the stuff at the apéritif and that was so exquisite no need to say. Oronce says that this saucisson is very different from the one that you find in the shops, not only because of the quality of the pig meat, for example the meat hasn't been got such additives like nitrite salt or red salt, this is not the normal sea salt, it's some sort of industrially-designed salt that penetrates much deeper in the product, has augmented preservative qualities and makes the saucisson look flashy red, which the markets loves. But this salt is rubbish he says, it changes the way the saucisson tastes, and I can't but agree when I taste this. He says that even saucisson producers who say they work naturally add sugar, it's a common practice for saucisson making, like adding 10 grams of sugar per kilogram : what they do is they steam the saucisson for 24 hours at ambient temperature when the saucisson's meat has been put into the gut, and the sugar will create lactic acid in the meat which will act as a "natural" preservative. On the paper it looks like a natural way to add preservatives but in fact at the end all the saucisson tend to taste the same because of this sugar addition.
I love discovering this unknown facet of saucisson making because like for winemaking there's a marketing narrative that keeps in the dark all these important things, and the worse thing is that you may buy what you think is an artisan saucisson and be unaware that these convenient tricks were used just the same, anihilating the supposed quality of the meat. Oronce says that on his saucissons there's some natural fungi developping with time on the outside which he calls la fleur (the flower), it's a natural and healthy phenomenon. When he wants it to be more present on the outside of the gut he hangs the saucissons for 2 or 3 days in the vaulted cellar and that's it.
Victorine whom I know for a few years works for Pain Vin & Compagnie, communication company with clients like Bichot and Philippe Pacalet. She is from Toulouse originally and lived in Bordeaux too then moved to Paris for this job. She could follow her husband here in 2014 but still work for Pain Vin & Co, working from home and commuting to Paris for wine events. Living in Vosne-Romanée makes a change, there are no shops here in the village but on the other hand she never fully adapted to Paris and she enjoys Burgundy, the region is young and dynamic, even if the overall medium age is high in the countryside. Victorine helps now and then like for the sorting of the grapes or also the charcuterie making, the rillettes and the pâté de foie. Speaking of the charcuterie, hams and saucisson, they will have a website with waiting list soon, I'll link went it comes out.
__ Chambolle Musigny les Fouchères 2007 (37,5 cl, remant of his first vintages), it's a climat he made two years, 2007 & 2008.
The Chambolle is very enjoyable, he says it's maybe a bit less nature than what he does now, he didn't use lab yeast of course but some SO2 post-malolactic, which would bridle the wine and raise a bit the total SO2 in the wine (25 which is still very low). Now he is at less than 10 in total SO2.
At the time he was trading his work with his draft horse for a load of grapes to make wine. This was the time he designed and sold walk plows specially adapted for draft horses and the vineyard. that was [yet another facet of this talented creator] when he managed the plow manufacturing business Equivinum (which he had started from scratch) from 2006 to 2016 (he just sold the business). His clients were a bit everywhere, including in Champagne, bordeaux and abroad. Watch this video report by a local TV station (2013), you can see the walk-plow workshop and at min 3:16 you can see a horse-pulled biodynamic sprayer for the preparations, with which you can cover 8 rows at once, quite amazing for a draft-horse tool.
The Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has several of his custom-designed walk plows as they also use a draft horses. They're neighbors and Oronce knows almost everyone in the domaine because it's a family structure and he also buys from them second-hand (one- or two-wine-old) barrels.
During his time at the wine school he also had opted for the draft-horse plowing option and he loved it, that's when he decided to start something on walk plows. At the same time he bought enough grapes to make 5 barrels on Nuits Saint Georges in 2005 he bought a Percheron, one of the breeds used for agricultural work in France (he sold his Harley Davidson, joking that he lost 62 horse-power for a single horse...). At first as he couldn' find a plow for the horse he worked with workshops and designed a couple of plows, then had them make a set of the same plow to resell, then at the end took the job in his own hands, setting up Equivinum. He even had designed a horse-pulled, lithium-battery-powered trimming machine [this guy is a new Elon Musk...]. He used the prototype at Chateau Latour and he says there are many other things to do in this field but he nedded more time to start this pig farm and conduct his négoce winery.
__ Corton Perrières Grand Cru 2008, also an appellation he doesn't have anymore, he did it 4 years, between 4 and 5 pièces [barrels] each year, it was also the fruit of an exchange with the grower as he did some horse plowing on his parcels. He says that this type of exchenge is tricky because some growers aren't very comprehensive, they don't always realize that horse plowing is not like tractor plowing, they easily have recriminations. Oronce says that this was through this wine that he began to be known, in Beaune as well as by the Can Roca restaurant in Spain.
Oronce sells his wines in France for 20 to 30 % of the volume, depending of the years, mainly in restaurants, venues like La Dilettante in Beaune, les Caves Madeleine and le Comptoir des Tontons also in Beaune, all places where the food is extra good and with a good wine list (you find some of his charcuterie there too..). In Paris we didn't review the whole list of restaurants but you can find the wines at Septime, La Robe et le palais, Spring, Agapé among others, these places will also get his ham and charcuterie..
The export list comprises Japan (Orveaux), Denmark (Domaine Brandis -- on the wine list at Noma, although they took his whites only, I urge them to come & taste the reds...), Norway, Spain (Vila Viniteca).