Monday, October 1, 2012
Domaine Paire “Les Verchères” AOC Beaujolais 2011
Beaujolais, perhaps more than any other French appellation, has a reputation for high-volume, “industrial” winemaking. The date of the region's decline can be pinpointed: It was November 13, 1951, when the Union Interprofessionnelle des Vins du Beaujolais (UIVB) formally set November 15 as the release date for what is now known as Beaujolais Nouveau. The négociant Georges Duboeuf saw the commercial potential of the fixed release date: He could move a lot of wine of indifferent quality quickly and at a decent profit. By the mid-1980s, it was an international phenomenon. Bedazzled by the prospect of selling oceans of “Nouveau,” the region's producers embraced chemical fertilizers and sprays, harvested earlier and earlier, added sugar to achieve higher alcohol, used sulfur dioxide liberally as a preservative, abandoned indigenous yeasts in favor of cultured ones, and used sterile filtration to cut down on potential spoilage. In short, they tried to make winemaking as risk-free as possible.
Just as the commercialization of Beaujolais can be traced to a particular date and the work of one négociant, so can the Beaujolais counter-revolution be pinpointed: In 1977, French wine consultant Jacques Néauport met Jules Chauvet, a 70-year-old vigneron who had never stopped making wine in the traditional way: He harvested as late as possible, from his oldest vines, selected only the best grape bunches, fermented slowly at cool temperatures with no sulfur dioxide and with natural yeasts, barrel-aged his wines, and bottled them without fining or filtration. The proof of his methods was in the wine: The 1977 vintage was a disaster for most producers, but not for Chauvet. Néauport introduced Chauvet to Marcel Lapierre, who told his vigneron friends, Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thévenet, Jean Foillard, and Joseph Chamonard, about Chauvet's methods. They became known as the “Gang of Five,” and championed the return to a focus on quality winemaking in Beaujolais. Interviewed a few years before his untimely death, Lapierre said: "Every vigneron wants to work like this in his heart of hearts. But you have to be brave, and it can be expensive. Modern enologists are against the whole thing because it's risky, but for me it's the most natural way of doing things.”
The influence of the Gang of Five remains, and for me is personified by people like Jean-Jaques Paire and his son Guillaume, who took up organic growing practices at their 400-year-old estate in 2008. They have 25 acres, of which 95% are planted to gamay, and the remainder to Chardonnay.
Domaine Paire “Les Verchères” AOC Beaujolais 2011: This is just cherries and raspberries, the classic Gamay aromas and flavors, all the way from the first sniff to the last swallow. The texture is both soft and fine-grained. The finish shows just a touch of tannins. If you had never tasted Beaujolais, if you had never tasted a wine made from organic grapes, I'd start you here. It is flawless—which is not to be mistaken for profound. This is not a vin du contemplation, it is meant for drinking. It has the quality that our man Terry Theise is always going on about: Charm. Drink it by itself, drink it with a ham and cheese sandwich, drink it! Imported by Bruno Arricastres of Wine Without Borders, $14.99 at the Asheville Wine Market.
N.B.: The first two paragraphs of this post were cribbed in part from some work I did for the late, great Vinsite. I owe a lot to Les Doss, who got me to put my nose to the grindstone to produce short profiles of organic/biodynamic practices in various winemaking regions.