19 January 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: anthony thévenet, villié-morgon

Almost everyone in Beaujolais has at least one nickname. To an outsider, it makes it difficult to follow conversations, because one has to remember all the variations on the ways people refer to any given local personage. (Furthermore one is sometimes unsure if one is entitled to employ all the nicknames.) Some nicknames are relatively straightforward: Morgon grand-master Jean Foillard, for example, is called, alternately, "Le P'tit Jean," a reference to his Napoleonic build, and "Jeff," a simple pronunciation of his initials.

Other nicknames are completely insane. Anthony Thévenet - no relation to Jean-Paul "Polpo" Thévenet, or any of the other more prominent local Thévenets - is an energetic, good-natured young natural winemaker who established his domaine in 2012, the same year he began working as a cellarhand for Foillard. I heard Thévenet's friend Romain Zordan refer to Thévenet as "Nioche," which, he later explained, derives originally from "Tête d'Hyène," or "Hyena's head," a comment on Thévenet's easy laughter and the sonics of his family name. "Tête d'Hyène" got abbreviated to "Hyène," which, in the programmatic Franco-slanguage Verlan, came out as "Nioche."

Easy to remember, right? Perhaps easier than the name Thévenet. At any rate, it's worth remembering Anthony Thévenet A.K.A. Nioche's name, because since 2013 he's been making some very promising Morgon's from his family's vines in the climat of Douby, and this year he's set to release his first vintage from the renowned Côte du Py.

I'd first met Anthony at the 2015 Dive Bouteille tasting, where he was conspicuous for his presence next to a lot of significantly more established Beaujolais winemakers. The latter commonly make a show of insouciance regarding such things, but in fact, when it comes to seating arrangements and the optics of proximity, they're like teenage girls in a middle-school cafeteria. If Thévenet was beside them, it's not without significance.

Thévenet has indeed had a long apprenticeship with two titans of natural Beaujolais winemaking, Georges Descombes and Jean Foillard. The former job, which he held part-time between 2005 and 2012, came about via Thévenet's school friend Damien Coquelet, Descombes' stepson. Before that Thévenet had done a brief stint servicing agricultural machinery in Mâcon.

I brought my friend Bert from Wine Terroirs to see Anthony in October. (Bert is vastly faster with blog turnaround than I am. His piece is up here.) I had no clear directions to Thévenet's place, having been told only that it was right near Jean Foillard's winery. So Bert and I circled Le Clachet for a while, scrutinizing mailboxes, until I ran into Jean Velay, Foillard's head cellarhand, who helpfully pointed us the way.

Thévenet lives with his grandparents, who are retired winegrowers with cellar facilities amid their 9ha of vines in the Morgon climat of Douby. The façade of the cellar has a curious Tuscan air to it. It is indeed just across the road and down the hill from Jean Foillard's winery. Between them is the Lapierre compound, Les Chênes. Some of Thévenet's grandparents' vineyards abut the trees lining the Douby creek.

As Thévenet drives us to see his own vines, he points these out. "Before it was all woods. My grandfather cut it all down and he planted it all to vines. But it’s truly sandy there and that’s why I don’t really feel like taking it. I’d prefer to get other crus."

Here, and elsewhere, Thévenet, only 29, speaks in the voice of elder generations in the region. It's the high risk of hail that encourages cru Beaujolais winemakers to diversify their vineyard holdings among the crus. Unfortunately this also has the effect of discouraging parcel cuvées, and with them a clear idea of terroir within crus, since vignerons must often draw on plots distributed widely throughout a given cru. But for now Thévenet's range remains quite focused: he makes a cement-aged basic Morgon from young-vine Douby and Corcellettes fruit that sees fining before bottling, and an unfiltered, barrel-aged Morgon Vieilles Vignes from a blend of two older Douby parcels, aged 80-90 and 150 years, respectively.

His parcels of Douby, which total 2ha, abut the Morgon vines of his friend Romain Zordan. The old vines are roughly east-facing, situated beside the D68 road that links Villié-Morgon to Fleurie. The oldest vines are rather staggering, with gnarled, disorderly branches straining across the rows like desert explorers dying of thirst.

He admits that here he's unable to plow. I sense a probable lacunae in the conversation when he speaks of attacking the grass by hand on the oldest vines. Thévenet's long apprenticeships with Descombes and Foillard place him squarely within the realpolitik wing of contemporary French natural wine. Neither of his mentors are certified organic, either; they've achieved their present, nigh-on unassailable status within the natural wine community by retaining a flexibility vis-à-vis vine treatments that keeps their wines consistent even in rough years.

Thévenet's own production remains tiny. In 2013, it was just 2500 bottles; in 2014, 8500 bottles. The number is set to grow in 2015, despite the vintage. Thévenet did a respectable 34HL/ha, and this year he took on the aforementioned parcel of Côte du Py. The vines had been in the family - they were his grandfather's inheritance from his grandfather's mother, but Thévenet worked them only from 2015, before which they'd been worked by his grand-uncle. We tasted the cuvée from vat after we returned to the winery. The wine had been racked from concrete only two days before; the fiberglass vat is a holding stage before the wine will be put in a mix of barrel and cement vat.

Thévenet had harvested relatively early - August 21st this year. His Côte du Py was already totally dry, as was his basic Morgon. Where Thévenet's Douby-based cuvées showcase the fleshier, fruitier side of Morgon, his Côte du Py was tannic and forceful, befitting the reputation of the climat.

"Douby makes keen wines that drink well and aren’t very aggressive in the mouth. It’s sand, and the roche fiable. Then when you’re on the Py you sense it immediately."

Dark cherry and smoke were marked by a ferrous gaminess. 2015 may not have been the most auspicious year to embark on new vinifications, but Thévenet's début Côte du Py looks set to succeed nonetheless. (He spoke that day about potentially dividing the cuvée, just 40HL, into separate oak-aged and cement aged cuvées, but I understand he's since wisely abandoned that idea in favour of a single Côte du Py cuvée.)

Thévenet's old-vine Morgon from 2015 was in a more touch-and-go stage, with acetates and a touch of residual sugar marrying the nose and palate respectively. Like many other Beaujolais from this vintage, it's rich, an atypical 14,5° alcohol. "When we pressed, we had the impression it was confiture that came out. It was..." he say, trailing off. "Wow."

As darkness fell we tasted wines from bottle on a picnic table in Thévenet's driveway. The 2014 Vieilles Vignes, which saw two rackings, 8 months barrel age, and another 7 months in bottle, was limpid and fine, with delicious grip, cherries and black olive competing on the nose. Compared to the unfiltered Morgon Vieilles Vignes and the wines from tank, the basic Morgons, which see a light fining before bottling, seem a little crisp and foreshortened. None of the wines see more than 2g sulfur at bottling, with no sulfur added at any other stage of vinification.

"Can you imagine there are people who put 4g sulfur at vatting to make wine, and we put in zero, and we make nonetheless good wine," he says, shaking in head. "You don’t need to pollute the wine to make wine..."

The busted old foudres are not in use, he plans to break them down. This is a cellar area he's reserving for his little brother, who'd also like to make wine. 

In future vintages, Thévenet would like to bring his own vinification practices more in line with those of his mentors. For now he says he doesn't have the finances to harvest in small bennes (to prevent crushing before vatting) or to prerefrigerate the harvest. It's funny that what, from the outside, seem like relatively routine logistical issues, quickly and inexpensively resolved, can seem insurmountable even to someone with as much experience as Thévenet. Then again, one must recall that he makes his own wines part-time. He's still on payroll up the road chez Foillard.

Night had descended by the time we left, and with it arrived a humid chill I recognized from scooter rides past Les Chênes earlier in the year. Thévenet's cellar lies within a shady valley that is always a few degrees cooler than its immediate surroundings, partly due to the nearby Douby creek. One feels the temperature change immediately, like opening the door of a walk-in fridge. Obscure, yet palpably real microclimatic factors like this ensure one never gets bored in Beaujolais. Thévenet's cellar is a stone's throw from major influences like Domaine Lapierre and Domaine Foillard. Yet I have no doubt his wines will retain a style all their own.

Anthony Thévenet

Related Links:

On the one hand it's flattering that Thévenet's UK importers, Dynamic Vines, lifted a photo I posted on this blog for their own profile of Thévenet. On the other hand, it sure looks lazy and hackish to do so without crediting me. (So many importers do this. It's a situation that works out great for them. They go to La Dive Bouteille and party big time without troubling the winemakers by taking pictures or asking serious questions. Then the importers return hungover to their home countries and refer to Wine Terroirs, or, less often, Not Drinking Poison, confident that some sucker journalist has done their work for them.)

In general, when people ask to republish photos, I oblige. I just ask that they credit the source.

I'm disappointed to see Fort Greene's Thirst Wine Merchants did the same thing. I note that Thirst's bad website text is identical to that of Dynamic Vines; one may have copied the other. No way for me to discern who jacked the photo first.

Some tasting notes on a bottle of Thévenet's basic 2013 Morgon at The Wine Analyst.

My initial post on Anthony Thévenet's wine, from February 2015.

Bert Celce's Wine Terroirs post on the same October 2015 visit to Thévenet.

Beaujolais, Autumn 2015:

Romain Zordan, Fleurie
Yann Bertrand, Fleurie
Domaine Thillardon, Chénas
Sylvain Chanudet, Fleurie
Patrick "Jo" Cotton, Saint-Lager
Pierre Cotton, Odenas
L'Auberge du Col du Truges, Le Truges
Julie Balagny, Moulin-à-Vent
La Cuvée des Copines 2015
Beaujolais Harvests 2015

Beaujolais Bike Trip, Summer 2015:

Georges Descombes, Vermont
Jean-Paul Thévenet, Pizay
Jules Métras, Fleurie
Rémi et Laurence Dufaitre, Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières
Jean-Claude Lapalu, Saint-Etienne-La-Varenne
Benoit Camus, Ville-sur-Jarnioux

Beaujolais Bike Trip, Summer 2011:

Karim Vionnet, Villié-Morgon
Café de la Bascule, Fleurie
Isabelle et Bruno Perraud, Vauxrenard
Le Coq à Juliènas, Juliènas
L'Atelier du Cuisiner, Villié-Morgon

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