30 March 2016
Back in early November I asked Beaujolais vigneron Karim Vionnet where he'd be spending the soirée of Beaujolais Nouveau in Paris. He said he'd be a little bit everywhere, as usual, but he'd certainly be starting the evening at (inaudible).
"Au Sauvignon," he said, audibly this time, though seemingly without any confidence that it would be an interesting occasion. He rummaged around his paperwork and found the place's card. He didn't seem to know what the restaurant was or how his wines had wound up there, let alone how he had agreed to spend the soirée of Beaujolais Nouveau there - but that may just have been Karim being Karim. My interest was piqued because there are very few places serving natural Beaujolais, or natural wine at all, in Au Sauvignon's Saint-Sulpice neighborhood, which must rank among the dowdiest in Paris. A rich grandmotherliness suffuses the air; one senses the denizens have buying power, but without the willpower to consume, in the way that the elderly, through no fault of their own, simply stop eating much at mealtimes.
I wound up visiting Au Sauvignon for a late lunch in December and was pleased to find that the restaurant, if that is what it may be called, is perfectly adapted to its neighborhood, and in such a way as to render its style of service queerly contemporary for the city at large. The menu is composed entirely of the snack foods deemed acceptable by former generations of well-to-do Parisians who probably disapprove of snacking outside the context of a tough day's shopping at Le Bon Marché. This means tartines, oysters, and omelets at all hours, with osetra caviar available for anyone having a really bad day.
28 March 2016
The most recent book published in English about Beaujolais, as far as I can tell, is British journalist Rudolph Chelminski's wishfully titled I'll Drink To That: Beaujolais & The French Peasant Who Made It the World's Most Popular Wine. It is essentially a work of Georges Duboeuf hagiography, one rendered curious for having arrived in 2007, long after Duboeuf's era of peak influence, and well into the region's contemporary market blight. Chelminski is nonetheless very astute in one passage where he compares the peculiar geographical isolation of the Beaujolais to "certain parts of Appalachia." Don't get me wrong - it's not Deliverance or anything. But the hills between Mâcon and Lyon are home to a local culture that is as colourful and strange as it is insular. I can think of no better example than the persistence, in the Beaujolais region, of the tradition popularly known as les conscrits.
Les conscrits, or more formally, la fête des conscrits, is a ritual that originated during the Second Empire as a way to celebrate the departure of a village's youth into mandatory military service. By the 20th century it had also become an occasion to commemorate the military service of previous generations of villagers. In most towns the tradition came to include women as well as men. What happens is this: all those born in years ending in the same number as the current year (i.e. those born in 1976, 1986, 1996, etc. are those who are classed in the year of 6) raise money for a blowout block party and banquet, the dimensions of which vary according to the town in question. Some events are small, consisting only of some fanfare music and drinks at a local bar. The largest event occurs in Villefranche-sur-Saône, where the tradition is taken so seriously as continue to bar women from participation. There are dedicated church services, a massive parade, banquets, and so on over the course of several days.
Mandatory military service in France ended in 1998. But the tradition of les conscrits continues throughout Beaujolais from December through May each year, probably because it is a hell of a lot of fun. I had long been keen to experience this particular aspect of Beaujolais culture and was delighted to learn that Camille Lapierre, daughter of the late great Marcel Lapierre and a talented winemaker in her own right, was among those celebrating her conscrits in Villié-Morgon this year. She was extremely kind to invite me along to the festivities, which included floats, wigs, disco-balls, drum circles, and square-dancing hippies.
25 March 2016
About half an hour into our visit last October, larger-than-life Pierre Dorées vigneron Jean-Gilles Chasselay was serving us barrel tastes of his unusual "Cuvée de la Marduette" Beaujolais when suddenly the cellar was filled with a joltingly cacaphonic guitar solo, loud as a klaxon. I thought our glasses might shatter.
Chasselay finished serving himself a taste and then produced his cell phone, shutting the sound off. "Rory Gallagher," he explained, grinning. "Irish tour, 1974. He was a crazy guitarist. He died from drinking too much, unfortunately."
Then he went back to explaining the "Cuvée de la Marduette," a micro-cuvée that, while atypical of his family's oeuvre, nonetheless seems symbolic of Chasselay's approach to his metier. He vinifies it like a vin de garde, i.e. with a relatively long vatting, then throws it oak barrels of varying age for between one and two months. Then, at what for other wines would be the start of the process of elevage, he abruptly reassembles the wine and bottles it without filtration or sulfur addition. "The vinification's finished but the elevage isn't done. So I say it's 'poorly raised,'" he says, adding, "I like people who are poorly raised."
16 March 2016
The other day my kind friends drove us fifty minutes north of Beaujolais to taste just four wines. The wines, while well-made, were not life-changing. (The winemaker in question is, alas, a strong believer in kieselguhr filtration, which in my estimation affects gamay the way direct sunlight affects unexposed film.)
"Well," I said, sheepishly, returning to the car. "That was that."
What redeemed the morning was a visit, on the trip back, to Le Carafé in Mâcon, a charming and understated wine-centric bistrot in the shadow of the Eglise Saint Pierre. Founded by a longtime supporter of the region's natural winemakers, Patrick Pigouet, Le Carafé was sold in 2013 to young chef Damien Blaszczyk, who in addition to proposing marvelous country comfort food, has retained the character and integrity of the heavily Mâconnais / Beaujolais wine list. I'm also certifiably addicted to the restaurant's particular brand of Spanish olives, which I purchase take-out by the jarful after each meal.
02 March 2016
The prolific and indefatigable Marcel Joubert, arguably the most senior natural winemaker in Brouilly, made his last vintage in 2015. He's been producing ruggedly natural wines in a plethora of appellations since meeting pathbreaking Morgon winemaker Marcel Lapierre at motorcycle rallies at the end of the 1980's.
The two winemakers couldn't have more different profiles today. Lapierre, who died in 2010, is a legend, the subject of books and cartoons, perpetually fêted in the press. Joubert, alive and well, is almost a ghost by comparison. While beloved by his peers in Beaujolais and his direct clients, Joubert's larger-than-life personality, like his individual winemaking style, remains unknown to most drinkers. A fourth-generation winemaker who began his career in 1972, Joubert belongs to a previous generation of Beaujolais winemakers for whom discretion bordering on anonymity was part of the game.
As of 2016, he's handing over the reins of his domaine to his tall blonde daughter Carine, who worked in human resources before deciding to devote herself to the family business. "I'll stay as an intern," he said slyly in November in his tasting room in Quincié. "If she lets me."