Beaujolais and the Rise of Natural Wines
20 years ago, “natural wine” was the freaky stuff drunk after-hours in Williamsburg and the East Village. Today, collectors around the world chase bottles of natural wine as passionately as DRC – and pay top dollar for some of them.
Where did natural wine come from, and how did it spread so far and so fast?
In a word: Beaujolais!
Natural wine, or “Vins Natures,” as they say in France, was born in the Beaujolais Cru of Morgon. It spread, in large part, because of hardworking, risk-taking Beaujolais winemakers who proved that you can make truly transporting wines naturally, with minimal interventions.
So, for our third post in this Flatiron Guide to Beaujolais, we wanted to visit the story of how Beaujolais became natural wine’s birthplace; who made it a household staple; and where it may be going from here.
What is natural wine and why was it born in Beaujolais?
To understand what natural wine is, we need to start with what wine is. How do you make wine?
The simple story goes something like this:
- A farmer harvests grapes and puts them in a vat.
- Yeast converts grape juice sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
- Farmer bottles the elixir and labels it wine.
But, it's slightly more complicated than that in Beaujolais.
How to make Beaujolais, or “What is Carbonic Maceration”?
Beaujolais is made just like every other wine except for one little wrinkle in step 2. Most winemakers expose their grape juice to yeast (step 2) by putting grape bunches into a machine called a “crusher-destemmer” that, well, de-stems the berries and crushes them, releasing juice. Sugar, meet yeast.
But in Beaujolais they do something special, a sort of step 2A.
Instead of destemming the grapes, they put whole bunches straight into the vat, no crusher-destemmer, no 'sugar meet yeast'.
At least not at first. But pretty soon, the weight of all those bunches crushes some of the grapes at the bottom of the vat, releasing juice and unleashing the yeasts.
That’s when something interesting happens: the yeast makes alcohol and carbon dioxide and the gas fills the tank, insulating the intact grape bunches from oxygen. The grapes are macerating in CO2, like tea leaves in water.
Starved for oxygen, the intact grapes begin to ferment their sugar in an anaerobic process called “intracellular fermentation.” Alcohol builds inside the grapes until they finally burst (the levels are still too low for wine—like 2%ish), exposing the remaining juice to yeasts which pick up their traditional fermentation.
This crazy process works some real magic. It gives Beaujolais many of its unique charms: pretty fruitiness, lower tannin, easy-going mouthfeel. It makes wines that are accessible to the point of being called, in French, vins de soifs (“wines of thirst”). Crushable.
But that two-step process also creates risks.
Sometimes the malolactic fermentation (the process by which bacteria convert a wine’s harsher malic acid into softer lactic acid) finishes up before the wine finishes its alcoholic fermentation. The French call this “piqure lactic” (literally, “the lactic bite”), and it ruins the wine.
Other times, bad yeasts grow faster than the good yeasts, tainting the wine with “brett” (a smell of barnyard, horse or even band aid).
Or acetobacter can run rampant, creating too much volatile acidity (the wine will smell like nail polish remover).
Beaujolais growers who want to work in this traditional way need to be diligent. They need to be willing to take some risks, and to watch their wines assiduously to minimize those risks. And they need to be able to act immediately when the risks materialize, to set things right.
That’s the work ethic -- the practice -- that laid the groundwork for natural wine and the low sulfur movement. But maybe we’re getting a touch ahead of ourselves now.
So, what is natural wine anyway?
There is no official definition of natural wine. Which makes sense for a philosophy that often stands in opposition to officialdom. But there are some generally agreed principles.
Most fans think natural wine must be:
- Made from sustainable, organic or biodynamically farmed grapes that have been hand-harvested.
- Fermented by native yeasts.
- Made with minimal – or no – interventions: no additives (even sulfur is minimized) and nothing taken away (no fining, filtration etc.).
Given the simple picture we drew above (Grape + Yeast = Wine), you may think all wine checks all three boxes. And you could argue that historically that was true: all wine was natural wine.
But today, most wines actually check none of those boxes for one simple reason: making good wine while following those three rules is expensive and hard to do!
“Unnatural Wine”? The rise of conventional winemaking
Why is natural winemaking hard? And what is the alternative -- unnatural wine? Not exactly. It all starts with Europe’s post-WWII struggles.
The continent needed to rebuild. Farms needed to become more productive to feed the people, and people needed to move to the cities to get more productive. This affected vineyards, too.
One answer was chemicals. Chemical fertilizers made crops more productive. Pesticides and insecticides protected those crops and reduced the amount of manual labor required in the vineyards.
Mechanization – machines to work the soil, treat the vines, and harvest the fruit – further lightened the workload. And even the grapes changed. Scientists found the highest-yielding clones of each variety, and the government (and market pressures) encouraged growers to tear out old, low-yielding vines and replace them with the fancy, more economical new stuff—even if the higher yields and younger vines meant less terroir expression.
Trouble in Industrial Paradise
It worked, mostly. Production went up in the fields and in the cities. People were fed and everyone had enough wine. But there were downsides.
Yields were higher, but in too many cases the grapes -- and the wines they made -- were less expressive. Mechanization reduced the backbreaking vineyard work, but it also meant the grower was less in touch with the vines. And machine harvesters couldn’t sort good grapes from bad as effectively as humans.
It didn’t end there. All the chemical treatments in the vineyard reduced the vines’ natural vigor. The fruit ended up lacking essential nutrients, making weak or even flawed wines.
The answer? More industrial help! Chaptalization (adding sugar before fermentation) to increase body. Nutrients and enzymes to help the fermentation along.
And when that wasn’t enough to ensure a healthy, happy fermentation (since all those pesticides and insecticides had decimated the natural yeasts) salesmen were at the ready with cultured yeasts, guaranteed to finish the job. So what if they left a similar flavor note in every wine they produced?
Finally, to stabilize the whole procedure: fining, sterile filtration and, at every step, plenty of sulfur.
The result was efficient but homogenized wines.
Chauvet, Lapierre and Beaujolais’ Invention of natural wine
Beaujolais could seem an unlikely place for the natural wine movement to be born since, as we saw, its traditional “carbonic” winemaking technique can be risky business. Who wouldn’t want to take simple, easy steps to prevent these flaws and protect your wine and livelihood? Who wouldn’t want a little chemical help?
Jules Chauvet, that’s who!
It turns out that someone willing to do the hard work to preserve carbonic maceration in the Beaujolais style, may also be willing to do the hard work to make natural wine. Jules Chauvet was that man.
Today, Jules Chauvet is a legend of natural wine.
Kermit Lynch wrote about him in his (truly amazing—you need to read it if you haven’t already) book, Adventures on the Wine Route. Chauvet’s (more challenging) books are passed around wine circles, like some limited-edition graphic novel. He is considered both a legendary chemist and deep thinker who preserved all of the ancient ways in the vineyard and the cellar.
But back in the day he was a local outlier, not an international legend. In the post-war years, as a passionate Beaujolais winemaker who remembered vintages from the ‘20s (!) he was a living link to Beaujolais’ traditions.
He was also a great scientist, able to understand what was happening in his wines in different ways than the old-timers ever had. As synthetic inputs proliferated, starting in the ‘50s, he spoke out in favor of natural methods. He preserved the old ways as he developed his own philosophy and techniques which allowed him to make wine without adding any sulfur dioxide – an almost unheard-of trick. But he was one of very few doing what he was doing.
Until Marcel Lapierre came around.
Lapierre learned the post-war techniques at wine school, but he wanted something more. And when he met Chauvet, he found his model and his teacher. He set out, like Chauvet, to make wines like the old-timers, wines that expressed their terroir rather than the yeasts and industrial techniques that were used to make it.
You can listen (or read, if you don't understand French) to Marcel Lapierre talking about the rise of industrial winemaking in his early days as a vigneron, here:
[The video is by Isabelle Legeron, one of France's first female MWs and the founder of the RAW Wine festival.]
What were Chauvet’s secrets?
Preserving old vines, which transmit terroir. Farming sustainably (without synthetic inputs), to ensure healthy fruit that requires no additives to ferment. Carefully selecting only healthy bunches – which requires hand harvesting ripe fruit. Fermenting in the old fashioned, semi-carbonic technique, with natural yeasts and without additives or heavy filtration.
Et voilá, you have your old school Beaujolais.
Sound familiar? These are, of course, the basic principles that became the backbone of today’s Natural Wine.
“Nothing added, and nothing taken away.”
And that’s no accident. Lapierre started down Chauvet’s path and pretty soon his friends, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thevenet, and Joseph Chamonard were along for the ride.
Their wines had (and have) a dynamism that feels like a living thing. Drinking the best of them is like having a conversation with an interesting person: they are hard to pin down, changing subtly all the time, showing layers and depths, but always fun and charming.
It’s no wonder they became the model for so many of today’s most exciting, most sought-after wines.
Overnoy? He was pals with Lapierre and got these principles indirectly from Chauvet.
Thierry Puzelat? He decided he could make natural wine after tasting Lapierre.
Pfiferling? The same.
How many others were inspired by Lapierre and the Gang?
How many weren’t?!
It was never easy for the Gang. The ordinary winemaking challenges plus Beaujolais’ special wrinkles required very hard work.
They were fastidious about following their wines’ development day by day and year after year. Smelling and tasting, of course, but using microscopes and analyses too, to understand what was going on with their wines and learn what techniques would set things right when they went off track – which can always happen with a natural wine.
In the early days, of course there were batches that went bad. But they persevered. And in the end, their wines became very special.
When people talk about what makes natural wines different, they often describe them as being “alive.” In addition to being a good description of how they tasted, it is also literally true: without much sulfur or other stabilizers, the wines really are full of life.
The gang found an importer in Kermit Lynch who supported them passionately. And over the years, together, they found not just a market, but a following.
Of course, it isn’t just the Gang of Four doing this now in Beaujolais. There are producers like Metras, natural as the summer days are long, and who makes some genuine Unicorn wines.
There are also under-the-radar, budget-priced growers, like Dupeuble and Jean-Paul Brun, who are “natural” by any meaningful definition.
Many of today’s hottest natural winemakers refuse to use sulfur, and many of natural wines’ most ardent supporters insist that for wine to be truly Natural, it must have no sulfur added (some sulfur occurs naturally). Sulfur deadens the fruit, hides the terroir. Strips the wine of subtlety and vibrancy. They say.
Is it really as bad as all that? Sulfur has been used since ancient times to protect and preserve wine and to clean winemaking vessels. It prevents oxidation as well as disinfects, so it can help with everything from healthy fermentations, to stable shipping, to long aging.
Chauvet, and Lapierre after him, made sulfur-free wines as part of an intensely analytical winemaking process. And even for Lapierre, it didn’t always work. Of course, when it worked, the wines were very special.
However, the sulfured wines are good enough for Kermit Lynch, who imports both un-sulfured Lapierre bottlings and bottles that have been treated with a little sulfur.
Some of that comes down to logistics: without sulfur to protect it, a wine has to be looked after very, very carefully. Leave it out in a warm shop or restaurant and it will go off in no time. No importer wants to be responsible for storage conditions in shops and restaurants around the country. (And nobody should want to buy an unsulfured bottle from a shopt that hasn’t stored it properly.)
But we can’t help but wonder if it isn’t just enriching to have both. You can listen to Mathieu Lapierre (Marcel’s son) describe his views of sulfur below. It definitely seems to us like there is room in the world for both!
Should you drink unsulfured wine?
The best thing to do if you’re curious is (as always) to taste and decide for yourself!
One fun thing is to hunt down both a sulfured and unsulfured version of the same wine (Lapierre often releases both, for instance; sign up for our newsletter to hear about it when it lands) and taste them side by side.
But even if you can’t put such a tasting together, taste as many unsulfured wines as you can.
Are they generally flawed, or do they speak to you more directly and more deeply than sulfured wines? Do they taste like of their fermentation, or are they vibrant expressions of grape and place and vintage?
For whatever it may be worth, in my experience, young unsulfured wines can indeed be more vibrant than their sulfured counterparts. The sulfur can occlude some details, tamp down some of the life of the wine. But while I haven’t experimented with as many older unsulfured bottles as I would like to, it seems to me that with time the differences become harder to pick up. After a few years in the bottle, well-made sulfured and unsulfured wines converge on a similar expression.
On the other hand, many very experienced tasters argue that the opposite is true of many Lapierre vintages: the unsulfured cuvee ages better. If you’re interested, taste for yourself!
Where does it go from here?
Beaujolais has inspired growers all over the world.
What once was a freaky approach to wine, something only a rare and intrepid importer would touch even with a ten-foot pole, is now the belle of the ball. First Louis/Dressner (who brought us J-P Brun, Coudert’s Clos de la Roilette and so many amazing Beaujolais), and then more and more until today we have many great importers (such as Jenny & Francois, Zev Rovine, Selection Massale, and many more) who specialize in natural wine and bring us exciting new examples every year.
The same thing has happened in American restaurants. Just as Beaujolais has gone from being a rarity on top wine lists to a staple of every serious restaurant, so too have Natural Wines exploded in prominence. Twenty years ago, it was impossible to find a natural wine in any top NYC restaurant. Today the top restaurants all have natural options, and many serve nothing but. This is one more way that the story of natural wine maps directly onto the story of Beaujolais.
It wasn’t so long ago that many serious sommeliers would turn up their nose at natural wine – and Beaujolais! But not today.
Pascaline Lepeltier, who has been named the greatest sommelier in France, left her perch managing what World of Fine Wine called the greatest wine list in the world, to run the natural list at New York’s Racines. She has no fewer than 15 Beaujolais on the list, including a few from the Gang of Four and Jean-Paul Brun.
There has, of course, been some pushback.
Parker and other critics have trash-talked the “natural wine movement.” Natural wines taste more of their winemaking techniques than their terroirs, goes the thinking. They have taken carbonic maceration, a technique that helps gamay grown on granite soils to show its terroir, and applied it in regions and to grapes where it doesn’t belong. The winemakers have traded what they decried as industrial homogeneity for anti-establishment homogeneity. Worse, they’ve traded real pleasure for some misguided notion of “authenticity.”
But all this is really more a process of fine-tuning than of rejecting natural approaches. No critic has ever said this about Lapierre or Beaujolais’ legion of natural (and natural-adjacent) growers and natural wines continue to inspire winemakers all around the world. Chauvet’s animating spirit will continue to drive winemakers to to make ever more expressive wines all over the world.
Back home in Beaujolais, the next generation of the Gang of four is stepping up. Mathieu and Camille Lapierre, Marcel’s kids, are holding down the fort after their father’s passing. Alex Foillard and Charly Thevenet are also in the game. They all continue to apply and develop the techniques their fathers rediscovered.
Even more exciting: Because land in Beaujolais is a fraction of the cost you would pay in, say, Burgundy, many young growers are working tremendous sites all over Beaujolais, trying to work out their own interpretation of the principles Chauvet, Lapierre and the others laid out and mastered.
The results are delicious, and in the coming weeks, you can expect a survey of some of our favorite up and coming Beaujolais producers.
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