The Women of Beaujolais
Mee Godard, Anne Sophie Dubois, Camille Lapierre: many of the top names in Beaujolais today are women. That wasn’t true even twenty years ago in Beaujolais, and it isn’t true today in many regions.
Of course, wine is hardly the only business with a sexist, gendered past -- or present. But long before the rise of “Me Too,” change started to come to Beaujolais. Female winemakers have now entered the firmament of the very most sought-after producers. Why have so many female vigneronnes done so well in Beaujolais?
The sheer economics of Beaujolais probably played a part. It stands to reason that the same market forces that have made the region a hotbed of young talent would help create the space for enterprising and visionary women to carve out their own niches. It’s hard to imagine the economic pressures among Bordeaux’ Grand Chateaux leading to a more gender-neutral (or less rigidly corporate) environment than hills of Beaujolais.
There is also a special open-hearted conviviality in the local culture. The people seem genuine and friendly -- even festive -- in a way that you imagine you can taste in the always-joyful wines. It’s tempting to speculate that this local “vibe” may have helped in its own way too.
But however it came to be, Beaujolais is now blessed with a host of amazing female winemakers. Some of them, talents who have moved there to start domaines from scratch; others, daughters of old Beaujolais families bravely carrying the traditional ways into the future.
Now, are these women who make wine in Beaujolais best approached and understood as that: a group of women winemakers? To ask the question is to see how sexist it is, a legacy of an era in which vigneronnes were less common. No, it’s clear, to the contrary, that it is the diversity of voices in the vineyards of Beaujolais -- many of which happen to be women’s voices -- that is one of the region’s great strengths. To appreciate this we need to look at these winemakers as what they are: winemakers of the first order. Full stop.
To illustrate, a few Flatiron team members each picked a favorite winemaking women and wrote about what makes her so special to them.
Mee Goddard by Valerie Pimpinelli (Flatiron Wines, New York)
Mee Godard makes striking wines that remind you of Beaujolais's geographical situation, tucked between Burgundy and the Northern Rhône. But don't take our word for it: she's received rave reviews from critics, from her very first vintage. Jancis Robinson staff writer Tamlyn Currin calls them "stunning, elegant" and "some of the classiest beaujolais around."
For many, entry into the world of winemaking is a step down a generational path, following in the footsteps of parents, grandparents and so forth. An induction into the family business, so to speak. That's certainly not to say there's any lack of passion, but there's no doubt a level of security in taking over the reins of familial property — a level of security that a newcomer is not afforded.
Mee is one such newcomer. Born in Korea and adopted by a French couple as an infant, her path in life could have veered this way or that, but she's chosen wine with every step. From her education at Oregon State University, studying biochemistry with an emphasis in wine science, to her work experience in Burgundy, where she honed her skills at estates like Domaine des Comtes Lafon, the goal has always been expressing the local terroir.
There's no mistaking that Mee is heavily influenced by the greatest wines of Burgundy, but for a budding winemaker, high prices put most land there out of reach. Hunting nearby for fine terroir to call her own, Mee fell in love with the wines of Beaujolais, and Morgon in particular. In 2013, she purchased a few old-vine parcels in some of the Cru's most hallowed climats, like Côte du Py, Corcelette, and Grand Cras. She started with a mere 5.4 hectares, small enough that she worked the vines entirely by herself.
At first, she began farming her vines in the lutte raisonnée method. Literally, “the reasoned fight,” lutte raisonnée is a fuzzily defined farming style that pursues sustainability and limits chemical inputs. But Mee quickly decided to change course and began incorporating organic methods and, by 2016, she was farming all her vines organically. Yields from her old vines are naturally low. She hand-harvests, and sorts rigorously.
Godard’s wines are not vins de soif; rather, they are deeply concentrated, richly textured vins de garde — wines meant to be contemplated and savored, perfectly built for aging. Here, we see Mee's Burgundian preferences, with long macerations and a mix of semi-carbonic whole-cluster fermentation and Burgundian fermentations; from a fruity, oft-uncomplicated grape like Gamay, she coaxes her terroirs’ complex tannin structure and intense minerality. From her inaugural vintage to the most recent, we couldn't be more impressed.
All too often, we think of wine in a shockingly simplistic binary. Powerful, tannic wines are masculine; lighter, aromatic wines are considered feminine. Hand-in-hand with this dichotomy is the idea that a female winemaker can only influence her wines to be lighter, fresher, coyer — an argument solidly put aside once you've had a single sip of Mee's compelling bottlings.
So too do we think of Beaujolais as a monolith — carbonic maceration, glou-glou styling, and candied, cherry-berry fruit. Don't get us wrong -- we love that easygoing style of wine, too! -- but there's something so rewarding about having our expectations challenged. And Mee's Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent do just that. Her Beaujolais vins-de-gardes are so fascinating, so complex and so age-worthy that we can't wait to see what's next for this extraordinarily talented woman.
Camille Lapierre by Ousi Li (Flatiron Wines, San Francisco)
The domaine of Marcel Lapierre needs no introduction. Since Marcel Lapierre pioneered organic and natural winemaking practices in the 80’s, the estate has risen not just to the top of Beaujolais’ pantheon, but right to the top of the wine world’s. On the one hand, it must be nice to receive the reins of such an established and already legendary winery. On the other, there must be immense pressure to upkeep and improve upon a very tough act to follow. Since Marcel passed away in 2010, his son Mathieu and daughter Camille have taken over the domaine jointly, and lucky for us, the wines continue to wow and please.
Camille returned to the winery full-time in 2013, but not without having dipped her feet across the world in some equally impressive establishments. Harvesting with names like Louis-Antonie Luyt in Chile, and Pheasant’s Tears in Georgia, only begin to give you an idea of her curiosity and adventurous spirit. And like any good vigneronne, she topped it off studying at the prestigious wine school in Beaune after working as a sommelier for a number of years. It is perhaps this wide ranging experience that gives her an especially sharp business acumen and realism.
Ask her about natural wines and you’ll hear she is not a believer in the term, nor in extreme dogmatism when it comes to winemaking. Only that steps should be taken to make the wines as natural as possible without compromising quality. Her father, quite famously, blazed the trail for no-sulfur-added wines.
Camille’s philosophy? Add sulfur when you need to, and none when you don’t. The winery typically makes 2 cuveés of Morgon named “N” and “S”, with “S” receiving a tiny bit of sulfur at bottling and “N” no sulfur. In 2015, they decided not to make the “N” cuvee at all as it was an extremely warm year and the wines tended to be overly oxidative and volatile. When asked what she wanted for Christmas that year, Camille replied “dry wines.”
Today, the Lapierre winery is 100% certified organic and experimenting with biodynamics, but Camille says if they don’t see improvement or results, they won’t convert. Many traditions of their father live on in the wines of Marcel Lapierre of course, yet a certain focus and pragmatism has been added by the newer guard. It is at this intersection between the old and new that we are starting to see some of the world’s most exciting wines pushing boundaries and Lapierre certainly continues to be one of them.
Grosse Pierre by Clara Dalzell (Flatiron Wines, New York)
Last fall, when international travel was more than a memory, we received a visit from a charming, hip, young, French vigneronne. She assessed our Beaujolais shelf, nodding in recognition at several bottles. This producer was her neighbor, and that one was her very good friend. Clearly a part of the Beaujolais microcosm we obsess over. So why had we never tasted her wines?
Well, we tasted them and we were blown away. Pauline Passot is a special talent. Like many young winemakers, Pauline Passot grew up among the vines. After a career as a sommelier in France and abroad, she returned home to carry on her parents' and grandparents' legacy.
In her first vintage, Passot nailed it. 2018 was a fine, bountiful vintage in Beaujolais, marked by ample fruit and fresh acidity. These are some of the freshest and prettiest 18s we’ve tasted, every wine in the lineup showing impressive poise and terroir-determination.
Domaine de la Grosse Pierre is situated in Chiroubles, and has some small holdings in Fleurie and Morgon as well. The name of the domain refers to the granite slopes of Chiroubles, a geologic feature that imparts an undeniable minerality to balance the Gamay’s bright berry notes.
Her winemaking philosophy is clearly something akin to "slow and steady wins the race" — the fermentation is semi-carbonic and occurs slowly, over the course of 12 days, and at a low temperature. This helps retain the integrity of the fruit and terroir of the 50-90 year old vines. Only native yeasts are employed and no sulfites are added. This is a tough trick to pull off, but her wines are very clean and composed.
It’s clear to us that if there was a “Rookie of the Year” award for Beaujolais, Pauline would take the honors for her excellent 2018s. It’s exciting to think that there are still new names to discover, even in familiar regions like Beaujolais.
Claude-Emmanuelle Desvignes by Josh Cohen (Flatiron Wines)
Claude-Emmanuelle says she always wanted to make Beaujolais. As a kid she was interested in winemaking and by the 10th grade she had decided to specialize in viticulture in school. Like so many of her generation she continued her education with an internship overseas (on Long Island!) before coming home to make wine with her father.
Claude-Emmanuelle now runs the winery with her brother. Since they took over, they have made some important changes: they converted to organic farming, began plowing, and stopped selling fruit to the negociants.
Some of these changes were challenging. When they introduced ploughing all at once, their yields dropped precipitously from the shock to the vines. And bottling their entire production meant building a new cellar to handle the extra wine! All these changes were thoughtful and none of them were made dogmatically: Claude-Emmanuelle says that if there was ever a serious risk to the vines from mildew she wouldn’t hesitate to use small amounts of synthetic products -- if that’s what she thought was called for.
One thing they haven’t changed is the Desvignes style: tannic, age-worthy wines are what her father made, and that’s what they make to this day. They vinify in the Burgundian style, no carbonic-maceration here. And they age the wines for a long time.
The wines have Beaujolais charm and Gamay fruit and they are accessible -- even when young. But they have mineral backbones and tannic bite like few other Beaujolais and they definitely get better with some age. To an outsider, Claude-Emmanuelle appears to have woven herself seamlessly into the fabric of her family’s domaine and of her home region. It’s hard to imagine a better testament to the position of women in Beaujolais than to see the naturalness with which they become part of the heritage.
Anne-Sophie Dubois by Maggie Scudder (Flatiron Wines, New York)
Over just a few years, we’ve been lucky enough to watch as the wines of Anne-Sophie Dubois have gone from new and fascinating to completely synonymous with excellent Cru Beaujolais.
We’ve mentioned her alongside other top names in this blog series, already. And rightfully so! Anne-Sophie has earned her spot alongside the tent poles of natural winemaking and with those who have an eye on the future of the region.
While she is based in Fleurie, a cru typically known for its delicate perfume and silky fruit, Anne-Sophie's formative years in Burgundy are starkly evident. With her old vines (they are all quite old, but the oldest are 60+ years old) and her precise vinification techniques, she crafts wine of impeccable terroir and minerality.
A core tenet at the domaine is that 80% of a wine is made in the vineyard; farming—certified organic in 2017—is done with the goal of creating a microcosm of biodiversity. Anne-Sophie credits the poor granite soils with much of her success—a robust grape like Gamay needs to be tempered by struggle to reveal its finer side.
2018 is an exquisite vintage across the region, both in terms of quantity and quality—the best examples are full of vibrant fruit, great freshness and balanced acidity. Unsurprisingly, Anne-Sophie's wines achieve a perfect balance: there's beautiful dichotomy between that bright, intense fruit and stony minerality. Her passion for precision is palpable. In fact, if we could distill her style into just a word, that would be it: passionate. This isn’t the easiest thing to achieve in a modestly priced bottle of wine--but every bottle of Anne-Sohpie’s is bursting with flavor and verve.
All her work in the vineyard has created a cultish following in just a few years. She’s the absolute real deal. Don’t take our word for it--grab her wines as early and often as you can and try them for yourself. In the past few vintages have flown off the shelves, and we expect that to continue. If you want to taste terrific, honest wine, Anne-Sophie Dubois is your gal.
Nicole Chanrion by Beau Rapier (Flatiron Wines, San Francisco)
Long before many of the winemakers we’ve discussed were born, there was another, truly groundbreaking, woman working in the southern village of Cote-de-Brouilly: Nicole Chanrion.
Though not nearly as famous as peers like Lalou Bize-Leroy or Ghislaine Barthod, Nicole has been working in the vineyards and cellar since the early 1970s. She officially took over as the 6th generation winemaker for her family's domaine in 1988, but it wasn’t easy. Even her mother was skeptical of women as winemakers. Certainly many of her neighbors were as well.
But she kept working, and quietly and persistently began making some of the best Cru Beaujolais in her appellation. Nicole tends to the vineyards almost entirely by herself, working in a lutte raisonée philosophy (sustainable with organic practices) she spends long days with her vines.
In the cellar she is gentle and hands off. The whole clusters are fermented with wild yeasts and undergo a fully carbonic maceration. The malolactic fermentations take place in neutral foudres, and they are aged for 9 months or more in the same barrels. This gentle process creates wines of precision, elegance and charming complexity.
The wines can age very well. Nicole is one of the few in her region that keeps back a fair amount of wine for library selections. We snap these up whenever we can.
As we write this, we have her latest from 2019 in stock in SF. The wine is snappy, energetic and joyous right now, perfect for a holiday meal. But you should definitely grab some extra bottles for your reasonable cellar and see how well they age!
In spite of this growing interest, we noticed that there isn’t much information out there for consumers about the 10 Crus Beaujolais – there’s certainly no obvious book to read – so we thought we’d post a series of articles to help you out. This is your one stop guide to the 10 Crus of Beaujolais.
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It’s a great value!
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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!
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Read on to see the biggest trends in the Beaujolais Wine Region.