22 May 2015
Tucked among the fulsome green hills of Sagy-le-Haut is the cellar of Julien Guillot, the charming third-generation winemaker of biodynamic Mâconnais domaine Clos des Vignes du Maynes. Before returning to run the domaine in his late twenties, Guillot, who is of telegenic height and fresh-faced in his forties, had a career as an actor in France. He is conspicuously good at marketing his wines. Their prices in Paris and the US testify to this. His Bourgogne rouge "Cuvée Auguste" costs more than your average Marsannay.
What Clos des Vignes du Maynes' appellations lack in grandeur is made up for in the domaine's unimpeachable history and winemaking acumen. Julien's grandfather, Pierre Guillot, practiced a nascent version of organic viticulture ever since purchasing the domaine in 1954. Later, Julien's father Alain was instrumental in helping get the agriculture biologique (organic) logo approved by the French government in 1984. Julien, for his part, initiated the domaine's conversion to biodynamic viticulture in 1998. Upon hearing Guillot recount this in the anteroom of his cellar, my friend C posed a great question: "What did people in the region call 'organic' before 'organic' existed?"
Guillot grinned, and with the confidence that comes from having been right, replied, "Les conneries de Guillot," or 'Guillot's bullshit.'
I've been a fan of les conneries de Guillot since first encountering Julien Guillot and his wines at a tasting at Quedubon, in Paris' 19ème arrondissement, in 2011. His Mâcon Cruzilles "Cuvée 910," in particular - an attempt to recreate the wine style of the Cluny monks who first cultivated the area, by blending pinot noir and gamay with chardonnay - struck me as prescient at a time when consumer tastes are finally beginning to awaken to lighter, more ethereal wines. It's a wine that, beyond tasting scrumptious, manages to embody the central argument of the natural wine movement: that, far from being newfangled, it constitutes a return to preindustrial aesthetics of winemaking.
The Guillot estate is well-suited to advance such claims. Its oldest plots, like the chardonnay vineyards which yield the cuvée "Aragonite," have been cultivated as vineyards almost continuously since the 9th century, until they were abandoned during the era of phylloxera. The vineyards have never been treated pesticides or herbicides, and have always been replanted using massal selection.
Interestingly, the first room one visits, chez Guillot, is the room where the winemaker ages his Marc de Bourgogne.* By chance my friend C happened to be very interested in marc production at that moment. Guillot's eyes lit up when C began asking rather technical questions about marc production. Guillot's marc operation contains numerous sizes of barrel, of diverse providence. Of a barrel of a certain size, he opines that the barrel drinks, on average, ten litres of the marc as it ages. He makes so little of the stuff he sells it only at the domaine. He explained that he was soon to move his marc production to a larger, more humid facility, because when the air is too dry, the barrels absorb more of the marc.
Guillot was pressed for time when we visited, so we hustled into his tasting room, a little cellar annex area back-lit with warped, antique glass bottles in various colours: garnet, amber, lizard-green. He was pressed for time because he was to receive a bachelorette party at 2pm. The mind reels. Who are these young maidens who celebrate by traipsing around the pays Mâconnais tasting biodynamic chardonnay? We had planned to attend a tasting in Leynes later that day, otherwise I would have volunteered to stay.
I taste Guillot's wines so often in Paris that I assumed the tasting would be more for C's benefit. But in fact Guillot has more than a few random little cuvées that never see the light of the City of Light. Additionally, I found it helpful to see the range presented in entirety. Only then did I realise that Guillot's reputation is founded as much on his négoçiant work as on the wine from his 7ha domaine.
The two wines of his I encounter most often, his Saint-Véran and his Pouilly-Fuissé, are both made from purchased grapes. On good days the latter wine, made from biodynamic vines and aged in a mix of demi muid and pièce, can show a beaming, ray-of-God purity, with notes of honeydew and white flower. On other days it just tastes like solid, hearty Pouilly-Fuissé. Guillot usually uses no sulfur during vinification, and adds just 1 gram of sulfur at bottling. In my experience, his wines' purity is assured; they nonetheless can be rather changeable within vintages, presumably due either to his restraint with sulfur or time between bottlings.
Lately Guillot's been getting deeper into gamay. I've raved elsewhere about his 2013 Beaujolais-Leynes, which I learned that day is made from a wayward, hail-prone parcel of vines he purchased from the Bret Brothers, who'd had enough of it after three straight years of hail at harvest. (Guillot gambled well: it was spared hail in 2013.)
Now, from tank, we tasted a Beaujolais Guillot produced in 2014 from vines leased from Beaujolais wizard Bruno Debize. It was an absolute marvel - the sort of wine one wants to step outside with. So we did, the better to appreciate its wild, sex shop-magenta colour, and its pure, crispy, crushed-berry fruit.
Guillot told us that, due to a missed deadline in filing paperwork, this wine will likely have to be bottled as Vin de France. I don't think it'll affect sales. It was among the most moving wines of the visit, alongside the 2013 Beaujolais-Leynes and the structured and mineral 2013 Mâcon-Cruzilles "Aragonite."**
It's easy to connect Guillot's passion for négoçiant micro-cuvées to that which he maintains for his Marc de Bourgone and Fine de Bourgogne. Here, evidently, is an enthusiastic, energetic winemaker with a penchant for experimentation. He is very fortunately situated in Sagy-le-Haut. Not only are there zero distractions (it is quite in the middle of nowhere, even by wine country standards), but the town happens to be situated on the local spring-water source, an underground lake beneath his property. In practice, this means that the water the local distiller uses to distill Guillot's marc and fine derives from the same terroir as the base material.
Guillot credits the quality of his distillates to this dynamic. Whatever it is, the 2001 Marc de Bourgogne we tasted on empty stomachs before hitting the road was among the most fascinating liquors I've tasted in ages.
A tantalizing, spicy savoury note enlivens the nose and mid-palate. C and I searched for it, but Guillot, who knows his product well, gave it away: "Wasabi."
It's way better than it sounds, woven into a complex accord including peanut brittle and smoke. I've since found places to taste it in Paris - Entrée des Artistes Pigalle and Table à Côté - but if one seeks any quantity of the stuff, of which not much remains at all, one ought to visit to Sagy-le-Haut. For what it's worth, Guillot's summer project is to start a chambre d'hôte and a table d'hôte, so there will be some amenities.
(One rarely hears of people visiting Mâcon. I think people don't often say to their spouses, "Honey, why don't we visit the region below Burgundy that makes cheaper wines?" Such a phrase is incompatible with the profligate spirit of vacation. But it's precisely what people ought to say, since the chances of having a memorable, sincere experience visiting a winemaker are inversely related to the fame of the surrounding region. You can pay for train rides through caves in Champagne or bumble around the shut doors of Burgundy. Or you can visit Mâcon or the Jura or the Loire and actually have fun.)
* Marc de Bourgogne is Burgundian grappa. We can only speculate why the Italian term predominates in English for this type of alcohol. I suspect it's because the word 'grappa' is more fun to say. 'Marc de Bourgogne' sounds like I'm talking about a friend called Mark, from Burgundy. Then, we can't underestimate cultural factors. Italians are arguably more prone to distributing free after dinner drinks, not to mention their greater affection for over-designed, trophy-like bottles.
** I have had some oxidation issues with the 2012 "Aragonite." Lately it tastes a bit lumpen and appley, and can't help but disappoint, given that it retails for around 30€ in Paris.
Clos des Vignes du Maynes
Rue des Moines
Tel: 03 85 33 20 15
Drinking a few of Julien Guillot's 2013 reds at Cave du Daron, 75011
Meeting Julien Guillot at Quedubon, 75019
A nice account of a 2010 visit to Julien Guillot at Vinography.