25 June 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: jean-claude lapalu, saint-etienne-la-varenne

Jean-Claude Lapalu occupies an interesting position in the pantheon of contemporary Beaujolais. The son and grandson of winegrowers, he began bottling his own wines relatively late, at age 35. It was 1996. "I'm an intermediary," he acknowledges, "between the generation of Max Breton, who started before me, and the young generation today."

Our visit had been arranged Lapalu's good friend Rémi Dufaitre, a talented young winemaker twenty years his junior, who was hosting us that night in the neighboring town. Despite their age difference, Lapalu and Dufaitre share an easy rapport. Dropping us off chez Lapalu, Dufaitre asked his friend to "throw us back" to Dufaitre's place when we were through tasting. We asked if that was normal rural slang. Lapalu just laughed. "It's just Rémi being Rémi."

Lucky for us, Lapalu was in an expansive mood on the day we visited. Our tasting went long. A born raconteur, he's among the rare great vignerons whose verbal expressivity is a match for that of his wines.

Astonishingly, Lapalu's first taste of what we now call natural wine wasn't one of the low-sulfur masterpieces being minted a few miles north in Villié-Morgon. Rather it was the wines of Provençal winemaker Henri Milan, specifically a 1996 "Clos Milan" Lapalu tasted in 1998 or 1999. According to Lapalu, it was only after his own wines began to be known "beyond the frontiers of the commune," that his neighbors from Villié-Morgon sought him out. "For modesty, or out of fear, I never would have pushed their doors," he says, grinning.

He became fast friends with the Villié-Morgon / Fleurie circle of natural winemakers - Jean-Paul Thévenet, Max Breton, the late Marcel Lapierre, and Yvon Métras. The latter winemaker, famously tight-lipped to the press, phoned Lapalu to chat several times throughout the tasting. Among the most striking aspects of Beaujolais culture, on which I'm sure I'll have the occasion to comment again, its contradictory nature. In practically no other region are great winemakers on such friendly, geographically proximate terms to drop in on one another throughout the day. Yet the region's Balkanisation is such that Lapalu discovered natural wine via Provence.

Lapalu's cellar is smaller than I anticipated. I think I had outsize expectations of his production due his wines' popularity in Paris, where about a quarter of his production is sold. All vinification and elevage is done in his cellar on a hill where Beaujolais-Villages meets Brouilly. (Saint-Etienne-La-Varenne is known as the gateway to the crus.) Labeling and shipping are done in an annex to his house down the hill.

Lapalu's range is composed, in most years, of about ten wines. I can't be the first to point out that the winemaker's restless creativity has made a muddle of the marketing. The newer cuvées, like "Eau Forte" (a cold carbonic blend of Brouilly and Beaujolais-Villages) and the majestic, amphora-aged "Alma Mater," are discrete creations unto themselves, without any visual link to the rest of the Lapalu oeuvre.

Amphorae for the "Alma Mater."
The cuvées labeled "Vieilles Vignes" - a Beaujolais-Villages and a Brouilly - are assembled from a mixed of purchased and domaines grapes. The Beaujolais-Villages cuvée "Tentation," whose label differs very little from the B.V. Vieilles Vignes, is a spiritual pre-cursor to "L'Eau Forte," and like the latter is sulfur-free and composed exclusively of domaine grapes.

Then there are the parcel-specific Brouilly cuvées, the "Cuvée des Fous" and "Rang du Merle," both bottled in Bordeaux bottles. This strange practice dates back to the early 2000's, at the outset of Lapalu's vigneron career, when a wine merchant in Grenoble complained that he couldn't sell wine labeled Beaujolais. As an experiment, Lapalu bottled a Vin de France cuvée in Bordeaux bottles, and the habit stuck.

I'd always assumed Lapalu's Bordeaux bottles were a deliberate reference to the muscular character one tended to find in his Beaujolais. But in fact the two cuvées where winemaker actually seeks greater extraction are bottled in traditional Burgundy bottles. These are the Brouilly "Les Croix des Rameaux" and the Côte de Brouilly, both of which see slightly longer old-oak aging (10 months, as opposed to 6 or 8 for the other cuvées) and some pigeage and pumping-over. These practices set these cuvées apart from those of much of the rest of Lapalu's peers, situating them stylistically somewhere between the Villié-Morgon gang and the more conservative Beaujolais domaines for whom quality means emulating Burgundy.

Interestingly, Lapalu's own tastes are perceptibly evolving. Nowadays he makes clear that only "Les Croix des Rameaux" and the Côte de Brouilly are "a little worked over" in vinification, whereas he speaks with evident relish about his aims with "Tentation" and "Eau Forte," his two lithest, most "fluid" cuvées. "Even if one makes the wines for oneself, an evolution is always occurring," he says. "We taste again and say I now have more interest in fluidity than extraction, more interest in fruit than tannin…Fifteen years ago, I would never have thought that a fluid wine could be long. I would have never thought that a non-extractive wine could be kept."

In my own experience, tasting Lapalu's wine frequently in Paris, I can indeed attest that his production seems to have reoriented itself over the last five years. Where five years ago I sometimes found his wines stolid, recent vintages have proven as sinuous and pleasurable as those of any of his peers.

After tasting for about an hour seated in the extremely chilly cellar, we repaired downhill for a few bottles on Lapalu's comparatively warm terrace, where we were soon rejoined by Rémi Dufaitre, who had gotten bored waiting for us to finish tasting.

He arrived at a good time. Lapalu soon opened a rare beauty, a 2003 Brouilly "Les Croix des Rameaux." As elsewhere in Europe, 2003 in Beaujolais was a scorching vintage. Lapalu harvested extremely early, on the 15th August. Within eight days he'd brought in all his fruit, from vines which had yielded a measly 15HL / ha. But he'd gambled well: other winemakers who'd waited for greater phenolic maturity had a catastrophic vintage, losing all acidity. 

Twelve years' later, Lapalu's "Les Croix des Rameaux" was in resplendent form. An open, forthright nose of rhubarbe and violet, with an almost nebbiolo-like texture on the palate, enlivened with a small, succulent raisinated note.It added a whole new dimension to my understanding of 2003 in Beaujolais, and demonstrated how even disastrous vintages, like the less successful David Bowie eras, have their masterpieces.

Lapalu freely admits that his ideals have shifted since 2003, that he now seeks less extraction in the wines he makes. He says its not worth seeking out the wines he made in the late 90's. "Despite that, the wines that we made 15 years ago, I still take pleasure. And I think they gave pleasure," he adds hopefully. "Because of course that’s the goal of the game."

Jean-Claude Lapalu
Le Petit Vernay
69460 Saint-Étienne-la-Varenne
Tel: 04 74 03 50 57

Related Links:

Beaujolais Bike Trip 2015:

Benoit Camus, Ville-sur-Jarnioux

Beaujolais Bike Trip 2011:

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