20 July 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: jean-paul thévenet, pizay

On a rainy morning in April, over some barrel samples of his and his son's old vine Morgon and Régnié (respectively), I mentioned to Jean-Paul Thévenet that I was planning a book project about the wines of Beaujolais. Like many winemakers I spoke to, he was encouraging, but not without certain qualifications.

"When we started making this type of wine, there were people who quite liked our wines, but who soon began telling us, this is good, and that’s not good, and it’s no good for us, to talk like that. There are people who work conventionally who work very well, and we ought to leave them the choice..."

Having worked for over three decades to encourage better viticultural and winemaking practices in his region, Thévenet is aware that progress is slow, where it occurs at all, and that the eager attention of a critic is likelier to inflame situations than improve them. Thévénet counsels patience.

"Little by little, the products are less noxious... There are a lot of people who begin to work a little more naturally. When we started to do this in 1985 - Marcel Lapierre a little before - we were often refused the appellation because [our wine] was marked atypical, not representative of the region. Meanwhile the old winegrowers told us that our wines were like the Morgon that was made fifty years ago."

I always leap for Thévenet's wines whenever I see them in Paris, which is oddly rarely. He has a longtime agent who lives in Grosley, near Beauvais, who I suspect doesn't actively court any new accounts in the city. Then again there might just not be any wine to go around. Thévenet's domaine has remained about the same size since the mid-80's, diminishing even, when he ceded his Régnié vines to his son Charly in 2007. Thévénet père is left with just under 5ha of Morgon, mostly situated near the hamlet of Le Clachet, bordering the vines of Domaine Marcel Lapierre.

Thévenet also produces a lightly-sweet sparkling Gamay for the British market.

Charly Thévenet's 2014 Régnié that day was a sample drawn from concrete tank. The wine sees a somewhat unusual aging process, in that it spends the first eight or nine months in concrete, after which about a third of it will be put in neutral oak barrels, with everything being assembled for bottling about a full year after the vintage.

For comparison, his father's old-vine Morgon is aged 3/4 in old oak from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, with the last quarter aged in concrete tank. Jean-Paul Thévenet does several bottlings per year, depending on the yields of the vintage, and there's unfortunately no way to tell from which bottling a given bottle derives. (He says it's because he orders the labels before he knows how many bottles he'll produce.)

Both wines undergo cool carbonic maceration (as opposed to the cold carbonic that is my friend Alice Feiring's personal bugaboo). In his circumspect way, Thévenet professed to eschewing too drastic chilling before carbonic maceration:

"Before we had a technique, for fermentation, where we went much lower on temperature. Now, well, me personally, I have less the tendency to make the temperature lower, because we lose a lot of time....We went to zero, 2, 3 4 degrees. I find that a little too much, because for 4 or 5 days, nothing happens. I don’t like that too much, when nothing happens. I prefer that it starts fermenting. So now we descend the temperature a little less; in general we put in the grapes cold, between 10-12-13 degrees, so the fermentations aren't as long."

Thévenet's basic Morgon, which is not brought into the US. To this day I still haven't tasted it. He says he still makes it for the sake of his father's clients. 

I had arrived solo, after having told Thévénet we'd be four people. The two novelists I was traveling with preferred reading in bed that morning, and my other friend C had, impossibly, managed to get lost behind me on the fifteen minute bike route between Lancié and Pizay.*

But by lucky chance Thévenet and I were soon joined by former Clermont-Ferrand natural wine caviste, current Domaine Marcel Lapierre cellar-hand David Chastang, a.k.a. Totor, who was just dropping by. I'd met Totor the previous summer when he was working at Le Bist'Roch in Nuits. I recalled aloud that on the day I visited that wine bar, the other clients were a bachelor party whose guest of honor was dressed up as a gigantic penis. (In retrospect, this is probably the sort of story I should not try to relay in a second language.)

We all agreed that Charly Thévenet's Régnié was in fine form that day, bristling and bright-fruited. Totor went so far as to propose he forget the fut aging and just bottle it immediately.

The tasting's real treasures, however, were a pair of older bottles Thévenet kindly opened, old-vine Morgons from 1996 and 2008.

Thévenet and Totor recalled that 1996 had been an unusual harvest. "We had quite a bit of production in quantity," said Thévenet, "but there was difficulty to ripen. From the beginning to the end of harvest, it was cold and sunny in the day, and cold at night."

Harvest had been very late, yet the wines tasted astringent in their youth. In our glasses now, the wine was an aromatic eruption of Morgon, with bold cherry, gunflint, and kirsch notes. This latter note, to my American-raised palate, often scans as a pleasant, low-toned cough-syrup, a rich center to a Morgon's otherwise lithe, agile profile. On the palate this bottle of 1996 was a little brief, marked by a nagging note of volatile acidity. 

The 2008, on the other hand, was mesmerizing in the cool, panoramic style of that year's greatest successes. Its white-cherry fruit was luminescent, throwing off lovely rainfall aromas with just a touch of cigar-like spice. If in a classic year, Beaujolais is stark, crunchy, and rhythmic in the manner of Ziggy Stardust, then the greats of 2008 resemble Bowie's shimmery sound-experiments the Low era.

Around this time we were joined by Jean-Paul's wife Annick and his daughter Charlotte, who joined us for a glass. I reintroduced myself, which involved reintroducing the idea of my book project. 

"Perhaps why they haven’t yet written [such a book]," Jean-Paul observed then, "is that 15 years ago we were not very numerous. Now it’s interesting because there are lot of good young winemakers. So the book can be a little thicker."

Annick laughed and added, "Before, it would have been 12 pages - a pamphlet!"

*  In her defense, her cell-phone had been stolen on the train. I was left with the uncomfortable choice between relying upon her to make her own way back to the gite, or blowing off an appointment with a great winemaker in order to go find her. I chose the former option, and felt somewhat validated when it began to rain steadily. 

Jean-Paul Thévenet
82, route de Saint Ennemond

Related Links:

Beaujolais Bike Trip 2015:

Jules Métras, Fleurie
Rémi et Laurence Dufaitre, Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières
Jean-Claude Lapalu, Saint-Etienne-La-Varenne
Benoit Camus, Ville-sur-Jarnioux

Beaujolais Bike Trip 2011:

Karim Vionnet, Villié-Morgon
Café de la Bascule, Fleurie
Isabelle et Bruno Perraud, Vauxrenard
Le Coq à Juliènas, Juliènas
Le Relais des Caveaux, Villié-Morgon
L'Atelier du Cuisiner, Villié-Morgon

A concise profile of Jean-Paul Thévénet's domaine at the site of his longtime US importer, Kermit Lynch. The text oddly refers to Régnié as a "Grand Cru," although to my knowledge there is no such thing as a "Grand Cru" in Beaujolais, just crus. 

Roberson Wine in the UK bring in Thévénet's basic Morgon and his sweet sparkler.

Aurélia Filion produced one of her spell-binding "Bu Sur Le Web" YouTube videos in which she tastes the 2008 Thévénet Morgon Vieilles Vignes in 2010. I predict these videos will one day be used as eduational aids for the training of aphasic sommeliers. 

No comments:

Post a Comment