08 July 2015

jordan mackay's beaujolais misinformation

Jordan Mackay. Someone get this man a glass of Métras.

I write now and then for an NYC-based website called PUNCH, whose stated purpose is to explore the culture surrounding wine, spirits, and other alcoholic beverages. It's a publication of Ten Speed Press, itself a subsidiary of Random House. I hope the site and its parent companies will forgive me in advance for publicly taking issue with a deeply misinformative piece recently published in PUNCH by San Francisco Magazine wine writer Jordan Mackay.

Entitled "Beyond Carbonic: A New Era in Beaujolais," the piece alerts readers to an ostensibly new trend in Beaujolais winemaking, Burgundian fermentation with de-stemming and pigeage, i.e. not the region's traditional carbonic maceration. This is not, not even by the furthest stretch of the imagination, "a new era." Mackay inadvertently acknowledges as much in the piece itself, citing Chateau du Moulin-à-Vent (established: 1732) as among the practitioners. Jean-Paul Brun, the other key example Mackay cites in the piece, founded his domaine in 1979, and has long been imported to the US. The producers Mackay cites, it bears mentioning, are neither the region's leading lights, nor its youngest vanguard.

So, not news. Where Mackay goes harmfully off the rails is in ascribing all the faults of industrial Beaujolais Nouveau production circa-1980 to carbonic maceration. In one astonishingly wrongheaded paragraph, he manages to conflate the influence of Jules Chauvet with that of Georges Duboeuf.

Mackay writes:

Many believe that modern carbonic evolved out of the investigations into semi-carbonic by Jules Chauvet, Beaujolais winemaker, chemist and the “father of natural wine.” Eventually, this method of light extraction that produces a gentle wine with distinctively high-toned fruit character was more widely adopted in the region, probably thanks to the success of Beaujolais Nouveau...

There you have it, folks: history inverted. This is either terribly sloppy research, or deliberate misinformation on the scale of Republican presidential candidates discussing climate change.

Mackay implies that natural winemakers choose to employ Chauvet-style carbonic maceration in order to emulate the success of Beaujolais Nouveau. Whereas the real story is that Marcel Lapierre, who later would do great work transmitting the gospel of low-sulfur winemaking, unofficially apprenticed himself to Chauvet around 1980, directly as a result of his [Lapierre's] dissatisfaction with wines produced during what was then the height of the Beaujolais Nouveau craze. The fad for Beaujolais Nouveau was largely the marketing work of mega-negoçiant Georges Duboeuf, who is, strangely, not mentioned in Mackay's article. Carbonic maceration in Beaujolais predates both the term natural wine and the Beaujolais Nouveau era.

Mackay proceeds to lay blame for the loss of terroir expression associated with the excesses of industrial Beaujolais Nouveau production (the latter including chemical farming, lab yeasts, too-brief macerations, heavy sulfur use) on the practice of carbonic maceration, which, it must be stressed, does not require or imply them. (Contrary to what is indicated in this article, carbonic does not even require the "technological innovation" of modern tanks, for CO2 is heavier than air. Most producers use lidded cement tanks, but others merely string netting or tarps over the open vats during maceration.) Mackay, throughout the piece, equates carbonic maceration with short carbonic maceration, which is not at all the practice pursued by the region's greatest producers. Carbonic maceration can be very long - chez Yvon Métras, for example, a particular tank of old-vine fruit in 2013 macerated for 44 days.

To arrive at the bizarre conclusions Mackay does in his article, one would have to hold a grudge either against Kermit Lynch, who imports many of Beaujolais' greatest (and, yes, carbonic) winemakers, or against natural wine, an ideal closely associated with those same winemakers. In support of the latter possibility are the author's disparaging mentions of natural winemakers Philippe Pacalet and Hervé Souhaut early in the piece, and the fact that not once is the word "sulfur" used in the article. But there is a third possibility, which is that Mackay is just clueless about Beaujolais. Mackay basically says as much, when he cites the only non-carbo Beaujolais "with some age" he's tried: a 2010 Moulin-à-Vent from Chateau de Moulin-à-Vent.

For all Mackay's unfamiliarity with Beaujolais and natural wine, it would still seem he's read my friend Alice Feiring's book, Naked Wine, in which, towards the end, probably for plot's sake, she takes what I'd suggest is a rather too-skeptical view of cold carbonic maceration, often seeming* to conflate it with all carbonic maceration. Mackay, in his piece, commits the same peccadillo, but on a nuclear scale, implicitly indicting all the region's greatest winemakers. (Who, lucky for them, go mostly unmentioned by Mackay.)

Wine writers often tend to demand from winemakers broad heuristics, easy rules of thumb that lay readers can apply to a supermarket wine shelf. But winemaking is more complicated than that, and as wine lovers we would do well to resist the temptation to ascribe overall quality to any one vinification practice. At best, it oversimplifies a subject. At worst, as here, it actively creates confusion in the market for an economically downtrodden region whose greatest, most visionary winemakers are still a struggling minority.

* Sorry Alice ! I know you didn't intend that. But it reads that way at times. 

Related Links:

It's also worth reading Alice Feiring's savvy commentary rebuttal to Mackay.

The last time I took public offense to a fellow wine writer was 2013, when Lettie Teague "investigated" natural wine.

Beaujolais Bike Trip 2015:

Rémi et Laurence Dufaitre, Saint-Etienne-des-Oullières
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


  1. Wow, that really does sound like a remarkably wrong-headed piece. Some of Jadot's cru Beaujolais are also conventional, but this is a tiny minority, with no signs of growing, afaik. If anything, non-carbonic Beaujolais producers like some in MaV seem to suffer from a distinct case of pinot envy, and forego carbonic (in its myriad forms) to emulate some kind of Côte d'Or profile.

  2. Fantastic resposne to a terrible piece by Mackay.

  3. Fantastic resposne to a terrible piece by Mackay.

  4. Yes, as rightly said in the article – a product of sloppy research.

  5. He should have tried the 95 jambon nouveau as part of his tasting flights. Might have changed the whole tone of the article. Nice post.