29 September 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: georges descombes, vermont

There was a man hanging around in the driveway when my friends and I showed up on bicycles for a rendezvous with Morgon-based winemaker Georges Descombes back in April. We parked the bikes and tried phoning Descombes, who didn't pick up. The man wandered over, regarding his own cell phone, whereupon I recognized him as renowned Loire winemaker Pierre Breton, with whom we had evidently been double-booked.

It was a stroke of luck for us. Descombes zoomed into the driveway in short order, and in addition to a generous tasting of his celebrated array of Beaujolais, my friends and I were able to enjoy the perceptive commentary of two masterful winemakers, whose mutual appreciation was itself a pleasure to observe. It turns out it was Breton's first time visiting Le Noune, too. (I have yet to discern the precise origin of Descombes' nickname, which is among the most colourful in a region of colourful nicknames.)

That it soon got dark, and that, upon departing the long tasting, I skidded on gravel while racing downhill without headlights from the hamlet of Vermont, and that I fell and broke my collarbone, necessitating a taxi ride to the hospital at Villefranche-sur-Saône, doesn't mar the occasion at all, in retrospect.

I suggest car transport for visiting the hamlet of Vermont.

Descombes comprises part of what could be considered Beaujolais' second-wave of natural winemakers. He began commercialising his own wines in 1988. (Incidentally the same year Yvon Métras began vinifying, though the latter didn't begin selling his wines until 1994.)

Descombes' father had also grown grapes and made wine, and was among the last in the area to abandon horse-plowing in the late 1970's. Before acquiring any vines of his own, Georges worked for a mobile bottling company, which gave him the opportunity to taste a broad spectrum of the region's wines.* Among the company's clients was Marcel Lapierre, who in that era was just beginning his experiments with low and zero sulfur use.

Says Descombes: "People ask me, 'From the beginning you always made natural wine?' And I say yeah, because I had tasted so many other things that didn’t please me. When I tasted the experiments of Marcel, I said to myself, the day I start making wine, I'm starting like that."

Nowadays Descombes' accessible and consistently pure wines are among those I drink most often in Paris, and the man himself, modest and good-humoured, built like Tony Soprano, is among the vignerons I'm happiest to encounter in the city. He frequents Les Pipos, a once-great wine bar now slightly in decline beside the Panthéon, and is a fixture at the major Beaujolais Nouveau rager hosted by his friend Patrick Fabre at Aux Tonneaux des Halles.

Aux Tonneaux des Halles' Patrick Fabre with Descombes, Beaujolais Nouveau 2014.

Descombes is also the patriarch of what has in recent years become a whole winemaking clan in the hamlet of Vermont. The Descombes complex houses Damien Coquelet, Georges' step-son who produces excellent Chiroubles and Morgon, and Kevin Descombes, Georges' son who began vinifying his own Morgon and Beaujolais tout court just two years ago.

Georges' own production is two-tiered, split between his domaine wines, deriving from his 14ha of vines in Morgon and Brouilly, and a separate range he makes from purchased fruit, which latter wines are for administrative purposes vinified in an entirely separate building. His négoçiant business has in the past few years grown to compensate for 4ha of vines he gave to Kevin.

The cuvage of the négoçiant range.

We began by tasting barrel samples of a chardonnay he was having difficulty with. He sources the fruit from a lieu-dit called Le Chattelas, near Lancié, which he deems to be the area's best terroir for whites. Unfortunately the two barrels were suffering from a stuck fermentation, with 10g of sugar still remaining, and malolactic not done. He said a fellow winemaker had congratulated him, saying he had "all the ingredients to make a perfect vinaigre." (Hopefully things have since improved for these barrels. My friend Bert Celce at Wine Terroirs once did a great report on Georges' first commercialised white wine, which was indeed that rare thing, a worthy Beaujolais white.)

Descombes' négoçiant range is offered at a lower price point than the domaine wines, with simpler packaging. When he can, he purchases organic fruit, but he freely admits this is rarely possible in Beaujolais. (Incidentally, pretty much all négoçiant natural winemakers in Beaujolais make do with less-than-naturally-farmed fruit. It's a testament to the vinification wizardry of people like Descombes, Jean Foillard, Christophe Pacalet, and others that chemical viticulture is rarely perceptible in their négoçiant work.)

Pierre Breton was sympathetic to the challenges of organic viticulture in Beaujolais. "Indeed, around our place, the Loire, the vines are easier to treat organically than around here. Here, it’s dangerous, i can understand…"

I guess I'd previously assumed it would be more difficult further north, with later harvest times, and potentially more maladies.

"No it’s not that," said Breton. "It’s more the idea of plowing the soil, and the steep hills."

Georges confirmed. "It’s complicated. The low bushes, already, the vine density -  Even us, we get pissed off."

Descombes gives what's called a "prime de qualité," or a quality bonus, to the growers who put in the extra effort to farm more organically.

"I have one from whom I buy the Régnié, I buy a hectare and a half," says Descombes. "He brings organic treatments to the vines from which I buy, notably, and then even in some of the other plots. He makes the effort, so so I give him a quality bonus... I know it's not Duboeuf who does that for him."

Descombes' 2013 négoçiant Régnié was indeed a great success. Tasted from bottle it showed an aromatic kinship with neighboring Morgon, with bright, aeriel kirsch notes, and a delightfully refined expression of the Concord-grape foxiness I associate with the Régnié cru.  It was among the best Régnié's I've tasted, no small achievement for a négoçiant cuvée at that price point.

The newer cellar premises where Descombes stocks the domaine wines.

If, like me, you have ever marveled at how winemakers manage to keep track of the contents of their myriad barrels, then tasting with Georges Descombes is a curtain-dropping experience. His barrels are numbered, but he'd misplaced the folder containing the key that day, so we tasted things at random, and he guesstimated which cru was which. 

Barrel number 8 stood out for me with its shimmering florals and rosebed earthiness. But I have no firm idea what it was. 

My novelist friend Ned Beauman encounters some old-vine Brouilly (probably).
Very old-vine Morgon beside the cuvage.

Later we opened a few back vintages in Descombes' tasting room, a comically undersized warren festooned with his peers' empty bottles and decades of Beaujolais paraphernalia. A 2005 Morgon (not pictured) showed the vintage's characteristic opacity and unwavering length, along with a bearish, animalic note. 

It could have used some decanting, but time was short. We had a dinner reservation in Belleville-sur-Saône, and as it was, several of our friends had already left, to avoid biking in darkness later on. They were rather wise do so, it turns out. 

Totally worth it! (Hospital selfie, April 2015.) 

But hell. It's never easy to quit such entertaining company. I had to wear a back brace for three months but I recovered in time for harvest this year.

* Among the pleasant peculiarities of the Beaujolais region is that almost anyone providing any service whatsoever to a vigneron is invariably invited to have a glass before continuing with the workday. I am quite certain that postmen and plumbers in Beaujolais taste more on a daily basis than most professional wine critics. 

Georges Descombes

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting report confirms our effort to visit in a 9m motorhome which failed part way down the lane. We had sampled a bottle of Morgon at Au Bon Cru and some further glasses in the local wine bar in Morgon.
    We ascended the hill out of Morgon but my wife refused to walk any further down the small lane after I struggled to reverse out.
    We were going to cycle this year but Fleurie seemed more enticing with a cold north wind blowing in April.
    Will try next year and come when the weather is kinder.