15 October 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: julie balagny, moulin-à-vent

Before I met Julie Balagny in early August, I had presumed she was the reclusive type. I don't know where I got this idea.

It may have been her former association with Fleurie vigneron Yvon Métras, a genuine reclusive type. Or because her stand at the Bien Boire en Beaujolais tasting this past April went mostly unmanned, from what I could tell. It may have been that I unconsciously projected onto Balagny herself the rarity and relative costliness of her daringly pure, soulful Fleurie wines, which in Paris can only be found at Les Caves du Panthéon, La Cave des Papilles, and occasionally Le Verre Volé.

In any event, I couldn't have been more wrong. Balagny has proved to be among the most enthusiastic and welcoming figures I've met during my time in Beaujolais. To a large degree I owe to her the fact I'm even here, for she very kindly put in touch with my present landlady in Lancié. In a heavily factionalized region where many great winemakers are press-averse to the point of paranoia, Balagny is an exceptional case. A Parisian who made wine in the Southwest and Provence before moving to Beaujolais in February 2009, she can sympathise with the difficulties of a newcomer, because she herself went through them.

Balagny has come a long way in six years. She made her first Fleurie in the cuvage of Yvon Métras. Later she lived and worked among her vines in the "En Remont" lieu-dit in Poncié, until moving earlier this year to her present home and workspace in the village of Moulin-à-Vent, in an 18th-century structure that formerly housed the servants of the nearby Chateau des Thorins.

Now it houses Balagny and a rotating cast of semi-official cellar-hands, along with three dogs and a bevy of chickens of different breeds.

Until recently there was a sheep, who can be seen in some pictures here, but - in a practice that perhaps demonstrates the extent of Balagny's dedication to the traditional rhythms and habits of farm life - he was slaughtered (professionally) and eaten during harvest.

Balagny's shallow cellar area. Whenever she enters, she has to be careful not to tread on toads.
To my disappointment, I didn't get a chance to harvest with Balagny's team this year. She began very late - September 8th, if I remember correctly - and I was still needed on the Métras' harvest team at the time. I did manage to pass by to witness (I wouldn't say help) the pressurage of certain cuvées.

Balagny uses an old hand-cranked American press, which in conversation is often confusingly abbreviated to "un americain." The americain must be partially disassembled and reassembled between presses, a laborious and precarious process.

Balagny had a somewhat catastrophic year in terms of yield, even lower than usual, particularly on her principal Fleurie parcels in Poncié. Where she had intended to increase production, adding 70ares of Moulin-à-Vent and 1ha of Beaujolais in Emeringes, she instead has found herself more or less with the same overall quantity of wine this year.

Among her parcel of Moulin-à-Vent, which borders that of Michel Guignier.

It's to her credit that she remains unfazed by such setbacks. She embraces the challenges of natural viticulture and natural vinification with an ardor one rarely finds among the region's more established natural winemakers, whose seniority and generational experience have instilled a plodding realism that borders on pessimism at times.

I'm still new enough here to find Balagny's work very inspiring. She farms her vines organically, and intends little by little to convert her parcels to biodynamic viticulture. The pace of conversion is related less to her fear of shocking the vines than to her commitment to one day making all her biodynamic preparations herself.

"Next year we’re going to start doing our own horn mix," she says. "The idea of going to go buy my horn powder chez Pierre Masson annoyed me."

She describes herself as "jusqu'au-bout-iste" - someone who insists on getting to the bottom of things, who insists on reaching the furthest limit. But her long and varied winemaking experience ensure she remains among the more rational and empirical of the region's natural winemakers. Before moving to Beaujolais she was the winemaker for five years at Terre des Chardons, in Nimes. Before that she worked at the more conventional Chateau de Rey in Roussillon. She credits the former experience with allowing her to explore many facets of biodynamic viticulture with less risk than if she had been working for herself at the time. 

Balagny testing samples of her and her friends' wines for malolactic fermentation.
Carbonic maceration with minimal pumping-over occurs either in cement or fiberglass vats, depending on the parcel and the yield in a given year. Pressing with l'americain is long, reaching around 15 hours. The free-run juice is combined with the press juice. Wines are returned to finish part of fermentation in vat, before being transferred to old oak barrel for the winter.

Balagny dosed with 1g / HL of sulfur at bottling in 2009, her first vintage. In 2011 and 2012 she used very minimal doses during vinification. In 2010, 2013, and 2014, her wines saw no sulfur use whatsoever.

Where and when one manages to find Balagny's work, it's often extraordinary. The best bottles combine the electric acid-focus of Max Breton's wines with some of the suppleness and depth of Métras' Fleurie. If she hasn't yet attained the consistency of either winemaker's production, it only endows her bottles with an excitement all their own. Hers is long, rosey, iron-boned gamay, out their on the edge, like it's maker.

The cuvée "Chavot" is named after a ubiquitous bongo-playing local souse.

In collaboration with her Fleurie neighbor Jean-Louis Dutraive she made a really fantastic gamay pet'nat' from the second harvest of 2014. It was never commercialised, unfortunately.

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