26 November 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: patrick "jo" cotton, saint-lager

As we toured Brouilly vigneron Patrick Cotton's gently tumescent, unsloped vineyards in Saint-Lager, I remarked that one parcel seemed to be missing a great deal of vines. The vines didn't look that old, either.

Cotton, who goes by the inexplicable nickname of "Jo," confirmed they weren't exceptionally old vines. His father had planted them not long before he retired. The fungal disease esca had subsequently killed some of the vines. But Cotton, like his father before him, doesn't own his vines. He works under métayage, a system wherein rent is paid to a vineyard's owner in the form of a percentage of the year's wine. Under métayage, Cotton explained, the vineyard owner is meant to cover costs of replanting... Here he trailed off, for reasons that became clear later.

Cotton is the brother of Guy Gotton, of Côte de Brouilly's Domaine Sanvers et Cotton, and the uncle of Guy's winemaker son Pierre. Patrick came to winemaking somewhat later in life than those two, following a visit, in 1985, to an amusingly opinionated acupuncturist.

Missing vines in the parcel along the road leading to Jo's house.

Jo Cotton had a health issue at the time. The acupuncturist was a friend who didn't want to be paid. Jo delivered a case of his father and his brother's wine as payment. How did you find it? he later asked his acupuncturist friend. The acupuncturist simply replied, "Average," before repeating an earlier recommendation he'd made to Jo: go see Marcel Lapierre.

Lapierre's low-sulfur Morgons were a revelation to Cotton. Two days after, when his sister-in-law Evelyn mentioned she had signed up for a winemaking course, Cotton decided to sign up too. There he found himself studying - or rather, rejecting what he was told to study by the conventional winemaking authorities - alongside Morgon winemaker Max Breton.

The exterior of Cotton's cellar. Like at Domaine Sanvers et Cotton, the cellar used to be a communal facility for several winemakers. Only Jo Cotton remains. 

Jo Cotton made his first négoçiant wines in 1986 and 1988, but it wasn't until 1996 that he officially took over his father's métayage contracts and began to commercialise wines under his own name. From the beginning he's tried to follow the example of Lapierre, vinifying with a minimum of additives, especially sulfur.

It can seem surprising that a winemaker with such long roots in the region's influential natural vinification scene should remain, today, so totally obscure. But Jo Cotton, by his own admission, is terrible at commerce. "I don’t know which door to knock on, there's never enough wine," he says, adding, mordantly, "And I’m rarely happy with what I do…"

First he struggled to convince the owners of his vineyards to allow him to farm them organically, a process that took years. One parcel of older vines has been farmed organically since 2002; the rest of Cotton's 3ha began conversion in 2007. Even this he was able to achieve only by coming to an unusual agreement with the vineyard owner, by which he would relinquish 2ha of his original 5ha. Of the remaining parcels, he keeps 80% of the wine.

"I couldn't have gotten a better deal," he sighs. "Since my yields are shit, I don't give them much. The situation doesn't suit them." (In 2015 he did 20HL / hectare.)

Cotton's commercial situation isn't helped by a shape-shifting range of wines. At present he makes three Brouilly cuvées: "Clos Cadard," a rare example of pure carbonic maceration (on which more later), "Briante," a more traditional semi-carbonic cuvée that wine agent Fleur Godart has begun selling in Paris under the label "Pat' Jo Cotton," and a "Cuvée Tradition," which, alone among Cotton's range, sees light sulfur addition, gently heated pumping over of the juice, as well as plate filtration before bottling.

Upon first tasting the wines last April, I was most struck by the "Clos Cadard." Pure carbonic maceration (also known interchangeably as "strict carbonic") involves removing the juice as it accumulates in the fermentation tank, for later reassembly with the press wine, while forgoing all pumping-over and pigeage. It's an incredibly difficult and risky way to vinify. The "Clos Cadard," named after an ancient cadastral lieu-dit, is bug-eyed acid-junkie masochism, like Max Breton's Beaujolais-Villages on a bad hair day. I quite like it, although some bottles toe my limits for volatility.

"Briante" is named after the Saint-Lager satellite village where Cotton resides. Typically it shares "Clos Cadard"'s upstart qualities in a more identifiably Brouilly-esque frame: black cherry fruit of medium-coarse grain, with the lilt and zing of cool carbonic maceration. (Grapes for both "Briante" and "Clos Cadard" see some refrigeration before being put in tank.) But in 2014 the "Briante" contains 50% "Clos Cadard" pure-carbo wine, which creates some stylistic redundancy. Both are nervy, acid-rush cru-Beaujolais, more rustic than the work of Marcel Lapierre's band further north, but keener and more focused than the work of many of the region's younger natural winemakers.

Old foudres, not all full these days. 

Cotton had me taste the 2014 "Cuvée Tradition" almost as an afterthought. Although it comprises about half his production, he says he makes it principally to satisfy his private clientele, some of whom remain from his father's time. My expectations were low, given the methods of vinification he described - particularly the filtration. I sniffed, I swirled, I took a sip. I scratched my head.

It may have been the moon or what-have-you, but the "Cuvée Tradition" tasted better than his two more naturally-vinified cuvées that day. The fruit was balanced, without a trace of volatility. The filtration was evidently very light, as the wine had lost almost none of its body, which was in fact suppler and more poised for the remontage. The chaptalisation was perhaps evident in a not unenjoyable pastry-like note amid the wine's ripe cherry fruit.

The "Cuvée Tradition" sees elevage in old barrels. 

What to make of such a wine, that succeeds by bypassing most natural vinification dogma? I suspect the answer lies in Cotton's terroir. Unsloped, limoneux,s not especially thin-soiled, with minor patches of limestone. It might just need a little pumping-over, a little more warmth in fermentation.

A nice view of the Côte de Brouilly from Jo Cotton's vineyards.

Overall, I suspect the range would be improved by uniting the "Briante" and "Tradition" into one cuvée that sat stylistically somewhere between the two. I said as much to Cotton that day. This led to a discussion of label design, during which he joked, "I really would like to find a good script font, it’s really something that I like a lot! But it seems I’ll retire and I won’t have found it."

I then discovered why Cotton's vineyard's owners won't replant his vines. Though he looks a handful of years younger, Cotton is just three vintages away from retirement, without heirs interested in taking over his métayage contracts. "The owners are waiting until I leave, and they’re happy I'm leaving," he says.

"It’s frustrating, because the winery isn’t mine either. Nothing here is mine. I’m not an entrepreneur, of course... But to find oneself here, not owning one's own place, uncertain what’s going to happen after one leaves, it’s discouraging..."

When Jo Cotton retires, his vineyards are scheduled to revert to their present owners: the Cafés Richard conglomerate, who have no intention of preserving the organic certification.

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