25 March 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: jean-gilles chasselay, châtillon d'azergues

About half an hour into our visit last October, larger-than-life Pierre Dorées vigneron Jean-Gilles Chasselay was serving us barrel tastes of his unusual "Cuvée de la Marduette" Beaujolais when suddenly the cellar was filled with a joltingly cacaphonic guitar solo, loud as a klaxon. I thought our glasses might shatter.

Chasselay finished serving himself a taste and then produced his cell phone, shutting the sound off. "Rory Gallagher," he explained, grinning. "Irish tour, 1974. He was a crazy guitarist. He died from drinking too much, unfortunately."

Then he went back to explaining the "Cuvée de la Marduette," a micro-cuvée that, while atypical of his family's oeuvre, nonetheless seems symbolic of Chasselay's approach to his metier. He vinifies it like a vin de garde, i.e. with a relatively long vatting, then throws it oak barrels of varying age for between one and two months. Then, at what for other wines would be the start of the process of elevage, he abruptly reassembles the wine and bottles it without filtration or sulfur addition. "The vinification's finished but the elevage isn't done. So I say it's 'poorly raised,'" he says, adding, "I like people who are poorly raised."

The resultant wine tastes great if for you it evokes fond memories of bro-ing down with winemakers around barrel tastings of immature wine. A lot of the domaine's charm lies in the same rawness and good humour. The surrounding southern Beaujolais region of Les Pierre Dorées is often somewhat tenuously compared to Tuscany on account of its picturesque architecture and gentle slopes. But to find vignerons as earthy and unpretentious as Chasselay you'd probably have to search further south in Italy.

Chasselay, who calls himself a "genetic vigneron," traces his family's roots in Chatillon d'Azergues back to the 15th century. Since 2008 his son Fabien and daughter Claire have both returned to the domaine, which spans 12 hectares, not including the grapes purchased for a négoçiant range of wines marketed under Fabien and Claire's names. In addition to her work in the family's wine production, Claire runs a well-regarded table d'hôte at the domaine called La Cave de Claire. Fabien, before returning to work with father, worked for Bruno Clavelier in Vosne-Romanée.

Jean-Gilles Chasselay recalls ten years of headaches working alongside his own father, who had differing ideas about wine production. "He wanted to hurry to sell wine so he could go hunting peacefully," he chuckles. "Which is a reasonable approach, too..."

Throughout the 1980's Chasselay worked to focus more on sales of bottled wine (rather than bulk wine sales to négoçiants). He never liked using herbicides, preferring plowing, and soon became intrigued by organic farming methods. Then in the 1990's he met Marcel Lapierre, whom he cites as an inspiration to try to work without sulfur.

Today Chasselay credits his organic approach as one probable reason he was spared the low yields that plagued many in Beaujolais this year.

"We did 40HL / HA. Organic vines [in southern Beaujolais] perform much better than those that are herbicided," he affirms. " It's since 2000 - or even before! - that we're organic, so the roots are deep."

Meanwhile, contrary to what one might think, Châtillon d'Azergues is often cooler than the cru areas further north, due to lack of exposure to the Saône river, which brings a Mediterranean influence. Chasselay cites an average difference of six days' ripeness between his own vines and those he harvests in Fleurie.

The range of wines is large, comprising at least five cuvées of Beaujolais tout court, all but one of which are parcel-specific, as well as a Beaujolais primeur, a Beaujolais Blanc, a rosé, a sparkler, and négoçiant wines from the crus of Morgon, Fleurie, Chénas, and Côte de Brouilly. And a tiny amount of pinot noir, from vines on a nearby hill. Impressively, and I might add, unlike almost every other Beaujolais négoçiant with a natural wine reputation, Chasselay purchases only certified organic fruit for his cru cuvées.

The core of the domaine's production goes into the Beaujolais primeur (between 35000-40000 bottles / year) and two Beaujolais cuvées, "Les Grands Eparcieux" and "Quatres Saisons," which all see some filtering depending on the vintage, or sometimes the client. More laudably, Chasselay doesn't filter most of the other cuvées, a fact which becomes miraculous in light of his extremely egalitarian distribution network. Put simply, Chasselay's wines are among the greatest available in France's organic supermarkets.

While Chasselay is good friends with many of his natural wine counterparts in the crus up north, his own winemaking style is far removed from that of modern-day maestros like Jean-Louis Dutraive or Jean Foillard. At Domaine Chasselay there is no pre-refrigeration of harvest; most of the wines are de-stemmed between 60-80%; and in normal years, i.e. not freak years like 2015, Chasselay practices extensive pigeage. The results, even in the crus, are wines of a more stolid profile than some of his peers, without much of the gourmandise associated with long semi-carbonic maceration. But Chasselay is a communist motorcyclist of the old school whose favorite vegetable is "pig." I would wager that the character of his wines results from a union of politics and aesthetics.

In some cases the brightness of the cru fruit just won't be denied, as in Chasselay's Chénas, which derives from Paul-Henri and Charles Thillardon's young-vine "Carrières" parcel, which showed a litheness appropriate to its northerly cru and a distinguishing freshness. The Fleurie, usually mostly derived from Jean-Louis Dutraive's "Chapelle des Bois" parcels, also stands out for its nobility.

In other cases I can't help feeling something is being lost in de-stemming and pigeage. I adore the idea of parcel-specific Beaujolais tout court cuvées. But the actual wines could benefit from more specificity, sharing a stern tannicity that is neither my first nor my most pleasant association with inexpensive Beaujolais tout court. (There is one micro-cuvée, amusing entitled "Je t'aime mais j'ai soif," that sees semi-carbonic maceration without de-stemming or pigeage, but I was only able to taste, from tank, the 2015. It was alcoholic and rich and, presumably, atypical for the cuvée - the sort of wine that makes one recall that "vin de soif" is a relative term. If you are built like Jean-Gilles Chasselay, motor oil is a "vin de soif.")

For the low-stakes genre of Beaujolais Blanc, Domaine Chasselay's is a benchmark for character: the 2014 had bright, short acid, with suggestions of butter and roasted pineapple. Beaujolais Blanc is usually jammed into whatever market-niche a winemaker has in mind: overoaked, to lend structure, or malo-blocked, to force freshness. Chasselay's does malo when and if it wants to; the result is admirably pure. The vines are massal selections, 40-50 years old, rare for Chardonnay in the region.

The 2015 Beaujolais Blanc, tasted from vat. 

Chasselay also succeeds with his smallest-production cuvée, the aforementioned pinot noir. Despite the fact that its grown down the road from his house, 25km from the city of Lyon, it must be labeled a Bourgogne Pinot Noir, a fact that tickles Chasselay immensely.

"What's the difference between God and a Burgundy winemaker?" he asks us. "God doesn't take himself to be a Burgundy winemaker."

Chasselay whacks a big black "B" on the label of is pinot, intended to signify its Beaujolais origin.

The wine is entirely destemmed, and spends 10-11 months in oak depending on the vintage. Here the de-stemming and pigeage that seem to blur the character of some of his gamays work instead increase the pinot's juicy focus. It's joyous, light, and long, with a backslap of oak on the finish that would land more lightly if the wine were given more time to open.

After the tasting we took a brief stroll through "Les Grands Eparcieux," one of the vineyards beside Chasselay's cellar. From that vantage Chasselay pointed to a shock of intense yellow on a slope just north of us : those were his 33 ares of pinot noir, whose leaves turn the colour of daffodils all at once at that time of year. We decided to stop there and take some photos on the way out of town.

Domaine Chasselay
123 Chemin de la Roche
69380 Chatillon d'AzerguesTel: 04 78 47 93 73

Related Links:

A brief blurb on Domaine Chasselay at the site of the Biojolaise, a tasting run partly by the Chasselays that now comprises part of the larger Bien Boire en Beaujolais tasting. 

A profile of Domaine Chasselay at the site of their California importer, Vintage 59

Beaujolais, Autumn 2015:

Marcel Joubert, Quincié
Nicolas Chemarin, Marchampt
Anthony Thévenet, Villié-Morgon
Romain Zordan, Fleurie
Yann Bertrand, Fleurie
Domaine Thillardon, Chénas
Sylvain Chanudet, Fleurie
Patrick "Jo" Cotton, Saint-Lager
Pierre Cotton, Odenas
L'Auberge du Col du Truges, Le Truges
Julie Balagny, Moulin-à-Vent
La Cuvée des Copines 2015
Beaujolais Harvests 2015

Beaujolais Bike Trip, Summer 2015:

Georges Descombes, Vermont
Jean-Paul Thévenet, Pizay
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, Summer 2011:

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

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