Odenas-born natural vigneron Raphael Champier decamped to a fixer-upper house and cellar on the outskirts of Villié-Morgon late last year. When I visited him and his girlfriend-slash-business partner Cristelle Lucca in January I asked him how he liked it in his new neighborhood, which is famously home to Beaujolais' most significant concentration of natural winemakers.
"Well," he said, scratching his head. "It's more complicated to go work in the vines."
The couples vines are in Brouilly, near Saint-Lager, and on the Côte de Brouilly, and in the Beaujolais-Villages appellation near Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières. It's about a twenty-minute drive to the nearest parcel. The couple agree that it's more than worth the commute to have their own cellar. Previously they worked in shared cellar facilities with other métayers at the Chateau de Lacarelle. While Champier derives from an extensive winemaking family and worked six years full-time for Saint-Etienne-de-la-Varenne's influential Jean-Claude Lapalu, his career trajectory has been anything but easy. His family is vast - he has fourteen brothers and sisters - and, in terms of winemaking, very conservative.
"We're making progress," Lucca jokes. "Now when we bring natural wine to the dinner table, they don't grimace anymore."
From about 6ha of vines - soon passing to 7ha this year, with the purchase of 86 ares of Brouilly - Champier and Lucca make six or seven micro-cuvées, depending on the vintage. One senses that their slightly precious and over-parcelised approach is borne of how much the couple cherishes the vines they've been able to scrape together. Most of their vines now belong to them, with just their parcels of Beaujolais-Villages remaining under favorable terms of métayage: 70% - 30%.
The oldest vines in these latter parcels are apparently too messy to plow, but Champier says they manage to remain relatively productive and consistent even without herbicides. While not certified organic, Champier and Lucca intend to progress little by little towards biodynamic agriculture in their vines.
Champier's former employer Jean-Claude Lapalu tends to choose his harvest dates very astutely, often harvesting relatively early to preserve acidity in the slightly warmer climes of Saint-Etienne-de-la-Varenne. To judge by 2015, Champier learned well: he began harvesting on August 24th, and none of his cuvées are more than 13° alcohol, a rarity for the vintage.
|80-year vines on the Côte de Brouilly.|
There are, as I hinted before, too many cuvées. Any way you cut it, it makes zero commercial sense to split a less-than-one-hectare parcel of Brouilly into two cuvées, as Champier and Lucca have done until 2016.
|Brouilly on clay-granite soil, with unobstructed sun exposure all day.|
The name "Brulius" is confusingly applied both to a Brouilly and a Côte de Brouilly. Adding to the marketing morass is the fact that the numbered cuvées are numbered in the order in which the couple acquired the vines. I couldn't help observing that the system was something like postal addresses in Tokyo, in which buildings are numbered in the historical order of their construction.
Lucca and Champier would also be well-advised to do away with the hippy-ish constellations adorning their labels. Lucca explained that it signifies the star constellation that is the sign of the lion. If life in the countryside means a choice between lots of card games or spending hours dreaming up obscure iconography for wine labels, I have several card games I'd be happy to teach them.
Anyway. What's important is what's inside the bottles, and in most cases the Domaine Leonis wines explain themselves better than their labels ever could.
The highlight of the tasting was a 2015 Brouilly "Brulius," a month before it was to be bottled. It was lightning in a vat, with all the buoyancy and keen raspberry zing missing from many wines this year.
Champier says most non-primeur cuvées did between 15-17 days vatting this year, all whole-cluster. He typifies his style as a quite pure style of carbonic, without much juice, and without any cooling system or prerefrigeration of harvest. Oddly, he harvests in containers slightly larger than the small bennes preferred by most winemakers seeking a purer style of carbonic.
For elevage of several cuvéees couple rely on a style of steel tank I see infrequently in the region, mainly because the volumes of wine are too small to sufficiently fill larger cement tanks.
The cement tanks in their new premises, meanwhile, are awkwardly constructed, with openings only in the top. Champier and Lucca plan to have them renovated so as to be able to de-vat from the side.
Champier is not the most outgoing guy, often letting Lucca do most of the talking. A photographer, originally from Nancy, she shows admirable fervor in discussing her newfound métier of vigneron. Sometimes her ideas struck me as idealistic, however, particularly vis-à-vis the numbered cuvées of Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly, for which she is strongly in favor of long old-oak elevage.
"The long-aged cuvées, Raphael has an interest in them, but less so than me," Lucca explains. "So he let's me take the lead on them."
The 2014 Brouilly was in its 16th month of elevage when I tasted it in January. The wine showed an advanced translucence and a soy-like oxidative note that all screamed fatigue, not complexity. From what I understand Champier and Lucca plan from 2016 to subject all the Brouilly from the well-exposed parcel I saw to this sort of aging, which seems kind of a shame, given how great the 2015 was from vat. I'm all in favor of equitable working relationships. I just can't think of any good examples of gamay benefitting from absurdly long sulfur-free oak elevage.
Domaine Leonis (Raphael Champier & Cristelle Lucca)
Tel: 09 51 58 17 34
Beaujolais, Winter - Spring 2016:
La Fête des Conscrits, Villié-Morgon
Beaujolais, Autumn 2015:
Jean-Gilles Chasselay, Châtillon d'Azergues
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