12 May 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: julien merle & nathalie banes, legny

Entering southern Beaujolais winemaker Julien Merle's cellar in Legny, I noted the low wooden ceilings above the cement vats and asked if he'd ever had issues with brettonamyces developing in tank. (Bret - the wild yeast often responsible for horsey aromas in wine - has been known to inhabit wood, sometimes causing entire cellars to be razed and reconstructed.) Merle shook his head.

"I think finally the bret is more of a worry for the vineyards higher up in Beaujolais, because the plants are very low," he explained. "We have the plants much higher, it’s cordon trained."

Cordon-training in the crus of Beaujolais is relatively rare - almost all vines are in traditional gobelet training, closer to the earth, where bret is said to reside. Few great vignerons in the crus cordon-train their vines, considering it anathema to quality-minded viticulture. If it's a cliché that many winemakers insist 'there are no rules' governing the production of great wine, it's because of seeming contradictions like this: in viticulture as in vinification, things go topsy-turvy as one travels between regions, or as here, between sub-regions of the same region. In Legny, on the faultline between the granite of north of Beaujolais and the clay-limestone of the south, Julien Merle is making stunningly pure and sturdy wines of the sort that renew my confidence that Beaujolais is worth a book-length study. And he does it by adapting the insights of natural-wine pioneers to the north to his own unique circumstances in the south.

Merle took over his 8ha estate from his gather Gerard in 2003.

"My dad made wine for the grand distribution. And I refused little by little to do thermovinification, to use select yeasts, and so one day the négoçiants said we no longer want your wine. And I hadn’t done a business plan - I just wanted to make wine in a clean fashion!" he explains. "So I almost had to stop my professional activity."

It was then that by chance he met Yvon Métras and Jean Foillard, who provided much needed encouragement. The latter winemaker has since been both a mentor to Merle, and for some négoçiant cuvées, a client. Merle draws advice from a wide spectrum, also citing Chasselas' Philippe Jambon and Chatillon d'Azergues' Jean-Gilles Chasselay as influences.

Yet his approach remains quite individual. Where the trend among many winemakers his age is to produce numerous micro-cuvées, Merle prioritizes quantity and consistency in his wines. "You have to have a certain quantity of grapes. When it’s too petite, it doesn’t work in the same manner," he explains.

"I have an old parcel that is more than 80 years old. Instead of taking the risk of making a 5hl micro-cuvée that’ll be good one our of ten years, I prefer to put everything together and make something homogenous, you know."

Indeed, there's a poise and a tranquility in Merle's wines that belies what many expect for unfiltered, unsulfured winemaking. There was not a blink of volatility in the wines I tasted. Merle credits "la masse" - vinification in quantity. Vatting is gentle, with a conveyor and ramps, and long, a minimum of 14-15 days, even for his primeur.

"I have no method for making primeur," he admits. "I don’t know how! I just make wine, and then I make the choice of what I produce and I say, 'That’s fresh, that’ll be nouveau.'" Fermentation starts in a relatively pure semi-carbonic style, but after eight days or so he transitions to a more Burgundian method, with lots of pigeage. (Though less so in 2015.)

Today Merle - along with his girlfriend Nathalie Banes, who also began making her own very promising wine this year - farms just under a hectare of chardonnay on clay-limestone, with the rest of vines consisting of cordon-trained gamay. The gamay is on more granitic soil, but one which bears little in common with the terrain further north. It is measurably deeper, more fertile.

In Merle's own vines it's downright spongy. "There's a lot of earth here," says Merle. "You can put the plow down 50cm if you want, there's no rock."

His yields in 2015 were high overall - 40HL/ha, although he says that the chardonnay patch was so productive it skewed the average. For all that, both Merle's gamay and his chardonnay remain impressively structured.

"Le Merle Blanc," his Beaujolais Blanc, in fact, is among the greatest of the whole low-stakes genre, a glimmery, summer-skirt of a wine. The 2014 was plump and white floral, with just enough acid to keep things moving. Even better was the 2013, which showed acid to rival a Maconnais wine, and a lovely mint-fennel profile.

The red cuvée Merle produces in greatest quantity is also, happily, his best. The lieu-dit "Le Champ Blanc" may be a hilariously confusing name for a red wine, but there's no mistaking the quality in the glass. The 2015 showed voluptuous dark fruit, fresh prune, and violet. If I hadn't been obliged to hop back on my scooter, I would've finished all these bottles.

The couple would be well-advised to drop the slogans and overeager text in their otherwise excellent labels. The 2015 slogan, "Lubrifiant Social," is rather awkward in many contexts, e.g. a family dinner, or a wake. 

Somewhat less to my tastes is the oak-aged cuvée "Philibert," named after Merle's great-grandfather. Here the oak, despite the 10-year-old barrels, seems to put the brakes on the wine's movement on the palate.

I'd still be curious to taste it in a few years, particularly on the strength of a few stray bottles of older primeur wine Merle and Banes were able to open for me. The older primeurs are completely intact, gourmand, almost indistinguishable from more 'finished' wines.

Banes' début wine, a Beaujolais tout-court called "La Saoulée," vinified on premises, showed a touch more coltish and brittle on the palate that day. But it's worth bearing in mind it's the first year the vines, from a high-altitude clay-limestrone parcel in Oignt, have been transitioned away from chemical agriculture.

"What’s important is how the agriculture behind it is done," she affirms. "It’s that, because finally the vinification is 15 days of the year, and the rest is in the vines."

After tasting through the couple's admirably trim range of wines, I told them flat-out how relieved I was, having taken the 90-minute scooter ride down from the north of Beaujolais on nothing but a hunch. I remain somewhat out of my element in Les Pierre Dorées - the distances are wider, vines thinner on the ground. I have the sensation of being at the end of the earth. Yet that day it was soon to dawn on me that in the Beaujolais-bas one is in fact quite a bit closer to Lyon, and suburban normalcy.

A door opened in an adjacent room, and two tourists wandered in. Merle asked in halting English whether they'd made an appointment. "No, we were just passing through on our way to Lyon from Savoy," they said cheerily. "Would it be possible to taste your wines?"

"Man-o-man," I couldn't help butting in, laughing. "Did you guys ever stumble into the right place!"

Julien Merle
Le Bourg
69620 LEGNY
Tel: 04 74 71 60 74

Related Links:

A 2013 post on Julien Merle at Chroniques Vineuse, interesting for showing the evolution of Merle's sartorial style.

Beaujolais, Winter - Spring 2016:

La Fête des Conscrits, Villié-Morgon
Domaine Leonis (Raphael Champier & Christelle Lucca), Villié-Morgon

Beaujolais, Autumn 2015:

Xavier Benier, Saint-Julien
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

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