Complaining is a national pastime throughout France, along with labour strikes, cigarette-smoking, and pétanque. Vignerons, whose livelihoods are utterly dependent upon climatic forces beyond their control, have throughout the generations developed their own nuanced sub-genre of fatalistic groaning, comparable to that which wizened sailors practice regarding the fickleness of the sea.
Yet even in this context of universal grievance, Leynes vigneron Jean-François Promonet stands alone.
An expert mechanic specialising agricultural machines, he has long roots in the Beaujolais and Maconnais, and as he tells it, he arrived at his present, tenuous situation of quasi-vigneronnage on the dangerously steep hillsides of Leynes almost against his will, through a series of misfortunes. Nowadays he speaks of his soaring, wind-swept old-vine granite vineyards the way Ahab spoke of the white whale, with the same mixture of devotion and loathing.
The domaine Maison Leynes, which remains owned by the Loron négoçiant family, had been farmed chemically for decades by the father of Promonet's neighboring natural vigneron Pierre Boyat. Following the death of Boyat père, the domaine saw a succession of unsuccessful métayers, until, in 2010, Promonet's late friend Jean-Yves Aubry asked Promonet's help in converting the domaine to organic viticulture.
"He says, 'A friend lent me a tractor,'" recalls Promonet. "I told him, 'Don’t get on that tractor, you’ll kill yourself.'"
Promonet never got the chance to help Aubry convert the domaine to organic viticulture. Following Aubry's untimely passing, the domaine came under the stewardship of a lazy métayer who skipped town after a year. In 2010, 2011, and 2012 what little wine the domaine produced was harvested on the fly by the local winemakers Promonet refers to as les copains: himself, Pierre Boyat, Philippe Jambon. Boyat agreed to vinify but the wine went to the cave cooperative. Finally, around Christmas 2012, the Loron family asked Promonet to stay and work the domaine. Promonet agreed, on the condition that he would be permitted to vinify naturally and that after three years, if all went well, he'd be given the opportunity to purchase the domaine.
"There are two big possibilies," said Promonet back in February. "Either we aren’t in agreement and I go, or we are in agreement, but they must simply sell me the domaine. But I can't buy it myself. I don’t have a centime, I barely manage to eat."
I heard more recently - only yesterday - that nothing has yet been confirmed.
|Promonet's custom-built tractor.|
Regardless of the domaine's fate, Promonet has, in the course of three vintages, produced a convincing affirmation of the nobility of the domaine's 8.5ha. I'm already of the opinion that well-made Beaujolais-Villages from Leynes has a slender, mineral poise that can rival any of the region's official crus. Promonet's wines from the south-facing, high-altitude slopes of Maison Leynes, meanwhile, have a stark, crisply tannic personality all their own.
Given that he's produced just three vintages, the range of wines is still in flux. In all three years he has produced a young-vine cuvée of Beaujolais-Leynes entitled "Reinette," as well as an old-vine cuvée called "Prom." The former is a reference to the nickname of the matriarch of the Loron family; the latter is his own nickname. I've had wonderful bottles of the 2013 "Reinette," a superb value for money, with charged, coltish black cherry notes. On the day I visited in February, it was the 2014 "Reinettes" that took the lead, with crisp, delicate, perceptibly high-altitude red fruit and a lightly waxen, red-apple nose.
Of the 2015's, the "Prom" was most promising. But Promonet makes no secret of the catastrophic challenges he faced in 2015. Yields were 8HL/ha. In February, none of the wines had finished their sugars. "If I wanted to, I could have made the sugars finish," he says wryly. "But, me, I’m 100 percent natural, you know?"
Vinification is done without sulfur addition, with a vatting of between 10-12 days. Elevage is done in a mix of fibreglass and steel, which latter recipients might account for the relative opacity of Promonet's wines. Promonet avoids pumping-over and pigeage, except in 2015, when the lack of juice provoked him to crush a layer at the bottom of each tank. Wine are not filtered before bottling.
Promonet professes to being a poor salesman of his own wines, a situation worsened by his contrarian decision to bottle his wines in clear glass, and partly in Bordeaux bottles. The wines look cheaper than they taste.
"Me, I can’t do everything," he says. I’m all the time here. It’s sometime during the season up to twenty hours per day. That means the vines the day, the plowing at night, the treatments at night - so I don’t have the time presently to do the commerce."
Here his long relationships in the region have been of help to him. The Bret Brothers most notably purchased his finished wine for their splendid 2013 "Glou de Jeff" cuvée. Promonet also counts the formidable Robert-Denogent family in Fuissé among his supporters in the region.
I sense that Promonet's old friends appreciate the enormity of the task he's taken on. Of his 8.5ha, Promonet effectively harvests only about 5ha worth of vines. Yet prefers to retain the domaine's old vines rather than uproot and replant. Beneath his lamentations about the challenges of the land, one senses a great sentimentality for the local terroir.
"Pretty soon," he says, with typical grimness, "there won't be any more reds in Beaujolais-Villages."
On the strength of Promonet's wines, one hopes he's wrong.
Haut du Bois du Leynes
Beaujolais, Winter - Spring 2016:
Hervé Ravera, Marchampt
Justin Dutraive, Fleurie
Julien Merle & Nathalie Banes, Legny
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