27 October 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: christophe pacalet, cercié

Négoçiants tend to suffer from an enthusiasm gap among wine drinkers. Compared with the vigneron who grows the grapes he or she turns into wine, the arts of the négoçiant can seem coldly mercantile. Few are more aware of this dynamic than Christophe Pacalet, whose business remains inextricably linked, for many wine drinkers, with that of his late uncle, Morgon vigneron Marcel Lapierre, who helped Pacalet set up his business in 1999.

Pacalet today produces a broad range of wines from purchased grapes, encompassing seven of the ten crus of Beaujolais, along with a Beaujolais Blanc, a primeur, and, from the 2015 vintage, two cuvées of Beaujolais-Villages. The bottles almost all bear similar, slightly anonymizing labels, which, along with Pacalet's formidable market presence in the USA and Japan, bely his business' fundamentally small-scale, artisanal nature. Pacalet harvests all the grapes with his own team, pressing in an old wooden vertical press, vinifying in restored wooden tanks. Most cuvées see aging in old barrels, many sourced from Pacalet's renowned cousin, the Burgundy négoçiant Philippe Pacalet.

On the day I first visited in October 2015, most of that year's wines had already been barreled. Moreso even than the aromas of fermenting gamay, what filled the cellar that afternoon was Christophe's excitement with several of his new fruit sources that year: a Chénas and a Saint Amour. "I just got the analyses back, and the Chénas has finished its sugar," he declared. "So this will be interesting! Let's taste it!"

Pacalet's inimitable cellar-hand, the painter Denis Pesnot, outside the cuvage.

The role of the négoçiant invariably necessitates a degree of mystery. The term itself is vague, encompassing those who purchase, blend, and resell finished wines, as well as those, like Pacalet, who purchase grapes and handle vinification in their own cuvage.

There's also the mystery inherent in most négoçiants' sources. Wine geeks hoping to draw any more than the broadest conclusions about terroir from most négoçiant wines might as well throw their hands in the air. Generally speaking, it is in a négoçiant's interest to remain mum on the precise origins of his fruit sources, to avoid inflating his future purchase prices, and to avoid encouraging grape-growers to vinify and bottle by themselves.  It is partly the outsize historical influence of négoçiants on the Beaujolais that has left the region with such an imprecise AOC system.

Pacalet, whose cherubic profile conceals an impressive professional rigor, cherishes the terroirs he vinifies too much to bother with concealing them. Throughout all our conversations he's been admirably up-front about details ranging from terroir to vinification.

Like many of the pioneering generation of low-sulfur winemakers in Villié-Morgon that preceded him, Pacalet still adds low doses of sulfur when he feels necessary, and is not categorically opposed to things like chaptalisation, dilution, or tartaric acid addition. He refrains whenever possible.

Stylistically, his wines can tend slightly more conservative than those of his Villié-Morgon forebears. But it's worth mentioning that the Lapierre gang didn't attain their preeminence overnight. Pacalet never went to winemaking school, instead learning on-the-job alongside Marcel Lapierre, after studying biochemistry at university and working as a seasonal chef for several years.

Pacalet practices whole-cluster, cool semi-carbonic fermentation, on native yeasts, often starting at slightly higher temperatures than the original Lapierre band - 14° or so, he says. Interestingly, Pacalet has found that for Beaujolais' more northerly crus - Chénas, Juliènas, Moulin-à-Vent, and Saint Amour - slightly higher fermentation temperatures work better.

"Because the yeasts of Moulin-à-Vent and Chénas, for example," he says, "don’t ferment under 17°. And if you wait, you always have the same thing - ethyl acetate, and it goes in all directions."

He tends to practice more pigeage and pumping-over on these tanks than his others. Length of fermentation varies depending on the cuvée, as long as three weeks for the Moulin-à-Vent.

Pacalet's Moulin-à-Vent is his most consistently profound, age-worthy wine. (To its disadvantage, it bears essentially identical packaging to his more vin-de-soif cuvées.) Around the time I moved to Beaujolais in August 2015, the family I stay with were often opening bottles of the 2009, each one a moving, suave expression of the truffly, noir-ish side of gamay from Moulin-à-Vent, without a trace of the vintage's heat. The wine derives almost entirely from the same parcels in Le Moulin-à-Vent (the lieu-dit containing the actual physical mill) since 1999; since 2002 twenty-hectolitres have been vinified off-site, by another grower but according to Pacalet's specifications. The two lots are assembled in January or February each year. The result never shows a trace of its slightly piecemeal assembly.

The Chénas in question that day in October came from a parcel in the Brureaux lieu-dit abutting the vines of Domaine Thillardon. For a wine that had just finished its malo, it was stunningly refined, already evincing a beguiling rose-acetate typicity. The same traits remained in the wine when tasted from bottle the following July.

Pacalet's two other more newsworthy débuts in 2015 were a Beaujolais-Villages and a Saint Amour. The latter cuvée has a complicated history chez Pacalet: it began a few years ago as the one wine he purchased as finished juice, bottling it as a favor to a restaurateur friend in Paris. The wine bore his trademark red vertical text on the label, but was a yeasted, quick-fermented, conventionally vinified wine. As more clients heard about the Saint Amour and wanted to stock it, he realised he'd be better off finding a better source he could vinify himself.

From barrel in October 2015 it showed a lavish pomegranate acidity, which helped to offset the vintage's heat. "It’s nice to make a true Saint Amour," he said, visibly relieved at no longer having to sell the other wine.

The new cuvée of Beaujolais-Villages derives from vines in La Chapelle de Guinchay formerly owned by Jules Chauvet, some dating back to 1947. Pacalet himself dismisses the quality of the terroir, calling it "flat and full of clay"; in previous vintages, it was blended into the main cuvée of Beaujolais-Villages, otherwise mostly sourced from Lantignié fruit. But I still can't help detecting a certain frisson, an exuberance to the new cuvée's red fruit, that the wine shares with those of the other natural winemakers farming the same terroir. These vines, it's worth noting, are the only ones that Pacalet himself farms, under an arrangement with Chauvet's niece.

None of Pacalet's other grape purchases are organically farmed, a situation he accepts with the same realism and equanimity with which Jean Foillard, Max Breton, or the Lapierres approach their own inconsistently organic grape purchases.

"There's always a dialogue [with my growers]," Pacalet recognizes. "But the only dialogue possible is the money. It’s all the older winemakers, who are ready to retire. They plowed when they were young. Then they found that the modern farming was easier, less physical, and they’ll continue like that until they retire."

There is no bitterness in his voice, just something between resignation and affection. Natural wine drinkers as a group, it must be said, are probably inordinately clustered in major cities around the world, from which vantage, with no clear perspective on the internal dynamics of rural communities, it can be tempting to become an armchair environmentalist. The fact is that for every small domaine practicing conventional chemical agriculture, there is often an aging family whose every member's livelihood, over the course of a generation or more, has become inextricably linked with what are, finally, cost-cutting and labor-saving (if environmentally destructive) methods.

"For me, for us, the future is to buy vines and do as we like. We buy the grapes, but we don’t know it all. The ideal is have one’s own vines," says Pacalet. "It's in the pipeline..."

Pacalet throws a magnificent shindig among friends and family following the Beaujoloise tasting each year. 

Christophe Pacalet
Les Bruyères
69220 Cercié
+33 (0)4 74 69 73 03

Related Links:

A splendid 2010 profile of Christophe Pacalet's work at Wine Terroirs.

NYTimes wine critic Eric Asimov admits, in this 2013 round-up of 2011 Beaujolais, to having once found Christophe Pacalet's wines "too funky." Asimov also praises Pacalet's 2011 Chénas. The criticism strikes me as curious, though, given Pacalet's relative conservatism vis-à-vis certain other natural Beaujolais producers. One suspects it might have been a storage issue at some point in the distribution chain at that period.

The profile of Pacalet on the VOSS Selections website is notable mainly for providing a snapshot of Pacalet's operation just three years after its inception. Pacalet is presently imported to the USA by the vast WineBow group.

Beaujolais, Winter - Spring 2016:

Sylvère Trichard & Elodie Bouvard (Séléné), Blacé
Jérome Balmet, Vaux-en-Beaujolais
L'Auberge du Moulin, Saint-Didier-sur-Chalaronne
Jean-François Promonet, Leynes
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

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