05 December 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: romain des grottes, saint-etienne-des-ouillières

The man standing there with the huge elderflower bush in his vines is Romain des Grottes. He's a métayer, or sharecropper, working 8ha vines belonging to the Château de Lacarelle in Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières. Almost everything about that sentence is misleading, though.

The Château de Lacarelle belongs to des Grottes' grandfather, a peculiar situation that allows des Grottes considerably more creative leeway than most métayers. And his 8ha of vines is effectively 4ha, because since 2003 des Grottes has uprooted half the rows, planting cereals in the remaining spaces. He also works the soil less than many organic winemakers, content with a wilderness of grass cover that would make his elders blanche.

"I think I’m liberated from the tradition, because I never grew up here," admits des Grottes, who was born in Paris. "As much in the vines as in making the wine."

Des Grottes styles his domaine "Un Jardin Dans Les Vignes." I'm not sure whether it's an intentional wink at Georges Duboeuf, who calls his pristinely herbicidal display vineyard in Romanèche-Thorins "Le Jardin en Beaujolais." 

Des Grottes initially came to Beaujolais after finishing business school. He already had a child he wished to raise in the countryside, and had no special attachment to Paris, when his grandfather proposed he help manage the office for the Château de Lacarelle.

"I had two other kids very rapidly. Then my grandfather proposed me to take on some vines belonging to the Château," he says. "I took on his workers, too. And in following the workers I discovered I enjoyed working in the vines."

Once in the vines, des Grottes soon carved a very eccentric path. From viticulture to vinification, his is the domaine that defies all conventional wisdom. 

The vine density of most good traditional Beaujolais vineyards is between 10,000 - 12,000 plants per hectare, sometimes more. Des Grottes' vines are about 5,000 per hectare, a system he decided on after noting that one parcel where he'd uprooted many vines had consisently higher yields despite a sequence of tough vintages. 

"2003 was a catastrophic year, and there it was the best yields. 2004, catastrophic year, full of rot everywhere, and there were best yields. 2005, another dry time, and here again it was the best yields. And so from 2005 I started to do the same thing everywhere, pulling out one row out of two."

'Best yields' is a relative term, of course. Des Grottes on average takes in around 15HL / ha, which most Beaujolais winemakers would consider suicidally low. Des Grottes notes, however, that hectolitre per hectare is an imprecise judge of yields, particuarly given the increasing regional trend towards plantation in vignes larges, or wide-spaced vine planting. 

"Yield per hectare doesn’t mean anything anymore," he says. "We should be talking about yield per plant. And then there's the yield for the work. It’s not at all the same work. This is not just more mechanizable, it’s more human, too."

A fig tree in the vines.

Des Grottes iconoclasm continues in the winery. Conventional wisdom has it that serious, ageworthy Beaujolais derives from long maceration times, whether semi-carbonic or Burgundian. With the exception of the occasional micro-cuvée, des Grottes vinifies his entire red production as he would a primeur, with a 6-8 day semi-carbonic maceration followed by elevage of just one month in tank. The wine, entitled "Brut de Cuve," is practically bottled hot. 

Des Grottes' new label, designed by Romain Renoux, who's responsible for a lot of excellent labels by young Beaujolais vignerons. 

Yet, as with everything chez des Grottes, the "Brut de Cuve" resists easy summary. Des Grottes makes a very large pied de cuve - ten hectolitres - which means there's more juice in the tank than there would otherwise be. And much of the wine's character is dependent on a first-pass harvest des Grottes practices ten days before harvesting the fruit for the "Brut de Cuve."

"We take in all the not-pretty grapes, leaving only the bunches that can macerate a week," he explains. "So they’ve had ten more days to really profit and to increase in degrees. So it's very concentrated - it creates a very different balance between sugar and acidity."

The result is strange, uncategorizable wine, structured and rich yet maintaining the freshness and low alcohol of a primeur.

Those first-pass harvest grapes - which, astonishingly, account for fully half of des Grottes' production - are brought in, pressed immediately, and vinified as a sweetish, low-alcohol pet-nat rosé he calls "Un Petit Coin de Paradis." 

The wine is an even more challenging sell than des Grottes' red. It's sold undisgorged, which means that depending on the vintage, one can lose up to a third of the bottle in a volcanic, guest-soaking spray. (The 2015 was like that. I haven't had that issue with 2016, which is also less sweet, more off-dry.) 

"We all like it," says des Grottes, grinning. "But the big question is, is it wine?" 

In all my tastings in Beaujolais, I've tasted perhaps three successful gamay pet-nats. Most lack acidity, showing lumpy and dull. Not here: harvesting ten days early works wonders in this case. The wine retains a delicious, underripe apple-skin acidity that makes one forget its sweetness. "Good for breakfast," is what des Grottes calls it.

I admit I was slow to warm to des Grottes' wines, which all tend to be exuberantly spritzy and volatile in their youth. At first glance, des Grottes' entire operation can seem like a fairytale hippy dreamland subsidized by the whimsy of international natural wine buyers. We first met around a campfire at the house of erstwhile Fleurie winemaker Denny Baldin, the author of a rather wacko natural wine pamphlet. Later I ran into des Grottes at the Biojoleynes salon that year, selling essential oils. He often seems to be accompanied by an entourage of enthusiastic Belgians.

It wasn't until I finally visited des Grottes at his domaine in May that I realised I need to begin listening to Belgians more.

Nowadays I'm convinced that Romain des Grottes is among the most inspired winemakers working in the Beaujolais, with a vision as singular and rewarding as that of Philippe Jambon in Leynes, or Lantignié's Christian Ducroux.

Tasting through des Grottes' current vintages is fun; even without further awareness of the wines, one can appreciate their frank gaiety. But what puts them in perspective are the older vintages. One of the more eye-popping, show-stopping wines I can remember tasting was the bottle of 2005 Des Grottes opened for me. It was the first year he began using the "recipe" he uses today: no sulfur addition, no filtration, no elevage.

On the left is des Grotte's former label, Comic Sans and all. 
The wine was not only perfectly preserved: it had undergone a complete rebirth. All the volatility evident in youthful vintages had integrated into a harmonious whole, with just a whisper of disappearing acetates on the nose preceding a long, hail-mary palate of brambly cherry fruit and flint. It possessed the rainfall freshness of a cooler vintage, married to 2005's persistence and indestructible tannicity.

"What makes that it’s like that is its bottled very, very young," says des Grottes. 

Much later - still mulling about this tasting - I reflected that it probably has something to do with malolactic fermentation finishing up in bottle, as it does, for example, at Domaine Emidio Pepe in Abruzzo, who also make insanely long-lived, sulfur-free wines. Des Grottes later told me he's usually pretty sure the malo has finished before he bottles, but he said this with such uncertainty as to lead me to believe the opposite.

That day in May we also tasted a 2011, which proved the 2005 wasn't a fluke. The 2011's confit raspberry fruit was still spiked with a wallop of volatile, but the direction of the wine's evolution was perceptible: it was at a midpoint between the puppyish frisk of 2015 and the mature precision of the 2005.

One would simply never have suspected such fascinating wine to emerge from a bottle bearing the simple, sober Château de Lacarelle label, let alone from one bearing the gnarly skate-shop "Brut de Cuve" label of later vintages. There's an element of tragicomedy in how des Grottes' ageworthy primeur resembles, to a T, the archetypal superficial natural party-wine, the sort of 'sweet juice' that gets gulped with zero reflection beyond the usual no-sulfur high-fiving.

Des Grottes does have certain faithful fans who take the effort and risk to age his wines.

"This year, when I delivered the "Brut de Cuve" to a buyer in Belgium for the Beaujolais Nouveau, do you know what he was offering his clients?" des Grottes relates, with relish. "The Brut de Cuve 2012, 2013, 2014…"

This year, in addition to "Un Petit Coin de Paradis" and "Brut de Cuve," des Grottes produced a new bizarro cuvée called "L'Antidote." It scans as a pleasant, appley, off-dry, low-alcohol pet-nat, until one realises it contains no alcohol whatsoever. It's a herb-infused blend of grape juice, apple juice, lemon that des Grottes has carbonated by Fleurie crémant producer Louis Loron et fils.

"I’d like to reach an audience that doesn’t drink," he had told me in May. "To have juice to sell to children, that would please me. It brings us closer to the agricultural side of the metier of the vigneron."

There was a pause, before he added, with a characteristic sense of adventure and wonderment, "I'd also like to make beer."

Domaine des Grottes
69460 Saint-Étienne-des-Oullières
Tel: 06 85 18 15 02

For anyone who happens to be in the Beaujolais on December 17th this year, there'll be a fun party chez Romain des Grottes in support of Camille Lapierre's Festival Dezing

Related Links:

Beaujolais 2016:

Yann Bertrand's First Primeur
Beaujolais Harvests 2016
Christophe Pacalet, Cercié
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

1 comment:

  1. I believe the Belgian importer Des Grottes was referring to may be Wouter De Bakker from Terrovin (www.terrovin.be) as indeed he's still selling some older vintages, down to 2012. In Antwerp, we're Des Grottes believers :)