A few Saturdays ago my friend N and I found ourselves staggering north in Lyon after a lunch at Café Comptoir Abel,* where the greatest wine available had been half-pints of Leffe. Desperate for a worthwhile drink before our train north, I thought to pay a visit to Vincent Dechelette, a former employee of acclaimed old-city wine retailer Antic Wine who last December opened his own boutique, entitled Le Troisième Fleuve, a respectable trek upriver from his old workplace.
The new shop's name will be familiar to anyone who has ever read any piece of wine writing on the Beaujolais: it derives from the heavily-worn Léon Daudet line, in which the 19th-century French journalist dubbed the wine of the Beaujolais the "third river" of Lyon, after the Rhône and the Saône. Delechette, like myself, is a massive believer in the gamay, granite, and goblet-training.
His young cave - a short corridor comprised of a stone wall facing a tall mass of shelving - boasts a mostly-natural Beaujolais selection to rival any more established wine retailers in the city. The region's wines comprise perhaps 30-40% of Le Troisième Fleuve, with the remainder deriving from up-and-coming domaines from the rest of France. Dechelette also demonstrates an easy fluency with Beaujolais hospitality: he kindly allowed us to crack open a few bottles on-site, when we arrived out of breath in mid-afternoon, slightly damp with rain and dying of thirst.
I first met Dechelette over lunch the previous year with his former employer Georges Dos Santos. The occasion was the visit of a friend who's a good client of Dos Santos'. Dechelette and I barely exchanged a word, as is the custom when dining with Dos Santos, who singlehandedly accounts for more than a third of all spoken wine conversation in France. But I did learn it was Dechelette's last day at Antic Wine. Later that year and throughout the following he and I often crossed paths at tastings and parties in the Beaujolais, where I learned about his new venture.
Dechelette is a good friend of Saint-Julien-based natural winemaker Xavier Benier and is the artist behind many of the latter's labels, including his excellent négoçiant Régnié. So it seemed only appropriate to toast to Benier together over a bottle of his Vin de France cuvée of viognier, from very young vines Benier planted near Saint-Julien.
2015 was the first vintage of the wine, and in a heat-wave, dry-spell year it weighed in under 11° alcohol. What I tasted with Dechelette seemed closer to 10° - a sheer tulle summer-dress of a wine, all wispy white melon and apple-blossom. It would be perfect with a hunk of bread and cheese at 9AM casse-croute. Given the tiny quantities Benier produced of the wine, I expect it was vinified and aged in small fiberglass tank. It's commonly held that very young vines show less terroir than old and the best we can expect from the former is varietal typicity. In the case of Benier's viognier, curiously, I suspect I'd be in a position to mark it as a Beaujolais white sooner than as a viognier: but only because it shares a structurelessness, a not-unpleasant inconsequentiality, with many naturally vinified whites from the region.
As for whether viognier belongs this far north of Lyon, I'd say why not? Saint-Julien is right on the border between the Beaujolais-Villages and Beaujolais tout court appellations, and in no one's reckoning does it figure among the greatest sites of either. Yet there remains ample demand for inexpensive, naturally vinified Chardonnay from these areas, and I see no reason why it shouldn't translate to viognier, another grape too often encountered in thrall to very conservative vinification and bottling practices. As one descends south of chez Benier one enters a region whose identity remains indistinct, pitched midway between the Rhône and the Beaujolais. They might as well have it both ways.
I'd nonetheless hesitate to make the same justification if we look further north in the Beaujolais, as in the case of Vincent Audras of Clos de la Haute Combe, who has diversified his range with viognier, but on the rather more noble terroir surrounding Juliénas. Here, where even Beaujolais-Villages terroir can regularly produce gamay wines of soaring quality, viognier constitutes a distraction, at best; at worst, a waste of terroir and a mark of commercial desperation.** In Juliénas, one is a mere cricket's hop from perfectly fine Chardonnay terroir further north, if one truly must produce a white wine - fellow Juliénas winemaker Michel Tête's "Fleur de Chardonnay," for example. But neither Audras nor Tête produce what would be called natural wines; their ranges are uniformly filtered, and sulfured at higher doses than the norm for the natural sector; and so whatever white wine either winemaker musters will not benefit from the same massive demand from high-end natural resellers.
|Vincent Audras' viognier, tasted at Bien Boire en Beaujolais 2015.
Speaking of which, Dechelette's selection at Le Troisième Fleuve, befitting one made by an elève of the ever-pragmatic Dos Santos, is balanced between natural and conventional wines. The bottom shelves contain a smattering of inexpensive bottles included only for reasons of sentiment or expedience. The surrounding Vaise area, like, insensibly, much of Lyon, is relatively new ground for natural wine. Dechelette tells me it's not the sector where rents have risen the most in Lyon in recent years, but it's where they have risen most steadily. The neighborhood still feels somewhat marginal; to access it, N and I had trudged a good forty-five minutes up a stretch of river lined with shut brothels and nightclubs. As one nears Vaise, normal commerce recommences; the grande rue where Le Troisieme Fleuve sits is home to a few beautifully well-preserved bars.
A table in the front of Dechelette's shop is, for the moment, its only available drinking area. He's hoping to receive approval from the city to place a barrel out front. In the meantime the shop remains a fine pit-stop for anyone making the trip north to the Beaujolais. Just avoid the temptation to miss a few trains, as we did, for we nearly missed the very last one, after Google Maps directed us to the Vaise bus station entrance, rather than to the train station on the other side of the very large building. After a breathless sprint, we had to scramble up a muddy embankment and hop a fence in order to board our train without tickets at the last possible second.
* N and I seem to have a tradition of descending to Lyon on the high-speed train and lunching at famous restaurants that prove to be immense, costly disappointments. I've come to see these meals as a sort of severe excise tax on the activity of familiarizing oneself with Lyonnais cuisine.
** Here I should add that Audras makes some very respectable Juliènas wines; some 2015's I tasted from tank were stunning. If only someone could convince him to cease filtering.
Le Troisième Fleuve
23, Grande Rue de Vaise
Tel: 09 87 02 52 60
A note in regional newspaper Le Progrès about the opening of Le Troisième Fleuve.
A note in The Drinks Business about Xavier Benier's Viognier.
A Fall 2015 visit to Xavier Benier.
Brasserie Georges, 69002
Le Fleurie, 69007