This was a crucial time of the year, Georges Descombes was overlooking the press of a vat load of Gamay after it had been through its carbonic maceration. This took place earlier in october on a misty autumn day. It was an afternoon, and the press made its job almost silently, you could only hear the continuous flow of juice resulting from the gentle but steady pressure.
Having met Georges Descombes on various tasting events or in wine bars where he delivered his wines, I was happy to at last see where he vinified his beautiful wines, especially at a time when the chai was charged with all these positive vibrations and wild yeasts...
Georges Descombes place, with the house sitting next to the winery, is discreet and unsophisticated, you'd have a hard time to guess that the wines coming out from there have the power to make salivate so many demanding wine amateurs : from the outside, a winery like many others, with vats not very modern but not very old at the same time, but definitely the secret of these wines doesn't come with the tools.
The picture on the right shows the hamlet of Morgon, from which the Morgon Appellation took its name : it's not even a village but rather a hamlet located between Villié-Morgon and Fleurie...
We walked to the old vines of Morgon which go to the Vieilles Vignes cuvée. Like his other vineyards, it is plowed and farmed organicly. The first plowing takes place right after the pruning, it's a décavaillonage, that is, a slice of earth is cut with a blade and put upside down in the middle of the row. It stays like that about a month, then it's flatened back so that later in the season, they can use a blade plow superficially under the vines.
This particular vineyard has many missing vineyards, and he'll have to uproot it someday, he says. Asked about the replanting density, he says that he replant at about 8000 or 10 000 vines/hectare. Here, there's a distance of 1 meter between the rows as it was thought for draft horses, and he'll replant with an intrer-row width of 1,1 to 1,2 meter so that the tractor can pass without risking to harm the vines..
Georges Descombes' vineyards make a total surface of 15 or 16 hectares, stretched as such : 3,5 hectares of Brouilly, 7,5 hectares of Morgon, 2 hectares of Regnié, 0,5 hectare of Chiroubles, 2 hectares of Beaujolais Villages and 1,5 hectare of generic Beaujolais.
2009 was not a big harvest in terms of volume, but they did had bigger volumes than in 2010. In 2010, they had hailstorm-related losses too, on quite a few hectares, this was in july. In 2009, there was no particular problems, just that the heat and draught slowed the yields, but that was still a good vintage in terms of quality. He's quite happy with the quality of the grapes in 2010 too, but the volumes aren't there. He adds that anyway, he doesn't usually make big yields, so he's used to handle this situation. For example, when they get 40 or 42 hectoliters/hectare on a given vintage, they're in a good-volume year, but that's not happening every year. In 2010 for example (it's hard to say precisely, it's a bit early), he thinkls they'll reach 30, 32 or 33 ho/ha. In 2010, they got hailstorm damage on Morgon, on Regnié and on the Beaujolais Villages (the latter having suffered on a large surface, which is unusual).
The juice filling the bucket beneath the press is pumped from time to time back into a cement vat where it will ferment with the free-run juice. Watch the short video on the right, beyond the portable radio of the worker, you can hear the flowing juice and the occasional cracking noise of the press which is similar to the one of this inside of a 18th century ship...
Otherwise, apart from a few differences, all his grapes follow the same vinification :
First, the grapes are hand-picked. Then, all the old-vines grapes, the long-keep wines go into a cold-temperature room the size of a freight container for a night before going in the cubic cement vats for the carbonic maceration which sits in a corner of the vatroom. The young vines and the primeurs (the Beaujolais nouveau and the cuvées to be drunk young) are just harvested in the morning and pass through the cooling room only if the weather is very hot. Having the grapes cooled down before beginning the fermentation is very important, almost as important as having grapes that are not damaged maybe. The fact that Georges Descombes vinifies without using SO2 asks for a lot more care compared with conventional winemaking.
All it takes is good organization and methodolgy, the harvest boxes (11 kg each) are piled in the fridge container and the following morning, they dispose of the grapes and fill the vat, leaving the container ready for another load.
On the picture above, you can see the horizontal (non pneumatic) press used by Georges' stepson Damien Coquelet, who uses a line of cement vats (of the same type than the ones in the facility) outside of the building (Damien makes wine from a total surface of 10 hectares). Georges Descombes doesn't use this horizontal press very often, so that's the one with which Damien presses his grapes for now.
Asked how he began to make wines this way, and what sort of exchange there was between himself and Marcel Lapierre who initiated, sort of, this type of winemaking, he says that at the time Marcel Lapierre (who lived also in this village of Villié Morgon) started to make natural wines, he (Georges) was helping his father and he was also employed in a service company which was doing the bottlings in different estates, including at Lapierre's. That's how he discovered these very early cuvées of Marcel Lapierre, in 1982 and 1983. Through his job, he was used to taste wines from different people, some better than others because of the terroir or also because of a different work of the vigneron, and when he tasted Marcel Lapierre's additives-free, unsulfured cuvées, he immediately knew that these were the wines that he wanted to make. There wasn't any natural wine movement, or hype, or even self-aknowledgement at the time, but the wine was so different and beautiful that it spoke for itself. Georges' father, while not working like he does today, still vinified rather correctly then, for example he never added lab yeasts to ferment his wines. He did add some SO2 during the vinification, but in very reasonnable doses compared with the practices elsewhere. So, when he vinified his first harvest in 1988, he changed what needed to be changed in order to also vinify without additives.
Back when he began to make his wines in the late 1980s' : Like the ones of Marcel Lapierre, they were brought to the knowledge of the wine lovers through the very first natural-wine bars which were opening in Paris (in the 1980s') : Bernard Pontonnier's les Courtilles and François Morel's les Envierges. François Morel now heads Le Rouge & le Blanc, a fiercly-independant wine magazine (no sponsors, no advertizing). Again, there was still no name to categorize these types of wines but the people who tasted them in these bars couldn't but notice the striking difference and lively taste that they offered compared with conventional wines.
Let's taste :
__ Georges Descombes Brouilly 2007. Bottle, opened yesterday. Very beautiful. Cask élevage, unfiltered & unfined of course. Juniper aromas, eucalyptus too. The 2008 costs about 12,5 € at the estate (public price).
__ Georges Descombes Morgon 2008 Old Vines. From their own vineyards like the rest. Very nice mouth with fruit, and length. Same price.
__ Georges Descombes Regnié 2007. Very nice substance, still a very young wine that has lots to offer in a couple of years. Same price.
__ Georges Descombes Regnié 2009. Tastes well now, says Georges. Powerful like the 2009.
__ Georges Descombes Morgon 2008 (generic). Very nice wine, a bit of animal notes at the beginning, but not a problem. Georges says that some people think it's Brett, but it's not. This wine costs _sit down, folks_ 7 € a bottle at the winery. You've got to drive to the winery though to get your hand on a few bottles, I don't think there's much left....
25 % of Georges Descombes' wines are exported, to the United States (Dressner Selections), to Japan (oeno-connexion), Canada (Quebec - Rezin - British Columbia Racine Wine Imports), the UK (recently : Les Caves de Pyrène), and a few other countries. Georges Descombes otherwise sells to many restaurants and cavistes, and he also delivers himself his wines. I remember spotting him once walking incognito into les Pipos, a natural-wine bar in Paris, a few days before the Beaujolais nouveau (read this story)....