In the Beaujolais like in many other wine regions, some of the best terroirs often end up in the hands of the vignerons tough enough to work them, as nowadays many prefer vineyards that are machine friendly in order to make a smoothly-running business with little room for risks and worry. The new generation of passionate winemakers who aim at making no-tricks wines, meaning using none of the enology additives, are almost the only ones ready to take on vineyards that are now-disregarded because they’re on uneasy relief and/or have a too narrow inter-row width. Julie Balagny who arrived in the region a couple years ago has the calibre of those new daring conquerors of the wine world who are not afraid to get sores on their hands and do all the hard word by themselves; she took on her own shoulders without outside financing this one block of Gamay, a steep slope stuck between woods in the Fleurie Appellation. When Julie Balagny heard about this available vineyard through her friend Yvon Métras and drove to the dead-end dirt road to see it, she knew this was it, it would be the place to start as an independant grower and winemaker.
The picture above shows a cadole standing in the middle of Julie's vineyard. A cadole is a small building or shack where the workers in the past would store their tools and rest. Cadole is a Beaujolais name, but these small constructions have other names in other wine regions, like loges de vignes in the Loire or casots in the Collioure or Perpignan region.
Pic on right : the village of Fleurie ahead.
Prior to that, Julie Balagny who is now in her early 30s', has worked for 10 years at Terre des Chardons, an organic/biodynamic estate in the Southern Rhone close to the Languedoc (near Arles & Nimes). Originally from Paris (her family has deep roots in the quartier des Batignolles) in the 17th arrondissement, she followed the appeal of nature and winemaking. She never felt the city life was for her and remembers being fascinated by kitchen scenes in her home and her father uncorking bottles of good wines for the people dining with friends or family. She also loved being with her grandmother who lived in the countryside. So she went to Cahors in the Languedoc for a viticulture/enology degree and began to work along her studies in a family winery near Perpignan. She has a younger sister (24) who studies medicine and who came here a month ago, helping passing with the cable plow between the steep rows.
The picture above is our first glimpse on Julie in front of her home near Fleurie as we arrived for our visit. She rents this old farm (which sits at the right end of this group of buildings) from a vigneron and in addition to the lovely house where you literally touches the History of generations of farmers/vignerons who lived in here (there's a heavy ironcast wood stove for the heating), there's a stunning view on the Beaujolais hills (mountains is a more appropriate word actually) and slopes as it's quite at a decent altitude. It must be great at all seasons, including after the rain with the changing light. It takes a lot of courage and obstinacy for someone to start a winery today, especially when you do it on the organic/zero-additives mode, but this life in the middle of the elements must help somehow at the beginning to overcome the obstacles and doubts...
She brings them food every day and she brushes them. The donkey (an ass actually) has been trained to pull a cart and plow, and she has now to take it to task in the vineyard. She plans also to fence the vineyard and let them there (except when there are grapes of course), mostly in winter.
There's also a horse in another grassy lot along the vineyard, it's a Comtois draft horse named Popeye, and it's owned by a neighbor vigneron named Alain Gauthier and who also works for other growers as a service company with his draft horse.
This year has been very different in terms of weather, with drought until mid-july and then 3 weeks of rain alternating with sun. In spite of that, there is no disease pressure, no mildew. On the other hand, there has been no weedkillers used on the vineyard for 4 years and there has been lots of grass. She tries to be careful with the soil so as it can handle the transition from chemical to organic, meaning that she makes only careful plowings for now. She’ll use a grass trimmer probably in august. She works mostly alone like when tilling between the rows (see picture of the tool on the right) but she had recently the help of two viticulture-students trainees for 6 weeks, one of them being the son of the vignerons in the Roussillon where she learnt the trade 10 years ago. He was 10 years old back then and for her it’s wonderful that this young guy, whom she knew as a kid and comes from a conventional family winery, now trains here in the Beaujolais to learn a wholly different growing and winemaking techniques. The other trainee comes from another region and has no parents in the wine trade but he is similarly very interested, asking the right questions with even the life-philosophy aspects of the approach? These two young guys were very positive for Julie who could see through them the renewal of the winemaking in healthy roots. They both follow a BTS viti-oeno (viticulture-enology degree) in a wine school.
En Remont is the cadastral name of this climat, it is oriented South/South-West, some slopes being twisted to the South, others not. Julie Balagny says that this vineyard is very intertesting because there are 3 types of soils on this 3-hectare slope, which looks otherwise similar. She noticed that while working on the land and she is just coming to the idea to make separate cuvées to highlight some of these terroirs. Most of the vineyard is very old, except for a 0,5-hectare plot at the top which is 30 years old and is bottled as the cuvée Cayenne for 2010.
Depending where you kneel in the parcel, you find different types of stones, there is quartz in some places, in other places you find heavy, dark-grey stones with some basalt. You find this type of minerality in the Moulin-à-Vent area, but not here in Fleurie. Same for this quartz (pic on right), the only other place you find it on Fleurie apart from the 40-are corner here is in Les Garants. There's a layer of quartz surfacing on this part of the slope for some geological reasons, and it is very valuable. In 2009 as she lost 60 % of the grapes with the hailstorm, she didn't have the opportunity to make a separate cuvée. That year she made En Remont and a second cuvée named Jean Barrat. In 2010 she had more grapes and decided to make a separate cuvée with the basalt-thick terroir where the vineyard is 30 years old (cuvée Cayenne), and another one from the quartz terroir with the very old vines (cuvée Simone). The rest making the cuvée En Remont. So she's begun to differentiate between several terroirs and the wines are very different from each other.
As we're talking, Julie points us to an eagle circling far above our heads, a Circaète in French (a Short-toed snake eagle), a bird which hunts only snakes. Speaking of snakes, there are plenty of them around here including vipers, Julie says, and she sometimes inadvertedly grasps one with her hands while taking the grass off. But if the temperature is cold like in the morning, they're a bit sluggish and don't bite. She's the type of pioneer girl, I tell you...
Julie rents the vineyard, she found it by pure chance after Yvon Metras spoke with Michel Guignier, a vigneron working in biodynamy in Vauxrenard near here who told him about this available parcel. Yvon Metras, one of te outstanding artisan winemakers in the Beaujolais, knew that Julie was looking for vines in the area and tipped her. You may wonder what brought Julie from the Southern Côtes du Rhone where she worked to this comparatively Nothern region of Beaujolais; I asked her and she said the drinkability was why : because of the milder (if difficult) climate, Beaujolais is an ideal wine region for making wines that are well-balanced and easy to drink.
Julie knew Yvon Metras from the times she took part to the friendly lamb mechouis organized every year by Marcel Lapierre, these were events where you could exchange a lot with passionated vignerons and where Julie learnt a lot. She later had the opportunity to meet Yvon Metras through La Mise, a small wine-tasting event that she co-organized with Caribou, a Canadian young woman passionated with real wines (whom I met and pictured last year - see here bottom of the page). La Mise is on hiatus for now but Julie has hopes to restart something similar with the outstanding Japanese chef Katsumi Ishida who runs a restaurant in Lyon, named En mets fais ce qu'il te plaît (Katsumi Ishida says interesting things in the linked interview, particularly regarding natural wines).
For Japanese readers : ヨンのパイオニア石田克己氏と対談
Julie had lots of repairs to do on this tractor and right now there’s another thing to fix. She can't work with any other tools in this vineyard because of the steep conditions and the narrowness of the inter-row, even a horse wouldn't make it. This year they made two runs with the cable plow.
Julie says that the work in winter is not that tough because this slope/coulee is protected from the North wind, and also, thanks to the sandy soils, when there’s a bit of sun, it gets warm pretty fast. She begins to prune in mid-january (last year she even began in February). She considers starting early in the future, especially that the warm season seems to come earlier.
Harvest is done by hand, by a team of 10 to 15 young people of the region. The sorting of the grapes is made in the boxes, not on a sorting table at the chai. The boxes which are filled with buckets loads by the pickers contain about 60 kilograms of grapes. And of course the pickers are trained to do the right sorting and leave the bad stuff on the spot.
When she makes the sprayings , it’s by foot with a portable sprayer (30 kilograms when full), walking up and down the vineyard, this is one of the toughest part of the vineyard work. Walking between the rows, we notice the large diversity of flowers and wild plants and weeds, and Julie names several of them. They’re playing their role in the limitation of pests as they bring along lots of diverse insects with them. When she took over this vineyard there were only ladybirds and praying mantis here, now there are so many more types of insects thanks to the organic management. She has sometimes worries with certain worms going on the leaves but she counts on the insect diversity to counter the problem.
Some of the weeds grow too high so she tills here and there and also uses a portable grass trimmer, in addition of the two runs with the cable-powered plow. Two years ago she had sheep wandering between the rows to eat the grass and it helped. As we walk along the grass path between two plots, Julie spots many edible mushrooms on the ground; recent rains have encouraged them, and she has already made a nice dinner plate with these mushrooms the previous sunday.
She says that the work in winter is not that tough because this slope/coulee is protected from the North wind, and also, thanks to the sandy soils, when there’s a bit of sun, it gets warm pretty fast. She begins to prune in mid-january (last year she even began in February). She considers starting early in the future, especially that the warm season seems to come earlier.
Look at the labels on this picture, I love them. Each cuvée has a different ink drawing, a same character posing differently. They're designed by a friend artist.
At harvest time, they pile pallets along the cement vats so that they can climb at the top and unload the boxes into the maceration vat. Depending of the outside temperature, she will choose to cool the grapes or not to. She uses Yvon Metras' refrigerated unit in case she needs to, and she will invest in her own one of these days. It is very important to start the maceration with cool grapes so that the yeasts have trouble starting and take their time. This is the Jules Chauvet method, and this slow start is decisive to get something tasty and refined. The fermentation starts with some CO2 put on top by precaution. What is interesting with the wild yeasts, she says, is that the first 5° of alcohol will be the result of the work of many different varieties of yeasts, which brings an important base in the wine. In the region, they're lucky to have a microbiology team helping them monitor what's going on in the juice at this crucial stage. This was set up 10 or 15 years ago by Marcel Lapierre and it has designed a technique using a microscope to count and see in real time the yeasts and bacteria at work. Again, Marcel Lapierre who passed awazy nearly a year ago, has left an irreplaceable imprint for the growing number of winemakers who works without lab additives.
The macerations last 3 weeks on average, without any stirring of the grapes, stomping or whatsoever, then the grapes, which have remained whole are pressed manually in this vertical press. It is very important that the grapes remain whole and intact during the cold maceration and there's a lot of care to get that. Because of this, the density spikes up after the press and there's a jump in the fermentation process, which takes place as the two juices are put back in the cement vat. Then, she'll put the juice into the casks when there's still a bit of sugar left so that it ends there. She learnt that through Yvon Metras, and Jules Chauvet, Bidasse (Jacques Néauport) said that it was important for the refined side and the complexity of the future wine. She doesnt control the fermentation temperature, she just checks it, it's usually goes up to 17°C. the wine may also finish its fermentation in vats, in resin vats. Let's taste and drink !
__ Julie Balagny, Fleurie Cayenne 2010. 30 year old vines, on basalt. Fermentation in cement vat, élevage in resin vat, bottled end of april. She keeps them in bottles and will begin to sell them in Paris mid october. A bit of reduction in the nose. No SO2 at all for this wine (and no other additive of course), including at bottling. A bit flat in the mouth for now, she says. B. says that the wine is fruity on the nose, and neat. Julie says that she realizes that adding 1 gram or 1,5 gram at bottling may help; it's almost nothing and vanishes rapidly but it helps stabilize the wine, so she will probably do it in the future. On the other hand, after 5 or 6 months, a non-stabilized wine (totally SO2 free) should set off to very beautiful heights and yield better things in medium to long term. Cayenne is supposed to reach the market earlier. The Fleurie "Jean Barrat" 2009, the previous name of this cuvée is now tasting very well, and the 2010 will probably follow the same ascending way after what she considers a disappointing early expression.
__ Julie Balagny Fleurie En Remont 2010, from a bottle. From mostly the lower part of the vineyard, plus some at the top. Vines aged from 40 to 60 years, élevage in casks. Bottled end of may. Reduction on the nose. More reduction than the previous, B. says, but I feel that behind this, there's an appealing and joyous "something" in this nose. And Julie says that paradoxally, the two top wines will find their place faster than the cuvée Cayenne (Cayenne was intially supposed to be ready earlier), this could be 2010. In the mouth, a pleasure, for this En Remont, another level undoubtly. And after a few minutes as we are chatting, the wine's nose changes for the better, the mouth is tasty and pleasurable with a good length. A bit more time in bottles will undoubtly help. It should be shipped faster for the export because the buyers need some stock but for the French market it will wait a bit. Costs about 25 e at the Caves du Panthéon. This year for the first time by the way, she ships her wines to Paris using a barge : it's a sustainable freight group named Remise à Flot which uses barges to deliver the goods. There's one departing from Béziers in the Languedoc, it takes in along the way the wines and other food products for the Paris market. It will stop near here (Belleville or Macon) in mid september and arrives in Paris mid october : no vibrations, no shocks, it is not only good for the wine, it is less polluting and is a great experience for the young people who initiated this barge revival (the down thing is that it cost more than road transport).
__ Julie Balagny Fleurie cuvée Simone 2010. Taken from a resin vat (pic on left and above). She put it there a month and a half (before our visit which took place some 2 weeks ago) to take the CO2 out. Didn't get any SO2 at all until now. Made with the quartz terroir, with more sand and thinner sands compared with the rest of the parcel. The sand helps a lot on the aromatic side. This is the first year she makes a separate cuvée from the quartz terroir. Last year's harvest for her was end of september/early october. I really like this Simone, it's fruity, it's mineral, aerial, neat. It is refinely intense. Man, this is good... And for Julie it's still far from what it will offer in some time. Don't miss this one, if you can afford it (it will definitely cost more than the En Remont). It will reach the market when she decides to, no schedule yet. Kudos to Julie for that one! But she says that that's just the wine which made its way almost alone, she pretends to have nothing to do with it because of her non-interventionist winemaking. She says that when she climbs to the cellar it was almost just to feed from its energy, the juices and wines were just great and going smoothly, a pure happyness. She adds that somehow, winemaking [the natural winemaking at least] is a non-ego thing, she feels that she just stands at its side and marvels at the result. After a few minutes, the nose of Simone makes me the impression of wet stone, a very pure minerality.
She uses a service company for the bottling (they have a very good & smooth pump and do it slowly) but she considers buying a gravity filler, like a 4-spout gravity filler, which could allow her to bottle when conditions are fine (pressure, moon), without having to schedule the bottling truck in advance.
Louis Dressner Selections (United States) and Vin Libre (Neuchatel, Switzerland) were the first to follow her in her new venture. She sells also to Canada (Quebec - La Belle Bouteille, Martin Labelle), Japan (Nagoya - Wine Plaza Maruta), Denmark (Pétillant), Holland (Wijnvriend), Germany (Hamburg, Olaf at Loco Dionysos, a great guy who opens his shop 15 days a month and scouts the wine/cheese/charcuterie regions the rest of the time), Australia, the 2nd country in terms of volume (Andrew Guard), Belgium (Wouter De Bakker).
You find her wines in Paris in Les Caves du Panthéon (Olivier Roblin, who came in person to visit her vineyard and is an excellent caviste), Le Verre Volé (Cyril Bordarier), Les Caves de Reuilly (11th arrondissement), then in a restaurant like L'Ardoise (Pierre Jay).
She also sells to cavistes and wine bars in the French provinces, like Le Temps des Vendanges, a natural-wine shop in Toulouse.
Read this insightful article (in English) about the key people who started in the Beaujolais what is known today as the natural wine movement.