This is the time of the year when you can taste the paradis in the winery, this French word meaning "paradise" or "heaven". The paradis is the freshly-pressed juice flowing from the press after a couple of weeks of carbonic maceration. This juice of gamay is very different from what it would have been if it hadn't beforehand spent 15 days of forced seclusion within the intact skins of the grapes, in a strong fermentation pressure kept in check by a natural production of CO2. It didn't get its name for nothing, and even for a non-expert juice taster, this is paradise on earth.
This paradis has a strong-enough evocative power to have inspired a few village celebrations throughout the Beaujolais, for example the Paradis et Artisanat day in Arnas, and the Fête du Paradis in Odenas. The grape juice will fill the glasses during these festive events, a juice which already has a small percentage of alcohol, maybe 3 or 4 % when you have it just at the press, a bit more later, and it makes you feel high in a very gentle way after a few refills, which are hard to resist.
The paradis is a close parent to the delicious bernache or vin nouveau, other names found elsewhere in France for the same sweet grape juice turning slowly into wine. I love to visit wineries at this time of the year and have a few glasses of this savoury fermenting juice, usually a beverage with a lightly more alcohol but still so beautifully sweet. But filling your glass under the press at Domaine Lapierre is not usual for me, and I enjoyed every sip, well aware of the importance of this moment. There was this glass sitting empty on the base of the press and I guess that Mathieu, Camille or one of the cellar guys would use it to check the juice and have a foretaste of the vintage, for this particular parcel at least.
Link to video on which Mathieu, then Guillaume taste routinely the press juice.
When I walked in on this saturday morning, there was a lot of activity there, Camille (Mathieu's sister) was organizing things in the vat room while Mathieu himself was in the bottom of a wooden fermenter (the one on the right) busy emptying the whole-clustered grapes with a fork. Anne (dressed in white), also a sister of Mathieu was there too, as well as another young woman, Chloé who was training here for one month (in a purple anorak on the video).
Someone was working in the bottom of the wooden fermenter on the right of this picture to fork out the grapes, guess who ?
You can see here that even though Mathieu is now unloading the bottom part of the vat, the grapes are still whole-clustered and mostly intact.
On the outside of this wooden fermenter, I could read the words "Morgon Py 33,42 hectolitres". Not the lowest cuvée, here.
You can see in the background another wooden maceration vat being emptied onto the forklift bin.
This type of basket press is still used throughout France, often in wineries favoring traditional winemaking. They are widely available and cost little money, as many sit idle in outbuildings of farms that stopped making wine or opted for more modern presses. Such a vertical press has an unlimited lifespan, you only virtually have to change the wooden slats when you find one because they're often stored in the open or the wood is too damages, but with new wood you get a brand new press. Claude Courtois in the Loire (Sologne) for example recovered a dozen of them in his region, 8 of them being fully operational now and the others being stored for later renovation.
But you can also notice that these old vertical presses are mounted on a stainless-steel base that probably do a better job in moving the juice in perfect conditions (easier to keep clean).
The man standing atop a vat at a distance is Mr Ito, the Japanese wine importer. Mr Ito, who imports many French natural wines to Japan, travels regularly to the different wine regions and visits many wineries year around, I remember seeing him also a year ago during Philippe Pacalet's harvest. He takes many pictures which you can find on his website.
You can notice that there is no conveyor belt in the winery, they prefer at Lapierre to bring the grapes directly over the press, in order I suppose to prevent oxidation. This is the first time that I see such a tilting bin mounted on a forklift, I don't know if it's home made or if you find that on the market.
What impressed me also while looking at the bustling vat room was the importance given to hygiene, with workers regularly wiping the press frame (where they occasionally walk for different tasks) with a cloth or hosing down the cement pavement with lots of water and then pushing the water and dirt outside into the gutter.
What makes this visit even more interesting is that as you may know, the Domaine Lapierre is some sort of originator of a very simple winemaking philosophy, considered non-interventionist, without corrections, additives, filtration or fining and even often without SO2. Marcel Lapierre who passed away two years ago initiated in the early 1980s' this work philosophy with the help of his mentor Jules Chauvet. Many wine lovers now consider this winemaking as common sense and a return to real wine as opposed to the bodybuilding wines that appeared in the 80s' due to mass use of new techniques and an ever wider range of additives created by the lab industry. Beaujolaid had become the queen region in the 80s' for these artificially-formatted wines and Lapierre along with a few other winemakers (Jean Foillard, Guy Breton and Jean-Paul Thevenet) are now considered the pioneers in the resurection of Beaujolais. This winemaking which for convenience reasons was much later called "natural wine" required a lot of work in the vineyard though (no more steroids, fertilizers or weedkillers), and certainly more hygiene as the juice-then-wine is not permanently held on leash by repeated SO2 addings, but the result in the wines was definitely what conquered the public.
She says that the pickers work longer hours in the morning, 5 hours, compared to only 3 hours in the afternoon. They have a break for lunch at 1:30pm. They usually begin at 7:30am in the vineyard but here it was rather 7:45.
The harvest had already started close to 3 weeks before, Mathieu Lapierre says that this year they had lots of sorting which slows the picking. You can find along the rows a few crates full of discarded clusters and the parts of the clusters that were cut off because of rot. Mathieu says that they may distill that for the state. He says that after last year where the yields were very low, they were on their toes this year, even earlier in the season, taking extra workers for this or that task, like doing more plowing between the rows to keep the grass in check. That's the challenge of farming organic he says, he's not farming organic for the sake of it but because it allows him to have grapes from which he will be able to make the quality of wines that he is looking for. These wines are called "natural" but beyond that they're terroir wines, the yeast that will make these wines are the expression of the terroirs on which the grapes grew.
Asked about the total surface of vineyards at Marcel Lapierre, Mathieu answers 16 hectares, including the fermage and metayage (different forms of rental agreements in France). They also still purchase a parcel here and there when the opportunity shows up (which is rare in Villié-Morgon but it happens now and then)
I also asked Camille about her whereabouts here, and she says that she's been travelling around before coming back in the family estate. She was a sommelière before but she stopped two years ago to get a short training in the Beaune wine school and joined her family here in the winery. She still leaves a few weeks every winter to do the harvest in wineries at the other side of the world, she went for example in Chile (Louis-Antoine Luyt) and also in South Africa, and she also travelled recently to Georgia at Pheasant's Tears where she took part to the harvest and vinification on the skins for 3 to 6 months in buried amphora.
I asked Mathieu if the harvest was later this year with the unusually-cold spring, he said yes if you look only at the 5 or 6 last vintages, but otherwise compared with more remote years it's more or less in line with the harvest statistics. He says he has more issues with a small higher-altitude parcel he has above Vilié-Morgon, at a 400 to 500-meter altitude
because the grapes won't be ripe before november. Also, this year they had to harvest case per case, doing sometimes with two separate picks in the same parcel, that was the uneasy part of the vintage, with a more detailed work to adapt the ripening discrepancies. He says that they can afford the work because they sell their wines at a higher price than conventional Beaujolais. On this issue, I say that with a conventional farming turning overnight to organic, maybe the result in the wine wouldn't be immediate, which is maybe why wineries are reluctant to make the step, but Mathieu disagrees, saying that it's almost like when in the kitchen a cook replaced badly-selected ingredients with good ones, the food will immediately improve. But it's a sum of little things and the winegrower has to take care of all of them if he wants to make better wines.
On the other hand the prices that the négoce pays wouldn't allow such a costly work in the vineyard, he says, that's why the thermovinification technique is so widespread in the region. He says that this technique, which consists with heating the juice from 50 to 90 ° C (122 to 194 ° F) for 24 hours, erases the terroir completely, you can do that with any gamay from any region and you get almost the same wine everywhere. The goal of thermovinification, he says, is extract color, yield blackcurrant aromas, and sterilize the milieu after which you can add lab yeasts at will. And with the thermo he adds, you could vinify grapes with rot, the technique by the way appeared here in vintages with lots of rot, starting in 2001 and 2002, which were very difficult vintages.
The refrigerated trailer on the right is used in case the harvest days are hot, then they put the crates in there a few hours in order to cool them down before the vinification.
Right now they have 22 fermenters, and after the maceration the juices are then blended in a vat, then continue quietly their fermentation in barrels stored in the surface cellar, which is temperature controlled if needed.
The fermentation milieu must be strong enough so that for the last grams of sugar the bacteria are not a threat. With the long maceration they bring down the acidity and gain in suppleness, but with a higher pH it may be facilitate the bacteria activity, and the malolactic usually gets done very quickly, especially that the malic acid has already been degraded by enzymes during the maceration.
They often have the malolactic completed with still sugar in the wine but that's not automaticly worrying, Mathieu says, adding that Jules Chauvet had insisted that in the interaction between yeast and bacteria, it's difficult for outside forces (bacteria) to conquer a territory when the indigenous milieu is strong enough. That's why you don't necessarily need to add SO2 at this stage, it's often sufficient to wait and be patient, SO2 being the last resort (which he'll use if needed).
That's in such issues that Mathieu thinks that enologists consulting for wineries are not close enough to the wines, the batches and the parcels, and prefer to apply a recipe where heavy-handed security is the first drive, when a more careful approach could avoid many corrections and additions. Working on a case-per-case basis is the solution, but you have for that to know better the parcel, use indigenous yeast and so on.
Most of the time you don't need to add, there are other ways to accompany the wine and help it go around the hurdles.
Mathieu was a cook before coming back to the family winery in 2005, and he says that the cook and kitchen work is a good base for this job. Undesrtanding the chemistry of how to prepare ingredients to make good food is very akin to the competence you need to make wine, you use the same senses, the same instinct.
Samely, the cook will smell things and by instinct at one point, he will say it's good and move on.
I asked a worker about this impressive ceiling mural in the chai, and he said it was there since the late 70s' or early 80s'. It looks like an alien creature with multiple claws hanging over your head, maybe an allegorical painting representing the elemental forces behind the fermentation...
On the other hand, if there's now an aknowledgement of the non-additive vinification as yielding quality wines, winemakers have nonetheless the duty to be very careful because faulty wines can result from a careless vinification in the name of naturalness. He says that today journalists sometimes write positively on say, a white wine with oxidation aromas and volatile, when in his own opinion a bit of SO2 would have made a good job in this case.
The other, mainstream wineries have changed a lot these last years, Mathieu says, adding that for example the Beaujolais coops are more careful regarding the SO2 additions, you don't find anymore wines with 180 mg SO2 there, it's more like 80 or 90 mg which is still high but on the right course. On the other hand, at the other side of the trade, some natural wines would have benefited from a small SO2 adding made at the right time, the winemakers could have thus retained a freshness, a refined structure that they had before, and which was lost at some point.