Jean-Claude Lapalu is a Beaujolais vigneron whose parents and grandparents were growers selling their grapes to the local coopérative; he too became a grower in 1982, selling his grapes to the coop to make a living, but in 1995 he also took over a domaine (a rental) and this was his start as a winemaker although for sometime he kept selling grapes to the coop. He found his path gradually along the years, step by step through questioning, from a conventional type of farming to one that eschews chemicals and same for the winemaking, toward a vinification reduced to the simple and natural process, with indigenous yeast and low intervention.
In the end of the 1990s' Jean-Claude Lapalu had two sharecropping contracts (vineyard rentals) plus a bit of land of his own and this gave him freedom to make wine if he wanted, all the while still selling grapes to the coop. In 1995/1996 he rented another domaine in addition to the sharecropping he already had and this led him to begin make wine (until then he had only be a grower). He says he hadn't a precise idea of the wine he'd make, he just had had some training at the viticulture school but that was not much. There was no one around him to guide him but he soon met a couple of people who would open a window on what wine could be, telling him things about wine like he had never heard before. These were not winemakers or vignerons. One of them was caviste in Grenoble (near the French Alps), François Blanc-Gonnet (pic on top of linked article) who was the owner of the wine shop Laiterie Bayard. He opened to him a whole universe where wine was very different from anything he had heard before. Meanwhile he began to make his own wine and it took him 5 or 6 years to get rid of all the additives he'd learnt to use at the wine school [this school was in the nearby village of Charentay, I think it closed since], he did that bit by bit, dropping the products one by one as he progressed. These additives were the lab yeast, SO2, sugar, plus enzymes, lactic bacteria (even if even at the beginning he actually never used these two). For the SO2 the removal was gradual as in a conventional winery it is added in several stages during the wine process (on the incoming grapes, during the vinification, at racking and at bottling typically), he progressed step by step, eschewing SO2 here, then in another vintage also here and so on until he made whole vinifications without any SO2 from A to Z.
When I arrived at the winery on my motorbike Jean-Claude Lapalu was moving an horizontal fermenter with a forklift (picture on right), his staff being busy taking care of various tasks in the vatroom.
What is interesting is that Jean-Claude Lapalu made much of this conversion mostly isolated from the vibrant group of winemakers who were already on this path not far from here (Lapierre, Foillard and a few others), He began to meet them in the mid 2000s', the first one of the group being Thevenet in 2003. They became aware of his wines because his wines began to appear in wine venues where their own wines were also poured, so they tasted them a few times and saw that there was something interesting here and several of them visited him and they became friends.
Jean-Claude Lapalu says that actually his referents were oddly based in southern France when he began his winemaking itinerary : there was this caviste of Grenoble first, and later a wine agent who was beginning his career near Vaison la Romaine and who visited him one day, this guy was already initiated in natural wine and he came regularly visit him in the Beaujolais, bringing in his car samples from Marcel Richaud, Gramenon, Milan and they drank the wine together. Jean-Claude thinks that he was happy to distribute this sort of wines and thus he somehow pushed Jean-Claude through this tasting of samples to try make wines of that style. And in some way, he says, that may be why he began to make wines with richness and substance, because there was this influence he got through these nice bottles he discovered. Then experience came, with a better knowledge of the terroirs as well as curiosity when he tried new things, like for his cuvée "Le Rang du Merle" (the row of the blackbird) which a late picking cuvée, he added this way several cuvées, with trials and new experiments. Speaking of Lapierre, Foillard and others, he had also tasted their wines while delivering his own wines in Paris as cavistes or restaurants would have him try this or that but for a while he didn't feel confident enough to go see them, so it took its time.
You can notice the massive and heavy stone base of this traditional vertical press, this is not made of cement, although some of these cement bases I saw elsewhere look sometimes really like plain stone, Jean-Claude Lapalu found this press complete with its stone base in the next village (Odenas), it had arrived there probably at the end of the 19th century. When he spotted it for the first time it was standing idle next to a house and he feared that it would end up as a giant flower pot like it happens alas in many places in the wine regions. He dared to ask the people who owned it if they'd consider selling it, and the man told him he had all the wooden parts, the cage and everything, safe in his attic, and they made a deal. The owner told him that originally the press part above the stone base was what we call in French a pressoir écureuil with an horizontal wheel and a vertical wheel along the wall. an écureuil is squirrel and the press bears this name because you could set the press in motion by climbing on the vertical wheel like a squirrel would do in its cage. These presses were still very common at the time in France (early 20th century), see this page showing pictures of a pressoir écureuil. The press was later reconditioned with what was a more modern and simple system, powered with an hydraulic mechanism or electricity. The stone base comes from the Macon region, the pierre maconnaise being a recognized stone quality. Its weight was estimated by the guy who transported it here at around 6,5 metric tons, its transportation from the quarry near Macon to the village of Odenas must have been an expedition, back in the late 19th century.
Jean-Claude says that the grapes were whole and intact when he and his staff put them into the press after 10 days of carbonic maceration, and even if the fermentation stared inside the grape, there is lots of sugar release when you press these grapes. Asked if he can foresee the vintage here, he says that after much worry along the year he sort of relaxes along the successive carbonic macerations that have been made these last days and the presses begin. The juices are upright, there's still room for doubt and caution but this start seems on the right track. They'll see later how the end of the fermentations unfold but this early stage is already quite good.
I point to the juice (I mistakenly said wine) falling noisingly into the bucket, something that has the potential to frighten many conventional winemakers and enologists because it raises the specter of oxydation, I wanted to know if it's important that the wine be exposed (and accustomed) to oxygen from the start. Jean-Claude Lapalu says that he doesn't know if it's important, he learned this while doing it, and that's when he brings the subject and amphorae which he has been using for certain cuvées for a few years now : he learnt a lot on this issue through the vinification in amphorae. He says that we're taught that oxygen is the enemy of wine and with the amphorae you have an enormous amount of oxygen that comes into contact with the wine, and in spite of that along the 6 years he used this type of vessels he never added SO2 on these cuvées and these wines never suffered from oxidation...
Jean-Claude Lapalu says that while he was alone for years in this corner of Beaujolais exploring this uncorrective winemaking, there are now a few young vintners who follow this path, 4 maybe, like Remi Dufaitre, or France Gonzalvez who made her first cuvées here at his facility.
Asked where he sold his wines when he was still vinifying conventionally, he says that he didn't sell much wine at that time (in 1996-1997), his volume of wine was modest (he still sold grapes) and part of the wine was ssold in bulk to the négoce. Later when he changed his winemaking practices for the better, he sold wine to the caviste in Grenoble which was his first big buyer, then his agent in Vaison began to sell his wines up north in Paris in good venues, which made him better known by the consumers there.
Asked if the fermentations went sluggish at the beginning inthis new building as it was devoid of the yeast ambiance of an old chai, he says no, the fermentations started well in thefirst year, but he add that with hindsight 2007 isdn't the vintage he prefers in his own wines, but his fellow vignerons feel the same for their own wines regarding the vintage 2007. Actually the first fermenter he filled was indeed sluggish in 2007, but that's probably because a severe storm before the picking of this parcel had washed all the natural yeast from the grapes'skin, and he used the juice from the 2nd fermenter (which started well) to seed it.
Speaking of the vineyard surface from his start in 1996 and now, he says that it has been up and down, with a maximum reached at the end of the 1990s'when he had his rented vineyards (sharecropping or métayage in French) contracted to the coopérative, plus this another rental surface with a facility that he had just taken over, plus some family vineyards on the side. This was a lot of surface to work on and in the mid 2000s' he let down the coop surface and 2 years ago he let down other parcels because this was still too much to manage. Over these years he not only abandoned the conventional winemaking and farming but he also adapted his working surface to a suitable size for this type of artisan work. He joined a certification for his organic farming after having got rid of the contracted vineyards tied to the coop, as these parcels were still sprayed conventionally (the coop didn't make any difference if it had been organic for its purchase price for the grapes).
The process is utterly simple : the grapes in the amphorae are destemmed and they are left by themselves without any action. The Gamay grapes shown here in the video were put in there 4 days before without of course any SO2 or any lab yeast, and from his experience there are never any fermenting problems, it unfolds to the end without stalling. Part of the grapes here will go through two months of maceration, they'll press the grapes and put the juice into vats, and for another part they'll wait spring to do the pressing, the two part being blended later. He decides the timing for the pressing with his smelling the mass of grapes and his instinct. you don't taste here, he says, you smell, he thinks that the nose is more useful than the mouth to make wine, and when a problem occurs in a vat you feel it earlier with the smell than with the taste. Of course he checks the tasting too but the smell comes first. Speaking of the cap, he says that it falls a bit in the amphora after some time but it depends of the year, in some vintages it stays put without going down and in the amphorae see the same phenomenon together, be it ther going down or the status quo of the cap, it's very mysterious, he thinks it has to do with the vintage and grape quality.
The video on the left is not perfect but I still publish it as is (the memory card was full at one point and some of Jean-Claude's commentary misses, but I translated the whole of the conversation).
Asked about the difference it makes that the amphorae are not interred like they would be in Georgia (you have more temperature inertian under the ground), he says that temperature swings are not a problem, and in summer there is air conditioning in the facility to prevent the spikes of temperature. Historically, he says, the vessels were interred because around the Mediterranean for example the weather was quite hot and it was a way to regulate the temperature but nowadays and under our latitudes the issue is less a problem.
To empty these amphorae, they use buckets and do it by hand, they can almost reach the bottom with the buckets and at the end they use the forklift and tilt the amphora to bring the last grapes/wine out. He uses a small vertical press for these grapes, it makes conveniently exactly the volume of an amphora. Watch this video (better than mine), you can see (starting at min 1:20) the emptying of an amphora and the pressing in the small vertical press. THe juice is recovered in buckets, gorgeous milky color...
The first bottle was acuvée named Marguerite, cuvée MMXIII, from a domaine de l'Ecu formerly known as Guy Bossard's (I understand he sold it), a biodynamic table wine (Ecocert). This is a vivid wine making only 11 % in alcohol with aromas of white flowers and honey, I would say. The label tells that the 22 hectares of the domaine are certified organic, that this natural wine is unfined, unfiltered and without added sulfites, total 1600 bottles for this cuvée. Here is a better picture of the label, the back label and the wine appearance through the bottle glass. Nice refreshing wine with arichness that fills the mouth, also an energy which I credit to the biodynamic farming, I often felt more energy in wines farmed this way, it's mysterious. I understand that this wine is made with Gros PLant, a varietal considered as minor and that you find in the Nantes region (in France it's usually a very acidic wine that often finds its redemption with being drunk as a kir, with blackcurrant liqueur. Jean-Claude says that according to Frédéric Niger Van Herck who runs the domaine along with Guy Bossard, GRos PLant is a very difficult varietal, either it's not ripe or it's rotten. Jean-Claude Lapalu says that one of the wines that impressed him the most lately came from the Domaine de L'Ecu, this was Orthogneiss 2012 (a white), with an exceptional minerality, power and fluidity at the same time, and he adds that it's rare that white wines make him rock, he is more oriented on reds usually.
THen Jean-Claude opened a bottle of Eau Forte 2013, a table wine (Vin de france). He says it is made from vines that have generous volumes of grapes (like 40-45 ho/ha), not low yields, in order to have very little extraction and keep the fluid side and the freshness. The color is relatively light, looks a bit turbid (it's unfiltered). These vines (which are 50) are grafted on a type of rootstock which has not the best reputation, SO4, but he says that when planted on sandy soils that are plowed and tended correctly it gives good results and well under the 120 ho/ha it was designed for.
Little extraction maybe, but nice full mouth, gets down easily, a very suave wine. No sulfites added at any time here too. He made 3500 bottles of this, and it was bottled early april after a short élevage in casks bought from Fred Cossard. He says he knows Cossard for a very long time actually, he also met him through his agent who helped make him discover other vintners. Sells for 17 € tax included (10 € wo tax). Asked where you can find this wine in Paris, he says Septime, and also La Buvette for example, also at the caviste Mi Figue Mi Raisin.
Jean-Claude Lapalu exports 50 % of his wines in a string of countries, he likes to say with a grin that he had to sell wine in Paris first to then sell to New York and Tokyo, and he had to sell in New York and Tokyo to sell his wine in Lyon (which is 40 km from here...). His wines are sold in Japan (Enoconexion), in the United States (Vinergy, formerly it was Jeff Welburn), Australia (Tim Scott), the Philippines, Sweden , Norway, Holland, Belgium (Vinikus and Laurent Melotte), the United Kingdom (Caves de Pyrène).