Yvon Métras has roots (several-generations deep) in the Beaujolais wine farms and he began to vinify his first wines in the family domaine in 1988 but in the early years he was mostly selling his grapes to the coopérative. Influenced by Marcel Lapierre, Yvon Métras changed his winemaking/growing practices and joined the vibrant group of natural winemakers who were only 4 at the time. Unaware to the wine world, the History was on its way... Jules Chauvet had delivered them (before dying in 1989) the research and knowledge that he had accumulated over the years. This man who was at the same time a scientist, a demanding taster and a winemaker (and a négociant), finetuned his technique that permitted to make wines without the modern corrections, without the lab yeast, the chaptalization, the filtration, and foremost without added sulfites, somehow returning to the wines that were made centuries ago, but with a more scientific precision and understanding of all the winemaking processes, when in the past the empirical approach transmitted by the elders brought random results of uneven quality.
The wines of Yvon Métras are not always easy to get, especially abroad where the demand is bigger than the alloted volumes of the importers, you must remember that his vineyard surface is particularly modest, it's 5 or 6 hectares.
When I reached the facility of Yvon Métras, which is not easy to locate for an outsider, there was a cluster of cars and vans parked outside, obviously the pickers were having their lunch there (it was around 1:30pm). I parked the motorbike, shooting first this picture of a car with socks and shoes drying under the generous sun of this mid-september afternoon (there had been rain the previous day and I guess the grass was pretty soaked), and Yvon Métras who had heard beyond the lunch noise this lone vehicule stopping by walked out of the building to see what was going on.
The only time i visited this place was a few years ago, this was a bit later in the season (october) and there was Julie Balagny in there in the facility who was taking care of a carbonic maceration, Julie is a young woman originally from Paris who settled in the area and whose wines quickly captured the attention of demanding amateurs, she and Yvon are friends and I shot this nice picture of them standing together then. This short visit was already an arousing appetizer asking for a longer visit, but Yvon Métras is not easy to reach and I relied on a friend with good connections to ask him if I could drop there.
The facility is located a kilometer or two from the village of Fleurie, and you have a direct view over La Madone, this church built at the top od a hill surrounded with these beautiful terroirs on steep slopes. I shot this picture from near the facility and even from afar, you can see that most growers don't work like Yvon Métras, many of these parcels seem to have a soil cleaned bare by herbicides. If Yvon Métras wines stand out that's in large part because he takes cares of his vines and soil, using a cable-powered plow to get rid of the grass, not chemicals, and on these steep terroir this is not an easy job.
I stumbled on this page from a website devoted to vintage tractors and where You can see the picture of Mr Patissier, the man who was heading this company years ago. The tractor on the picture is the same model (Energic), just a bit older (1950). If private amateurs often restore these tractors for the fun of it, these machines are still perfectly fit for what they were designed for, and many growers still use them.
Yvon Métras says that this machine is perfectly adapted to an artisan work, it's even better than a horse he says because it's doing less damage on the ground, weighing 800 kilogram, maybe even less he says. Asked if you need to be handyman to use this sort of old machine, he says that it's a mechanically-simple machine that you learn quickly to take care of (like the Citroën 2CV is universally know for too). The sprayer in the back of the straddle tractor is also 40 years old, and he says it is also more adapted to artisanal work than the sprayers manufactures sell today.
His son who is 23 is going to make his first cuvée in 2014 from his own one-hectare surface. He was abroad last year, he went to New Zealand and Chile to have other experiences. He does also the cable plowing on the other 5 hectares, a very physical work (you need 2 people for the cable plows, sometimes 3). There are three people in total to do the hard work : His son, himself and a permanent worker. This year they had to pass up to 6 times with the cable plow due to the rain and strong return of the grass. In 10 to 12 years from now things will be better on the domaine because the planned replantations will be mature, they'll be done in a way to facilitate the plow work, and the tools have improved a bit lately, making it easier when his son will be fully in charge.
Nobody works this way anymore nowadays, Yvon Métras says, 50 years everybody was using these cable plows or a tractor but now people don't [check the pictures at mid-scroll on this page to see how bare the ground is on most conventional vineyards in the Beaujolais because of heavy use of herbicide, if not for the vines you'd think this was shot on the moon or Mars].
Asked about this vintage, the weather this year, Yvon Métras says that the vintage seem fine except that the fruit volume still lags compared to what it should be, even if this year they're a bit better than the immediate previous years. Speaking of the rainy weather, it was really a catastrophe, forcing them to use the plows and cable plows much more than usual, anyway these are 3 years in a row with lots of grass and water to manage, they had to plow with the cable 5 or 6 times on certain parcels. He says that this is a lot of work for two guys even if they are 23 years old like his son and his permanent staff, it's almost a non-stop work. He says if this weather trend (lots of rain with mild temperature and moist) becomes the norm it may be over for this type of artisanal vineyard farming, the chemical farming might be the only one to remain.
Speaking of the total surface of the domaine, Yvon Métras says it's 6 hectares if you count the hectare of his son who is setting up his own structure. Not long ago the total surface was 7 but they uprooted one hectare, actually since 2012 they uprooted many small parcels, here and also 0,5 ha at La Madone, they also uprooted in Moulin-à-Vent, mostly the very old parcels alas.
The wine is voluptuous, gourmand, with a vibrant mouth of ripe fruits. I'm sorry I didn't take time to analyze more and take notes, especially that I don't get the priviledge to drink Yvon Métras' wines often.
Yvon Métras walked us all at the bottom of the chai and opened the door of what looked like a refrigerated trailer without its wheels, this was a custom cooling room and a couple dozens oval buckets were stacked in there to cool off. It smelled beautifully in there, Yvon said that the grapes on the left with tiny grapes and yellow stems were the old vines of La Madonne, adding it's hard to find better fruit. The ones on the right are from the old vines of Grille Midi, the ones near the facility. Grille Midi sort of means "roasts at noon" in French, hinting at a terroir particularly hot in summer. He says all these grapes are the best fruit they'll have this year probably (the harvest was not over when this visit took place). His visiting colleagues agree, marveling at the perfect quality of these grapes. THe only thing, Yvon Métras says, is that since 2012 the yields are really low, like one or two clusters per vine.
The conversation drifts to the heavy rains that fell on the Hérault département in the last days before that visit took place [it rained more after that] with volumes of 330 mm of water in the course of 24 hours. Rain is indeed a touchy issue for growers and vignerons, and even when in another region, they feel the pain. The day before 15 mm of rain fell over this area of Beaujolais, this is a lot too especiially during the harvest, and it can be damaging for the quality of grapes where the yields were already relatively high.
He says that the worst that can happen is probably when hailstorm comes the day before the harvest. They speak about a particular day long time ago near Villié Morgon in 1966 (Jean-Paul Thevenet was 10 years old), when they saw the vines bare like in winter, everything had been mashed by the hail, even the wood was damaged and the authorities had to use bulldozers to push back the ice along the roads. Yvon Métras says that compared with such a catastrophe today's difficulties are moderate, speaking of hail, they lost some fruit last may in Vauxrenard, making 15 ho/ha instead of 25 ho/ha, and hail in may is less a problem than at the harvest, the vines somehow healed and they still have fruit.
The parcel was in a steep valley underneath La Madone, this church standing atop the hill near Fleurie like a lighthouse. I memorized the way from the chai, which was itself reachable through a convoluted route, I had to go back all the way down toward the village, then in Fleurie turn left and left again, then after a distance turn right if I remember until I reached a group of trees on the road running underneath the chapel. I parked my motorbike on the side, there were teams of pickers here and there on the slopes, this was really noon time for the harvest with groups busy in clusters here and there throughout the landscape, but I had been told that there would be 4 people only, including the daughter of Yvon by the way (whom I wouldn't recognize anyway), and only one team of pickers had this few people, so it made the job easier for me to spot them. I had to be sure because from this road, the only way to reach them was to go down a couple hundred meters along the steep slope between the rows, and the way back was certainly a breathless climb across a sometimes-messy parcel (I'd almost praise the herbicide-soaked parcels for their hiker-friendly soil...).
What helped me be sure they were the right team was the fact they used the same large oval buckets (Yvon Métras calls them bennes) to gather the grapes picked in the black buckets, the same I saw at the facility in the cooling room. They look very much like old intermediary buckets or baskets that were used in the early 20th century and that were called bénatons or also comportes (see certain pictures on this page), same oblong and oval shape and a system at both ends to have it lifted by two people.
After hurtling down the slope across large patches of weeds, I reached them at last.
The setting was very beautiful a peaceful valley with a dirt road near the bottom. They were finishing the last rows, I think the whole parcel was going up all the way to the paved road but the upper part seemed to have been picked already. Because it's so teep, and because there's no trellising, it's easier to pick the vineyard without following necessarily the rows up and down.
When I climbed the slope back to the motorbike, I stopped to see how this earth from close and grabbed some, it was so soft under the shoes, and in the hand it crubled gently.
This is the traditional hand picking of Beaujolais, and while you can see it done by many domaines including conventional because it's supposed to be compulsory in the region, Yvon métras told me that the appellation system allows certain exemptions : the harvesting machine is normally forbidden in the crus Beaujolais (the upper appellations) but you can ask for an exemption (dérogation... which is systematically granted, which means that while on paper it's still forbidden, on the ground it's allowed, he says it's been 4 years harvesting machines have appeared here. It's like the therovinification, it's supposed not to be authorized, there's a nuance on the appellation texts : it's tolerated...
The guys with the back-baskets bring the grapes to the gondola where they're sorted by two people. there's also one of these strange vintage vehicules typical of the Beaujolais region parked in the background (the orange one), probably some sort of multi-task pickup.