The wines of the Thillardon family, in Chénas — the smallest of the ten Beaujolais Crus — represent the next generation of natural wine pioneers.
Encouraged by Thierry of Domaine St-Cyr, a fellow winery, Paul-Henri decided to embark upon a winemaking career in his late teens. Not long after, he’d fallen in love with life as a vigneron. He settled in Chénas in 2008, started to make wine from a couple of parcels, and in 2012 he was able to buy a small domaine home to 100-year-old vines on the higher slopes of the cru, which is where his Chassignol cuvée comes from. Always dedicated to organic farming, he also decided to experiment with biodynamics, and was so encouraged by the results that continuing in this manner was simply common sense.
Soon after, he met natural winemakers Jean-Louis Dutraive and Yvon Métras, two of the original natural wine gang, who helped him hone his skills. These days, his wines are some of the most thrilling the region has ever seen, and he is now also turning his hand to growing and making white wine in the southern stretches of the region, on blue marl, from Chardonnay, Chardonnay Rose and Aligoté (and soon to also feature some Savagnin).
He has also been joined by brother Charles and sister Aude. Still young and with great love and ambition for their land and the world of wine at large, we’re still only at the start of the Thillardon book, and we can’t wait to see what the next chapters will bring.
LITTLEWINE visited Paul-Henri Thillardon in October 2022
Paul-Henri Thillardon comes from a family of grape growers, but his family had never bottled their own wine, rather they sold grapes to the local cooperative. It was only while studying wine and spending time with his friend, Raphaël St Cyr, that Raphaël’s father — Thierry — persuaded Paul-Henri to consider the life of a winemaker. Not long after, Paul-Henri had fallen in love with life as a vigneron. He settled in Chénas in 2008, started to make wine from a couple of parcels, and in 2012 he was able to buy a small domaine on the higher slopes of Chénas, which is where his Chassignol cuvée comes from.
Soon after moving to Chénas, he met natural winemakers Jean-Louis Dutraive and Yvon Métras, who live in the neighbouring cru, Fleurie. He says,
“They really took me under their wing, and I’ll always be so grateful to them. I didn’t come from a natural winemaking family; my father had worked conventionally in the local co-op, but they welcomed me. They helped me out during some difficult vintages. They have always been so voluntary and forthcoming with their knowledge, and I’m so glad that we were able to learn how to make wine with them. It will be strange when they retire, for they are my mentors.”
As we stand on the soil of Chassignol, he tells us how wonderful it is to see yet another younger generation begin to work here in Chénas. His enthusiasm for the growth of their community is evident, and it’s clear that in Beaujolais, the success of your colleagues tastes as thrilling as your own personal success. This is true conviviality.
At just 253 hectares, the Chénas cru is very small, and as such is sometimes unfairly overlooked when compared to its larger and more famous neighbours, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie and Juliénas. However, it is also an incredibly diverse growing area, home to multiple soil types. This is what drew Paul-Henri to the area initially, and he celebrates this diversity by producing several single-vineyard blends: Chassignol, Les Carrières and Les Blémonts, as well as producing an overall representative blend of the cru, Les Vibrations, which combines all fruit from all of the soil types. Additionally, he also makes Moulin-à-Vent, and Beaujolais red and white.
The Chénas cru is categorised into two valleys. One side, where the Thillardon Blémonts and Carrières parcels are located, was flooded several millions of years ago. As such, this is home to sedimentary soils. Les Blémonts also contains some clay and manganese, whereas Les Carrières has more silex and silt.
The other side, where you find their cellar and the Chassignol parcel, was never under water. Rather, it was an island of sorts, meaning it’s home to a very old form of granite. This has decomposed over time, resulting in crumbly soil, enabling the vine roots to plunge down through the soil to find water and nutrients. Nevertheless, the soil is very poor (there is less than 3% clay here), so vines are one of the only types of plants that can be cultivated on these slopes. Rocks of quartz and iron are also prevalent, and it is the iron seam that runs through some blocks of quartz which has given these particular soils their name — Roche Lardée (translating literally as ‘lard rock’) — as they look a little like bacon.
Paul-Henri tells us he was fortunate to be able to buy this plot at an affordable price. During that period, people were still hesitant to purchase vineyards that are on slopes as they require much more handwork. For him and his plough horses, however, it is perfect. He works in exactly the same way that people did 100 years ago when the vineyard was first planted, out of both respect and conviction that farming in the old-school way is indeed the best way.
Due to climate change, Beaujolais is becoming more and more affected by drought, but the Thillardons have a particular tool in their toolkit that is a saving grace here: trees. The six hectares of vines on Chassignol are situated right below four hectares of an old forest, which was originally planted solely to oak, and which later has also become home to chestnut and acacia. The presence of these trees greatly contributes to this terroir. Paul-Henri explains,
“The topic of agroforestry is more important than ever before, but we are fortunate to already have such biodiversity in the form of trees right next to the vines. This forest is very important to us. We have had such intense droughts over these past few years, but the forest brings a lot of freshness and cool air.”
Additionally, they have planted 100 fruit trees of rare heritage selections from the association Croqueurs de Pommes. This is an act of preservation, and one that simultaneously enables them to bring yet more biodiversity to their land, while also providing their family with delicious fruit to eat.
Chassignol is home to beautiful centenarian vines. When some of these inevitably surpass their old age and die, the Thillardons replace them with a massal selection from the same vineyard, and they have also replaced a clonal planting on the higher slopes with the same massal selection. It is still very much a waiting game for these young vines, which were planted in 2015 and 2018. Due to the poor soils, recent droughts, and the struggle the young vines must overcome, Paul-Henri says that it takes them around six years before they produce a reliable crop:
“We can’t ask too much of them, they must take their time. We also accept that there will be losses, and that we will replace those that don’t make it.”
In 2014, he also took on a parcel of vines in Moulin-à-Vent. Unfortunately, they had been subject to many years of herbicide abuse, and it has been a long and uphill battle to restore them to health. Only now, after much love and care, and seven years of biodynamic farming, is it truly starting to bounce back.
Working organically has always been crucial for Paul-Henri. When he was learning to make wine, he spent time in Ardèche, where he learnt about organic viticulture, as well as the importance of farming organically for fruit and vegetables. He says,
“I found it really interesting — by conviction, but also because the taste and the quality of the fruit was much better for natural winemaking. So, when the time came for me to farm my own vines, the only way I could envision to do so was organically.”
Next, he began biodynamic trials in 2012, in the Chassignol vineyard, and now farms all of his parcels biodynamically. He says,
“At first, we decided to try working biodynamically out of curiosity. The results were almost immediate. It was incredible. The vines were healthy, everything growing around the vines was healthy, and that simply made us happy. It made us feel good. I really think the presence of the animals; working by horse; has even more of a positive impact. Then, it’s also a personal feeling —working in this paysan manner resonates with us. I’m not dogmatic; it’s not a religion for me. It simply suits us. At the end of the day, I’m pragmatic. We do what we can, we love working with animals. It’s not that biodynamics per se is somehow ‘superior,’ but it’s about looking at everything you are able to do, personally, and how this contributes to your place.”
For Paul-Henri, tending animals is a key part of this belief system. He says,
“At its core, biodynamics is a very rural approach. You need animals on the farm in order to create your own compost, and to have them graze and tread the ground of your vineyards. We have bees, chickens (from la Ferme de la Ruchotte), pigs and cattle. This is very important to also have a positive energy in the wines.”
He is currently trialling cover crops, namely wheat and peas, to protect the soil against erosion, particularly when there are extreme storms in the area. Additionally, the peas bring nitrogen to the soil, and the wheat dries out early in the season, hence it doesn’t compete with the vines. It also acts as a ‘lid’ of sorts on the granitic soils of Chassignol, helping the soils to retain more moisture and stay cooler during periods of drought.
Until recent years, there was also a Thillardon cuvée named Les Boccards — another parcel in Chénas — but this was recently passed on to a young couple, Hugo Foizel & Angela Quiblier, of the Obora domaine. Paul-Henri says,
“It’s great for them to be able to work with vines that have been organically farmed for a long time. It’s important for young people to be able to enjoy those vines, so we decided to pass on the lease to them.”
Meanwhile, 45km south from Chassignol, the pierres dorées southerly section of the Beaujolais region — where the Thillardon family is originally from — has now become home to their white vineyard. It is planted to a massal selection of Chardonnay, Chardonnay Rose (a pink mutation of Chardonnay) and Aligoté, which Paul-Henri has sourced himself via cuttings from Sylvain Pataille in Marsannay, as well as Chardonnay from several other vineyards in Burgundy, Beaujolais and the Savoie. Next year, he will also be adding Chardonnay Rose from Stéphane Tissot to the mix, as well as Savagnin from Emmanuel Houillon, both of whom are growers in the Jura.
The land on which this young vineyard is planted has been in his family for a long time, and he believes it is a very exciting terroir for white wine. He explains,
“Nobody has ever made wine from that plot on its own. The grapes went to the co-op in the past, so the terroir is a new discovery for us! When we were preparing the soils, we found these incredible blue lines running through the vineyard. At first, I thought they were those underground blue drainage pipes, but it turns out it’s actually blue marl — like the soils you find in the Jura!”
It represents not only the important propagation of ancient genetic material, shared amongst likeminded vignerons, but also a thrilling new chapter for this young domaine.
During his first few years of making wine, Paul-Henri worked predominantly with destemmed Gamay. However, after having been mentored by Dutraive and Métras, both of are renowned for their work with carbonic maceration, he decided to work with whole bunches. In 2013, he produced half of his production in this way, by 2014 he worked 100% with whole bunches, and by 2015, he had also begun working with chilled grapes. The latter, he explains, is key to his style:
“We chill the grapes down to five degrees in a refrigerated container for one day. Then, they go into concrete tanks, where they slowly begin to warm up, so fermentation begins. For the first couple of days, I use carbon dioxide to prevent too much oxygen from entering the tanks, to encourage intracellular fermentation, but after that I rely on the CO2 that is produced naturally from fermentation.”
The maceration period lasts for around 20-25 days, and during this period, Paul-Henri tries to not intervene at all: no pigeage and no pumpovers. This is crucial to ensure that he has the most delicate extraction possible, and the silkiest tannins. He works without sulfites, which can be a risky way to make wine (especially in the ever-increasing warmer vintages when pH levels are higher), so he relies heavily on his nose. He smells the tanks consistently to ensure nothing is going awry, and if he is unsure, he will do microscope analysis to assess the types of yeast and bacteria that are growing in the ferment. However, the risk is wholly worth it. He tells us,
“Working with natural fermentations and without sulfites mean that we have many families of yeast that contribute to the fermentation, and that is what contributes to the overall complexity of the wines.”
He is not dogmatic, however, and if he is concerned about one particular fermentation, he will add a small amount of sulfites, but this tends to only be around 15mg/L.
In 2018, he was able to make a purchase that he feels has been a gamechanger: a beautiful old vertical press, made in Lyon in 1927. He explains,
“I would often taste with Yvon Métras, and the wines just blew me away. I’d always say, but how? And he pointed to his press, which is like the one I bought, and said, it’s down to this. It has made a big difference to the quality of my wines. It creates a very clear juice, which has such purity of fruit. It makes the wines much finer, as it gives you finer lees.”
After being pressed, the wines then go to barrels or to epoxy-lined tanks, where they remain usually until May. All of his wines are generally treated in the same way; whether from Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, or his ‘Raisin Libre’, which comes from plots of Beaujolais-designated vineyards. The latter usually contains 50% fruit from the south of the region and 50% from the north. In 2021, however, it only comes from the north as he lost most of the southern fruit to frost and mildew. Despite losses throughout the region that year, Paul-Henri remains positive, as he is particularly fond of the vintage:
“2021 was much cooler, and the wines are around 11-11.5%. Our last chilly vintage like that was 2016, and before that 2013. 2018 was hot, then 2019 was even hotter, then 2020 hotter again, and 2022 the hottest! It is easier to work without sulfites in cooler years, as we have lower pH levels. For example, in 2021, we were around 3.3pH, whereas in 2022 we were closer to 3.4pH and 3.5pH. But having worked organically for a long time, and having the forest in close proximity, means we are okay — even in hot years. The key is to pick at the perfect maturity. Then by cooling the grapes down, we’re able to keep the essence of the bright fruit.”
While circa nine months is a sufficient period of time for maturing the red wines in barrel or tank, it’s a different story for the white wine. Where possible, he wishes to age whites for two years, or longer. He says,
“The key for white wine is elevage. We must be very focused on that. At first, the wine is aromatic. But then after a longer period of time on the lees, namely during that second year, it reveals more of that salinity and minerality we love. Plus, I also think the sense of terroir is heightened.”
The white Thillardon cuvée, George, is named after Paul-Henri’s grandfather, who had worked in the textiles industry in St-Etienne. At the same time, he had continued to tend the family vineyards, which had belonged to his own grandfather. This striking white wine is a fitting homage to those who tended the land before the current generation.
Another white wine in the cellar was made in 2018 (which at the time of writing in October 2022, makes it already four years old). Made from grapes purchased from friends, it is now undergoing an oxidative style of ageing. We ask him when he plans to bottle it, and he shrugs, saying, “not for another three years at least.”
Working in this way requires much patience. Whether it’s a long battle helping the Moulin-à-Vent plot to regain health, or waiting for the white wines to tell him when they’re ready, this is the true biodynamic way. Paul-Henri strives to work at one with nature; whether when working in the vineyards, tending to the animals, or making decisions in the cellar. In the same way that neither nature nor animals can be rushed, nor can naturally-made wine.