"By working with natural yeasts, your vineyards - even if they're just 500m away from each other - will create wines with totally different tastes."
- who is known as P'tit Max - is a winemaker who admits he didn’t even really like wine until he met a special couple of people in the early 80s. These people, Jules Chauvet and Marcel Lapierre, would become his mentors and close friends. As their friendship circle of winemakers grew, it's no exaggeration to say that they triggered an entire movement of what has become known as natural wine, or vin natur.
Today, Guy Breton is considered one of The Greats in wine circles. But when you meet him, you realise that he is the antithesis of anything pretentious. With a big smile that reaches to his eyes, he’ll happily sit, chat and philosophise with you. If you’re lucky, he might even pull out an old vintage...
Header photograph by Aaron Ayscough
LITTLEWINE sat down with P'tit Max on his visit to London last year:
Meet 'P'tit Max'
Beaujolais is found just down the road from Burgundy’s Côte d’Or - the heartland of Grands Crus, fine wine and Pinot Noir. Here, however, in P'tit Max’s cellar, in Morgon, one of the Beaujolais Crus, there isn’t a smidgen of Pinot to be found. This is where Pinot Noir’s child reigns: Gamay. Today, Beaujolais is celebrated globally for its vibrant, juicy Gamay wines, and it is listed everywhere from Michelin-starred fine dining restaurants to trendy underground bars.
For a while, particularly in the 70s and 80s, the future wasn’t so bright for this region. A collision occurred between the growth of chemical farming and the consumer demand for cheaply produced Beaujolais Nouveau.
Nouveau is a style of very young wine originally produced solely for local consumption to celebrate the recent vintage, released only a few months after harvest. Today, some producers thankfully still create Nouveau with a nod to its celebratory heritage, created naturally, such as the Guy Breton sought-after cuvée, Fanchon, named after his second daughter.
Aside from these loyal artisanal cuvées, however, what was once a local and fun party beverage of sorts, was used as a marketing campaign for the region in the 70s. This resulted in millions of chemically produced Nouveau wines per year, ultimately debasing the region’s reputation.
This meant that the vineyards of the region were on a slippery slope...
… Until a group of local winemakers, including Guy, met a certain wine merchant and biochemist, Jules Chauvet:
Chauvet & Lapierre
They left behind a legacy that continues through the wines of Guy and many colleagues such as Jean Foillard and Yvon Métras. What’s more, there’s a new younger generation rising through the Beaujolais ranks, mentored by Guy and friends. It’s as if a Phoenix has risen from the ashes of Beaujolais Nouveau, and now that Phoenix has bred. This is one of the key features of the region: the conviviality, and a sense of deep community. If you head to L’Atelier du Cuisinier in Villié-Morgon, a local restaurant and bar, it’s likely that the person sitting next to you at the bar is a winemaker. In fact, if you poke your head around the corner into the garden, you’re likely to find an entire group of winemakers. Laughter resounds in the room and bounces off the walls. These are the bons vivants of the wine world: there isn’t a whiff of supremacy or arrogance.
This community of winemakers, whose cuvées line the blackboard walls in chalk, are united by a joint vision of organic farming. Around 5% of producers in Beaujolais are now certified organic; still a small number, but one that is growing.
Farming organically was one of the fundamental necessities outlined by Jules Chauvet, primarily to improve the quality of soil health. Soil health is intrinsically linked to microbiotic activity: the healthier the soil, the more diverse the microbiological life. Thus, Guy converted his family’s vineyards in Morgon’s parcel ‘Les Charmes,’ in Regnie’s parcels 'La Ronze' and 'St Joseph' (not to be confused with the St Joseph of the Northern Rhone), and a section of Beaujolais-Villages (just 500m from his Morgon) to organic farming in the 80s. He explains,
“It took four to five years of working organically to find an increase in yeasts under the microscope. There were yeasts already, of course, but we saw an increase in the variety of yeast families with time.”
Hear more about the conversion to organics and his vineyards:
Sitting in his garden with him in the middle of summer, eating some saucisson that he bought from the local butcher, P'tit Max excuses himself from the table and disappears for a few moments. On his return, he has an unlabelled bottle with him. He pulls the cork out and wipes the dust off with his sleeve, and pours us a glass.
It is magical. It tastes suspended in time somehow: frozen. We know from its slightly bronze colour that it's an older wine, but it doesn’t taste old at all. It tastes youthful and exuberant: both fruity and mineral, not unlike having a fresh cherry in your mouth and sucking on the stone once you’ve eaten the flesh. It’s also spicy; as if the cherry had been sprinkled with white pepper. Often older wines don’t hold onto their fruit for long, instead turning to woody aromas of undergrowth, but here, the wine baffles us as the fruit shines, seemingly to evaporate from the glass, directly into our noses. Guy smiles, and prods;
“Well… what do you think it is?”
We look at each other, baffled, and hazard a guess at 2004 Morgon. He seems pleased, and shrugs, beckoning at us to guess again. We scratch our heads and return with “1996.” He shrugs again.
“It is 1989. It was the first vintage that I exported.”
We are completely dumbfounded; at a loss for words. The wine in the glass goes against everything you’re taught in wine school - it is fresh as a daisy and tastes as if it has been bottled yesterday. We wonder whether winemaking techniques might play a role. We ask Guy. He says simply;
“Gamay without acidity is rubbish.”
We laugh in unison, but he explains in a serious tone that he feels the carbonic maceration technique allows for the acidity to express itself more, which would also explain how the wines come to be more ageworthy. He adds,
“Working with the closed tanks and carbon dioxide, like we do with carbonic maceration, means that we’re able to preserve many of the wines’ aromas…”
Listen to him explain about his winemaking style in depth:
P'tit Max: Winemaking
This method never differs for his Cru wines. The wines undergo the same vinification method, and are all aged in old wooden barrels - some of which even come from the one-and-only Domaine de la Romanée-Conti; one of the most revered wineries in the world. For him, the winemaking technique must always remain the same: this is paramount so that he can best express the unique intricacies of each terroir.
In addition to working with his own vineyards, he also buys fruit from grower friends. As his own vines are on average very old, this means the yield is much lower than average. However, they are living pieces of vinous history, of which Guy is very proud, and they create powerful, ethereal wines that he argues only come from vines with age. Despite this, working with such low yields is not always the most financially viable option. In addition, if Mother Nature wreaks havoc with frost and hail one year, as she tends to do frequently in the region, it means Guy could be left with nothing. As such, he also buys fruit from farmer friends, in Chiroubles, Côte-de-Brouilly and Fleurie. He says,
“Buying grapes is the solution when growers lose their crop to things like hail. Some parts of Fleurie were hit by hail three years in a row - it’s complicated, to say the least. If a young winemaker is just starting up, well… you have to be strong. If you look out into your vineyards and all you see is icy hailstones, and you’ve lost everything, it’s heartbreaking.”
On a lighter note, however, working with purchased fruit means that Guy can experiment with vineyards and soil types that he has not worked with before. For a man who is on the neverending quest of discovering terroir, opportunities like these are like being a kid in a sweetshop. You see this in his eyes when he talks about his latest project:
“I made a Fleurie for the first time in 2019! I bought some beautiful grapes.”
He finishes the sentence with,
“I think it will make a pretty cool wine.”
These words portray Guy in just a couple of sentences: an ever-humble man, who believes that great wine is made from great fruit; fruit that must be farmed with care for the land, without chemicals.
We say, Santé P'tit Max.
Hear P'tit Max speak about his wines himself:
Guy Breton Cuvées
Want to taste the wines of P'tit Max - the very wines that have helped to build Beaujolais its reputation today? Want to taste the difference in terroirs of the hillsides of Chiroubles, or the schist of Morgon?