“I say thank you for this life every day. Even when things are constantly changing, I’ve always been saved by the bell at the last possible moment.”
Julie Balagny might have become a celebrity in the wine world — but she remains one of the most humble, generous and thoughtful winemakers.
Having left her native Paris in 1999 to take a job as a winemaker in the South of France, Julie arrived in Beaujolais ten years later and, cliché as it may be, the rest really was history. It’s not too often that two esteemed winemakers in the world (Yvon Métras and Jean-Francois Ganevat) call you and say,
“Hey Julie. There’s a spot in Fleurie with some available parcels. You in?”
We think you know the answer to that question already.
Meet Julie Balagny
When we meet Julie, she’s at her home in Romanèche-Thorins – a modest farmhouse tucked away behind arching farm doors, deep in the Beaujolais countryside. Her canine companion chats away as Julie recounts her beginnings. It appears to us quite quickly that Julie’s air of mystery is more so a quiet confidence; a sense of ease with her work which slips through quietly in her words. Every now and then she pauses, sips her wine, and takes a second to reflect on what she is about to say. There’s no rush here–no sense of having to be somewhere soon, even though she's in the middle of harvest. This is life, and she decides her pace.
Like many of the greats, Julie’s beginnings were not in wine. Having studied psychomotricity (teaching motor skills to the handicapped), her career took a swift U-turn in 1999 when she left Paris and settled in Perpignan. During her five years there she fell down the rabbit hole of wine and decided to start a certification (BTS), specialising in biodynamics and sensitive crystallisation.
“I did an apprenticeship, and I had the choice between being in Beaune, Orange, or Cahors. I chose Cahors. Beaune was a little too bourgeois, a little too ‘snob’... coming from Paris I really wanted to get away from that; I had a real need to be in the countryside.”
Whilst studying for her BTS, Julie worked at a large-scale conventional winery spanning 40 hectares. It wasn’t low intervention winemaking by any means, but it was an experience which helped to shape Julie’s understanding of every step of the process. Her passion didn’t go unnoticed – she became head of the cellar not too long after starting.
“It was good in a scholarly sense – understanding how a conventional winery works. It was also something of a learning curve that you can’t always pick and choose what you want to do or like the most. And then of course, at college I hadn’t learnt how to deal with mildew, but in practice…”
After a stint in Perpignan, Julie relocated to Nîmes. There, she spent five years working in a biodynamic vineyard in Bellegarde called Domaine Terre des Chardons. Working with biodynamic techniques was always something that she had dreamed of.
“Back in the day we didn’t have the internet. There were very few people working in biodynamics and very little information. All that really existed were shops selling organic produce. When I left Cahors, I had a small farm in Perpignan which had been biodynamic for 20 years. To that day, I’ve never eaten fruit and vegetables like that in my life.”
2004 was a lucky year for Julie - one she won’t forget in a while. She met Marcel Lapierre and Yvon Métras at Lapierre's yearly Méchoui, two of the first winemakers to jump head first into natural winemaking, and shining lights within their communities (Marcel has since sadly passed away).
“They both had a longstanding relationship with Gamay and with Beaujolais, of course. Despite the lure, I continued my post at Terre des Chardons because I had lots of responsibilities there and felt I should see it through. I was working on the commercial side of the business, advising on the vinification process... as well as pruning the vines.”
Year after year, Julie attended the Méchoui. Four whole pigs, 600 people, and 10 hectolitres of wine later... Well. In 2008, she met Jura winemaker Jean-François Ganevat together with Yvon. He mentioned to Julie that he had heard of some available parcels in both Beaujolais and Jura that she should consider taking on. She would be warmly welcomed in both regions.
“Jean-Francois invited me to Jura to visit the parcel (which later became Domaine de Miroirs, tended by Kenjiro Kagami). I got there, took a look and thought ‘no, this is crazy, I don’t have the experience to take on something requiring this much work. It was completely derelict; abandoned.”
“But on the same trip I visited another parcel, Fleurie. It was situated in the woods and when I was there I couldn’t contain myself. I was so giddy: ‘oh my gosh, it’s in the woods… there are vines… there are butterflies. It’s superb.’ I didn't think 'oh,' it's planted at 10,000 density, or 'oh' those slopes will be hard to work, or 'oh' that's very rocky. I just really saw the future.”
Today, Julie lives between Fleurie and Moulin-à-Vent, farming just under five hectares of vines across both spots. They are tended organically with all vineyard work is carried out by hand due the steepness of the hills.
Her Fleurie vines overlook Domaine de la Madone, and her Moulin vines are on the other side in the north.
Her Moulin parcel sits on granite and quartz soils, unusual for the Cru where the soils are often manganese dominant. It also has a cooler mesoclimate, meaning her Moulin wine is often nearer to 12/12.5%, whereas her Fleurie can reach 14%.
“Friends who live elsewhere, and who also make Moulin-à-Vent, call it ‘black magic’. Stick with Fleurie, they say, stop making Moulin…"
Black magic feels like an ironically fitting description for her mystical, untouched terroir, situated amongst the woods with a trickling river.
Although Julie gave up her Demeter certification in 2015, it’s something she’s hoping to return to in the future.
“I gave up my certification because they asked me to start buying organic rhubarb root and buckthorn. I buy my buckthorn from a local supplier who sells foraged produce, so it's wild and therefore not possible to certify. As a result I was asked to instead buy from someone further but whose produce was certified. For me, it’s definitely better that it’s local. I've had a lot of instances like that happen.”
Animals have always been an integral part of Julie’s vision for her winery. She tells us;
“I’ve had my cow since the start, I have sheep, I have a donkey, chickens… It’s really important for me to re-introduce this kind of agriculture into winemaking today.”
“In 2010 I bought sheep and put them near the parcels. There’s a TV programme in France called ‘30 million friends’. It’s about people who rescue abandoned animals. I stopped by the centre and found my 4 sheep. Everyone mocked me at first, but now there are lots of people who have sheep in their vineyards.”
They’re as integral to her ecosystem as the grapes (well, until they try to consume them…)
“When the vines start to come through we let them out; until the grapes start to change colour. When they start to change colour you really have to barricade them because they love to eat them... all of them.”
The process of single-handedly converting an old, untouched winery hasn’t been easy, and it’s been crucial to Julie that she is able to be self-sufficient or at the very least, source locally.
“In order to return to biodynamic farming my objective was to be able to use my cows to make my own horn manure. I had a lot to learn before commencing - the terroir, the soil, the land… how does that all work; the insects, the flowers. All of this needed looking at in order to understand it. Today, I’m really interested in herbal concoctions to help keep the vines healthy and to protect them against disease/ rot, etc.”
"I use herbs; stinging nettle, yarrow… – they’re all things which I can gather myself, pick myself, as they grow here naturally.”
2019 was a tough year for the domaine. Julie explains to us that she resisted ‘both mentally and intellectually’. Despite being a good year for yield (2018 in comparison had seen little rainfall), she discovered that her Fleurie hadn't been accepted by the Fleurie tasting panel, meaning it had to lose its appellation to become vin de France. She explains,
“They found the cuvée to be a little too ‘wild’. But that’s the terroir – the nature of this parcel. It is wild. When you visit you can smell the aromas of leather, tobacco. It’s like nothing else.”
Like a mother, Julie’s approach to her vines is somewhat maternal. If her wine doesn’t suit the tasting panel, she's on the wine's side. Always. For Julie, fitting the mould doesn't always mean success.
Previously, like refusing to source rhubarb from further afield, Julie's approach to négoce wines (buying grapes farmed elsewhere) has much been in the same vein. However, in recent years, the idea of supporting other local growers converting to organics and biodynamics has been enough to make her waver. If she can support them also, it's a win for the region. As such, her Minouche Beaujolais Villages cuvée was born:
"I had resisted the idea of négoce fruit, but then I met people who wanted to form a long-term partnership. This way, I can introduce an entry-level cuvée, which is important — I don't want to be elitist, and I want to help other growers, too."
In her cellar, you'll find big traditional cement tanks where the whole bunches of Gamay remain for three weeks or more. She uses CO2 gas to ensure the grapes remain without oxygen. She says,
"Some people say that using carbon dioxide is an addition, but... I'd much rather use that than end up with acetic acid bacteria problems, and then have to correct the wine."
She leaves the juice which forms from the weight of the bunches at the bottom of the vats; "to give more energy to the yeasts, so they don't suffer too much" she explains. The grapes are then pressed in her ancient vertical press, and then the juice is moved to the barrel cellar where it finishes fermenting naturally. She explains that as they continue fermenting in barrel, the CO2 released by the fermentation process prevents the unsulphured wines from developing brettanomyces (a yeast that can cause off-tastes and aromas). All the wines are bottled unfined, unfiltered and without added sulphites.
Julie makes three cuvées; Fleurie 'En Rémont,' which is her parcel bordering the forest, sitting on granite and quartz. Some vines are 90 years old. She says it's always a little wilder, and we ponder whether that could be due to the microorganisms from the forest playing a role in the vineyard, too. Her 'Cayenne,' meanwhile, sits on granite and basalt, from 35-year-old vines.
She also used to make Simone, which was a cuvée solely from her old vines, but for now they're blended into the other wines, as their age means it's not every year she's able to get much fruit from them.
Her Moulin-à-Vent (planted in 1913!) and Beaujolais plots joined the stable in 2015. She says,
"I've been very lucky in my life. I say thank you to life every day, I've been saved by the bell at the last minute. Luckily I found those vines in 2015, as my Fleurie didn't finish fermenting until July! My Moulin and Beaujolais let me continue financially that year. Plus, it's great to be able to explore another Cru."
Julie's wines are a revolution in themselves. But the mark that she hopes to make isn't ego-driven at all;
"As I mentioned earlier, the real evolution I hope to achieve will come from working with livestock and the woods. If there were to be an expansion, I'd rather do it to help a young vigneron get started. There would be room to assist each other, to share tools, know-how and manual labor. Other than that..."
She smiles, shrugs, and pours some more wine. This is about Beaujolais, not about Julie. While drinking a selection of organic beers and chatting with the picking crew, who have come from all over Europe, it's clear this is about spreading the love: of wines, of agriculture, and of people.