Working organically is a moral decision that we make to guarantee the future of this ecosystem
is a winemaker who looks no different from you or me. He's the kind of guy you'd like to sit down and have a beer with, to get to know him. That's exactly what we do when we arrive at his home, except instead of a beer, we're drinking something closer to home: Gamay.
We sit chatting and drinking his Ygueule cuvée, looking out as far as the eye can see across the rolling hills of Beaujolais. There's not a cloud in the sky, and a bee buzzes around us; it has also taken a fancy to the wine. We have no idea that this bee is a microcosm of the insect community we'll encounter later, and that in a couple of days' time, a hailstorm will rear its ugly head and threaten the 2019 vintage.
Meet the Cottons
Pierre takes us to the cellar, climbing up a ladder so he can reach the top of one of his giant 100-year-old foudres, to pull out wine samples for us to try. He nimbly whizzes up the ladder, from foudre to foudre, leaning rather precariously on them to reach the bungholes.
We look around and notice that there are chalk doodles everywhere, including a huge sign that reads,
"Last Night a Gamay Saved My Life".
We laugh, automatically humming back to the tune of "With a Song". It’s almost like we can hear Indeep themselves resounding within these walls. He pours us a sample of his Beaujolais. 80s Disco and wine so immensely drinkable that you could drink the whole bottle in one sitting? Yeah, this dude knows what’s up.
He takes us to the vineyard that sits next to his cellar, pointing to the blue rocks scattered everywhere, explaining that this is an old volcanic rock called diorite that was deposited millions of years ago, and is the predominant soil type on the Côte-de-Brouilly. This is what he believes makes these wines so unique. We walk down the slope to a neighbouring vineyard, where we start to notice some pink rocks - these are granite, and appear at the bottom of the slope where the Côte-de-Brouilly begins to rub shoulder-to-shoulder with the Brouilly appellation. Later that afternoon, we go with him to see his Chardonnay vineyard, where the soil is bright yellow: limestone. Never has the notion of terroir been so apparent to us; it seems as if the soil is speaking to us, proud of how different it is to its neighbours.
We open his Brouilly and Côte-de-Brouilly. They are beacons of terroir; wines with the same soul, but entirely different personalities. They might be gluggable, but that doesn't make them any less serious.
Sitting on the border of the vineyard and a wild meadow, we take a pause to enjoy the wine in front of us. It's late afternoon in June and the sun's effect has just started to wane. Suddenly, we become acutely aware of a loud humming noise. It's a noise that's not coming from just one insect; instead it's a noise that reverberates through the air. It's as if we can feel it penetrate our skin. We start to notice the life at our ankles. The insect life is omnipresent, we'd just been too busy to see it.
Pierre watches us point out all of the bugs, slightly amused. He smiles, and comments;
"Yes... Us human beings, we're so fortunate to be able to work in this natural ecosystem. That's why we don't use any chemicals - we don't want to pollute the vines. We want our wines to reflect the nature that they come from..."
Motorbikes or Wine?
Pierre grew up here on the Côte-de-Brouilly, but he didn't initially fancy getting into wine.
"I loved motorbikes as a kid and as a teenager. That’s why I worked as a mechanic in my early 20s, but I suppose I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life at that age. Who does?"
After a couple of years, Pierre realised that actually he preferred being outdoors to being inside a garage. At this stage he started to realise there was something that intrigued him about wine, so he went to Loire to study at a winemaking school for two years. There, he worked for Yves Guegniard as an intern, where he remembers learning the importance of natural fermentation.
However, it wasn't until he returned to Beaujolais and became buddies with Jules Métras, son of Yvon, that first encountered the wines made by the disciples of Jules Chauvet. He laughs,
"Of course I'd heard of them - Marcel Lapierre and gang - but honestly, when I was a teen I was drinking more whisky & coke than Gamay..."
The Cotton Gang
When he came back in 2014, he surprised his parents by telling them that he'd like to take over the family domaine on the hillside of Côte-de-Brouilly.
Despite the fact that Pierre’s family has lived here since the 1800s, even when you fast-forward to 2014, his parents didn't own the estate; they leased it. Their ancestors before them - the great-great grandparents of Evelyne, Pierre’s mother, were sharecroppers, meaning they farmed the land and produced the wine for the owners. In return, they were allowed to produce some of their own wine.
Evelyne and Guy, Pierre’s father, were able to pull together their life savings and buy the domaine. This allowed Pierre's parents to retire, while keeping a footstep on the path of their family's winemaking history. Young Pierre produced his first vintage in 2014 with the guidance of his father, and today manages all ten hectares on his own with his viticultural team.
Terroir is the key to these wines; Gamay is the only red grape variety permitted in the Beaujolais. With no other variables (apart from a small ageing time difference between the Beaujolais and the cru wines), Pierre's wines are able to speak distinctly of their soil types.
Despite only being a few kilometres from one another, the soils vary immensely from parcel to parcel. From the aforementioned blue diorite stones of the Côte-de-Brouilly, to the pink granite of Brouilly, to a mix of the two, which Pierre names "corne verte," which Pierre believes is unique to one his vineyards that straddles the Côte-de-Brouilly & Brouilly crus. He also has some Gamay in the generic Beaujolais appellation which he bottles separately as the single vineyard "Le Pré," as it has its roots in sand. This is less common in the region, so Pierre decided to create a new cuvée for it in order to try and figure out what impact the sand has on the final wine.
He believes strongly that it is his duty to preserve vineyards and the soil for future generations, so he plants young trees whenever he plants a baby plantation in order to improve biodiversity. He emphasises,
"Working organically is a moral choice. If we rely on the vine to make our living, how can we justify taking life away from it? When you look at a single vine; you don't always see its whole environment. We must change our perspectives and start to see the vineyard as an entity; not just a vine on its own."
He also feels that the work carried out in the vineyard to promote this biodiversity should be brought into the cellar; as the fruit is so healthy, he wishes to do as little to it as possible in order to preserve its inherent flavours. He carries out a “semi-carbonic maceration” - which means that he leaves clusters intact in order to encourage what is known as intracellular fermentation. This is when the berries begin to undergo various enzymatic processes and start to ferment inside themselves, producing very particular fresh red fruit aromas. As the berry skins are barely moved around, less tannin is extracted, which means the wines remain extremely delicate with a silky soft texture.
Once he has pressed the juice away from the berries, releasing the juice from within, the wines are then left to ferment naturally and are aged from between six months to a year. They never receive sulphur during vinification, and often are bottled without sulphur, unless Pierre feels the wine needs a sprinkle.
If the wines do need a sprinkle, it’s usually due to a tricky vintage. A tricky vintage in Beaujolais often means one thing in particular: hail.
Although the rolling hills of the Beaujolais are picture-perfect, it is one of the regions that is struggling the most with climate change. While raising temperatures are a problem with summers getting hotter and hotter, the biggest problem lies with an increase of erratic weather catastrophes.
The most challenging? Hailstorms.
These hailstorms have wreaked havoc in this region over the past decade. While they are often fast - sometimes only lasting a few minutes, hardly enough to disrupt your day - their effects can be disastrous. They can knock entire berries and clusters off the vine, but they also break the skins of the berries which provides the perfect breeding ground for rot. This is a wine farmer’s nightmare.
We’re unfortunate enough to experience this first-hand. On our third day spending time with Pierre, the heavens open and hailstones, some the size of golf balls, come pelting full-throttle down from above. One hits our friend right in the middle of his bald head. It hits him so hard that it leaves a bruise. Imagine what it does to the grapes.
Once the rain stops, we sit down with an exhausted Pierre. We ask him gently how he’s feeling. He clears his throat.
“It’s not too bad. We lost maybe 20% of our crop.”
We turn to each other anxiously. 20% sounds like a lot to us. He goes on to explain that in 2016, some of his friends up the road in Fleurie lost absolutely everything - their entire crop - in just one hailstorm.
“Just like that. An entire year’s work of hard graft lost in one blow. I have no idea how they coped but they did..."
We all look out of the window: it's now just faintly drizzling and the sun is out again. It's just like nothing happened. If you look to the ground, there's a few hailstones that give the storm away, but they're melting quickly.
Pierre is very matter of fact, and while we're shaken, he's not. He firmly adds,
"You can’t just cross your arms when stuff like that happens, you have to get up and carry on, keep the morale high. It’s stressful - sure - and it scares me, but there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a tough job - the life of a wine farmer. You work all day to make a living to be able to live from something you love. So no - you can’t get down about it. When something like this happens, well… it’s just part of the game. Too bad! You move onto something else. You continue. The bad times will pass.”
He looks down at the table for a while, stretches his neck, then gets up and walks over to his girlfriend, Marine, who is making coffee. He kisses her, and she rubs his worn-out shoulders.
To say that Pierre is brave, or dedicated, would be an understatement. We brush away a tear, but banish negative thoughts and get up and carry on, just like Pierre does. We're mutually silent. Sometimes the words in our English dictionary simply don’t do farmers justice.