"In a sense, Les Blémonts is my 'petit vin' of the Crus. That’s not at all a term that puts it down, rather the opposite. It’s petit in the sense that it is always so light and so easy to drink. Every year it's about freshness and fruitiness."
WHEN LITTLEWINE MET RAPHAËL SAINT CYR
When we meet Raphaël, the first thing we notice is that he smiles a lot. His kind aura radiates throughout the room and bounces off the walls. He is also very tall and clearly extremely strong. He’s a true farmer who spends his life amongst the vines. Being with him feels somewhat like being in the presence of a gentle giant - like Roald Dahl’s book the BFG. Just like in the book, we feel pretty comfortable that if the evil giants were to come after us, Raphaël would protect us.
We are at his domaine, a humble place with a tasting room for passers-by, in the south of Beaujolais. He takes us on a vineyard walk. His vineyards are the antithesis of the grey, herbicide-treated vineyards of neighbouring vineyards that we drove past earlier. They seem to exude a buoyant energy, not dissimilar to Raphaël’s own energy. He is bouncing along with huge strides, even though it’s a cold, bleak and pouring with rain. His vineyards are full of life; there is greenery everywhere; and we can’t help but notice how spongy and alive the soil seems to be. His bouncy pace is contagious and we feel ourselves bouncing along with him.
Later, when we’re tasting, I start to realise how significant this cheerful man is to Beaujolais. He might be humble, but I discover that he is the largest organic producer in the region.
He jumps in between concrete tanks and barrels, pulling out delicious barrel samples that taste as though they are half juice, half wine. There is such vibrancy and balance in each glass. I ask him where this vibrancy comes from. He gives a simple shrug, and replies,
“It's to do with farming. 10 years ago, when I took over the family domaine, I wanted to work organically straightaway. It was a real challenge at the time. Now, it no longer feels like a challenge… It is a joy. I love working this way and I just don’t want to work with chemicals.”
His response makes us smile. Some winemakers might think and respond with regards to winemaking techniques. Don’t get us wrong - Raphaël is precise and experimental with regards to winemaking, telling us about his various contemplations with regards to whole bunch versus destemming, but for him, it is clear that farming above all else gives his wines their energy.
A fourth generation vigneron, Raphaël’s great-grandfather founded the domaine. At the bright-eyed, youthful age of 22, Raphaël took over the domaine, converting it to organic farming straightaway. It is now amongst the largest organic estate in Beaujolais in terms of acreage, which means Raphaël is paving a path of greener grasses for other winemakers to step foot on.
“Organic viticulture is growing in the region,” Raphaël comments. “Many young people are beginning to realise that it’s the way forward, but this seems to be mainly happening in the crus, for now…”
He also tells us that sadly, his grandfather had been very sick and passed away just a few years before. He alludes to the notion that chemical agriculture had a role to play. We sit sadly in silence together for a moment, but Raphaël quickly picks himself together again, and his radiant smile beams back.
From the start, Raphaël has been passionate about the expressions of single parcels of vines in the crus, and is one of the leading figures for marking the names of single vineyards; “lieux dits;” on his labels.
Domaine Saint Cyr spans across 20 hectares in the south, with six planted to Chardonnay and the rest to Gamay, as well as eight hectares in the Crus.
Currently, he is focusing on planting with massale selection; replanting to the cuttings of several vines as opposed to replanting with a selection of clones. He believes to be very important for the resulting quality of his wines, and he is even replanting some younger vineyards to this method.
“Ironically it’s often not the oldest vines that get sick, it’s the younger ones that were planted to clones. That’s why I’m replanting to massale for some vineyards. It’s a very long project, but we need to make these choices for the future of these vineyards...”
He takes the material for the massale selection from his own 70-year-old vineyard that his great-grandfather planted, in Bellevue, which he tells us has wonderful genetic diversity.
“Les Journets is a very old lieu-dit, and I wish more people would use the name for their cuvées; it’s so special and should be celebrated. Here, the vines are at a higher elevation, on white granite, and produce a wine that can have a longer maceration time, perhaps a little more serious in style. Les Blémonts sits at the bottom of the slope, on alluvial clay/granite with some silex. In a sense, it is my "petit vin'" - my little wine of the Crus. That’s not at all a term that puts it down, rather the opposite. It’s petit in the sense that it is always so light and so easy to drink. Every year it's about freshness and fruitiness."
He has very firm opinions on Moulin-à-Vent.
"Moulin-à-Vent has this reputation for heavy, big, structured wines, but it's the winemaking style, not the terroir that created this image. With great terroirs, like the pink granite that my parcel sits on, you don't need to "make" the wine with punchdowns and extraction. That's not what I look for in my wines; my Moulin is so fresh and elegant. The wines make themselves on their own."
La Galoche, meaning French Kiss, is the name for the Beaujolais wines that Raphaël creates from the southern vineyards; a white, a red and a rosé. For the red, grapes are chilled overnight before adding CO2 gas and doing a cold maceration for four to six days to fulfil true carbonic maceration. Maceration time for this cuvée is always short as Raphaël feels that clay-limestone soils can quickly turn a wine very powerful. Ageing takes place in concrete, to allow the fruit to shine through and to be as drinkable as possible. In French there is the term “glouglou,” and these wines are the embodiment of that word.
He also makes a petnat Gamay, a rarity. Sparkling Gamay isn’t yet permitted under AOC laws in the region, so it has to be labelled as a “Vin de France.” We take a sip. It’s so delicious that it makes us wish we were drinking it in the summer together, in the park. Just for a second, it makes us feel like we are, but then we blink and look out of the window, reminded that its barely spring and it's still raining.
We tell him how great it is and he shuffles, a little shy.
“Well you know… I thought… why not? I love pét-nat! It’s turned out alright, I hope it’s not just beginners’ luck,” he winks.
For La Galoche and for the pét-nat, Raphael creates a pied de cuve. This is a process by which he brings in some bunches from his Bellevue plot a couple of weeks before harvest, to create a starter fermentation. By doing this, he ensures that the natural yeast population will be healthy, as La Galoche is a large production wine, so it provides him with a form of insurance while remaining natural. Meanwhile for the petnat, which finishes fermentation, it means he can ensure that no stray yeasts will create “off” aromas.
Meanwhile, for the Cru wines, Raphael has been on quite the winemaking journey over the past ten years. From destemming everything, to semi carbonic maceration, to full carbonic maceration, there’s nothing in the book he hasn’t tried.
He had always loved the carbonic style, but openly admits he wasn’t entirely sure how to do it several years ago. He spent time with close friends and mentors, Paul-Henri Thillardon and Jean-Louis Dutraive, and from 2019 uses this fermentation technique across all of his cuvees. They are aged in a combination of cement and old barrels, to not mark the wines with any oak flavour.
Looking at the modest, handwritten labels with both crus and individual lieux dits marked, it is as clear as day that Raphaël is immensely proud of his vineyards. For him, the site should take precedence over the winemaker, and we find a deep humility in this. We smile at each other and reach for a bottle, for another taste.
Want to taste a pét-nat so vibrant it makes you wanna throw a party? Feel like philosophising on the ongoings of the world over a glass of Gamay?