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How a Beaujolais Winemaker Kicked Off the Low-Sulfur Revolution

From 'cheap and cheerful' to pioneering wines — with 5 bottles to buy now

Wink Lorch By May 26, 2022
Horse ploughing Chassignol vineyard in Chénas.
Horse ploughing Chassignol vineyard in Chénas. Photo courtesy of Domaine Thillardon.

“Healthy grapes, a clean cellar, lots of carbon dioxide, daily analyses,” is the recipe to make good wine without added sulfites,” explained Anthony Thevenet. However, “we do add some at bottle to protect the wine.”

Thevenet, a young producer from Morgon in Beaujolais, made it all seem so simple. One of many disciples of an older generation of winemakers who shunned chemicals for a purer way of making Beaujolais, he had worked with Georges Descombes and then Jean Foillard, one of Beaujolais’ so-called ‘Gang of Four’ before going solo full-time. 

It was in Beaujolais, where the no/low added sulfites movement kicked off in the 1980s. Beaujolais is synonymous with juicy, light reds, once considered “beginner reds,” or reds for people who generally only enjoyed white wines.

A revolution begins

From the 1960s, the growing worldwide demand for Beaujolais Nouveau — which had to be ready and stable enough to bottle by November, only two months after harvest — led the region to rely increasingly on using chemicals in the vineyard, dubious technology in the winery, and permitted additives in the wine.

Born in Beaujolais, Jules Chauvet saw the dangers of what was happening in terms of the quality and authenticity of the wines. A wine trader and small producer, Chauvet had also studied chemistry, and believed that the natural yeasts present on ripe grapes were decreasing in population, due to the chemicals used in the vineyards.

Various strains of commercial yeasts were added to the grape juice to provoke fermentation, especially for Beaujolais Nouveau, some giving flavors like banana, far removed from traditional Beaujolais flavors. The yeasts needed nutrients, which were added too.

The process of chaptalization or enrichment with sugar before fermentation had been widely and legally used in France for over a century, but now thermovinification, or heating the fermenting juice, added to the mix. After all this, increasing amounts of sulfites were required to stabilize the wines. In Chauvet’s opinion, the resultant wines tasted far removed from real Beaujolais.

In 1981 Chauvet met Marcel Lapierre, who had taken over his family vineyards in the Beaujolais cru Morgon. Chauvet advised him to eliminate the use of fertilizers, chemical weed killers, and pesticides, and showed him how to make the wine using less or no sulfite additions, while still producing a stable wine, providing it was kept cool after bottling.

Three winemaking friends of Marcel Lapierre were particularly impressed with the results — Guy Breton, Jean Foillard, and Jean-Paul Thévenet — and followed Chauvet’s recommendations. California importer Kermit Lynch bought the wines, dubbing these winemakers ‘the Gang of Four.’

Many Beaujolais vignerons have since followed their example, often after first working with one of the four. Chauvet’s influence spread also to nearby regions such as Jura, across to the Loire, and eventually around the world.

While some Italian producers and others may have been working on the same ideas, many believe the natural wine movement was born 40 years ago in Beaujolais.

The conditions are right

Camille Lapierre runs the estate with her brother Mathieu, and she agrees that the movement emerged in Beaujolais when her father met Jules Chauvet. Yet its ongoing expansion within this specific wine region shows there is more to the story.

It is the happy relationship of the Gamay grape with the predominantly granite soils in a northerly continental climate that potentially gives such fresh, light, and juicy red wines, even more so if very low or no sulfite additions are used.

Paul-Henri Thillardon of Domaine Thillardon in Chénas explains: “Gamay is not necessarily better than other grape varieties for working without sulfur, but in our Beaujolais region, Gamay has a very advantageous pH and acidity for working without sulfur.”

In 2008, Thillardon created the estate from scratch and now works with his three siblings. Brought up in southern Beaujolais, with a father who works with a wine co-operative, Thillardon immediately converted his leased vineyards to organics.

Now the Thillardon family uses biodynamics across the 12-hectare estate and uses a horse to plow their steep and well-exposed Chassignol old-vine vineyard. Grapes from the Chassignol vineyard have extremely good phenolic ripeness, meaning ripe skins and stalks, says Thillardon, and almost every year he is able to make the Chassignol Chénas with zero added sulfites, whereas others in the range receive a minimal dose some years. He explains that Chassignol lies on a very pure granite soil, “which is definitely more suitable for working without sulfites.” The granite is low in pH, he says, which gives more protection to the wine against oxidation.

Siblings Matthieu and Camille Lapierre

Siblings Mathieu and Camille Lapierre. Photo courtesy of Loic Terrier for Domaine Lapierre.

Another way to ferment

As well as yeast activity, Chauvet also studied and promoted the process of fermentation using carbonic maceration: hand-harvested whole grape bunches are placed uncrushed into the vats, which are filled with carbon-dioxide gas and sealed. Fermentation begins within each grape berry, which eventually bursts, and yeasts then take over to continue the process in the mix of juice with grape pulp, skins, stalks, and pips.

Today, semi-carbonic maceration is often used without pumping in carbon dioxide. The weight of the whole grape bunches crushes those beneath and fermentation takes place within and outside of the berries from the start in an atmosphere of carbon dioxide.

Thillardon did not always make his wines in this way. “Carbonic or semi-carbonic maceration is a choice to obtain fruit-driven wines with incredible energy. I don’t think this choice is essential for no-sulfur wines, but we tried to work without sulfites using de-stemmed Gamay and obtained less good results.”

Apart from preventing oxidation, another reason for adding sulfites early in the winemaking process is to banish unwanted yeast strains. When using the indigenous yeasts found on the grapes, there is a risk of bad microbes spoiling the wine, hence the need for scrupulous hygiene and temperature control.

Many natural wine producers closely observe yeast activity in their own mini-laboratories. Camille Lapierre explains: “We work a lot with the microscope, already much used in our father’s time. Thanks to this tool we know at the precise moment exactly what is happening in the tank and which microorganism is working or not. We can then anticipate the problems and the solutions.”

Thillardon adds that he uses a microscope to make sure no bad yeasts or microbes are present, especially because, “in a wine made with indigenous yeasts, what interests us is the diversity of yeasts, which will bring complexity to the wine.”

Microscope to examine the yeast activity in the fermenting grape juice

Microscope to examine the yeast activity in the fermenting grape juice. Photo courtesy of Loic Terrier for Domaine Lapierre.

Where the best wines are found

Complexity isn’t always found in low- or no-added sulfites Beaujolais, some of which offer simply a pure fruit character not expressive of the terroir. But it is found in the best — as always, the recipe of good terroir plus good vigneron equals complex wine. Most often in Beaujolais, this equates to wines from the Beaujolais crus, the individually named appellations.

The difference is stark between a commercial, big-name, young Beaujolais Nouveau, or even a Beaujolais or a Beaujolais Villages that has been made from organic grapes with minimal cellar intervention, plus just a little judiciously added sulfite. The latter seem brighter, the fruit crunchier and certainly less synthetic — there is a marked backbone or structure to the wine, even if it slips down so easily.

“Healthy grapes, a clean cellar, lots of carbon dioxide, daily analyses.” The Thevenet recipe is more difficult than it sounds but plenty of young Beaujolais vignerons are adopting it to good effect.

5 low-sulfur wines to try:

bottle of Laura Lardy Beaujolais Villages La Gourde A Gamay

Laura Lardy Beaujolais Villages Gourde à Gamay 2020 (~$22)

The ultimate Glou-Glou wine, a term the French invented for a joyous, fresh glugging red wine; the cuvée name, which translates as “Gamay flask” reflects this. From a wine-growing family, Lardy has taken over her father’s vines in Fleurie and is converting them to organics. For this Beaujolais Villages, she buys Gamay grapes grown in a relatively high elevation vineyard in Lantignié. All sappy fruit, it’s just how a Beaujolais Villages should taste.

bottle of Domaine Chapel Chiroubles 2020

Domaine Chapel Chiroubles 2020 (~$39)

Son of the late French chef Alain Chapel, David started as a sommelier, then later worked with the Lapierre family in Villié-Morgon. His union with Michele Smith, now Smith-Chapel, a former New York wine director, has led to a range of pristine, pure Beaujolais. This pretty Chiroubles is from two relatively high-altitude vineyards in conversion to organics, requiring almost entirely manual labor. The wine is redolent of cherries. Made in the traditional Beaujolais method, a small dose of sulfites is added when the wine is racked and pre-bottled.

bottle of Guy Breton Morgon Vieilles Vignes

Guy Breton Morgon Vieilles Vignes 2020 (~$41)

Guy Breton made his first no-sulfite wine in 1987. Today, he adds a tiny amount at bottling, and Breton’s range from this small Morgon estate and beyond stands as an example of what natural Beaujolais should be. Don’t look for hard tannins here; these 80-year-old vines are deceptively light. The wine was aged for eight months in old barrels purchased from Burgundy’s reference estate, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Store it cool and it will age for several years.

bottle of Anthony Thevenet Cuvee Centenaire Morgon Gamay

Anthony Thevenet Morgon Centenaire 2018 (~$74)

It’s rare to taste wine from pre-phylloxera vines in France. Thevenet estimates that the vines on his one-acre plot are up to 150 years old, handed down through his family. The wine was made with plenty of carbon dioxide to avoid the need for sulfites up until bottling. It was aged in five and six year-old 600-liter oak barrels. It’s no surprise that this wine has superb depth, concentration, and length — it’s a piece of history, crafted to age by a talented young man.

bottle of Thillardon Chénas Chassignol 2019

Thillardon Chénas Chassignol 2019 (~$51)

Chassignol is the flagship vineyard for this organic estate and plowed by horse. The very old Gamay vines are low to the ground on an almost pure granite and quartz soil with only small amounts of clay. This gives the soil a very low pH, meaning it produces Gamay juice with high acidity and more protection from oxidation. The very pale Chénas Chassignol has zero sulfites added. With floral notes on the nose, it is deliciously fresh, surprisingly light, and with elegant but vibrant fruit. The wine reflects what Paul-Henri Thillardon calls “the magic of great terroir.”