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robert camuto: letter from europe

Terroir and Technique in Beaujolais

Mathieu Lapierre on what’s important—and natural—in wine
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Mathieu Lapierre, scion of a “natural” wine pioneer, says some practitioners miss the point.

Posted: May 8, 2017 11:00am ET

Marcel Lapierre was known for two things: producing delicious, aromatic Beaujolais wines on his family’s home turf of Morgon and pioneering a “natural” style of winemaking from the 1980s on.

Since Marcel’s death in 2010, his son, Mathieu, has filled big shoes, carefully making wines that are often sulfur-free until bottling and that frequently score 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings.

What has he changed? Nothing, says Lapierre, 35, other than expanding his cellars for more storage and bottling space. What then is the most important element of his winemaking?

“Today, Morgon is more of a gauge of quality than ‘natural,’” he says on a clear frozen winter’s day in the appellation’s gently rolling granitic hills. “It is too bad that many vignerons think the opposite.”

In other words, terroir is more important than technique.

When his father rejected many winemaking practices of his day for a “non-interventionist” approach, he did it because “he didn’t want to use techniques that diminished the gastronomic potential and flavors of the wine.”

Lapierre waxes enthusiastic about the violet, raspberry and licorice flavors he finds in the Gamay wines grown in Morgon. Then he laments that many of his peers put the “natural” style first, covering their wines’ local character.

“Natural wines can sometimes all taste the same. It’s the same mistake the industrial producers made 20 years ago,” says the fourth-generation winemaker, a mop of blonde hair sticking out from under a bright knit cap. “The term ‘natural’ is a bit extreme today. I don’t like it.”

Lapierre, like his father, farms the family's 42 acres of vineyards organically and biodynamically and uses a gentle form of winemaking. Chilled whole bunches of carefully selected Gamay are dropped into wood vats for the typical Beaujolais method of “semi-carbonic maceration,” relying on native yeasts for fermentation. Some weeks later, the partially fermented must is pressed in a pair of old hydraulic wood basket presses, and the juice finishes fermentation in smaller oak barrels.

As his father did, Lapierre attempts to make his wines—right up to bottling—without adding sulfur as a preservative.

But—and this is where Domaine M. Lapierre differentiates itself—the barrels are meticulously tested to make sure the wines don’t go off in the wrong direction. Mathieu, who joined Marcel at the domaine in 2005, spent five years travelling the world as a junior chef, and that culinary training taught him a “hygienic rigor” that he has carried into the cellar.

The fear is that the wines will develop too much volatile acidity (VA), principally acetic acid, the main component of vinegar, which bacteria such as acetobacter produce from sugar and alcohol. In a warm, sulfur-free, “natural” environment, acetobacter can go wild. At low levels, VA can add pleasant balsamic notes to wine, but at higher levels it dominates everything else, pushing the wine toward vinegar.

“We test the wines constantly, and if volatile acidity goes up in a barrel, we chill the wine to stop its development,” explains Lapierre. “We take the temperature down—to 13° C (55° F) then to 10°, 9°, 8°, 7° (45° F).”

“If nothing else works, we use sulfur dioxide,” Lapierre adds. “It’s like a fire extinguisher in the house: We can always use it, even if we don’t like to. To me, it is stupid to say, ‘I never use sulfur,’ just as it is to say, ‘I always use sulfur.’”

Lapierre says his upper limit for VA is about 400 to 600 milligrams per liter, depending on the richness of a wine. At bottling, he doses wine with 30 milligrams of sulfur dioxide per liter—a fifth of the 150 milligrams per liter that is permitted for conventional red wine in the European Union. If he has to intervene because of high VA levels, those wines get a total dose of up to 60 milligrams of SO2 per liter, still well within the EU's 100 mg/liter limit for certified "organic wine." (In the United States, in contrast, "organic wine" cannot have more than 10 milligrams of sulfites per liter, but a wine "made with organic grapes" can have up to 100 milligrams per liter.)

VA “is a component of wine, but you should never seek it out,” he says and laughs. “There is always enough!”

The Lapierre family produces about 10,000 cases a year, supplementing their vines by buying the crop from another 15 acres. Their main Morgon bottling is joined by a declassified, young-vine, Vin de France cuvée called Raisins Gaulois and two small old-vine bottlings named for Marcel Lapierre and for Mathieu’s sister, Camille, who joined him in the winery three years ago. (In 2016, hail destroyed the crop from more than 7 acres, and Lapierre bought grapes from the nearby Juliénas appellation to replace them for a one-time Juliénas bottling.

At bottling, Lapierre gives distributors and importers a choice of either a light sulfuring or no sulfur. Nearly all Lapierre wines imported to the United States have added sulfur. That’s the opposite of Japan, to which Lapierre ships the wines sulfur-free.

The difference, says Lapierre, is cultural. Japan—with its sushi tradition—has a refined logistics network more geared to refrigeration than that of the U.S.

“Wines without sulfur need to be kept constantly under 13° C (55° F),” he says, “or it’s not worth it.”

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