Marcel Lapierre, an esteemed grower and winemaker from the Morgon appellation in France’s Beaujolais region, died Sunday from melanoma after an extended sickness. He was 60.
Lapierre was a driving force for biodynamic practices and minimalist winemaking, and his Morgon Vieilles Vignes has been consistently ranked one of the area’s top wines. “Marcel was a top man with a huge heart, a pioneer in producing natural wines and organic viticulture, a businessman and a charismatic gentleman," said Anthony Collet of Inter Beaujolais, a regional trade body. "It is a part of the Beaujolais soul which disappeared with him.”
Lapierre was a third-generation farmer, who began working alongside his father in 1973, growing grapes and making wine from their then 17-acre estate. The twist in his story was his introduction in 1981 to Jules Chauvet, a forerunner of France’s "natural wine" movement.
With Chauvet’s teachings, Lapierre combined some of the traditional techniques already in place at his estate with newer organic practices. He eliminated the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides in the vineyards, did not add cultivated yeast strains during fermentation and did not filter or add sulfites to the wine. Lapierre's son Mathieu, describing his father’s philosophy, said, “The goal is to let nature and the vintage be expressed without chemical inputs. The winemaker must guide the grapes unsystematically and with discernment.” Later, Lapierre would go even further, experimenting with biodyanamics, the somewhat controversial agricultural philosophy that tries to bring a spiritual approach to farming.
While still rare, this devotion to non-interventionist winemaking is more common today in Beaujolais, but during the 1980s, Lapierre was one of only a handful of small producers following the philosophy. Thanks to the release of Beaujolais Nouveau each November, the region's wines were gaining in popularity during the '80s and early '90s, and the market was dominated by large quantities of wine made with arguably less attention to detail.
"When Chauvet died, I thought it was all over, that the last natural Beaujolais was gone," said Kermit Lynch, Lapierre's U.S. importer. "Then one of my staff, Phil Sareil, brought back a bottle of Morgon. When I tasted it, I almost levitated. My god, I thought, the spirit of Chauvet is still alive."
Now, partially because of the overproduction and over-marketing of Nouveau, Beaujolais has suffered in the new millennium. Producers throughout the area regularly call for a renewed focus on terroir-driven, smaller production wines—a focus Lapierre never lost.
In 2005 Mathieu joined Marcel, working with him at the winery fulltime, which today includes 36 acres. Mathieu also participated in the production of several previous vintages. Along with Mathieu, Lapierre is survived by his wife, Maria, and two daughters, Camille and Anne.