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The Great Gamay Sabbatical

June 9, 2017

 

I can't explain why it has taken me so long to put words on paper about my trip to Beaujolais. Even worse, why I can't move on to write about other things until I do. My best theory is that we live in a world of headlines - BK Goes to Beaujolais: Changed Forever! But the reality is that some of our most meaningful experiences unfold slowly, quietly, and unexpectedly.

 

I visited Beaujolais in winter. The weather was heavy and grey, just like it was in Oregon when I left. The streets were empty and the windows were shuttered. I had traveled across the ocean. I was armed with maps, lists of wine producers, and the stated goal to learn how to make better Gamay, but on the narrow streets of the tiny, deserted towns, I felt lost. With vines on every hillside and cellars on every corner, the secrets of the wine region still seemed shrouded in mystery and the early February fog.

 

From Lyon, I had driven north through Beaujolais-Village territory to the hamlet of Jullié. This would be home base for my adventuresome Mom and me from which to explore the region's 10 Cru Appellations. After stocking my little vineyard Gîte with the requisite bread, cheese, and pastries, I tentatively set out to see what could be discovered.

 

In the days that followed, I was welcomed into tiny basement cellars in unassuming homes. I visited large wineries that were wall to wall with concrete fermentation vats. I tried to ask questions in my shameful French, and I listened carefully for any detail that might enhance my understanding of Gamay.  I collected wines and stories. I grew familiar with landmarks on the road between Morgon, Fleurie, and Chénas, but I struggled to assimilate my learning.

 

I wrote: "People live winegrowing here in a way that we cannot fully understand. Whole towns are surrounded in nothing but vines. They occupy front yards and back. This way of life throws its head back and laughs at my mission to meet all the best producers and taste all the best wines.  I wonder what the Beaujolais approach would be."

 

And then, I saw it. In the last days of my visit I had a tasting appointment with a young biodynamic producer named Paul-Henri Thillardon.  Despite his long day of vineyard work alongside Louis-Clément David-Beaupère, Paul-Henri was generous with his time.  We walked into his tiny Chénas vineyard, and we visited with his pigs who were keeping warm in a basement room off the ancient building that Paul-Henri is slowly restoring. We tasted his exceptionally elegant wines from barrel and finally sat together with beautifully-shaved, traditionally-cured meat to taste his current releases.  He shared stories of recent vintages and fermentations, but what really stood out to me was Paul-Henri's telling of the microscope that he and many local winemakers had come together to purchase. 

 

I was beginning to see Beaujolais in a different light. Here is a region steeped in winegrowing history with a community of young vignerons who advocate for biodynamic farming and minimal intervention but who also have the benefit of modern microbiology to inform their analyses and confirm their decisions. These Beaujolais winemakers are joining together and gathering up all the resources of the past and the present in order to thoughtfully build a sustainable future.  What a unique and powerful moment in history.

 

My new insight was affirmed with the invitation to follow Paul-Henri to dinner at the house Julie Balagny.  I had tasted Julie's wines at E&R Wine Shop in Portland and had unsuccessfully tried to get in touch with her before my trip, so needless to say I was excited for the surprise opportunity to meet this lady-legend in person. 

 

Paul-Henri, Mom, and I arrived to a kitchen full of people. A wood stove in the corner had the room piping hot. A wine distributor from Sweden was seasoning the lamb previously known as Romeo. Julie welcomed me into her cellar where she pulled barrel samples for the dining table and showed me the huge hand-crank basket press that she operates herself during harvest.

 

We didn't talk about Gamay winemaking practices or techniques, but we did talk about the wildflowers in her Fleurie vineyard and the unique personalities of the animals on her farm. Over the course of the meal, people came and went. A local beekeeper arrived with an armful of baguettes and a bottle no one had yet tried. It was familial, warm, and comfortable. 

 

Perhaps in the end I didn't write tasting notes for every iconic wine or discover a magical secret about making Gamay. Maybe I wasn't profoundly Changed Forever!. But I think the inspiration I was meant to receive is that - as with any endeavor that requires thoughtfulness, creativity, and a great deal of effort - it is the people with whom you surround yourself and the spirit in which you work that makes everything worthwhile.

 

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