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Details for Jean-Paul Thévenet, Morgon ‘Le Clachet’

Jean-Paul Thévenet
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Beaujolais is technically the most southerly part of Burgundy, and yet to describe its wines, almost all of which are red, as red Burgundy would be a mistake.
That’s because Beaujolais has a very distinct identity.  Firstly, almost all its vines are Gamay, rather than red Burgundy’s beloved Pinot Noir.  The climate is very different too, being semi-continental and so rather warmer than the rest of Burgundy.
Beaujolais as a region, and therefore as a wine, can be split into two.  In the northern half, from Mâcon to Villefranche, the region is hilly and dominated by acidic schist and granite soils.  These hills are home to the Beaujolais Crus: ten villages which have been identified as producing superior wine.  They are, roughly from north to south, St-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly.
Scattered around the periphery of these Crus is the Beaujolais-Villages appellation, one level below the Crus but one higher than wine simply labelled as Beaujolais.  This mostly comes from the southern, flatter half of the region, which has alkaline sandstone and clay soils.
The region is also famous, or perhaps notorious, for Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine released almost as soon as it has finished fermenting, on the third Thursday of every November.  Only in the very ripest years is it any more than a curiosity, and it usually tastes distinctly tired by February.  Clever marketing made it hugely popular in the Seventies and Eighties, but the inevitable backlash has harmed the reputation of Beaujolais as a whole.

Jean-Paul Thévenet

Jean-Paul Thévenet’s roots in Beaujolais go as deep as those of his vines; his family have tended vineyards and made wine in the Beaujolais Cru of Morgon since 1870.  His winery lies in the hamlet of Le Chachet on the road east out of Villié-Morgon, the appellation’s main (though still small) town, between those of his old friends Marcel Lapierre and Jean Foillard.
With Guy Breton, these three made up the famous “Gang of Four” who revolutionised Beaujolais in the Eighties, popularising the principles of natural, low-or-no-sulphur winemaking in the process.  Though unlike his ebullient friend Lapierre, the retiring Jean-Paul (known as Paul-Po to his friends) is hardly a populist, preferring to keep a low profile and let his wines speak for themselves.  He doesn’t even have a winery logo for us to display.
Thévenet farms just five hectares of vines around Le Clachet, having given his vineyard holdings in nearby Régnié to his son, Charly.  These vines have deep roots too: their average age is over 70, and one block was planted before the First World War.  All are farmed organically and according to biodynamic priciples, though not certified.
He makes three wines: his flagship Vieilles Vignes from those ancient vines, a more traditional cuvée named after Le Clachet, and a lightly sparkling, off-dry wine called “On Pète La Soif!” which doesn’t qualify for the Morgon or Beaujolais appelations.

about this wine About this wine

The tale of how the Gang of Four reinvented Beaujolais and simultaneously introduced the principles of natural winemaking to France has acquired mythic proportions in the wine world.  Like most myths it has grown in the telling and been shaped by the demands of a good story, so that now it doesn’t entirely correspond to the historical facts.
For a start, the Gang of Four is an anglophone invention.  The French version of the tale has five or even six members of the gang, not counting their inspiration and mentor, Jules Chauvet.  The famous four are Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thévenet and Jean Foillard.  The less-famous fifth was Joseph Chamonard, who died in 1990 before the gang became famous.  The five were friends who had grown up together, Morgon vignerons who would meet to discuss new ideas in winemaking over dinner and and a bottle or two.
And there was a sixth friend, Jacques Néauport, who didn’t himself have a domaine in Morgon but was a consulting winemaker who worked with the five.  It was he who discovered Jules Chauvet, self-taught scientist and maverick winemaker, in 1978.  “I met this wizened old man who held his pants up with a length of string, and we started to talk about wine.  The previous vintage, in 1977, had been terrible in Beaujolais, with lots of rain and vineyard rot.  When Chauvet told me that he’d made his wine that year, as he did almost every vintage, entirely without sulphur dioxide, I was dumbstruck.”
Néauport introduced Chauvet to Lapierre, who was quickly won over by Chauvet’s approach and proceeded to convince the other four.  Chauvet’s methods were a curious blend of the traditional and the modern, but all designed to let the terroir of Beaujolais speak through the wine.  By that time, the region had enthusiastically embraced chemical treatments in vineyard and winery; early picking to reduce the risk of rot, with chaptalization (adding sugar) to compensate; sterile filtration; and the use of cultured yeasts, especially the strain 71B which makes wine taste of bubblegum and banana.
By contrast, Chauvet favoured old vines farmed without chemicals, very late picking to maximise ripeness and flavour, and the use of only natural yeasts already present on the grapeskins.  Sulphur dioxide stuns these, so Chauvet avoided it, not just before fermentation, but at every stage in the winemaking process.  He also gave his wines long barrel-age and bottled them without fining or filtration.  On the other hand, he was a champion of carbonic maceration, in which whole bunches ferment under a blanket of carbon dioxide, and of temperature-controlled cool fermentation.
The gang were won over, but others were not.  Some of their early wines were denied the appellation for not being typical enough, even though older winemakers said they tasted like the Morgon of fifty years before.  They persevered, and were eventually rewarded.  The wines of Foillard and Lapierre, in particular, became the most sought-after in the whole region.
The shy Jean-Paul Thévenet kept a lower profile.  His is a small domaine, now just five hectares around the Morgon hamlet of Le Clachet, adjoining the vineyards of Lapierre.  A few years ago he gave his vineyards in neighbouring Régnié to his son, Charly, and now makes just two Morgon wines: an acclaimed Vieilles Vignes and this one, which he refers to as his Cuvée Tradition.
The vines are still pretty old even for this cuvée, at around forty years.  Naturally they’re farmed organically: indeed biodynamically, with cover crops between the vines, natural composts, and all work carried out according to the lunar calendar.  Thévenet does occasionally spray copper sulphate or dust the vines with elemental sulphur when conditions demand, but both are kept to a minimum even though they are allowed under organic rules.  In the nigh-on perfect weather of 2015 there wasn’t much call for either.
All Beaujolais must be picked by hand, but these grapes were picked much later than most other producers, which is reflected in this unchaptalized wine’s 13.5% alcohol.  The grapes were rigorously hand-sorted at the winery, though in 2015 rather fewer bunches had to be discarded than in most vintages.
Most Beaujolais, and all the Nouveau, is made by a particular form of partial carbonic maceration which I’m going to describe here so you can see how this wine differs.  Whole bunches of grapes are chilled almost to freezing point in closed tanks filled with carbon dioxide.  Lots of sulphur dioxide is added both to suppress any microorganisms (including natural yeasts) and to quickly extract colour from the grapeskins.  The SO2 and the frigid temperatures prevent any yeast-based fermentation from taking place.  Instead enzymes in the intact, still-living grapes continue to metabolise.  Normally they would convert sugar and oxygen into CO2 and water, but with no free oxygen around they produce CO2 and ethanol instead, inside the grape.
During this enzymatic ‘fermentation’, lots of colour (but very little tannin) leaches from the grape skin into the pulp and a variety of other reactions take place which use up about half of the grape’s sharp malic acid.  Grapes are not as alcohol-tolerant as yeasts so the process stops at around 2% ABV, by which time most grapes have burst from the CO2 produced anyway.
In practice only a few days of this full carbonic maceration is allowed to take place before the grapes are pressed and the juice run off the skins.  Sugar is added, and the sweetened must is then fermented quickly at more normal temperatures by cultured yeast (probably strain 71B).  The carbonic phase has extracted lots of colour but little tannin, and has reduced malic acid levels sufficiently that the slow (usually winter’s end) malolactic fermentation that most reds must go through is not required.  Rather than allowing the wine to clear naturally it is force-filtered so it can be bottled and sold before Christmas.
For this wine, no sulphur dioxide was added.  The whole bunches were fermented in cement tanks under a blanket of CO2, but at around 10 to 13°C rather than the close-to-freezing temperatures used for Nouveau.  Thévenet uses only the natural yeasts from the grapeskins, and warmer temperatures encourage these to multiply.  Still the fermentation lasts for a long 15 to 25 days on the skins, extracting tannin and flavour as well as colour.  Punchdowns are used only toward the end, to burst any grapes that have remained intact so their remaining sugar can be fermented.
After pressing, the wine was transferred to old oak barrels to age on the fine lees.  Thévenet gets his used barrels from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the most prestigious estate in Burgundy.  After 6 to 8 months in barrel the wine was assembled into concrete tanks to blend and settle before being bottled unfined and unfiltered, so some sediment can be expected.

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