It must not have been an easy ride, but Nicole did it. Gone from an unknown young woman in a decidedly man’s world (Beaujolais of yesteryear) to the sage, ever-cheerful vigneronne the locals like to call “La Patronne de la Côte” (“The Boss of the Côte”). While nobody threw any spokes in the wheel when she began, most did look on with a bit of condescending amusement, waiting for what they believed would be her inevitable failure. And while many wondered in disbelief how a woman could possibly drive a tractor, much less make a decent wine, one man never had a doubt and offered nothing but unwavering support: Nicole’s father, Raymond. It was he who took her out as a young child to work in the family vineyard, who taught her at an early age how to taste and appreciate fine Beaujolais. Although it was neither imposed on nor planned for Nicole to take over the family vines and winery, once Raymond began to age and fell ill, she decided to step in for good, some forty years ago. Small in stature, strong in presence, she forged ahead and by 1980 was alone on the domaine and running the show entirely on her own. Since then, Nicole has been one of those rare growers who basically do a single wine but do it really, really well. Her vineyards are all in a big block, right behind her house on the volcanic slope of Mont Brouilly, from which she fills five large casks each year of bright purple, heavenly scented, juicy Côte-de-Brouilly. Year in and year out, it is tremendously reliable, fun, and age-worthy. In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret. As you know, we have some heavy hitters and big stars in our Beaujolais portfolio, with earth-shatteringly great wines. And yet, when it comes time to put in Kermit’s orders for his personal drinking cellar here in France (where he could just as easily order many of the hippest, hottest wines of the moment), more often than not he simply requests a few cases of Nicole’s Côte-de-Brouilly. Upon arriving in France recently, Kermit checked in on what he’d ordered for his cellar so far. “Have I ordered the last vintage from Chanrion yet?” he asked. “Hardly anyone outside of her little village has heard of her, but she’s as good as anyone.”
It has been quite a forty-year trip—and it’s far from over. I raise my glass to forty more!
When Nicole Chanrion began her career in the 1970s, convention relegated women to the enology labs and kept them out of the cellars. But with six generations of family tradition preceding her, she would not be deterred from her dream of becoming a vigneronne. Ever since taking over the family domaine in 1988, she works all 6.5 hectares entirely by herself, from pruning the vineyards and driving the tractors to winemaking and bottling, all without bravado or fanfare. Nicole makes traditional Beaujolais: hand harvesting, whole cluster fermentation, aging the wines in large oak foudres for at least nine months, and bottling unfiltered. The resulting wines are powerful, with loads of pure fruit character and floral aromas.
After years of the region’s reputation being co-opted by mass-produced Beaujolais Nouveau and the prevalence of industrial farming, the fortunes of vignerons from the Beaujolais have been on the rise in the past couple of decades. Much of this change is due to Jules Chauvet, a prominent Beaujolais producer who Kermit worked with in the 1980s and arguably the father of the natural wine movement, who advocated not using herbicides or pesticides in vineyards, not chaptalizing, fermenting with ambient yeasts, and vinifying without SO2. Chief among Chauvet’s followers was Marcel Lapierre and his three friends, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton, and Jean-Paul Thévenet—a group of Morgon producers who Kermit dubbed “the Gang of Four.” The espousal of Chauvet’s methods led to a dramatic change in quality of wines from Beaujolais and with that an increased interest and appreciation for the AOC crus, Villages, and regular Beaujolais bottlings.
The crus of Beaujolais are interpreted through the Gamay grape and each illuminate the variety of great terroirs available in the region. Distinguishing itself from the clay and limestone of Burgundy, Beaujolais soils are predominantly decomposed granite, with pockets of blue volcanic rock. The primary vinification method is carbonic maceration, where grapes are not crushed, but instead whole clusters are placed in a tank, thus allowing fermentation to take place inside each grape berry.
Much like the easy-going and friendly nature of many Beaujolais vignerons, the wines too have a lively and easy-drinking spirit. They are versatile at table but make particularly good matches with the local pork sausages and charcuterie. Though often considered a wine that must be drunk young, many of the top crus offer great aging potential.
For the wines that I buy I insist that the winemaker leave them whole, intact. I go into the cellars now and select specific barrels or cuvées, and I request that they be bottled without stripping them with filters or other devices. This means that many of our wines will arrive with a smudge of sediment and will throw a more important deposit as time goes by, It also means the wine will taste better.
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