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beaujolais bike trip: karim vionnet, morgon

At one point during our informal tasting tour of natural Beaujolais vigneron Karim Vionnet’s new facilities in Morgon, the winemaker excused himself for five minutes, because someone working for Pôle Emploi had arrived to discuss grape-picker contracts for the upcoming harvests. Five minutes quickly turned into fifteen, because, as we found out later, the Pôle Emploi employee had been a comely Polish woman who was appreciably interested in Vionnet’s status as a bachelor-vigneron. There aren’t many of those, she’d said, before joining us in tasting some of his 2010 Beaujolais-Villages…

Personal charms aside, Karim Vionnet is remarkable for representing a continuation of the natural Beaujolais ethos made famous by over the last two decades by Villié-Morgon’s pioneering “Gang of Four” : the late Marcel LapierreJean FoillardGuy Breton, and Jean-Paul Thévenet. Vionnet, a Morgon native and former baker,* trained for several years with Breton, before establishing his own operation in 2006. Since then he’s produced a range of wines consistently remarkable for their rugged honesty and grace: a Beaujolais Primeur, a Beaujolais-Villages, a Chiroubles he titles “Vin de Kav,” and depending on the vintage, as I only found out that day, a schiste-soil cuvée of Beaujolais-Villages from the commune of Beaujeu that rivals any cru Beaujolais I’ve tasted recently.

When we arrived, after a pleasant, mostly downhill ride from Villié-Morgon, Karim was checking on a tank of nitrogen he had begun using that morning to “sparge” (an English term, not sure what the French is) the tank of schiste-soil BV, i.e. pass very fine amounts of nitrogen through the wine to remove dissolved CO2.

Funnily enough not a great deal of CO2 was detectable on the palate, when we tasted the wine, particularly in comparison to a fair number of contemporary natural wines at a similar price point.

In any case the wine was superb, almost entirely mineral-driven, bordering not unpleasantly on metallic notes, with zinging acidity, like a Television song. Can’t wait until it’s available.

We tasted also his basic 2010 Beaujolais-Villages, sourced from a range of soils, sand and schiste among them, with a total production of around 30,000btls. Having been in bottle just one month, it was showing a bit of reduction – kind of anomalous for a vigneron who at this point uses almost no sulfur, except, he says, for a bag-in-box he produces for a caviste client in the south. (I’m told it’s obligatoire to use sulfur for boxed wine.**)

Lastly we tasted his Chiroubles, not quite yet in bottle, but clearly a masterpiece waiting to happen. Total production around 4000btls. (The 2008 of this wine actually helped inspire me to reassess that entire vintage.)

Upon tasting the 2010 that morning all four of us just began nodding: persistent, dark fruit, potent minerality, and a cherooty, anise note on the finish. Karim decided right then it was time to bottle.

The wine sees an extended fermenation, up to 24 days, Karim says, where his BV sees 18 days, the Primeur 10-12. He notes that some vignerons, presumably the ones responsible for good Beaujolais’ under-dog status in the wine world, are content to finish all fermentation in just two days.

Vionnet purchased the new facilities last August, but from what I understand this year will be the first time all vinication takes place there. During our visit, which took place in mid-July, the previous owners full (!) vats and winemaking equipment were still taking up much of the space, and Karim joked that he was considering leaving it all by the side of the road.

Later that afternoon, after lunch in Fleurie, Karim showed us around some of his Beaujolais-Villages vineyards.

In Beaujolais they call the unripe grapes grumes. A fun fact I learned while visiting Isabelle Perraud and confirmed there with Karim.

Worms seemed to be the biggest challenge. Nibbling on the leaves and grapes.

And thistles, which Karim showed me can be yanked out by hand without harm to one’s hands as long as one grabs down just below the base of the plant.

J later remarked that he could understand why many conventional vignerons think the natural guys are crazy. By lay standards, Karim’s vines looked significantly yellower and less abundant than those in neighboring conventionally-farmed plots. It takes experience, and a leap of faith, probably, to understand that the vines we stood among displayed a natural stress, a positive thing, both for the land and for the wine Karim derives from it, more or less directly.

* More of that baker / vigneron interest cluster, last remarked upon in a post on Ludwig Bindernagel, who, like Pierre Overnoy, loves baking.

** Among the other things I learned that day: Karim is actually Karim’s middle name, his first name is Renée. And for an extremely amusing story, ask him how he convinced the bank to loan him the money for the new facilities. 


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