WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY: AM
Before heading off to see Le Corbusier's masterpiece about half an hours drive from Lyon, we had the absolute pleasure of stopping off at the esteemed cave of Julien Merle. He stumbled out into the morning sunshine, his dogs following closely behind him, apologising for his slight hangover. Despite having been up late the night before watching the punk band Les Fatals Picards - he hadn't even had his morning coffee yet - he was the epitome of charm, extremely accommodating and oh so willing to crack open his wines.
Julien Merle came to winemaking by way of his father, who was also a winemaker and let the young Julien at an early age become involved in the appreciation of wine and later on the making of wine. But unlike his father who used the machines and the chemicals so widespread throughout the winemaking industry, Julien has instead sold the tractor to buy a horse, as he wanted to use horses amongst his vines not machines, with the tractor went all the chemicals as well, so that he could start making natural wines instead - which intellectually made more sense to him, especially when he looked at the land around him being destroyed by the chemicals from the wine industry. His process is more about being gentle to the wine, the grapes and the earth in general - giving back.
Between a mix of French and English and a shared passion for natural wine, we enjoyed a tremendously pleasurable Sunday morning together. Julien grows Chardonnay and Gammay grapes, he produces four wines from six hectares - 200 meters above sea level - which amounts to about 30000 litres of wine. His business card says he is a vigneron contemporain as well as a lubrifiant social, what it does not say is that he is also charming, humorous, engaging, with a love of life, down to earth, rock and roll kick ass winemaker - possibly the most interesting contemporary winemaker in France today.
We started with his only white wine - a Chardonnay - a crisp summery wine, next up was his rosé made using Gammay grapes and quite frankly our most favourite rosé ever - he describes it perfectly as his gastronomic rosé, meaning that it is not really for drinking but rather for savouring and almost eating. His first red, Champs Blanc, he describes as a party wine, very easy to drink or if not for the party then for yourself. The second red we tried was Philibert from 2015 - they spend a year in the barrel so 2016 was not ready yet - again Gammay grapes, this is a strong robust wine, which Julien describes as his Sunday wine, something a little more elevated, full of character to be shared with your nearest and dearest over a long dinner. Additionally Nathalie - his wife - makes Nathalitre a word play on the fact that it is her wine and in a litre bottle. If his wines are more masculine he describes grabbing his beard, then her wines are more feminine and might I add, also very enjoyable.
He goes onto explain that his wines do not have an appellation, which where we are concerned makes no difference, good wine is good wine and this is great wine, that is natural and organic. Within the Beaujolais region approximately 4% of the wines are organic, additionally to being organic Julien's wines are also unfiltered natural wines with a very low sulphur content, hand picked - an intellectually produced truly artisanal wine. For a country such as France that is a fantastic producer of artisanal products, it is really rather unusual that not more winemakers in France are adopting this artisanal and traditional way of making wine similar to Julien - because let's face it, the chemically mass produced wine that is on most of our dining tables is neither traditional nor artisanal - but rather a product far removed from its origins.
Above the door to his cave is a sign that swings gently in the breeze "Le Vin, de la Poësie en bouteille" which translates roughly to - the wine, poetry in a bottle. If you drive off the beaten path along a long and winding road, both literally to find Julien and metaphorically to find natural wines - you will not be disappointed and you will find poetry.