Domaine LaPierre was a place full of natural wine wonders sometimes difficult to access. When I was there the Domaine was in the thick of Harvesting and the start of winemaking, so things were a bit hectic. Marcel himself was a flurry of constant motion. Wine, and I mean amazing wine, flowed like water. The food was stunning. And the partying was some of the most intense I've ever witnessed. But in the end it was all a bit daunting for someone whose French was just ok.
As soon I met Marcel, he whisked me off on a whirlwind tour of whatever he was doing. This involved driving quickly out to a vineyard to look at some grapes for about 7 seconds, tasting half fermented wine straight from the vat, picking up some harvesters from other fields, inspecting wine samples with a biologist, and tasting some aged wine in the cave (you really have to pronounce that the french way, like cahhhv, much cooler).
What does half fermented wine taste like, you might be wondering? Really sweet. But delicious. While I harvested, I had snacked on grapes that tasted a lot like that juice, so it was a pretty familiar flavor to me. You wouldn't really want to drink this stuff on a regular basis because the acidity was through the roof (we spit it out) but it was really interesting to taste. We then took some of the wine back to the lab, where Marcel's friend's wife, a biochemist specializing in wine, could examine the samples under a microscope. Here I got to see what indigenous yeasts look like (a lot of little clear stationary oval shaped things). She was checking for bacteria that might be a problem. When you make natural wine without sulfur, you have to be super careful that there are no bad bacterias that might ruin the wine. Cleanliness is paramount.
The picture up at the top of the post is Marcel's cave. It's a big room full of barrels, and as you can see they use one of the barrels as a bar. Marcel fetched a couple different bottles for us to drink. One was a 2004 Marcel LaPierre, and the other was his special cuvée from 2006, which actually is made with sulfur (and, if you're curious, is not exported to the United States). I got a brief peek into the room where Marcel cellars all these bottles, and I noticed he had a lot of Saucisson Sec hanging in there too. I wish my cellar had that! So yes, Cru Beaujolais can age, and it ages really really well. The 2004 still had the quintessential Beaujolais fruit driven flavor, with an extra dash of leathery aged wine taste that I found completely bewitching. The 2006 cuvée is a very concentrated wine, undoubtedly a careful selection of the best grapes. But it was somewhat lacking in that natural wine floral department, which I would think is due to the use of sulfur.
Ok, now that the wine geekery is out of the way, here's an interesting tidbit about French politesse. They don't introduce themselves like we Americans do. Marcel and I tasted these wines with the biologist, another portly French guy with a huge curling mustache who gesticulated wildy when he talked, and another guy wearing shorts who looked to have just emerged from the fields. I have no idea really who any of these people were, because they never introduced themselves. That doesn't mean we didn't shake hands though. That happened right when someone entered the room. People do everything else the same-- you talk about why you're here or who you are, but it's quite possible you never get the person's name. I later learned from Guy that the portly guy was the biologist's husband, and that he worked off the grid, so to speak, making charcuterie and selling whatever goods he could get his hands on. These were the kinds of characters you could expect to run into at Domaine LaPierre.
After we tasted a drank a heck of a lot of the beautiful Marcel LaPierre wines in the cave, it was time to eat. Dinner could not have been more different from Chateau Cambon. At Chateau Cambon we mostly drank Beaujolais Nouveau, and Rosé, and we were only given 6 or so bottles for 20 people. At Domaine LaPierre, case after case of the LaPierre cuvée sat ready to be opened. And open them they did. This is a wine that costs about $23 in the States. I have 12 bottles of it sitting in my cellar, and I'm planning to savor them for special occasions over the next several years as I watch them age gracefully. At Domaine LaPierre, they chugged them down like water.
The food was delicious, and plentiful. At Chateau Cambon, the kitchen was behind closed doors, and the bosses ate behind those doors. The "chef" would emerge to plop down a tin pan full of the latest industrialized reheated creation. At Domaine LaPierre, the kitchen was open, and I saw the cooks emerge on several occasions to dance with Marie LaPierre (Marcel's wife). Marcel, his wife, son, daughter and friends all ate in the same room with all the harvesters. An 8 year old boy ocassionally wandered in banging loudly on a drum, accompanied by a slightly older boy blaring notes out of a trombone, to cackles of laughter by the crowd.
The crowd of harvesters was also different. At Chateau Cambon, almost everyone was between the ages of 17 and 21. At Domaine LaPierre, I talked to one man who was 70 years old. He said it was something like his 20th year of harvesting at Domaine LaPierre, and his 35 year old son was with him. By the way, they didn't make him cut grapes, he drove the truck to take the grapes back to be vinified. His son was cutting grapes in the field.
The harvesting was also different at Domaine LaPierre. A few of my fellow vendangeurs from Cambon had switched over to Domaine LaPierre, and I asked them what the field work was like. They said the work was much slower, because they were actually selecting individual grapes from each bunch to use. This was the careful picking I had heard Marcel was renowned for. The quality control in these fields was unbelievable. They threw about half the grapes they cut right onto the ground, just because they weren't good enough.
Oh yeah, and the parties? As I mentioned before, at Chateau Cambon I thought it was a stretch to stay up talking and drinking until midnight when we had to get up at 6:30 in the morning. At Domaine LaPierre, they didn't stop partying until 5 AM. Now some of those people partying didn't have to get up early, but I'm pretty sure some of them did. I went up to sleep at around midnight, when there were already a few others asleep, and the sounds of the partying continued at a fevered pitch, despite the fact that people were trying to sleep just one floor up. And when I say fevered pitch, I mean that people were laughing and screaming at the top of their lungs non-stop until 5 in the morning. On more than a few occasions several of the partyers would barge into the sleeping room, still yelling and laughing, at full-voice. They'd turn on all the lights, come in for a few minutes to chat (not whispering, again in a full voice) and then leave. On one occasion someone had apparently drunkenly fallen out of their bed, and several partygoers came in to laugh and point at him sleeping on the floor, again with the lights on. Needless to say, I didn't get very much sleep that night. I guess the only way to really sleep there was to drink yourself into a stupor so deep you wouldn't even notice you were suddenly on the floor instead of in your bed.
When I woke up the next day, after 8 days of harvesting, copious wine drinking, and very little sleep, I realized I had to get out of there. I spoke with Marcel, and he told me winemaking wouldn't really begin in earnest until the harvest was complete anyway. He said if I returned in a week, I'd really be able to learn some thing. So I packed my bags and ran back to quiet and comfortable Paris.