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The following essay was written by Burgundy winemaker Philippe Pacalet, as an introduction to a collection of Jules Chauvet's studies on yeasts, techniques of vinification, carbonic maceration and malolactic fermentation. Considered to be the "father" of French natural winemaking, Chauvet was a Beaujolais negociant, taster and chemist whose studies and opinions, from the 1940's till his death in 1989, encouraged and made possible more natural methods, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. We see his influence, for example, in the work of Marcel Lapierre and others in the Beaujolais beginning in the early 1980's, and in the thriving natural wine movement today in France and Italy. We thank Jean-Paul Rocher, Editeur (Paris) for permission and for making many publications about Chauvet available. Further information can be found on the excellent website morethanorganic.com, and at LouisDressner.com (the principal importer of natural wines into the US)
Introduction by Philippe Pacalet
Jules Chauvet - Etudes Scientifiques
One must keep in mind that Jules Chauvet loved beauty and the complexity of nature and that he said that he wanted to study nature in order to know what was needed to work with her rather than against her. It’s thus that he advised against the use of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers which imbalance the life of the soil of our terroirs.
In effect a terroir is a relation of the delicate balance between man, the soil (composition, microclimate, exposition) the vine and the climate. The link between all this is the biomass, that is to say the microflora of yeasts and bacteria.
A soil that “ferments well” possesses aerobic and anaerobic bacteria which assure the nutrition of the plant in decomposing and transforming the organic substances and minerals so that they may be in assimilable form – this is fertility. Thus all the methods which will maintain and assure the perennial nature of this life, such as the different types of compost (manures, vegetable matter, etc.) and organic cultivation will be appropriate. Let’s remember that natural composts were utilized by the Cistercian monks of the Middle Ages as the lands they first worked possessed very meager and poor soils. These composts, animal and vegetal, acted as a leaven to bring life into the soils and to make them “ferment,” that is to create a reaction with the mineral substances and to transform them into a soil that is able to welcome the vine. This technique, used over the centuries, is the origin of our Burgundian terroirs.
Elsewhere, Chauvet showed in his studies on indigenous yeasts, that these had as their origin soils of great variety, as much in their organic and mineral composition as in their microclimates and topographies. The same techniques of cultivation which favor the perennial life of the vine in its terroir (plowing, organic farming, natural composting) preserve these yeast flora, qualitatively and quantitatively, to assure a transformation of the grape into wine conforming to its place of origin and vintage. Chauvet understood the negative impact of the utilization of pesticides in the vineyard and of sulfur dioxide in the cuverie on the yeast floras present on the grape skins. These products inhibit the action of the native yeasts, prohibiting them from delivering the sensory information unique to the terroir.
To have as a final product, a wine which possesses the most characteristics of the place from which it comes, it’s necessary to have a healthy and unique biomass. I would say that the main theme in all Chauvet’s work is how to make a wine of “pure origine”. The scientific publications of Chauvet enable us to most effectively use the biomass and the phenomena and mechanisms of fermentation, thus enabling the winemaker to most faithfully express the essence of his terroir. “Natural vinification” – It’s the wise, attentive and least interventionist accompaniment possible of the transformation of grape into wine.
His work on carbonic maceration demonstrated the utilization of whole grapes while covering the vat with carbon dioxide, which one is able to conduct according to the viticultural region and wines. Carbonic maceration was shown to be appropriate for the varieties Gamay and Grenache and semi-carbonic, that is to say with pumping over, for other varieties like Pinot Noir, Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan, etc. Its’ effects on the extraction of fruit, thermic regulation of the alcoholic fermentation by the stems, and anaerobic prcesses within the grape that contribute to the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations, etc., were also explored by Chauvet. And then his work on the fermentative yeasts; their origin, identification and role in the elaboration of aromas demonstrating the importance of indigenous yeasts to obtain wines having the organoleptic characteristics of the terroir from which they come. He demonstated to wine-makers and oenologists the essential role of native yeasts, their variability and qualities linked to an “organic” viticulture, in the production of complex and different aromas which confer to each terroir its’ unique sensory signature.
Chauvet’s publications posed the scientific basis for the vinification of red wines without addition of sulfur dioxide. In effect SO2 is by definition anti-fermentative – it interferes, disturbs and modifies the original information transcribed during fermentation and severely reduces the expression of terroir.
The entire theme dedicated to indigenous yeasts is eloquent on this subject: to make a wine of terroir, one must utilize the biomass (yeasts, bacterias, funghi, microbial life) existing in this terroir. The quality of these native yeasts, that is to say their biodiversity, is essentially tied to this notion of terroir. The different types of yeasts which succeed each other in the course of the alcoholic fermentation are thus a “key” which reveals to us the vineyard’s unique characteristics and typicity.
The processes of fermentation are energetic phenomena which change the physical/chemical state of the materials that undergo them and, for wine, those who drink it. This energy, which is information in movement accumulated during fermentation, provokes in us, as we drink a “real wine”, both sensory emotions and well-being, which go far beyond pleasure, and touch us and balance us, in the deepest manner, in our cells. In our modern epoch, when we consume more and more dead and artificial products which separate us from our true nature and affect our minds and our health, “real wine” is a source of life bringing us equilibrium and resonance with ourselves, others and our environment.
In conclusion, the last time I saw Jules Chauvet, in June of 1989, he said, to encourage me, “Monsieur Pacalet, make wine with beautiful aromas.” (Faites un vin avec un joli parfum)
Translated and edited by D.Lillie. We thank Philippe Pacalet for his permission (and his wine).