10 February 2017

n.d.p. in maconnais: château des rontets, fuissé

The forecast called for rain, but my friend E and I had passed a perfectly calm, sunny day visiting winemakers around Saint-Amour last July. Among the crus of Beaujolais, Saint-Amour is a curious culture unto itself, a throwback to the era of négoçiant supremacy, an economy kept afloat by the unthinkably dumb people in France and abroad who regularly purchase the wine for Saint Valentine's Day. (I have never met anyone who has done this, but apparently such people exist. Just thinking about them makes me feel better about the invariably inconsequential gestures I muster for the same holiday.)

Not the most ravishing day of tasting, in short. But we had a pleasant makeshift lunch on the picnic tables in the square in Leynes, where later, in a quest to find coffee, we entered a truly strange, deserted bar, overrun with dogs and exotic birds. The owner descended from upstairs before we could scram, so Nespresso it was. We asked to sit on the terrace. The sky had begun to cloud over.

E and I huffed our cigarettes, bolted our bad coffees, and pulled on our helmets. I seem to remember it was a straight shot up a knobbly one-lane road to our last appointment of the day, where, finally, we'd taste some Saint-Amour worth falling for, along with some stunning Pouilly-Fuissés. It felt somehow appropriate, skidding up to the gates of the Château des Rontets at precisely the moment the storm broke.

I soon had the pleasure of making introductions with winemaker Fabio Montrasi under pelting rain. "I had your wine in Paris once!" I cried. "I'm writing a book on the Beaujolais!"

Montrasi soon ushered us inside. I paused to snap what I knew would be my only terrible photo of Château des Rontets' vines for the visit.

Clos Varambon in the rain.
Montrasi's wife and winemaking partner, Claire Gazeau, was absent on the day we visited. The couple met during their former careers as architects, before moving to the château, which was in Claire's family, in 1995. They had both taken winemaking courses as Macon-Davayé in preparation for their new life as vignerons, and immediately set about converting the domaine to organic agriculture, for which they became certified in 2005.

Despite 22 years in the region, Montrasi somehow evinces the energy and open-mindedness of someone just embarking on his second career. I sense that over their time in the region the couple has proceeded slowly, but methodically, to increasingly natural vinification practices, refining them as they go, with the result that certain cuvées have only recently begun to reveal their true potential.

Their Saint-Amour is the most obvious example. It derives from the Côte de Besset lieu-dit, a half-hectare parcel the couple recovered from a métayer in 2005. I remember really disliking the bottle of 2014 I tasted once in Paris, finding it too strict and probably over-sulfured. Yet the 2015 - a much more difficult vintage - was showing marvelously from tank that day.

Montrasi remembers the first two vintages being marred with bret. "With the time it goes away a bit, but it was quite savage," he says. There followed several vintages of hail. "Let’s say 2009 was the first year that things began to put themselves in place. Now it goes better. We continue to vinify in the same way: it’s a carbonic maceration without sulfur, a pure carbo, without pumping over or pigeage."

The 2015 was an 18-day maceration beginning at ambient temperatures. Gazeau and Montrasi do not filter the wine, and I was happy to taste it intact and unchanged later in the year, after bottling, at YARD Restaurant in Paris. With the potential exception of an astonishingly great tank sample of Georges Descombes' new 2016 Saint-Amour, which I tasted this past weekend at La Dive Bouteille, the Saint-Amour of Château des Rontets is since 2015 the breakaway quality leader of the appellation. The couple's 2016, also tasted from tank sample this past weekend, is also in a brilliant place, limpid and floral, with a compelling earth note on the finish.

When Montrasi showed us the cuvage, I remember being surprised at its small size. Most of the year it is their shipping and labeling area.

"We don’t have much volume of wine," Montrasi explained. "Here we use just for the debourbage and the pressing, then the fermentation all goes on in the cellar."

The couple's three principal cuvées of Pouilly-Fuissé are all vinified in oak barrel, of which only a very small proportion is new. Their "Clos Varambon" and "Les Birbettes" bottlings are both produced from the clos surrounding the château, while "Pierres Folles" is produced from an unusual granite-soiled parcel at the top of the "Vers Chanes" lieu-dit a little further south.

"Pierre Folles," aged in 400L foudres, is predictably the outlier, its monochrome white fruit and light heat tending to show a little clumsy beside the other two cuvées. Still, it's a style of chardonnay that has no shortage of fans.

"In general it gives wines that are larger, a little less vertical, a bit wider, which are generally better in years with more freshness," Montrasi acknowledges. "They have the tendency to be too rich and round in hotter years."

In a similar register, the couple produced a one-off wine in 2015 they titled "Una Tantum," meaning, "one time" in Latin. It's an assemblage of the fin de press from all their cuvées, which from this hot vintage means it's quite heavyset and glycerolic, with banana shortcake profile. 

For years now, the couple's winemaking ideals have found best expression in "Clos Varambon" and its old-vine counterpart, "Les Birbettes," 

These are scintillating, delicate Pouilly-Fuissés, blossomy, mineral-cored. "Les Birbets" sees 20 months oak-aging and emerges significantly more coiled. Both wines are lately hitting an impressive sweet spot, just pure enough to please natural wine aficionados while pristine enough not to offend anyone else.

The couple add low quantities of sulfur during elevage and at bottling. Montrasi admits he isn't a fan of the more oxidative styles of chardonnay one encounters in natural wine circles. "I perceive that it displaces the wine," he says. "The oxidative aroma is not the one that interests me the most."

This sensibility sometimes feels rare lately among vignerons who work as naturally as Gazeau and Montrasi. Montrasi, for his part, is used to being an outsider. Before we left, we spoke briefly about the wines of his native Lombardy. He professed he didn't know them at all, and I suddenly appreciated just how far he's come since his architecture days. 

"I started to drink a bit of alcohol at 27 years old," he says. "When I was little I must have drunk the leftover glasses, and I got very sick, and after that I couldn’t even smell alcohol for a long time."

Château des Rontets
71960 Fuissé
Tel: 03 85 32 90 18

Related Links:

A good profile of Château des Rontets at the site of their US importer, T. Edward Wines.
A long profile in Italian of Gazeau and Montrasi at Reporter Gourmet.
A long, idiosyncratic French interview with Montrasi at Phileas Wine Club.

Beaujolais 2016:

Nicolas Dubost, Saint-Germain-sur-l'Arbresle
Romain des Grottes, Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières
Yann Bertrand's First Primeur
Beaujolais Harvests 2016
Christophe Pacalet, Cercié
Sylvère Trichard & Elodie Bouvard (Séléné), Blacé
Jérome Balmet, Vaux-en-Beaujolais
L'Auberge du Moulin, Saint-Didier-sur-Chalaronne
Jean-François Promonet, Leynes
Hervé Ravera, Marchampt
Justin Dutraive, Fleurie
Julien Merle & Nathalie Banes, Legny
La Fête des Conscrits, Villié-Morgon
Domaine Leonis (Raphael Champier & Christelle Lucca), Villié-Morgon

Beaujolais, Autumn 2015:

Xavier Benier, Saint-Julien
Jean-Gilles Chasselay, Châtillon d'Azergues
Marcel Joubert, Quincié
Nicolas Chemarin, Marchampt
Anthony Thévenet, Villié-Morgon
Romain Zordan, Fleurie
Yann Bertrand, Fleurie
Domaine Thillardon, Chénas
Sylvain Chanudet, Fleurie
Patrick "Jo" Cotton, Saint-Lager
Pierre Cotton, Odenas
L'Auberge du Col du Truges, Le Truges
Julie Balagny, Moulin-à-Vent
La Cuvée des Copines 2015
Beaujolais Harvests 2015

Beaujolais Bike Trip, Summer 2015:

Georges Descombes, Vermont
Jean-Paul Thévenet, Pizay
Jules Métras, Fleurie
Rémi et Laurence Dufaitre, Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières
Jean-Claude Lapalu, Saint-Etienne-La-Varenne
Benoit Camus, Ville-sur-Jarnioux

1 comment:

  1. Here in the US we tend only to see Billards St. Amour. It has a good reputation, though I can't recall whether I've ever tried it.