Spotlight on the Maconnais wines of Jean and Gauthier Thevenet: Domaine de la Bongran Viré-Clessé 2010
The Thevenets are a founding family of modern Macon. Long before Lafon and Leroy purchased vineyards in the region, the Thevenets challenged the co-op, mass-production mentality of the Macon, focusing instead on biodynamic farming, late picking, and the early adoption of ‘naturalist’ techniques (before ‘natural wine’ was a thing). These wines are fascinating, important, and underappreciated. They deserve a mini three part spotlight.
A Common Thread with Distinct Terroirs
Jean Thevenet started with Domaine de la Bongran in the 1980’s, working alongside two other pioneers: Henri Goyard of Domaine Roally and Pierrette Guillemot of Domaine Guillemot-Michel. Jean’s son Gauthier founded his own domaine Emilian Gillet in 1988 using leased vines, and took over at Domaine Roally in 2000. All three domaines are vinified at the Thevenet domaine in Quintaine. All three domaines (along with Guillemot-Michel) share the distinction of originally being excluded from the village Viré-Clissé AOC because their wines contained residual sugar whereas appellation rules required all wines to contain less than 3g of the sweet stuff. In 2003, the heat caused all Viré-Clissé wines to have some residual sugar and the regulator finally allowed the domaines in. But this slight residual sugar style remains unique to these domains and is a signature of their approach to expressing their unique, and high quality, terroir.
Despite philosophy and vinification similarities, each of the three domains remain distinct due to the distinct holdings, and thus terroirs, of each.
Jean Thevenet: One of France’s Early Naturalists
Jean learned how to grow and make wine from his father, who founded the domaine. As Jean says in an interview with Louis Dressner, there were no oenology schools for him to attend back in the 1970’s! To give that context Jean says that at the time vignerons didn’t even know what malo-lactic fermentation was. It’s pretty astonishing to think how far wine science has come in 40 years.
In a region known for high yields and heavy use of chemicals, it is remarkable that Jean broke away from this, especially before wine-science and understanding of diversity was anywhere close to what it is today. He stopped using most chemicals in the vineyard quite early in the 70’s and found this enhanced biodiversity. Today this seems obvious, but it was not 40 years ago, and doing so took a singular determination. As Jean says, “Here’s the thing. If you’re doing something one way, you can’t get caught up in what others are doing or saying. You have to know what you want, and you have to stay focused. I believe I get better wine by working this way, so I persevere.”
Thevenet’s approach to naturalism is not focused on eliminating SO2 entirely. He is much more practical and nuanced in his approach. Many young natural wine lovers and makers should take heed of his words, as one of the founders of the movement. In particular, he offers a simple history lesson: “If you want to talk about the first time the term “natural wine” was used, you need to go back to 1910. This was a period when vignerons were having trouble selling their wines because they had to compete with fabricated ones. One was wine made with ripe grapes from a vineyard, the other was made just like beer (and was full of undesirable chemical products). There was this one guy who had a cafe and loved good wine, and he started defending them by selling them as “natural wines”. He got into a lot of trouble for this, and eventually went bankrupt.”
What he means by this is “natural” wine is a marketing ploy – the name itself, and the adherence to the phenomenon. He cares much more about making careful decisions that avoid both excess and insufficiency. As such, he recalls that Chauvet discovered the problem of excessive SO2 use while trying to reduce the amount of hydrogen sulfide in the finished wine. The reason? Too much smelled like rotten eggs. He realized that adding SO2 during alcoholic fermentation lead to this. This was for red wine, not white, in Moulin-à-Vent, next door in Beaujolais.
Adding to the nuance, Thevenet, a white wine maker, says SO2 is essential to properly ‘police’ the fermentation and avoid unwanted elements. However, needing too much SO2 means something is wrong with the base material, likening excess sulphur to a city in a police state and no SO2 to a city without any police force. The point is, SO2 should be limited, but not eliminated. And Thevenet, one of the original ‘naturalists’, says this was Chauvet’s point.
From Method to Terroir
Domaine de la Bongran uses very long natural ferments – usually around 2 years. However, Thevenet does not believe in long wood ageing as he believes this contributed to premox. As such, after fermentation, ageing takes place mostly in bottle. The wines are then released several years after vintage. Accordingly, recent releases are usually 5+ years old already!
The residual sugar is part of the terroir, and always has been, says Jean. Bottles from the 1920’s show as much as 10g/l. The slopes in Quintaine his father purchased in 1915 have clay and white marl soils, and naturally produce a more opulent style that yet retains cut. Today the vines are 40-60 years old, adding considerably to the wine’s complex character. It is one of France’s best and most important estates.
Domaine de la Bongran is unlike any Chardonnay you have had before. The aromas of spice, pear, and apple are intense. The palate is rich with honey, several types of pear, key lime, and long minerality. The palate is extremely dense and rich, but there is considerable acidity that makes the wine feel dry, though it is not. These wines are remarkable expressions of terroir, some of the most intriguing wines in France, and among the most singular expressions of Chardonnay in the world. They are among my favourite ‘insider’ wines for which I have deep personal affection.
Excellent to Excellent+ and Highly Recommended Value
$62 + tax at Liberty Wines