I'd like to take the opportunity to thank Nick Mills of 'Rippon Vineyard' for pointing Winefullness Magazine in the direction of Claire Chasselay because not only does she produce a range of wines that really excite the tastebuds, she a is winemaker who more than talks the talk when it comes to biological practices in the vineyard.
At Domaine Chasseley, they use zero pesticides and zero chemicals, and she (although she is ably assisted by other members of the Chasselay Family) tries to avoid producing wines that contain sulphites.
The wines they produce taste of the terroir they are grown in, and if you think that the Beaujolais coming out of the domaine is yet another version of the November wine that is rushed to the market, then grab a bottle, make some time and try to contain the smile that will result from tasting a wine of breeding. Better still, don't hide the smile and tell others why you are feeling rather happy with yourself.
I feel so pleased that Claire has agreed to answer my questions and I start off by going back to the roots of what makes Domaine Chasselay one of the legends of Beaujolais.
Winefullness Magazine: You’re one of the oldest wineries in Beaujolais. What do you think is the secret of your longevity?
Claire Chasselay: I don't know, I could tell you the passion, since that's what I received from my parents. For my ancestors I don't know.
Winefullness: What was your first oenological memory?
Claire: The very first? I would say the taste of the first juice that comes out of the press (Paradise) and that we had the right to taste as a child.
Winefullness: Do you feel that Beaujolais wines gather the respect they deserve, or are they a prisoner of the ‘Beaujolais Nouveau’ image?
Claire: I think things have changed a lot. Today those who criticize Beaujolais by referring to the new one pass for ignoramuses. Most wine merchants, restaurateurs, journalists and amateurs are unanimous: Beaujolais is good!
Winefullness: Doesn’t the idea of terroir show that to be a French winemaker you need to have the soul of a poet?
Claire: No, I don't believe in metaphors like that. It's pretty on paper but it has nothing to do with poetry in my opinion. To understand your terroir, I think you have to be a good farmer, set foot in your land every day, see it evolve with the seasons and changes of rhythm. You have to be a keen observer, you have to understand, analyze constantly, try, make mistakes, start again... Which does not prevent you from loving poetry of course but it has nothing to do with it ????
Winefullness: You were one of the pioneers of organic agriculture. How was this perceived when you started working this way?
Claire: We were taken for marginals, my teacher of viticulture at school did not believe it ...
The hardest thing at the time was not so much the discouragement of those who did not believe in us, but rather the lack of help and knowledge from our governing bodies such as the Chamber of Agriculture for example. Our mechanics saw us arriving with ploughs and hadn't touched one in a long time. So we had to put everything in place. Today the system is better established, even if there are still efforts to be made to help the transition to organic.
Winefullness: Does history weight heavily because of how long the winery has been in the family?
Claire: No, it's just a date, I only know my father's story actually. He is my mentor, he is the one who built himself as he is, and it is only he who transmitted this passion for the profession to me. I have no other exchanges with my grandfather because our generations are too far away and I became a winemaker on a date when he no longer wanted to discuss wine.
Winefullness: For those who are new to the wines of Domaine Chasselay, which would you say typifies your work, and which are the wines people should seek out as unusual?
Claire: We try to make wine that transcribes as much as possible the taste of the grape and the terroir on which it grows. The terroir is an abstract notion for
many, but the fact of tasting a cuvée that grows on clay and limestone and another cuvée that grows on granite, you work them in the same way and yet you will get very different aromas.
Winefullness: France, seems to be a wine nation that is embedded in regulations. Is this a blessing or a curse?
Claire: Ahah, yes indeed it is. There is good and least good. This is a topic that deserves a full article because the history of AOC's is long. But what you need to know is that regulations are created on all sides by winegrowers and it is they themselves who set the rules, but once they are created, it then becomes complicated to make them evolve over the decades. For example, today, in Beaujolais, a collective is fighting for the percentages to be revised upwards because climate change pushes us to have higher rates in our wines, but some years ago a rule was set.
Winefullness: What do you do to relax?
Claire: I draw a lot, I read, I walk in the woods with my husband and boys, I eat out.
Winefullness: Apart from your own wines, which are your favourites?
Claire: I love Beaujolais, so I admire many winemakers in my region (Métra, Dutraive, Lapierre, Foillard, Thillardon ...)
I am a fan of Muscadet (Vincent Caillé's in particular)
I really like Jura wines, white and red, (Tissot, Domaine de la Tournelle, Labet, Bornard ... )
I love some cuvées with freshness such as the wines of Nicolas Renaud (Clos des Grillon), Julien Guillot or the Susucaru of Corneliessen.
And for the beautiful occasions I take out a great Chenin from Jo Pithon
Winefullness: In the main your wines are made without sulphites has this made it difficult to produce wines that age?
Claire: I'll tell you that in 20 years ???? I personally, I make wines to drink them, even I have trouble keeping wines, I drink too much or I have too many friends, I don't know anything about it!!
I especially think that sulphite-free wines are more digestible, and the ageing quality of the wine comes mainly from itself, nice acids and correct pH provide enough structure to the wines to be kept.
I am not a soothsayer, but the dose of sulphite added to the wine is more than enough to protect it. After, indeed, it is not necessary to keep the wines next to the oven and respect the temperatures of guarding.
Winefullness: Who do you admire and why?
Claire: My mother, because it's the bright shadow of the family!! Without her, nothing would have been possible. Today, at almost 40 years old, I realize this. She raised us, my brother and I, worked on the estate with her in-laws and then with my father, to endure the hard knocks, I have the impression that she is invincible!! I would never be as strong as she is for sure, but I am grateful to her for raising us in this way and leading the field to where it is today.
Winefullness: Your wines are remarkably cheap, and yet you are very involved in the production. How do you achieve this?
Claire: It is a story of Histoire, We have always had low prices in the Beaujolais, yet the vines are often sloping and the work is more difficult than in many vineyards at high prices. Things are changing, but slowly. Today, organic estates should sell wine at the right price to live decently.
Winefullness: Where is the best view from your vineyards, and what would I see?
Claire: I like the view of the vineyard of Châtillon sur Bayère, we overlook the castle of the village which is magnificent.
Winefullness: Europe has been suffering a series of poor harvests. Has this been the case for you?
Claire: Yes in 2021, but the juices are beautiful so we forget slowly. One year chases another. Today, we are only thinking about the 2022 harvest and we are crossing our fingers that the winter mornings will last a little longer.
Winefullness: Outside of France, where would you say is the biggest market for your wines?
Claire: USA, Canada, Japan, Belgium ...
Winefullness: Is there a question you wished I’d have asked you, and how would you have answered it?
Claire: "How are you?"
"Well, thank you, what about you?"
Winefullness: Where next for Domaine Chasselay?
Claire: We live from day to day, being as happy as possible.
Winefullness Magazine: Who do you think would make an interview subject for Winefullness Magazine to interview?
Claire Chasselay: Vincent Caillé in the Muscadet, Domaine du Fay d'homme
I'm sure that after reading her words you'll be searching for the wines of Domaine Chasselay.
If you're up for the trip then they are based twenty-five kilometres north west of Lyon, and for more than six centuries they have been working at making the best wines that they know how to.
Next time I'm in the area I will certainly be heading for a visit, a chat and a taste of their superb wines, but in the mean time...
One to Try
Domaine Chasselay - Beaujolais Nouveau
This shows a mixture of raspberry and dark cherry bathed in a wonderful ruby red colour.
I'm getting herbs and green peppers, along with a scrumptious blackcurrant flavour that is so welcoming it feels like a homecoming!
There's a freshness that comes from the high acidity. The light tannins and medium body make this a very quaffable wine. A good introduction to a great producer.
6 out of 7