“You Can Break Everything:” a Conversation with Mathieu Lapierre

“You Can Break Everything:” a Conversation with Mathieu Lapierre

I should have been more nervous to interview Mathieu Lapierre — after all, he’s legend in the world of wine. His father Marcel was one of the famed Gang of Four, the Beaujolais winemakers who challenged industrial winemaking practices by returning to their parents’ way of making wines — what we call natural winemaking. They changed the way we think about, talk about, and make wine.

Despite this impressive legacy, our interview was anything but nerve-wracking. What I found was a winemaker who sincerely wants people to understand the work he and his sister, Camille, are doing, rather than revere them from a distance. Someone who tries to create connections between people who make wine and people who drink wine. Someone more interested in breaking down barriers than sitting atop them to take in the view. That this comes from someone like Mathieu, who is at the forefront of the natural wine movement, is insanely refreshing.

Mathieu and his sister Camille are winemakers in the Morgon cru of Beaujolais. They farm 18 hectares there, all organically. They harvest by hand, ferment with indigenous yeast, and interfere with the wine as little as possible. Making wine this way, naturally, is inherently risky. So Mathieu and Camille use a technique pioneered by Jules Chauvet to observe fermentation as it happens, under a microscope. Their careful attention to every detail of the vinification process results in some of the most incredible representations of the Morgon terroir.

In addition to their work in the vineyard and winery, Mathieu is active in the winemaking community. As the founder of Bien Boire en Beaujolais (Good Drinking in Beaujolais), he works to break down barriers between conventional and natural winemakers. To facilitate the making and enjoyment of good wine, rather than the construction of philosophical barriers between winemakers.

At the end of our conversation, Mathieu mentioned that he hates when people laud winemakers as artists — “It's more like a musician who has a sheet of music and you can interpret it badly or well,” he says. When we glorify winemakers, or certain wines or regions unduly, people lose their connection to the wine. They become afraid to say the wrong thing, write the wrong thing, drink the wrong thing.

 So here’s to no expectations, honest conversations, and good drinking.

This interview took place on February 15 with Mathieu Lapierre, Brittany Galbraith, and Sadie Williams. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

L-R: Mathieu, Camille, and Anne Lapierre. Photo by Loïc Terrier.

 

Britney: We have a lot of questions.

Sadie: We have so many questions. We're going to start with some basic ones. We're focusing a lot right now on trying to define, or redefine, what the phrase natural wine means — what it means today. I was wondering if you might be able to share what that term means to you, in this moment?

Mathieu: I often tell journalists — to be clear — that it means nothing. Vines naturally don't do wine. They don't care. You need a human being to work on it. For me, the [phrase] natural wine is more a definition [in opposition to] the industrial side of the wine, which [came about] in Beaujolais during the '80s, where the word was created and used that way for the first time.

Why Beaujolais? The history of Beaujolais [as a] popular wine in the army made the Beaujolais weaker against the new [techniques], low-cost winemaking, all those techniques finally which have permitted people to produce all those millions of bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau that’s not really drinkable, not really made with love and with passion. It was big quantities with, we say, low-cost making…because it was what it is.

During those times, you have to imagine my father, Marcel, and a new, small group of winemakers that Kermit has called the Gang of Four after a few of them — because they were a little bit more [than four] in Beaujolais to be true, but no more than 20 men and women working that way.

And “natural” was a way to define themself as going against modernity, or what people were calling modernity. Because they wanted the wine to taste like what they knew from their parents, before, when they were younger. They didn't recognize the Beaujolais style in that modern winemaking.

Sadie: That's interesting. They were at a point where they knew what it tasted like before the rise of industrial winemaking, but then things changed. They were like, we want to get back to what that is. We know what this is supposed to taste like.

Mathieu: My father went to wine school in Dijon, it was a pretty high diploma for those times. When he came back to work with my grandfather, he was [working] in the modern way. Over the course of three, four years, he made mistakes that the school taught him to make before realizing that he didn't want to drink the wine he was making. He wanted to drink the wine of his father.

What we can say for natural wine in Beaujolais is that Jules Chauvet — maybe you've heard that name — who was a négociant, he was a little bit famous as a winemaker in those times, but he was also a scientist. What he did is continue the study of Pasteur, then another lady called Michelle Fleuri in '40, '50. Nobody since, and between, has released a study of carbonic maceration and what really happens in that kind of fermentation, which is particular.

Jules gave [my father’s generation] the key to be able to make wine the way they wanted to, without sulfites. Then they were able to take risks and to start to work again as they did before. There is also Jacques Néauport who was important, but also Renée Boison. She was a microbiologist working with Chauvet.

She was the one who made all the microscopic observations counting, denominating the nature of the family of each yeast — the work we do now, she taught me to do it. We still use that kind of tool. Finally, we have created a way to watch wine under a microscope, which is used only by us.

Sadie: You watch it?

Mathieu: The way we watch the yeast during the fermentation. We don't deliver it to a lab. We don't do coloration. Usually, in labs, they use that. We watch it raw.

Sadie: You put it on a slide?

Mathieu: On the slide and we count directly. We observe by taking samples, not just anywhere from the vat, there is a precise way to take it. It's very efficient, but it was, in the end, created by the winemakers for their needs, not by the labs for their needs.

Brittany: So because of this observation that you can make throughout the fermentation process, it seems like it allows you to confidently make a no sulfur wine when certain vintages allow.

Mathieu: Yes. But nobody is Superman. In 2015, my sister and I were unable to vinify without sulfites because…the pH was really high, the acidity low. The situation for the bacteria was easier than for the yeast.

At the end of fermentation, we try everything, but it was not working so we had to sulfite everything. In the wine industry, you can use sulfites at the beginning of the grapes, on the liquid form. Then when you put grapes on your vat, then when you press, then when you put in barrels, and during all the keeping.

The first point with that, is first you will kill a lot of microorganisms, that will not act in your cuvée, you will kill the bad and the good ones, the enemies and the allies alike. So next you will need to add some life into the wine. That's why the yeast is used in that way. You clean, then you add the yeast you want.

By doing that, you reduce, in my opinion, the potential of complexity that you can have in your wine at the end, because when the yeast is coming from the terroir, it is giving you a real authenticity — it tastes [like] from where it come from.

Sadie: This leads into one of the questions that we have, which is what is a day in your life like in the winter, then in spring? What are you doing on a typical day?

Mathieu: In the winter is quite easy because, in the office, we have all the basic logistics, ordering the bottles, the labels, the boxes, being ready for the new vintage, taking care of the barrels. We have a little bit of analysis. Now will be the time for tasting. There are a lot of events in France and it's time to show the new vintage. Now, during the next month, it will be very busy for us because many events are happening one after the other.

Then it changes in spring when we start to spray [copper and seaweed potion] and take care of the leaf and all the green parts of the vines. We have to put the strings out. We have to spray the least amount as possible but in the best way possible. And in Spring and we have to plow the vines to be careful that the weeds will not invade the vines.

Sadie: You said that in the winter you're tasting all of the wines from your friends, all of the other people who are making Beaujolais?

Mathieu: Most of the time I do. I did it already but I tried to see how the vintage for the area was. Not just for…

Sadie: …How was it?

Mathieu: This year, you will have to taste before buying. The vintage was odd, a lot of sorting to do on the grapes and it's a shame but in Beaujolais Crus now, the harvest machine is allowed. It was the worst vintage to see that happening.

Brittany: How has being Marcel’s son affected your wine-making versus someone who might be first-generation, just starting out. What was that like and how has that shaped your perspectives?

Mathieu: All the mistakes Marcel did, I don't have to make them again. Camille, my sister, and I, we still write every day everything we do.

Sadie: Really?

Brittany: Like a journal?

Mathieu: My father did, my grandfather did, so we have like a bible of everything that happened in the winery from now to close to 80 years.

Brittany: Oh, my goodness.

Mathieu: We like to write it in a way that is clear. We don't write opinions. We write facts.

Sadie: “This is what happened, this is what we did.”

Mathieu: What happened with what we did, trying to be the least emotive possible. It's nice because the memory is the memory, and sometimes we have a vintage begin looking like another one, and we want to remember what kind of vinification we did for it? How many days of maceration? When did we press? What happened?

Sometimes what you remember, is not really what happened. It's nice to write everything. Also, it's a way for us to ask questions to our father and grandfather now, even though they are passed away.

Sadie: To be able to share that practice with them is so interesting, and valuable.

Brittany: Do you and Camille share winemaking or is one of you more in the vineyard and the other more in the winery?

Mathieu: No, we share everything.

Sadie: Everything?

Mathieu: Yes. Like a two-headed eagle.

Sadie: How long have you worked together now?

Mathieu: Camille join me back in 2013 at the winery. Now I don't have anything to teach her anymore. In the beginning, I had to teach her what I have [learned] with my father. All the basic things. That's why the Cuvée Camille exists. When she came back to the winery, she was sleeping too good during the vinification. I told her to choose a vat and I would not do anything ever to that vat. Only answering all questions with as many answers as I was able to do. Just to not influence her with premade ideas.

Brittany: That's a good teacher.

Mathieu: My father did that with me so I had that luck.

Brittany: What do you think is unique about your wines? What is special about Lapierre wines?

Mathieu: The care we put on the harvest. We do them manually we still, hire people for the harvest. We can have 100 [people] during two months for the harvest, with the pickers, the people in the cellar, the cooks, all of the team. We need [this many people] because this is a lot of handwork. We have some vintages that are really easy to harvest because the weather was nice. When it's easy to harvest you have to take care. It can be harder to vinify. And some vintages like 2021 are really hard to harvest, it takes a long time and we really do the job. The reason [people use] the harvest machine is the cost.

Sadie: They want to cut down on cost.

Mathieu: The cost for me for '21 was like 1.50 Euros per kilo to harvest. [With] the machine, it's 15 cents.

Sadie: Something that we are also interested in hearing about is — at least since I've started writing about wine — there's a lot of mythology about the Gang of Four and Beaujolais and the kind of renovation that happened at the beginning of this natural movement. This movement or resistance, I guess, is what maybe you called it. Do you think that there are any parts of those stories that people get wrong?

Mathieu: No, no, no. It's wider than they imagine, to be truthful.

Brittany: It's wider?

Mathieu: Yes.

Sadie: In what way?

Mathieu: In the way that the first natural winemaker meeting in Paris finished in a fight with journalists. In the way that, [that group was] really in conflict with other winemakers, who were mocking them and saying that they were in the past, but they didn't understand that they were the new stars. There was a bigger misunderstanding between them.

That's why 15 years ago, I created an association, BBB — Bien Boire en Beaujolais — so we can at least mix everybody together. To show that Beaujolais is finally a mix of…there are some good conventional winemakers. I love their wine. They could be organic, and some of them have changed since and are moving on.

There are also some organic winemakers that I don't really like their wine, to be true, but it's like that. And what's important finally, is to create a forum where everybody can meet and respect each other. It's too easy when you… when the natural winemakers laugh at the Biologique, we laugh at the conventional we laugh at the natural. We look like middle-aged farmers. The journalists can write that we are.

Brittany: That's incredible that you created this forum to bring people together.

Mathieu: It's working. And I think that sometimes the organic clan is not that open to others. It's like a disease. As soon as you become organic, you don't speak to the conventional winemaker anymore.

Sadie: That's so funny. Like you become…

Mathieu: I'm asking them, “Why do you act like that?” They said, "Yes, but the pain we're having to work is not the same, so we can not share or mix with them."

Sadie: It's very high school.

Mathieu: Exactly. The Old French mentality.

Sadie: They're like, “we can't relate. We have nothing to talk about.”

Mathieu: Yes, but no, it's changing slowly, but certainly.

Sadie: You said there are some conventional wines that you enjoy from Beaujolais?

Mathieu: Yes, yes, yes. Because they are not that conventional. You can see, the wine won’t be bad just because a winemaker uses a little bit of sulfite or that they do a filtration. I'm not an extremist with natural winemaking.

Sadie: Is there anything else that you would want to share with us about your winemaking or your journey as a winemaker?

Mathieu: What I can say? Yes, something that makes me laugh is that people in general, when they explain wine, it's like “He's the winemaker, he's got to create like an artist or something.” It's really not the case.

It's more like a musician who has a sheet of music and you can interpret it badly or well. Everything is already in the grapes. You can break everything. It's like cooking, you can burn the chicken but you can obviously do it nicely. I don't like when winemakers are adulated too much for what they are not.

Sadie: I like that it's like sheet music.

Mathieu: It's making people fear the bottle, then they feel unable to speak freely about wine and I really don't like that it's making all that culture around wine a little bit bourgeois.