Just after this year's harvest in France we talked to Raphael and Cristelle from Domaine Leonis, some of the loveliest producers in Beaujolais. Now with their latest release in store, we wanted to share with you all what we had learned.
I first met Raph and Cristelle by chance, during a lunch at Éphémère, a small restaurant in Vauxrenard run by the absolutely gorgeous Gusta van Walsem. This place deserves its own interview some day and is also home to another outstanding producer, Yvon Métras.
That day, I sat down with Raph & Cristelle, got chatting and ended up spending the night at their domaine. I learned about their winemaking practices and more importantly learned that good Beaujolais can stand the test of time and is often better for it. We drank through their entire library stock and was taken back by how well their wines age. Their wines, hospitality and passion for what they do left such an impression on me that when I ended up back here in New Zealand I knew we needed to get these gems into the shop ASAP.
Thanks for your time Raph, can we start with a little background chat? Tell us about yourself and how you and Cristelle ended up where you are today.
Serendipitous! So what made you come back to the family business and get more involved in wine in the first place?
At the beginning of the 2000s, I went to Switzerland for a harvest and it was a wakeup call for how much I missed and loved working on the land with vines and wine. Cristelle dove enthusiastically into world of wine when we met and we continued down this wonderful rabbit hole.
When I came back from Switzerland, I found a job on the biggest estate in my native village of Odenas, because my brothers were already working the family vineyards. After that, with the project of having my own estate when I was ready firmly in mind, I moved to a more human-sized estate where the owner was just starting to convert to organic farming. In 2009, I was able to start making my dream a reality when I rented my first 0.6-hectare vineyard to tend and vinify exactly in the way I wanted. Then, in 2011, it really took off, with our first vatroom and cellars with enough land to make a decent living and a house and garden as part of the package – I also took charge of one of the family vineyards that year.
And what a beautiful place you have. You guys have really come such a long way, and there's still room to grow isn't there?
Yep, our next big step was in 2014 when we bought a very steep vineyard on Mont Brouilly in the Côte de Brouilly appellation area.
Then, in November 2014, we found estate buildings of our own, we were delighted! Since then, not only our vineyards but also our home are being cared for using traditional materials and methods that respect both nature and its inhabitants.
Today, we tend each of our 7.5 hectares of vineyards organically and we vinify the grapes they produce using nature as our guide, accompanying the resulting juices to get the very best of our terroirs.
Our next big project is to add to the appellations we already craft (Beaujolais Villages, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly) with a 2 ha vineyard in the Régnié appellation area, which will take us 3 years to officially convert to organic.
That's so exciting. We look forward to seeing how it all unfolds. So, beside from your family, what made you want to farm in Beaujolais in particular?
Not only was I born and bred here, Cristelle has shown me my native region through new eyes. Here is where geology and topography come together to make a perfect home for us and the Gamay grape.
It's such a great wine growing region. What is your most treasured wine related memory?
Our best wine memory is a shared one. An evening spent with a group of other winemakers from all over France on the banks of the Loire River. Sharing wines, sharing experiences... the reason we continue doing what we do.
That must have been during La Dive! How has 2020 been both in the vineyard and in the cellar?
This year, again, was hot, a heatwave with very little rainfall, meaning that picking order required a lot of careful organisation for each plot to be picked at peak ripeness. While the downside was quite low yields, we are very, very happy with the balanced quality of the grapes! Last year, we got rain at the end of July, meaning that the vines weren’t under water stress and ripening followed a more conventional path.
How would you sum up what you are doing?
Two entities, one vision of wine, one estate!
Powerful! How would describe your wine growing philosophy?
Our vine tending techniques are accredited organic. So we work to develop the biodiversity of our vineyards, making protection of the environment pivotal in our approach. The methods we use to tend the vines preserve micro-organic diversity in the soil, allowing the roots to draw on far greater resources and giving depth to the wines’ aromas and flavours.
Tell us about the three vineyards you are farming? What is unique about them?
Our vineyards are mainly made up of old vines planted in very distinctive terroirs.
We work two plots in the Brouilly appellation area. One is planted with vines that are over 70 years old. It is southwest facing and the soil is silt over deep granite. The second is southeast facing, the vines are over 75 years old and the soil is made up of colluvium, limestone and fine clay.
Côte de Brouilly
Here the single plot can be divided in two by the age of the vines. At the upper end, the vines are so old as to no longer have an age; lower down, the average vine age is 90 years old. The slope is southwest facing and the soil is made up of diorite and granitic arena.
Two of the three plots are 80 years old. They are fully south facing and the soil is granitic sand. The third is planted with vines of an average age of 30 years old. It is also fully south facing and on granitic sand soil.
How would you describe your winemaking practices?
We vinify allowing the natural expression of our terroirs to shine through. Vinification is in whole bunches with absolutely no addition of chemical additives; all yeasts are indigenous. Bottling is at the correct phase of the lunar cycle.
Each of our wines gets its individual personality from a combination of the specific land the vines grow in and the age of those vines. Maturing is in carefully selected old barrels and in vats.
Okay, so last question. If there was one wine from our shop you would be interested in trying... what would it be?
We would be very interested in trying Haggis, by Patrick Sullivan!
Excellent choice! Thanks so much for your time Raph, we are stoked to stock your wines and are loving the new release!