Julie Balagny landed in Fleurie in 2009 after many years heading the cellar of biodynamic pioneers Terre des Chardons. Originally from Paris, wine was always part of Julie's life, but her first career seemed destined to be in the field of psychomotricity, the process of teaching basic motor skills to the mentally handicapped. But, as you might have guessed from us importing her wines, she changed her mind.
After heading the cellar of a more "chemical" estate, then Terre des Chardons, Julie decided it was time to start her own project. With her sites on either the Beaujolais or the Jura, she did some research, and with the help of Yvon Métras and Michel Vigner, was able to purchase her current property, an isolated clos with 3.2 h. of vines, 2 h. of prairies and 3 h. of woods. Inspired by her past experience at Terre des Chardons, Julie quickly saw the biodynamic potential of this land:
"The vines support the woods, the woods supply the livestock (Julie owns and tends sheep), the livestock supplies the soil: everything works together, everything is coherent."
The vineyard site, apart from being idyllically beautiful, has proven to be a very interesting terroir. As mentioned above, the vines are completely isolated and surrounded by woods. The vines themselves are on a very steep hill, making any mechanical work impossible and forcing Julie to do everything by hand. Everything is planted together, but the vines vary drastically in age (30 to 90) and are grown on three separate, distinct soil compositions: pure granite mixed with pebbles and sand, granite and quartz and granite with basalt. In an effort to best understand and express these terroirs, 3 bottlings are produced in normal vintages: Cayenne, Simone and En Rémont.
This interview with Julie Balagny took place at L'Herbe Rouge in February, 2012.
Tell us about the the estate.
I settled in Fleurie in 2009. Before that I worked in the South (between Perpignan and Nîmes) for about 11 years. In Perpignan I got a BTS working at a larger, more "chemical" estate, where I more or less became the head of the cellar. After that I worked at Terre des Chardons, who work biodynamically and with simpler vinification practices. When I decided it was time to start my own estate, I had my mind set on either Fleurie or in the Jura. I was able to find my parcel through Yvan Métras, who put me in touch with Michel Vigner. I instantly fell in love with this 3.2 hectare parcel, all bunched together in the middle of the woods, next to the river... The property also included 2 h of prairies and 3 h of woods, and in the spirit of working biodynamically, I knew this was a perfect place to start a polyculture. The vines support the woods, the woods supply the livestock, the livestock supplies the soil: everything works together, everything is coherent.
Why Fleurie or Jura?
Because it's what I like to drink, because it goes down easy, because the terroirs are rich and complex... When you drink Beaujolais or Jura, you know you're drinking something unique that can't be recreated anywhere else. They're something very French about them...
How did you get involved in wine?
I was born and raised in Paris. As a little girl, I was fascinated with wine; I'd see my mom spending all day in the kitchen cooking, then having my dad come home with a bottle, putting it on the table: how it was just as important as the food. This marked me. I was always amazed how people took such pleasure in drinking wine, and wondered how something so magic and special could come out of a bottle.
In college I studied psychomotricity, the process of teaching basic motor skills to the mentally handicapped, and at the time it seemed like it was going to be my career. But I changed my mind!
What's the work in the vines like?
My vines are all on a steep slope, and it's impossible to work mechanically. You can't even work with a horse because he'd have no room to turn at the top and bottom of each row. So everything is done by hand, by pick and winch.
And in the cellar?
Cold carbonic maceration, no remontage, no pigeage. Whole cluster. I have a very old manual wood press that I use, and then I have a few barrels.
What's it like to not have any neighbors? Also, how did the choice of making several cuvées from the same parcel come about?
The choice to make different cuvées was an obvious one: there are three different soil types that are visually evident (if you're here you can actually see the difference), and vinifying them separately lets me get to know my vines better. The soils are: pure granite mixed with pebbles and sand, granite and quartz and granite with basalt.
How old are the vines?
The youngest are 30 and the oldest are 90.
Who owned them before you?
It was owned by some guy involved in sharecropping, and the entirety of the harvest went to the cave cooperative. They were worked chemically, so they are still in conversion.
Where do you stand on "Natural Wine"?
I don't feel integrated in it, or feel in any way like an extremist. I think the point is to be a vigneron, to work with each vintage and to use as little intervention as possible. A wine has to be good, and everyone has to like it. Well maybe not everybody... But at least most! I can't stand flawed, dirty wine. If I can work sulfur free, I go for it. It's not so I can say I don't work with sulfur, it's a choice based on ever changing circumstances. So far it's worked, so I do it.
Do you have any future plans for the estate?
I think it will remain as is in size. As I mentioned earlier, the real evolution I hope to achieve will come from working with livestock and the woods. If their were to be an expansion, I'd rather do it to help a young vigneron get started. There would be room to assist each other, to share tools, know-how and manual labor. Other than that...
What do you like to drink besides Jura and Beaujolais?
Burgundy! I'm not against Champagne either! I also love Alsacian Pinot Noir.
This visit with Julie Balagny took place in June, 2012.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Maya Pedersen.
Julie Balagny lives in the Hauts De Poncié, a hamlet on the very top of Fleurie. Her house sits on the top of a hill. She has no neighbors, as the house is completely surrounded by vines (that are not hers).
After Julie greeted us, we got to meet her pet rabbit Wiggles.
We were parched, so Julie offered to cool us down with this delicious rasberry nectar from Patrick Front.
It was a good time to talk about how 2012 was going. Julie was spared from hail, but has been getting an average of 30-40mm of rain per week. She suffered a little frost damage, but nothing serious. As far as 2011, it was a great vintage quantity wise, but she suffered a few setbacks. Basically, she wanted to help two local new guys out, so she let them vinify their harvests in the cellar that she rents. Unfortunately, their inexperience led to some poor decisions, creating microbiological issues in the tanks. Barely dodging a bullet, Julie was able to salvage her wine with some quick re-racking, and this improvised move forced her to consolidate some of the juices, thus affecting her usual lineup of cuvées. 2011 will birth a new, perhaps one-off bottling called Carioca. It should be bottled in late August/early September. The Simone wine will be aged even longer.
After sipping on nectar and talking shop, it was time to hop into the 4x4 and check out the vines. Over the six kilometer drive to get there, Julie pointed out some vines that are part of new fad sweeping the Beaujolais: ripping out one in six rows to make more room for a large tractor to spread (chemical) treatments over the remaining five. Because of its horrible reputation, Beaujolais is really struggling; the only people investing on a large scale are bigger companies who are quickly buying up large portions of land. In the process, they are furthering the mechanization of the local viticultural landscape. We also passed by an abandoned parcel where the owners had killed all the vines with Roundup.
"It's obviously completely illegal, but it's a lot cheaper than ripping them out."
After getting out of the village and maneuvering through some isolated paths through the woods, you find yourself in Julie's completely isolated clos of 3,2 hectares at 510 meters in altitude.
Julie is about to add fences around the vines to keep wild animals out. She is also working on setting up a field for her cows and sheep to graze. This is part of a long term plan to create biodiversity around her vineyards via polyculture. As she explained in her interview:
"The property also included 2 h of prairies and 3 h of woods; in the spirit of working biodynamically, I knew this was a perfect place to start a polyculture. The vines support the woods, the woods supply the livestock, the livestock supplies the soil: everything works together, everything is coherent."
There is no treillisage; everything has remained in traditional goblet training. The youngest vines are 30:
The oldest are 90:
Though all the vines are in one place, there are three distinct soil types. Here's some granite and quartz:
And here's some granite mixed with basalt:
The old vines in these soils are what end up in the Simone cuvée.
The vines are on a coteau that progressively increases in steepness, making any mechanical work impossible. By the time you get to the top, you're almost at a 60% incline:
To work the soils, Julie has devised a system with this winch.
She attaches it to this truck:
A mechanism then pulls it up as it plows through the soil. She then walks it all the way down through the next row, where she starts all over again.
Before tasting in the cellar, Julie wanted us visit her sheep that will eventually live next to the vines.
After visiting the vines, we checked out the cellar, just a few kilometers away. Here we got to check out Julie's old school wood press.
That barrel on it is just there to save space. We got to taste the Carioca: it was fruity, fresh and easy, but the extra aging provided some structure. Red fruit finish and nice acidity. The Jean Barat and Simone (from barrel) were also well on their way; they were both structured but fresh. Julie might have had a tough time with vinification setbacks, but the wines are GOOD. In the end, she is thankful for the experience.
"I learned a valuable lesson, which is that you need to be patient with wine, to let it make itself."
A.O.C Fleurie “Cayenne”:
There used to be a very famous French Penal Colony in the city of Cayenne. In English the Penal Colony was known as “Devil’s Island”. In French culture the name Cayenne is as recognizable and mythical as the name “Alcatraz” is in American culture. The penal colony at Cayenne was infamous as a Hard Labor prison.
Julie named this wine “Cayenne” because the vineyard site where her vines are located is very rough and difficult terrain to have to work and cultivate. She often felt like she was doing “hard labor” as she worked the soil and tended her vines. It felt like she was one of the prisoners in the old Cayenne prison camp! That is why she named her wine Cayenne!