French winemaker and chemist Jules Chauvet was instrumental in the growth of the natural wine movement in the 20th century. In order to let the wine express its terroir and the character of the grapes, he argued for a minimal approach to winemaking that used native yeasts and few additives. Although the traditional wine industry at the time opposed him, he persisted in his work and continued to try new things. His contributions include the use of natural yeasts in fermentation, the paper chromatography method for measuring acidity and support for the sparing use of sulfur dioxide. Chauvet's work has had a lasting impact on the natural wine movement and the recognition of terroir in winemaking.
Thinking Natural Wine
French winemaker and chemist Jules Chauvet was a trailblazer who contributed significantly to the growth of the natural wine movement in the 20th century. Chauvet, who was born in 1907 in the French Beaujolais region, grew up in a family of winemakers and gained a deep respect for winemaking's age-old practices. Chauvet returned to the Beaujolais region after completing his studies in chemistry at the University of Lyon and started experimenting with novel winemaking methods.
In order to allow the wine to express its terroir and the character of the grapes themselves, Chauvet advocated for a minimalist approach to winemaking. This was one of Chauvet's major contributions to the world of winemaking. Chauvet thought the wine would more accurately reflect the terroir and the personality of the grapes by using native yeasts, little sulfur dioxide, and no other additives or interventions. This method stood in contrast to traditional winemaking techniques, which heavily depended on additives, chemicals, and technological advancements to produce wines that adhered to a specific flavor profile.
Chauvet's work in the 1950s and 1960s was ahead of its time; he faced significant opposition from within the wine industry which was somewhat expected in an era when traditions were revered. Chauvet's method was criticized at the time by many winemakers and critics as unreliable and unscientific. They contended that using his techniques would produce unpredictable and prone-to-spoilage wines. Nevertheless, Chauvet persisted in his work, pursuing new winemaking methods and techniques throughout his career.
One of Chauvet's most important contributions to the winemaking industry was the creation of a technique for determining the acidity of wine using a straightforward paper strip. Winemakers could easily and accurately measure the acidity of their wines using this technique, which Chauvet dubbed the "paper chromatography method," without the use of pricey laboratory equipment. The way that winemakers approached acidity in their wines was revolutionized by Chauvet's method, which was widely adopted by winemakers in France and beyond.
Chauvet's support for the application of natural yeasts during the fermentation process was another significant aspect of his work, perhaps the most significant, together with avoiding the use of sulfites. Chauvet thought that native yeasts, which are found naturally on the grapes and in the winery, were more appropriate for the fermentation process than commercial yeasts. He argued that using native yeasts allowed the wine to more accurately reflect the terroir and the personality of the grapes, whereas using commercial yeasts, in his opinion, resulted in wines that were overly standardized and lacking in complexity.
Additionally, Chauvet was a vocal opponent of the overuse of sulfur dioxide (SO2) in winemaking. Sulfur is frequently used in traditional winemaking to prevent oxidation and spoilage, but Chauvet thought that using too much sulfur could mask the wine's natural flavors and aromas and have a negative impact on the environment, the health of the winemaker, and the health of the consumer. He argued that utilizing little to no sulfur, or even none at all, during the winemaking process would produce wines that were more genuine and true to their terroir.
Chauvet's disciples include some of the most influential natural winemakers in France and beyond. They all have carried on his legacy and expanded upon his work, being very deliberate about it and always paying tribute to their mentor and friend. These winemakers, are often referred to as the "Gang of Four." The members of the Gang of Four include Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton, and Jean-Paul Thévenet, all of whom were inspired by Chauvet's minimalist approach to winemaking and his belief in the importance of natural techniques and low intervention.
Marcel Lapierre, who was a close friend of Chauvet's, is often credited with introducing the natural wine movement to the Beaujolais region. Lapierre believed in the importance of allowing the grapes and the terroir to speak for themselves, and he practiced minimal intervention winemaking, using native yeasts and no chemical additives. Lapierre's wines, which are made using the traditional Beaujolais technique of carbonic maceration – very popular among natural wine drinkers – are known for their purity, lively acidity, and fruit-forward character.
Jean Foillard, another disciple of Chauvet, is best known for his elegant and nuanced wines, made using the same traditional Beaujolais techniques as Lapierre. Foillard, like Chauvet, believed in the importance of natural interventions and minimal manipulation in the winemaking process. His wines are highly sought after by natural wine enthusiasts around the world.
Guy Breton, who studied under Chauvet as well, is renowned for his rich, fruity Beaujolais wines that are produced with little intervention. Breton, like his other followers, thought it was crucial to let the terroir and the grapes express themselves in the wine, and his wines are renowned for their richness and complexity.
The final member of the Gang of Four, Jean-Paul Thévenet, is renowned for his classy and refined Beaujolais wines, which are produced using the conventional Burgundian method of barrel aging. The wines of Thévenet, who studied under Chauvet as well, are appreciated for their finesse and balance.
These four pioneering winemakers upheld Chauvet's teachings and helped popularize natural wine the world over.