Many natural wines possess a particular funky, cloudy, or otherwise obvious quality that marks them as having been made that way. For aficionados, these attributes are features, not bugs; those unusual flavors, colors, and occasional effervescence mark the juice as authentic. Pierre Fenals’ wines bear none of these marks. Crystal clear, tightly focused, and deeply expressive of their various terroirs, they show no signs of having been made without any chemical interventions whatsoever.
Tanned, bald, with a closely trimmed silver mustache and an avuncular demeanor, Pierre Fenals grins broadly and often: the smile of a man who has found his calling, and who pursues it with a thoroughgoing passion and diligent attention to detail. He farms biodynamically and uses no sulfur, no commercial yeast, no chaptalization, no additives, and no fining or filtration. He makes 35,000-40,000 bottles of Burgundy annually from ten different appellations, ranging from a humble Bourgogne Aligoté to grand cru Corton-Charlemagne. His wines, all bottled under the Gothic arch of his Maison En Belles Lies label, can be found on the lists of two dozen Michelin-starred restaurants.
Though his degree was in molecular biology, Fenals’ first career was in fashion, in Paris, on the business side. At 52, he quit. “Fashion is difficult, and superficial, especially once you get older. I had enough and left.” He earned a degree in oenology, moved to Burgundy, and went to work laboring in various vineyards, learning with his hands for four years. In 2008, he bought his winery, a former warehouse with a huge basement, and a few vineyards. Now he owns four hectares and rents another three. The vineyards he owns, he works almost entirely by himself; the parcels he rents are tended to his exacting specifications.
His facility sits on a hill near his house in the tiny village of Saint-Aubin, tucked into a curving rift near the southern end of the Côte de Beaune, a couple of kilometers up the D906 from Chassagne-Montrachet. The main floor, where fruit is juiced and initially fermented, is populated by presses and vats: stainless for the whites, old oak for the reds. Each parcel gets its own vat, though the bigger ones require two. The lower level, a vast subterranean concrete vault, houses long rows of oak barrels, where the cool temperature makes for long, slow fermentations averaging about two years. By the time he bottles, he says, there are hardly any lees left; “it’s all eaten by the wine.”
The resulting clarity is one of his many priorities. “I want wine to be natural, but I want it to look good too. We consume everything with our eyes first. I want it water-clear, and full of vital energy.” He launches into an enthusiastic demonstration of the ways in which he imbues wine with this energy. Explaining a method he developed with a colleague, adding a tiny amount of wine from a strong earlier vintage to each barrel before adding the new juice “to give it information,” he uses a tiny pipette to count out 18 drops into a small vial before shaking it vigorously. “That’s what I put in each barrel.” He then takes small crystalline flakes of dried solids from the bottom of the barrels, shakes them vigorously in the vial with a bit of water, and adds that as well. The crystals help dissolved solids to form similar aggregates, he says, which precipitate to the bottom and clarify the wine.
Whether or not these methods make a meaningful difference, it’s plain that they do no harm; his wines are as limpid as the most ruthlessly sterile-filtered industrial versions. A better explanation for the purity of his offerings might simply be the extraordinary combination of passion, skill, and fastidious attention to detail at every stage that he brings to his craft. He uses natural corks, for example, but has them branded with a hot iron instead of printed with ink; he says that the ink changes the flavor of the wine.
Biodynamic agriculture places great importance on the moon and its tidal pull on the water in living things. Fenals lets his red grapes macerate whole for one lunar cycle before pressing them, picking them during a rising moon and then pressing when it sets. He macerates whole bunches, never de-stemming his reds; besides increasing the aromatic complexity of the wines, this method keeps plenty of space around the fruit for gas to fill, producing excellent results. “C’est nickel,” he beams, “nickel” being slang for perfect, immaculate.
His method for cleaning vats is as scrupulous as every other step. In August, he fills them with water to swell the wood so they won’t leak. After draining them, he rubs the lees from the previous vintage (still teeming with yeast and beneficial bacteria) all over the interior, which forms a crust as it dries. This he removes with a stiff brush, then rinses out with water before letting the surface dry again. Then, right before adding the new vintage, he sprays the interior with Marc and lights it on fire. He uses no sulfur at any stage, though he does use a diluted copper sulfate solution when necessary in the vineyards.
In keeping with his meticulous nature, during vinification he tastes every day, at the same hour, in the same order, using the same glasses. Once the wine is in barrel, he follows the same method, but weekly. Approaching harvest, he will crush a few glasses’ worth of juice to test for brix and pH so he can harvest at the optimal time, but otherwise his only tool is his tongue. He says that natural wine self-regulates when it comes to alcohol, “but you must pick when it’s ripe, even if that means waiting until the first week of November to harvest sometimes. I’m not looking for alcohol, but the fruit must be ripe. It can be twelve percent but still not ripe.”
Like most natural winemakers, never crops his vines. “Biodynamic vines produce the correct amount of fruit; if you cut fruit it throws the whole plant out of balance.” Because they’re fertilized only with compost, the vines do not produce more fruit than the soil can support as they do with synthetic fertilizers. He uses no pumps; all the barrels down below are filled only with gravity, and bottling takes place on the lower level. A long, wide ramp connects the basement with the main floor, enabling the easy removal of full pallets from the bottling floor. He rests all his wines in bottle for at least a month before shipping them to give them time to relax and get used to their new homes.
His Aligoté, at just eleven percent alcohol, offers a simple melody of fruit braided around a bright acidic backbone. Not unlike a Muscadet, it calls for oysters: a reminder that the whole region, stretching up to Champagne and west through the Loire Valley, was once a shallow subtropical sea and that limestone is, after all, nothing more than many millennia of compressed molluscs. His Monthélie, at twelve percent, balances calcareous austerity with a nose of bright fruit. He describes the vineyard: 350 meters high, cool, chalky. The chalk, the altitude, the low yield of about 42 hectoliters per hectare—“It’s all there, in the wine.” The Santenay packs more punch, figurative and literal: a bit more body, and pronounced mango, banana, and pineapple notes. One can taste the depth of the roots as they penetrate deep into the marl and limestone: almost more of a soil for reds. The result wants to lie down for five or ten years to reach maturity.
He says the soils in Maranges, his largest appellation, are particularly hard to work: clay studded with decomposed grey marble, rock hard when it’s dry and treacherous when rainy. Both his Maranges initially possess an appropriately rustic character, which develops dramatically in barrel, losing their angularity and revealing dark fruit, especially black cherry. His premier cru Maranges “Les Clos Roussots” is notably finer and deeper than his Maranges “Le Saugeot.” “The vineyards are just a few hundred meters apart from each other, and they’re completely different,” he remarks, swirling a glass under his nose. “Burgundy’s geology and history are the most complicated of any wine region in the world. Only two grapes, and so much variation: even fresh from the press the juices taste incredibly different. It’s paradise.”
Burgundy, more than any other wine, communicates time as well as place, showing them to be the same thing. All Fenals’ vines, owned or rented, are populated with old vines: most over 50 years old, the grands crus more than 70. So his Corton-Charlemagne contains juice from vines planted before World War Two, in a vineyard named for the king who became Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800, pushing their roots deep into the compressed shells of a hundred million years’ worth of oysters. The wine delivers complex layers of minerality entwined with elegant acidity and richly detailed fruit, especially in the mid-palate that distinguishes a great wine from a merely good one. The finish lasts and lasts. He works the vineyard with a horse; it’s much gentler on the venerable vines and delicate soil.
An amphora, recently arrived from Italy, sits at the end of a long row of barrels. He doesn’t know anyone else in Burgundy using amphoras, and is keen to age some Maranges in it. “Clay imparts no flavor, keeps the wine very cool, and the shape of the vessel gently circulates the wine” by convection. The 2015 vintage will be the amphora’s maiden voyage. Enjoying the notion that such ancient technology can slowly churn its contents using ambient temperature as an engine, he pats the terra cotta approvingly. “It’s the industrial processes that I hate.”
Transparency, the quality that differentiates his wines from so many of his natural peers’, sets his work apart from much Burgundy as well. Handled properly, grapes speak fluent geology; the weather in a given year is merely an affected accent. Let the yeast run the show, as it does in vin jaune, and those flavors dominate. Let bacteria rule, like they do over Beaujolais, and maceration can bigfoot the terroir. Contaminate with commercial yeast, poison the vineyard, filter out the life: every intervention blurs the focus of the grapes’ portrait of the soil. Fenals’ significant accomplishment—in the planet’s greatest wine region, no less—is wines that articulate the variations in geology without distortion; with nothing added to or subtracted from the grapes, their fermented juices become liquid lenses showing what lies beneath the ground, like vivid red and gold x-rays of the Earth’s very bones.
Standing among chardonnay vines as the sun drops towards the wooded ridge across the road, he points out the variety of plants and wildflowers that thrive alongside the vines, and the beehives he keeps in the overgrown strip (where rabbits, foxes, and birds also live) that wraps around three sides of the vineyard. Then he indicates the chemically treated vineyard immediately adjacent, where everything but the vines is brown and dead. “I can’t drink sulfured, chemical wines anymore; they’re too heavy, they give me a headache.” Though, he admits, pushing a cork back into the Aloxe-Corton to take it home for dinner, “The other day a friend opened a 1986 Saint-Julien, and it was delicious.” He grins. “We finished it.”