Marcel Lapierre, Beaujolais Producer, Is Dead at 60
By ERIC ASIMOV
Published: October 11, 2010
Marcel Lapierre, a Beaujolais grower and producer who played a leading role in rejuvenating the diminished reputation of the region’s wines, died Sunday in Lyon, France. He was 60.
The cause of death was melanoma, said Kermit Lynch, the American importer of his wines. Mr. Lapierre was a rigorous, relentlessly experimental winemaker. He and a group of three other producers were instrumental in demonstrating to the world that Beaujolais had far more to offer than its often insipid mass-market nouveau wines.
Rather than these fruity, happy-go-lucky concoctions, Mr. Lapierre and his colleagues, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton and Jean-Paul Thévenet, produced wines of depth, nuance and purity that nonetheless retained the joyous nature of Beaujolais.
Mr. Lynch remembered the first time he tasted a Lapierre Morgon, from the 1989 vintage. “That bottle was so convincing to me,” he said on Monday. “He and his gang were so different from everything going on.”
Mr. Lynch long ago called Mr. Lapierre and his like-minded colleagues the Gang of Four. The name stuck, even as the loose group of friends came to include many more than four.
Mr. Lapierre was born April 17, 1950, into a country exhausted by two world wars. When salesmen appeared, offering new, labor-saving technologies, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, many vignerons did not require much convincing to cast aside the labor-intensive traditions of generations. The result was a sort of banalization of Beaujolais.
The problems for the region were eventually made worse by the growing popularity of Beaujolais nouveau. When Mr. Lapierre took over his family’s domain in Villié Morgon in 1973, the quaint harvest custom of making a new wine for immediate consumption was about to explode into a worldwide phenomenon. By the end of the 1970s, with the aid of aggressive promotion, cities from London to New York to Tokyo would be counting the minutes until the third Thursday of each November, the official release date, when wine shops could unveil the stored cache and proclaim, “Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé.”
The popularity of nouveau tilted the priorities of the region. As more and more Beaujolais production went into nouveau, growers no longer made a pretense of striving for quality. When the market for nouveau diminished, growers in the lesser regions of Beaujolais were stuck with an oversupply of poor wine, and the public was stuck with an image of vapid wine meant to be drunk immediately.
In the 1970s, Mr. Lapierre made his wines in the conventional manner of the times. But by 1981 he had come under the influence of Jules Chauvet, a Beaujolais wine dealer and scientist who advocated avoiding the use of chemicals as far as possible. Mr. Lapierre adopted organic viticulture, decided he would no longer add yeast to induce fermentation, and reduced or eliminated the amount of sulfur dioxide he would add to the wine.
Sulfur dioxide has been used as a preservative in wine for centuries, but can alter the experience of a wine, the way viewing a work of art through glass differs from a direct view. Used in excess, it can mask a range of sins, and many leading winemakers today try to use as little as possible. But to use no sulfur is risky and requires absolute rigor in shipping and storing the wines.
“It affects the very shape of the wine,” said Mr. Lynch, who does not buy wine without sulfur from any producer other than Mr. Lapierre. “The wine with no SO2 is very voluptuous and rounded. With SO2 it’s very squared-off to me.”
In recent years Mr. Lapierre’s son, Mathieu, had taken over winemaking duties for his father. Mr. Lapierre is also survived by his wife, Marie, and two daughters, Camille and Anne.
Why had he changed his methods in 1981?
“Because the wines I made didn’t satisfy me, and the wines from elsewhere that I liked weren’t made in the modern style,” he told the quarterly The Art of Eating in 2004.
“I’m just making the wine of my father and grandfather,” he said, “but I’m trying to make it a little better.”