Gang of Four Revisited

Today, there are so many controversies & discussions on the topic of au naturale wines.  And for some wine professionals, the more naturale the venue, the better the appreciation.  I intend to stay out of all of the discussions.  There is, after all, never just one answer to any topic or discussion.

I bring the subject up because, I am seeing more & more references how the main modern day instigator of the natural minded movement is said to be Jules Chauvet.

This is the same Jules Chauvet, who back in the late 1980’s inspired a band of four like minded winemakers in the Morgon Cru of Beaujolais.  It was his principles & teachings which prompted the later dubbed “Gang of Four”–leader-Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thévenet & Guy Breton–to forge an upstart, soon to be “revolution” & approach to more sustainable practices in both the vineyard & the winery, which essentially started the ball rolling & subsequently spread throughout their region, then throughout France & then throughout the world.  Yes, game changers.

Just to be clear, they were not the only ones heading in that direction & approach.  The timing for them was right on.  World renowned chefs & farmers were forging down the path of organic more & more.  A growing number of diners thought organic was much more healthy & of better quality.  The concept would just keep snowballing & gaining in momentum.

Certainly one of the U.S. culinary epicenters  which championed this “quiet” movement was Berkeley, California, which was also the home for superstar chef Alice Waters & her Chez Panisse restaurant.  She vehemently sought after heirloom varieties, whether it was tomatoes, greens or fruit AND sustainable/organic farming & championed many of the small farmers of her area.  Her contemporary, though on the wine side was Kermit Lynch, also working out of Berkeley, who sought after & imported small, artisan wineries from France (& later from Italy).

He was a champion of the “little” guys–those who did not have large marketing dollars & resources or fancy packaging.  He gave the small, true artisan wineries a voice & a growing presence in the U.S. market.

In doing so, he too was championing family owned, indigenous, heirloom/heirloom vines & the concept of sustainable farming.

We were quite taken with his selections from the northern Rhone Valley (August Clape & Noel Verset of Cornas; Jean Louis Chave of Hermitage; Gentaz Dervieux & Robert Jasmin of Cote Rotie; Raymond Trollat of St Joseph).  The wines from these iconic estates were also supported with high praise & scores from the wine media, most notably Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate.  Kermit’s portfolio also included other artisan producers from Burgundy (Robert Chevillon, Maume, Raveneau, Coche Dury, Michel Colin, Francois Jobard & of course Henri Jayer)….& continued with the first inkling of “grower” Champagnes imported to the U.S,  with the likes of J. Lassalle, Paul Bara & Batiste-Pertois.  And, these were just the tip of the iceberg.

Early on Kermit also had a real liking to similar minded wineries from the Beaujolais region & started importing producers such as Michel Chignard, Bernard Diochon & Damien Dupeuble.  Lynch would add to the stable of superb artisan producers with four vignerons from the Cru of Morgon, who would later become known as “The Gang of Four”.  The rest is history.

Recently I had a chance to taste 2 wines from the “Gang” at a tasting–2017 Jean Foillard Beaujolais Villages & the 2016 Jean-Paul Thévenet Morgon “Vieilles Vignes”.  While the 2017 Foillard was wonderfully delicious, mesmerizingly textured & so intriguing, it really was the 2016 Morgon from Jean-Paul Thévenet that really caught our attention.  I loved how naked & pure it really was–NO make up–& therefore all about vinosity (old vine-ness) & stony character–done in a very handcrafted, timeless, minimal sulfur use style.  It vividly reminded me of the old days, when I first had their wines.  While Foillard was the king of hill then, I have to say Jean-Paul Thévenet is certainly there alongside.  I thought his 2015 & 2016 Morgon “Vieilles Vignes were the best I tasted from the whole group in recent times.  Wow!

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