Munchies

24 Moody, Poetic Hours with a French Natural Winemaker

A day in the life of Beaujolais winemaker Sylvère Trichard—from cellar to labeling, vine to table, dawn to dusk.

by Céline Maguet; photos by Christophe Sales
Sep 4 2018, 2:00pm

All photos by Christophe Sales

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES France.

Once upon a time, there was Beaujolais. A region north of Lyon, with 19,000 hectares of vines and 3,000 winemakers—of organic, conventional and natural wines alike—all living in harmony. Among their number was Sylvère Trichard, a young winemaker convinced that making natural wine was well within his reach—so he soon became disinterested with that as a goal.

Right now, Sylvère is asleep, his head on the table. There, among the mostly empty glasses and bottles, he begins his night. It’s 1 AM. His partner Mathilde, accustomed to such a scene, awakens him gently. Sylvère lifts up his head, greets us groggily and drags himself to the kitchen sofa, designed for this purpose. The glasses continue to be filled, Sylvère’s bottles to be emptied and his dreams to follow one on the heels of another, in his tired state.

Sylvère Trichard in an introspective moment.

It’s now 9 AM, and the taciturn winemaker has transformed into a welcoming young man. He stands at the oven, where carrots and prepared pieces of meat suggest a beef bourguignon to come. A blond head bobs into the scene. It’s Sylvère’s small son, Léon—the spitting image of his mother Mathilde, who is sleeping not too far away.

Beef bourguignon.
Mathilde and Léon.

The house smells like happiness and a canteen. In my head, I’m hearing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and I’ve half-composed a cheery soundtrack, American-series-style — when all of a sudden, Sylvère exclaims, “Shit, I just dreamed we hadn’t finished the pruning.” Immediately I’m jostled back to reality. We’re in a winemaker’s house, where family life revolves around vines and vinification.

Yesterday, Sylvère didn’t sleep. Instead he thought about his vines, the work already done and the work he still needed to accomplish. Now, in early April, the vines have just been pruned. The cutting of the branches, the selecting of the buds, is fundamental. It’s what will dictate the yield of the land, the quality of the juice.

Sylvère learned all his wine terms early on from his grandfather and uncle, both winemakers. But one language the young Sylvère didn’t speak was that of naturisme, the art of making natural wine: pampering the vine and following the steps of winemaking without altering the wine’s taste.

Sylvère recalls his discovery: “The first natural wines I tasted were Jean-Claude Lapalu’s, at his place. He was talking about things that were foreign to me: native yeasts, absence of sulphur.” Sylvère got into natural wine and, in his own words, “never looked back.”

He left his native Beaujolais to study with Dominique Belluard, in Savoie, where he would spend a year. With Belluard, he could have learned the principles of biodynamics, an agriculture that takes into account the influence of the moon and sun in the development of plants and their natural defenses. But Sylvère wasn’t paying attention. At least, not well: “I was completely in the clouds—it was natural winemaking that brought me back to earth.”

In 2012, he went into business. Sylvère was 32, with “the pretension of someone who thinks he knows everything.” Two failed harvests left him hopeless, penniless and bled dry. “We nearly went belly-up,” he admits. But then unexpected help came from the Beaujolais. Local winemakers gave him a hand and some welcome advice, helping Sylvère save his meager harvest. Suffice it to say that this time around, Sylvère was paying very close attention indeed.

Which brings us to the present. The region’s signature praline brioches, tempting as they are, will have to wait—it’s time to go to the market. During the drive, Sylvère opens up. He recounts the years before Mathilde: “I was a troll, I had the whole bit—truck, dog and retractor.” Then came Mathilde, for whom Sylvère’s admiration—clear in his voice and eyes—is limitless.

Later, at the table, his enamored smile lingers. It’s for Léon, his son—and for Mathilde, always. There are a thousand ways to express love, and for a winemaker, it’s often through his wine. To each his own. In 2013, flat broke but more in love than ever, Sylvère created the vintage “I Only Have Eyes For You” to win Mathilde’s heart. This year, he’s continuing in this vein with “Little Heart”—her nickname.

Only one other woman has had this privilege: Sylvère’s grandmother, Giselle, aka “Gisous,” now the name of one of his most beautiful wines. Clearly she deserves the honor; she gave him everything when he was young and foolish, always extending a hand to her grandson in the hardest of times. And then, finally, there is “Léon,” a wine unveiled in 2016 to celebrate the birth of Sylvère’s son. Such is the poetry of winemakers.

Outside, the light begins to fade; it’s starting to get humid and cold. A giant cheese plate still reigns supreme when we leave the table in mid-afternoon. Sylvère has a thousand things to do—labeling his bottles, for starters. Meanwhile, he takes time to go stretch his legs with his family.

It’s an apocalyptic landscape that stretches out before us here, almost in a lunar fashion. The vines seem alone, small and squat, in these fields devoid of so much as a blade of grass. The only other presence nearby is a weed that’s orange-ish, almost supernatural-looking.

At Sylvère’s, where everything is green all around, the earth never leaves you—literally. The soil attaches itself to your body like a lover. Furthermore, that’s its name: the terre amoureuse, a clayey soil that gets sticky after the rain. And there is no question that Sylvère returns the love it gives.

Sylvère grooms his grounds, tends to his soil, puffs out his chest at the Beaujolais’ potential: “Our wine reflects a region—my Beaujolais town, for example. The product reflects me, but most of all it reflects the appellation.”

He pays good attention to his vines but doesn’t strictly adhere to the precepts of biodynamics. In the beginning, he may indeed have proclaimed: “I’m going into biodynamics.” But reality caught up with him fast. His early failures diluted his dreams, figuratively speaking. “What I want is to make wine above all else. Natural, if possible,” he now declares. All that remains of his early goals is the name of his winery: Séléné, in reference to the goddess of the full moon.

We’ve dawdled plenty; it’s almost apéro time and the winemaker’s anxieties again take over. It’s time to label, label, label. Everyone pitches in; the label machine buzzes like mad. Eventually a winemaker friend, Jérome Balmet, joins us, and we take a break. Together we head to the cellar where Gisous is kept—the wine, that is, not the grandmother.

Sylvère taps the vat, and the red liquid flows into our glasses. His last nectar to be bottled is a blend of the two vintages honoring the two women in his life. It’s flavorful and tastes good. Shortly after, we once again hear the familiar sound of the sticker maker going nuts; it seems Sylvère has sneaked off to finish the job.

It’s 10 PM. Dinner is served. At the table, there’s a joyful battle between Jérome and Sylvère’s wines for first place. Both are made with gamay, the unique red grape of the Beaujolais; both grow in the same soil; and yet, each expresses different notes — the winemakers’ respective stamps.

The glasses get filled up indiscriminately with “Trichard” and “Balmet.” Excellent progress is made on the bottles—and already Sylvère’s head is getting heavy. Once again, he has begun his night at the table, well sated and well surrounded.