Philippe Pacalet, a rule breaker making natural Burgundy

Mike Steinberger posted a piece to on Friday detailing the folly French appellation politics (entitled “How Bureaucrats Are Wrecking French Wine”). I’m glad to see the topic getting a broader airing since it is at the heart of my book, Wine Politics, which Mike kindly mentions. But go check out the article and see Mike’s plan for AOC reform if he were French wine czar for a day.

Mike mentions the growing ranks of quality producers who have had wines refused by the tasting portion of the appellation process. When the list includes names such as Jean Thevenet, Didier Dagueneau, Eloi Dürrbach, Marcel Lapierre, Thierry and Jean-Marie Puzelat, Marcel Richaud, Georges Descombes, and Philippe Jambon, you’ve got to wonder if that doesn’t say more about the appellation politics itself. But there’s one other notable rule breaker who could be included in that list: Philippe Pacalet.

I caught up with Pacalet at the IPNC last month in Oregon–his first visit to the U.S. In the above picture he poured me a taste of his absolutely delicious 2005 Pommard, light in color and body with terrific aromatics, from a tea kettle shaped decanter (find this wine).

Pacalet is the nephew of Marcel Lapierre, one of the leaders of natural wine in France whose scrumptious Morgon 2006 I’ve mentioned before. In the 1980s, he developed an affinity for natural wines working with his uncle and Jules Chauvet, an important figure in the early days of natural wines in France. Today, he is a winemaker but doesn’t own any vines–he rents. He explained that he does not add sulfur to the grapes after harvest, works with the indigenous yeasts, and doesn’t add enzymes or tannins. (See this SF Chronicle article for a backgrounder on sulfur and sulfites; Pacalet does use some right before bottling.)

While I was standing in line at the final salmon bake dinner with Jamie Goode, author of The Science of Wine, Pacalet told us that he believes that much of the vinifera vines in France have been weakened by generations of inbreeding, which makes them susceptible to disease. His solution would be to genetically modify the vines to have greater disease resistance, which would reduce the need for spraying. Pretty provocative for a natural winemaker.

At breakfast the next day (IPNC is like a reunion weekend for pinotphiles), Pacalet told me that his 2005 Corton-Charlemagne was denied the appellation, which meant for him “30,000 euros in the trash.” When I asked him why doesn’t make it as a lowly vin de table and join the list of producers above, he said “I don’t pay taxes to make a vin de table.”

Since then, he’s become a member of the Corton-Charlemagne syndicat, or the rule-setting board of local producers.

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8 Responses to “Philippe Pacalet, a rule breaker making natural Burgundy”

  1. Hey Tyler,

    Thanks for linking to my Chronicle article…much appreciated!

    Your post, and Steinberger’s Slate piece (love him), were both informative reads. My, what a travesty (quel horreur!). And here I thought Italy was f-ed up. Anyway, the idea of treating the AOC as a vinous birth certificate is intriguing; informed wine consumers probably already think of it in those terms anyway.

    Meanwhile, GM vines…I don’t know enough about genetics to know whether or not that’s a viable solution to disease control but it does strike me as an odd comment: If, in nature, such mutation and “inbreeding”, as Pacalet says, dilutes the purity of the vine as an organism, why wouldn’t a similar thing happen, eventually, to a GM vine? Or would that require perpetual genetic modification. If so, I don’t see that being much different, philosophically at least, from spraying.

    Thoughts for the day…off tonight for Muslim Chinese and bringing riesling of course! If any enlightened pairings happen, I’ll be sure to let you know.

    – wolfgang

  2. […] finally – hot off the press – Philippe Pacalet is a GMO monster […]

  3. “I don’t pay taxes to make a vin de table.” Good for him!

    The man stands up for the integrity of his product. I’m rooting to see that he be accepted for the appellation based on that alone. Although even if they were to concede the appellation, with such pride I wonder if he would spit in the face of good business sense to make such a point about the matter.

  4. “Pacalet told us that he believes that much of the vinifera vines in France have been weakened by generations of inbreeding”

    That comment displays such immense ignorance to viticulture it completely overshadows the banality of his other “ideas.” No wonder he buys his grapes.

  5. Philippe Pacalet, a rule breaker making natural Burgundy | Dr Vino’s wine blog…

    Pacalet is the nephew of Marcel Lapierre, one of the leaders of natural wine in France whose scrumptious Morgon 2006 I’ve mentioned before. In the 1980s, he developed an affinity for natural wines working with his uncle and Jules Chauvet, an importan…

  6. I don’t see why vintners don’t just take the Super Tuscan route. Make it a Vin de Pays and charge what it should cost if not for the petty politics of the local AOC.

    Embarrass the AOCs enough and you’ll either get and IGTesque designation or have CRAV bomb you. Being France, a terrorist bombing of an innovative and superlative producer is more likely, but someone needs to introduce the word “entrepreneur” to the French language!

    The rather nutty restrictions on French Vin de Table could make for a problematic marketing strategy, but judicious name selection like “Les Sept Anciens” can get around at least the vintage, if not the appellation restriction. It is rather hilarious that AOC regulations are hitting the MOST typique and authentic producers who emit terroir through their pores. It’s bad enough to be trapped in an AOC/DOCG with crappy traditions and environment (ok so Beaujolais is sort of that also) and not be able to use better techniques (see IGT), but for a producer who is only trying to make the traditional regional wine to be screwed by the system…

    This is why I prefer the New World approach to naming – geographic restrictions only, with truth in labeling on your constituent grapes. In certain areas the restrictions are nowhere near stringent enough as to origin or type of grape, but that gets sorted out in the market place. The AOC ranger types tend to be those who rely on their appellation for their income, rather on their own skill as vignerons and the quality of their vineyards.

  7. Morton Leslie, please don’t dismiss Pacalet as ignorant.
    The problem raised by Pacalet is a serious one. Vineyards in Burgundy tend to propagate their vinestock using cuttings from their own vineyard – the idea being that this will retain the character of the site despite the replacement of old, dying or unproductive vines. The problem is that this vinestock isn’t sterile and any viruses are passed down and accumulate over the generations. Accordingly, the Burgundians are criticized for having “inbred” (suffering from too many generations of cloning) vinestock while the Americans are criticized for using sterile rootstock that is “too clean” – our wines might benefit from a bit of virus.
    Pacalet’s wines are different, and whether one likes them or not, he merits respect for making interesting, unique wines in a part of the world where there has been so little innovation — because all wines from a particular site or appellation in Burgundy are expected to display a determined set of characteristics.
    As a bonus he a funny and friendly guy.

  8. […] This wine was made by Philippe Pacalet, one of the big proponents of the natural wines in France (here is a good blog post about him by Dr. Vino). This wine was totally different from the assertive Condrieu – […]


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