Marcel Lapierre, natural wine pioneer, dies at 60

Wine pioneer Marcel Lapierre, who led a generation of French growers away from chemical-heavy methods towards a natural philosophy that won converts the world over, has died, colleagues said Tuesday.

From his family vineyard in Villie-Morgon in the southeastern Beaujolais region, Lapierre, who died Monday of cancer aged 60, spearheaded in the 1980s what is now a booming trend from Paris to New York, Japan and Scandinavia.

In an interview with AFP in February, Lapierre described a natural wine as "an unpasteurised cheese compared to an industrial one."

"I often joke that these are wines made by the lazy and tight-fisted. We step in as little as possible."

What is a natural wine? It's all about intervening as little as possible. The grape - often, though not always, grown organically - is harvested ripe, and the healthiest fruits selected.

No filter is used, no sulfur added, and no outside yeast: only that present naturally in the skin of the grape, which as it turns the fruit's sugar into alcohol gives off a complex aroma that is a marker of the eco-system where it was produced.

By contrast, adding an outside yeast to a red wine leaves a distinctive banana scent.

Today natural wines have the wind in their sails, appealing to consumers in search of authenticity, and keen on cutting out chemicals.

Lapierre's own wines - especially his fruity, raspberry-hued Morgon - hold pride of place on some of the world's top restaurant menus.

"He was a winegrower who fully deserved his spot at the greatest tables, in France and abroad," said Gilles Paris, president of Beaujolais wines.

Back in 1973, when Lapierre took over the family vineyard, he started out making wine "like I was taught in school".

But it only took him a few years to realise he just didn't enjoy the taste of the wine he was producing - so he made a U-turn.

With the help of a few bio-chemist friends, he set out to make the same wine his father and grandfather made, "but with modern tools that allowed us to master the process."

"In the old days, there were often accidents which meant they had to throw entire vats into the gutter."

For him, the natural revolution meant going both organic and "biodynamic" - a method of growing in tune with the moon and other natural cycles - wiping out fertilisers and pesticides, cutting back on sulfur and added yeast.

Lapierre was "not a purist, which made him all the more interesting," said Caroline Furstoss, sommelier at the Shangri-la luxury hotel in Paris, since he still used some sulfur in the process.

He is also credited with restoring the image of his region, badly damaged by the mediocre quality of its Beaujolais nouveau wines, said Furstoss.

"It was thanks to him that Parisian bistrots started serving Beaujolais wines again 20 years ago - with his fruity wines, quality everyday wines," said friend and fellow winegrower Agnes Foillard.

"It is a great loss," said a spokeswoman for Beaujolais winegrowers' association.

Lapierre leaves a wife and two sons, one of whom, Mathieu, has co-managed the "Marcel Lapierre" vineyard since 2005 and will continue to run the family concern in the same spirit as his father.

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