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A New Generation of Winemakers is Game for Gamay

American expat Michele Smith-Chapel elevates Beaujolais from like-minded vigneronnes

Vicki Denig By June 25, 2021
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

Although many passionate wine lovers dream of moving to France and starting a vineyard, few actually get to do it. Michele Smith-Chapel was one who did, although it wasn’t exactly what she’d planned for her life. 

Ten years ago, Smith-Chapel was comfortably based in Brooklyn working as the wine director at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. But meeting winemaker David Chapel flipped her world on its head. He was then at the renowned Domaine Lapierre in Villié-Morgon. They soon fell in love, and Chapel uprooted his life, moving to New York to marry her and settle down in Brooklyn by her side.

Ultimately, dreams of the French countryside landed them back in Beaujolais. Given the strong connections to the region’s winemaking community, the duo were welcomed with open arms. In 2016, they produced their first wine, a 2016 Juliénas from Côte de Bessay, working in conjunction with the Lapierre family. 

By 2018, Smith-Chapel and Chapel had added a handful of other cuvées to their Domaine Chapel lineup, from Beaujolais-Villages, Chiroubles, and Fleurie, including a single-vineyard Fleurie from Charbonnières. 

As their project expands, Smith-Chapel is constantly looking for local female winemakers to support along the way. “I want to highlight vigneronnes in Beaujolais other than myself — women who are perhaps just starting out, but who are also working in the vines as well,” she says. 

Three Beaujolais wines to try:

Elisa Guerin Beaujolais-Villages 2019 ($25)

Elisa Guerin has deep roots in Beaujolais, as she was born in the cru village of Chénas. Smith-Chapel says that fruit for her Beaujolais-Villages comes from 60-year-old vines planted in igneous rock on the border of Moulin-à-Vent and Chénas. Guerin recently took over her family’s vineyards and is in the process of converting them to organic viticulture. “She’s also paved her own path and pursued a natural vinification,” explains Smith-Chapel, describing Guerin’s first wine as “complex yet approachable, with flavors of crushed pink granite, poppy flowers, and tart pomegranate.” Smith-Chapel recommends serving the wine as an aperitif “with a large plate of saucisson, Comté — and plenty of friends.”

Ophélie Dutraive Moulin-à-Vent 2019 ($38)

“Ophélie, a native of Fleurie and daughter of celebrated natural wine vigneron Jean-Louis Dutraive, has released her first wine from vines that she farms manually and organically,” explains Smith-Chapel. She notes that the majority of the fruit for this wine comes from twisted old gobelet, or head-trained, vines, which bring complexity and a fruit-forward approach to the final juice and render it drinkable in youth. “Ophélie has been joining her father in vinification since the celebrated 2014 vintage. She’s off to an impressive start on her own and no doubt will be continuing the legacy,” says Smith-Chapel

Fruit for Dutraive’s Moulin-à-Vent comes from a tiny rented plot of 100-to-120-year-old vines, plus an even smaller plot she planted herself. The grapes are carbonically macerated and fermented with native yeasts, with only 15 mg/L of sulfur added during vinification. The wine is aged in neutral oak for seven months and is bottled unfined and unfiltered.

Domaine Chapel Charbonnières Fleurie 2019 ($40)

Smith-Chapel’s own Domaine Chapel Charbonnières Fleurie is produced with low extraction, carbonic maceration, and no punch downs. She particularly enjoys the wine with saucisson au gène, a traditional Beaujolais dish served at harvest. “The sausage is cooked with the free-run juice and stems after they’re removed from the press,” she says. 

The Charbonnières vineyard is nestled in the forest high up in the mountains of Beaujolais. “This parcel is worked by hand, as it’s too steep to be farmed with a tractor or horse,” she says, adding that farming organically and using a “light touch” has allowed plant diversity and wildlife to flourish. “The wines produced from these vines encompass all of that life, and carry that vitality into the bottle.”