Sommeliers on tour
Andrew Catchpole joins a team of top UK sommeliers on a mission to see if Beaujolais can stand up to recent hype
Best known for its bright, bouncy and youthful Gamay, Beaujolais punches well above its weight in terms of global fame. But for the trade, especially, wave after wave of Nouveau has taken its toll, with the third Thursday of November now greeted with all the joy of an Edgar Allen Poe scripted Groundhog Day.
Look beyond this beleaguered exercise in cherry-tinted cash flow, though, and Beaujolais’ more innovative producers promise a revelation for anyone who takes the time to dip into their quality wines. And it was with this promise in mind that our bevy of buyers alighted at Lyon Saint-Exupéry to head off on their tour of the myriad terroirs, crus and styles that make up the under-sung complexity of the region.
The modern face of Beaujolais, plus some blanc faces at dinner
Our first visit is to boutique negociant Maison Coquard, and it’s time for a regional overview, backed by a tasting with owner Christophe Coquard showing the 12 red appellations of Beaujolais (the 10 crus, Beaujolais-Villages and Beaujolais), plus the region’s blanc and rosé wines.
Coquard describes his family business as ‘a new marketing approach’, focusing on Beaujolais’ diverse terroirs, and this tasting really drove home the differences between various crus. As did a further small producer tasting that evening as our appetite-whetted group descended on the excellent Calad’in Comptoir restaurant, where a brace of poised Beaujolais blancs surprised all with their finesse and complexity.
A day of good tasting and much coq au vin
The beret-sporting Emmanuel Fellot fired up our day at his eponymous family domaine, explaining how “gamay is an excellent conduit for terroir”, before launching into a tasting behind the classic golden-stone façade of his rustic cellar door. Fellot is one of a double dozen of family-sized producers allied in a group called Terroirs Originels, all of whom are committed to fulfilling the promise inherent in the name. He’s also among those modernisers raising old school eyebrows by putting Gamay on the label of his non-cru wines.
Beaujolais quality wines lie with such innovative family producers, as the next few visits confirmed. At the organic Domaine Chasselay brother and sister team Claire and Fabien presided over an almost faultless tasting with highlights running from centurion vine Beaujolais Villages to fresh but minerally taught crus, and from rose-scented Fleurie to concentrated, age-worthy Morgon.
Fast becoming apparent was that Beaujolais, at its best, also offers great value for money. We were also increasingly to discover just how well many of the bigger crus can develop with bottle age.
After hearty coq au vin and andouillette for lunch at the lofty La Terrasse du Beaujolais, our tastings continued at Château de Raousset. Here, among a superb flight of wines, fourth generation winemaker Rémy Passot also introduced older vintages of weightier crus such as and Morgon, revealing how Beaujolais can age and develop in a very similar way to neighbouring Burgundy.
Our next host, Xavier Barbet, director of the rather larger Loron & Fils, dispelled any fears that corporate size might impinge on quality, with a flight of pretty St-Amours and densely woven Morgons topped by the superb, if international-leaning Moulin à Vent Xavier et Nicolas Barbet Champ de Cour Reserve. Dinner with Barbet at L’Auberge du Col de Truges was memorable both for the insanely rich coq au vin and a sprinkling of older cru wines.
A mad mother-in-law, a medley of styles and a further taste for the terroir
Full marks Inter Beaujolais for organising the first tasting of the third day at Domaine de la Tour de la Belle Mère’s cellar door – roughly 17 yards from this old estate’s rooms where we lodged. It was our host Céline Dutraive’s great-grandfather that bought the property from the Belle Mère in question, who had built the now landmark tower so she could keep an eye on her son-in-law as he worked among the vines.
Both here and at the next stop Domaine Brisson in Morgon – where Gérard and Germaine Brisson offer vineyard tours in either a vintage Bentley or fleet of 2CVs – not only did the wines pass muster but we also had a heady reminder that Beaujolais is a jolly nice area for a spot of vinous-tourism. And it’s a message they are keen to sell as part of the story behind the wines.
One of the region’s many endearing features is that as you criss-cross between various cellar doors in the adjacent crus, you quickly begin to get a very visual feel for the lie of the rolling land and mineral-slaked granitic soils that define the wines. Geeks that we are, our group all spent time fossicking among the chunks of minerally rock liberally strewn among the vines.
After lunch at the buzzing bistro L’Atelier de Cuisine, where Inter Beaujolais general manager Jean Bourjade peppered the a lively meal with anecdotes, insights and a surplus of wines including older vintages, the sommeliers rose to the challenge of our final visits.
These proved to be a trio of very contrasting estates, reinforcing the adage that the producer plays as important a part in expressing terroir as the climate, soils and lie of the land. From the silkily structured wines of Domaine Collin Bourisset, to the classy and powerful Moulin à Vents of the recently renovated, single cru focused Château de Moulin à Vent, to our final stop at the rather more rustic environs of Lucien Lardy, the group found much to like.
Lardy, a founder of Terroirs Originels, perhaps best summed up the renewed approach to winemaking we’d seen and tasted on this refreshing and eye-opening visit to Beaujolais.
‘Our philosophy is simple,’ he said, as we sampled his sublime if surprisingly concentrated ‘09 Fleurie ‘Les Moriers’ from 1911 vines. ‘The winemaking stops at the vines.’
Anything to declare, sir?
Our sommeliers headed home with refreshed view of Beaujolais, its competitive prices, and both the food-friendliness and age-worthiness of many of its wines. Bags were also clinking with cellar door purchases as we made our farewells at the airport’s baggage carousel.
Sara Bachiorri, The Glasshouse
‘We met very different people, with very different approaches and wines, and I enjoyed all of our visits. It was well worth it, the overall quality of the wines was high, and there were many outstanding wines along with some outstanding value.’
Wine of the Trip
Collin-Bourisset Moulin à Vent
‘Elegant, showing some balsamic notes, with a refined palate, yet with very good intensity and definitely a restaurant wine. Try with medium hard cheese or a dish like quail or partridge with mushrooms. ‘
Arnaud Bardary, Maze
‘There were some good surprises, including the variety within each appellation, so it’s a case of finding the vigneron and then understanding the style of the individual wine. People talk about Beaujolais as easy drinking, but alongside this a lot of the crus are very concentrated, spicy wines, also capable of ageing and pairing with a big variety of foods.’
Wine of the Trip
Domaine Chasselay Beaujolais Cuvée de la Platière 2010
‘Great value for money and the inverse of some people’s image of Beaujolais. Structured, with black wild berries, a gastronomic wine but also for everyday drinking, summer or winter. This would match a bloody fillet of beef or a plate of charcuterie to share with friends.’
Cédric Beaumond, The Savoy Grill
‘We found some very good value for the price in many wines. People need to be educated more about the rich and complex crus, that Beaujolais offers something beyond fresh, easy drinking wines. And the whites were good, too. Beaujolais is an exciting challenge, and with older vintages at a very good price, selling magnums of older cru wines could work really well.’
Wine of the Trip
Collin-Bourisset Chiroubles 2006
‘This still had freshness, sweet fruit, with bright red berry fruit presence on the palate, accessible but still with some grippy tannins, showing some nice evolution. A good match with a charcuterie platter, but also quite powerful dishes like andouillette.’
Luigi Buonanno, Etrusca Restaurants
‘I was really impressed with the whites we found and it was also a very good reminder that, especially at cru level, Beaujolais has so many different styles beyond Fleurie. This lighter, fresher cru sells well, but the richer crus, and especially some with a little age, are a story that needs to be clearly told. Prices are good, quality high and there are many elegant and even age-worthy wines.’
Wine of the Trip
Emmanuel Fellot Beaujolais Blanc Chardonnay 2010
‘The nose is incredibly clean, nutty and mineral with notes of fresh almond, white blossoms, fresh pear. The palate is crisp, smooth with good acidity and a long mineral finish. A wine to match meaty fish, such as cod or halibut, and even simply cooked chicken or pork.’
Robert Tozser, Galvin La Chapelle
‘There were some eye opening wines and we need to see more of these in the UK. The differences between crus, and even the vineyards within those crus, are reminiscent of Burgundy. Much Beaujolais is a wine to drink young, but it was good to see that older wines from old vines in a good vintage can age well and show some nice bottle age. Sommeliers and importers need to realise this potential.’
Wine of the Trip
Domaine Chasselay Chénas La
‘A very elegant wine, this showed pencil tip on the nose followed by lots of red fruit, with sour cherry on the palate. This is a great summer red, slightly chilled, with a variety of lighter fish or meat dishes.’