Written off as dead and buried after the Nouveau nightmares of the 1980s, Beaujolais is back from the grave and ready to party, says Sarah McCleery
Telling your colleagues that you’re off to Beaujolais for a week generates more quizzical looks than it does significant interest. You can almost see lips pucker at the memory of Nouveau and then blankness descend before they move on to something completely different.
The truth is that Beaujolais is a region reinvigorated. The Nouveau wines of November have slipped into a cameo role while the Cru wines (Saint Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly) are steadily emerging as the rightful stars.
IN A NUTSHELL
Sandwiched between the vineyards of the Mâcon to the north and the city of Lyon to the south, Beaujolais might have 2,800 winemaking estates, but it’s a simple region to understand. Chardonnay and Gamay are the only two grape varieties of any significance – with Gamay the top dog – and there are just 12 appellations in total.
Uninteresting Nouveau wines were not solely responsible for Beaujolais’ fall from favour. Winemakers accuse many of the all-powerful négociants of prioritising cash flow and margins ahead of quality, whilst enthusiastic marketers failed to mention the higher quality Beaujolais-Villages and Cru wines altogether. These issues were further compounded by some of the shockingly bad wines that were being exported year-round. As one refreshingly honest Beaujolais winemaker puts it, ‘mediocre Beaujolais is pretty undrinkable.’
Still, there’s nothing like a collapse in sales to focus the mind and Beaujolais has responded in style, with the Crus indisputably the locomotive for change.
The Cru vineyards are planted on the granitic soils of the Haut-Beaujolais; each one of which is unique. And it’s the desire of the winemakers to show off this uniqueness that holds the key to
the region’s revitalisation.
‘People forget that just after the war a bottle of Moulin-à-Vent sold for the same price as a top quality Châteauneuf-du-Pape,’ says Jean-Paul Brun at Domaine des Terres Dorées, who has vineyards in Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent, Côte de Brouilly and Morgon. ‘The granite soils have manganese too and it’s this that gives the wines their structure and their ageing potential… Morgon is a little like that, whereas the wines from Fleurie and Brouilly are finer, more fruit-driven.’
There’s nothing like a collapse in sales
to focus the mind and
Beaujolais has responded in style
With barely 15% of estates selling their wines direct, the co-operatives and négociants are still exceedingly powerful but there is a visible increase in groups of winemakers coming together to support one another with the aim of promoting the region’s diversity.
Terroirs Originels is one such group, while Expressions d’Origine: Domaines et Châteaux en Beaujolais is another. These groups know that it’s important to raise the profile of their wines and are making plans to bring bottles to the UK for a formal tasting in 2010.
Across the region there is a fierce loyalty to their grape, Gamay. ‘In the New World they’ve planted Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz everywhere. Not Gamay though because it’s too difficult to cultivate. Gamay is our trump card. It’s so well suited to our region and we are the only people who know how to manage it,’ says Caroline de Roussy de Sales, Château de la Chaize. ‘To spread the word about the wines of Beaujolais we must talk about Gamay’s ability to partner a huge array of the world’s cuisines. In France we sell most of our wines to Bordeaux. Ironic, don’t you think?’
In the vineyards not much has changed in the last decade, with planting densities and pruning staying much as they’ve always been. Producers know that Gamay is a prolific vine and they work hard to keep it in check. There’s consensus that yields – within a range of anywhere
between 30hl/ha and 50hl/ha – will have little impact on the final wine. The age of the vine, though, does have a huge role to play and in the Cru vineyards it’s not much of a challenge to stumble from one 50-year-old vine to another.
In the winery, the most hotly debated issue of the moment is whether or not to de-stem. Winemakers such as Jean-Paul Brun at Domaine des Terres Dorées are definitely pro. ‘By destemming I am able to lengthen the maceration,’ he says. ‘The Moulin-à-Vent is macerated for close to a month and I get a wine with structure but without the harsh, dry tannins.’ For the time being, however, such a view leaves Brun in the minority.
What is absolutely clear across the region is the emphasis on delivering wines of the very best quality. The Beaujolais know they have the talent, the grape and the terroir. The only job remaining is to spread the word about these high-quality, versatile and competitively-priced wines as far and wide as they can.
Jekyll and Hyde
Arnaud Chambost, Meilleur Ouvrier de France and president of the Association des Sommeliers Lyonnais-Rhône-Alpes, gives his insider’s guide to understanding the many faces of Beaujolais Cru
BROUILLY, CHIROUBLES, FLEURIE, REGNIE
‘A combination of altitude and more sandy granite soils makes these wines some of the most aromatic, floral and delicate of the Cru wines.’
COTE DE BROUILLY
‘Blue granite, heavier rock soils and good vineyard exposure give these wines more volume and a peppery quality on the palate.’
‘The most northerly of the Cru, the vineyards are planted on soils made up of granite, schist
and clay. The wines are supple with real finesse. Not the most structured of the Cru but more intense than the likes of Fleurie. Can easily be kept for up to four years.’
‘Famous for its grey soils that are named “rotten rocks” that are formed from schist and iron. The wines are wild and rustic with lots of flavour. Wines that can be kept from anywhere between five and ten years.’
‘The most powerful and tannic of the Cru wines that come from the region’s finest terroir.
Generous wines, some of the best being made close to Chénas. Wait three years before drinking.’
‘The smallest of the Cru, which benefits from some of the manganese that sets the wines of Moulin-à-Vent apart. Very good ageing potential.’
‘Robust, juicy and spicy wines are made here. The sandy-granite soils have a good proportion of clay.’
I know what you drank last summer
… and if it wasn’t the blood of young virgins it was probably Beaujolais…
Calcott Manor, Tetbury, Gloucester
‘The wines that I’ve tasted from Beaujolais over the last couple of years have really changed my views. There’s such a variety of styles of wines from one Cru to another; from nice and light to wines with great complexity and longevity. I have tried a Moulin-à-Vent that tasted like Burgundy and a Morgon that was more like a Rhône. We’re now selling the Moulin-à-Vent by the glass. It’s a really good time for Beaujolais. The current economic situation means that people who were previously buying Burgundy at £70 a bottle are now turning to Beaujolais Cru at £40.’
Forbury’s Restaurant, Reading
‘Wines from Beaujolais have been perceived as being cheap and simple but there really are some serious, good-quality wines coming out of Beaujolais. I like the fact that the wines are generally lighter in alcohol and that they offer a lot of flexibility; they’re good lunchtime wines and some can be served chilled. They make a good alternative to some Burgundian wines, such as Santenay. I have three Beaujolais wines on my list now and I think that the trend for lighter, fresher wines means that there are lots of opportunities for Beaujolais now.’
Hell hath no Fleurie…
Imbibe’s list of producers you should know about
CHATEAU DES JACQUES
+ 33 (0) 3 85 35 51 64
CLOS DE HAUTE-COMBE
+ 33 (0) 4 74 04 41 09
DOMAINE DES TERRES DORÈES
+ 33 (0) 4 78 47 93 45
DOMAINE DU VISSOUX
+ 33 (0) 4 74 71 79 42
DOMAINE JEAN FOILLARD
+ 33 (0) 4 74 04 24 97
DOMAINE REGIS CHAMPIER
+ 33 (0) 4 74 69 53 82
+ 33 (0) 4 74 69 53 82
MEZIAT PERE ET FILS
+ 33 (0) 6 85 51 22 43
+ 33 (0) 4 74 69 53 82
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – July / August 2009