Think you know Beaujolais? Think again

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

11 June 2019

If your perception of Beaujolais is based entirely on Nouveau, it's time you took another look at the wine style. Chris Losh is here to help

I know Beaujolais. Cheap, red, granite soils, dying on its arse, all about Nouveau…

Hmm. Nought out of five isn’t bad.

Eh? How so?

For starters, it’s not all about red. The recent tasting in London showed quite a few whites and rosés – and the local interprofessional body has been actively encouraging its growers to make more of both.

What are they like?

The whites are all Chardonnay, mostly unoaked. Like less acidic Chablis – and better priced. The rosés are quite promising, too. Good freshness – and that must-have pale pink Provence colour.

But they’re still a tiny part of the total, right?

Well, yes and no. White and rosé bottled under the Beaujolais label are around 6% of the total now, but growing steadily. Jean Bourjade of InterBeaujolais reckons whites could get to 10%-20% of the total eventually. Plus a lot more of the region’s white grapes find their way into Cremant de Bourgogne. So there’s more non-red than you think – and likely to be a whole lot more in the future.

Perfect for drinking young. Like all Beaujolais.

Are you suggesting that Beaujolais can’t age?

Totally. This is Gamay we’re talking about here.

Hmm. Don’t be swayed by the whole Nouveau thing. The latter is made for drinking straight away, but not everything is made with carbonic maceration. Producers are playing with fermentation techniques now. A lot of them are using semi-carbonic maceration and many more are doing whole-bunch fermentations too. They’re varying their techniques depending on their vineyards and the vintage. But the upshot is far more ageable – and ambitious – wines.

Oh come off it. Gamay? Ageable and ambitious?

Believe. As Monsieur Bourjade puts it, ‘The idea that Beaujolais is only good for young wines is just wrong. They can be aged for many years if they’re made in the right way.’ Don’t forget that wines don’t need to be huge, heavy and tannic to be either ageable or complex. And Gamay has great natural acidity, which is the spine of the wine.

The idea that Beaujolais is only good for young wines is just wrong. They can be aged for many years if they’re made in the right way

Jean Bourjade

Ah, that’s the terroir influence. Told you it was all about granite.

Kind of. Though Beaujolais isn’t just a great grey granite-fest. The region recently spent 1m analysing the region’s soil and discovered 85 different soil types.

That’s a lot of money. What did they do? Hire Cristiano Ronaldo to do the research?

Ha ha. That’s very good. No. They dug holes. 10,000 of them. It’s the biggest terroir research project that’s ever been carried out by a single appellation. The big changes in soil explain why you can get so much variety from one place to another, even though the wines are always single varietal.

If it’s so amazing why are the vineyards being pulled out?

Actually, they’re not so much anymore. It’s true that a couple of hundred hectares of the cheaper land in Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages still disappear every year. But that’s less than ten years ago – and the cru vineyards are rock solid.

What was the problem?

People just couldn’t charge enough for their wines. Beaujolais wasn’t fashionable and prices were super-low.

Whereas now they make Chateau Lafite look like Jacob’s Creek?

Now you’re just being facetious. They’re still not particularly expensive, but they are definitely on the up. Beaujolais is a trendy style at the mo – that lighter, fresher structure chimes well with modern dining and drinking habits – and younger drinkers in particular like the growing emphasis on organic production.

Where did this new sustainable shtick come from?

Well, if you want to go right back, you could say it started with Jules Chauvet, the granddaddy of the natural wine movement. But he died 30 years ago. The current movement is spurred on by a lot of younger growers. Many of them have come into the region from outside, presumably because it’s cheap to buy land.

Who said romance is dead?

Damn you’re cynical. These guys are for real. They’re all about sustainability, low intervention, organics, biodynamics – that kind of thing. And because of that they can charge a decent amount for their wines. ‘From day one they can make a living,’ says Jean Bourjade. ‘These are the people who are going to save Beaujolais.’

‘Plucky newcomers save struggling region’ – it might make a good film.

Well, it’d be better than Avengers: Endgame anyway.

So are there any sequels to this blockbuster?

Well, there’s the whole climate change thing, of course. They’re experimenting with hybrids that will be similar to Gamay – but more heat- and disease-resistant to help cut back on chemical use.

That would be Gamay-zing.

Ouch. Yellow card. To be honest, there’s no guarantee that any of the experimental hybrids will work. In the short term it’s more likely that people will mitigate against climate change by planting Gamay on higher land or north-facing slopes which are cooler. As Jean Bourjade puts it, ‘We know [climate change] is going to happen. It’s just a question of managing the change – of how long we can keep doing what we’re doing. We could see more Syrah in 50 years’ time.’

Syrah? Seriously?

Yup. But that’s not quite as weird as it sounds. For starters, it’s already there – in the south at least. And don’t forget that Beaujolais is really close to the northern Rhone, so it kind of makes sense. Some producers use Syrah to make Vin de France, so we know it works. It won’t take over, but if temperatures rise the region might apply to add it to its list of permitted varieties.

How many are on there at the moment?

Two. Gamay and Chardonnay.

So a big deal then.

Potentially, yes.   

Anything else I need to know about Beaujolais, apart from the fact that it’s not all red, cheap, young wine, not 100% granite soils, and not dying on its arse?

2018 was a sun-filled year, so the influence of the winemaker is huge. Some people have made wines that are elegant, perfumed and delicate, others are like strawberry jam. So pick with care!

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