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Beaujolais: A Versatile Wine
By Michael Apstein
Jul 16, 2019
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One of the many things I love about Beaujolais is its variety and versatility.  There’s Beaujolais Nouveau, a beverage that’s almost closer to alcoholic grape juice than to wine, and which many in the American wine press deride regularly.  Released on the third Thursday of November, it can be a refreshing, all-purpose wine for the Thanksgiving table.  In France, its arrival is celebrated in cafes and bars all over Paris and Beaune with signs and banners reading, “Beaujolais est arrivĂ©!”  (Beaujolais has arrived.) Each establishment proudly offers one of two from their favorite producers.  I’ve often overheard animated discussions among customers regarding the quality of one over the other.

Then there’s juicy Beaujolais that are fresh and fruity wines perfect for chilling and drinking at this time of the year.  A step up is Beaujolais-Villages, wines coming from any of the 38 villages in this area just north of Lyon that have the potential for better wine.  They, too, provide mid-weight wines that are perfect for drinking chilled in the summer.  However, Beaujolais-Villages from top producers--Château du Basty springs to mind--can have a depth and complexity that makes you realize that this category, often relegated to lower shelves in the supermarket, can provide amazing value. Look out, in particular, for old vine--“vieilles vignes”--bottlings of Beaujolais-Villages.  Some of these plantings date back to pre-World War II and even pre-Great War.

Finally, there’s the serious side of Beaujolais.  The Gamay grape can reflect its origins or, in modern terminology, be transparent, just as the Pinot Noir in the Côte d’Or.  Locals have known this for decades, bottling special cuvées from prized sites separately.  But it has taken six centuries after Philippe the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, exiled the “vile and noxious” Gamay grape from Burgundy in favor of the “elegant” Pinot Noir for the rest of the world to notice. 

This transparency is most apparent in the crus of Beaujolais, the ten villages in the northern part of the appellation whose soils are rich in granite and that are capable of producing such distinctive wines that only the name of the village in required on the label.  From north to south they are St. Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnié, Côte de Brouilly, and Brouilly.  Reference to Beaujolais on the label is optional. 

Jeanne-Marie Deschamps, one of Burgundy’s smartest brokers and a woman who knows the area well, describes the region as a series of several “volcanic eggs” jutting from the countryside, with vines on all sides of these outcroppings.  The topography differs from that of the Côte d’Or, which primarily faces southeast, and is more like Italy’s Chianti Classico where vineyards seemingly spread in every direction, leading to very different exposures. 

Audrey Charton, whose family owns Domaine du Clos des Garands, a superb estate in Fleurie, told me that one reason Beaujolais’ soil is unique is that the region was never hit by an ice age that brought soil and debris from elsewhere.  The topography and variation in soil explains why the wines from these villages are very different one from another.  Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon are considered the sturdiest, followed by Côte de Brouilly, while Chiroubles is the least structured. 

One thing that is particularly exciting is how producers are focusing on the vineyards (what the Burgundians call climats) within these crus.  Though Maison Louis Jadot, one of Burgundy’s top producers, was not the first to bottle a Beaujolais cru with a vineyard name, I nonetheless credit them with popularizing the concept when they purchased the Château des Jacques estate in Moulin-à-Vent in 1996.  Depending on the vintage, Château des Jacques produces up to five distinct wines from individual climats within Moulin-à-Vent (Clos de Rochegrès, Clos du Grand Carquelin, Clos de Champ de Cour, Clos de la Roche and Clos des Thorins) in addition to their Moulin-à-Vent cru. 

Jadot is not the only major Beaune-based négociant to expand the Burgundian philosophy to Beaujolais, meaning, each vineyard is intended to portray a unique terroir.  Bouchard Père et Fils owns Château de Poncié in Fleurie and makes wines from two individual climats, while Albert Bichot at Domaine de Rochegrès prominently labels their wine from their 5-acre plot in the Rochegrès climat as Rochegrès, subordinating even Moulin-à-Vent to small letters. 

Maison Louis Latour, another top producer, acting as a négociant, has bottlings from the climats in five of the 10 crus.  And, of course, Beaujolais producers who concentrate solely on the crus, such as the excellent Chateau Moulin-à-Vent in Moulin-à-Vent and Mee Goddard’s superb domaine in Morgon bottle climat by climat.  With some of these vineyard bottlings, the name Beaujolais does not appear on the label. 

Vineyard by vineyard bottling in Beaujolais is, to me, an exciting concept.  Here’s another area where wines using the same winemaking technique and made from the same grape grown in adjacent vineyards taste different.  It’s another marvel of Nature.  And fortunately, unlike in Côte d’Or, the epicenter of terroir, the wines from the climats of Beaujolais are affordable. 

Tasting Jean Foillard’s 2017s wines from three different climats in Morgon--Corcelette, Côte de Py and Charmes--is instructive.  Since Foillard is emphatic that the winemaking and élévage (aging) are identical, tasting his wines side by side show that dramatic differences among the terroirs.  The same is true with Château Thivin’s wines from the Côte de Brouilly. Wines from three different parcels (Godefoy, which faces east, La Chapelle, a south facing site on a 55-degree slope near the top, and Les Griottes de Brulhié, south facing at mid-slope) are all gorgeous and suave but delightfully different. Claude Geoffroy, whose family owns Château Thivin, told me that it’s the terroir speaking because the winemaking is the same for each parcel.

Despite the point this approach makes, there is enormous potential for confusion.  The number of proposed climats is impressive and for non-wine geeks who might not even be familiar with the names of the 10 crus, adding scores of more seemingly obscure names is daunting.  In addition to the many--officials are still identifying sites--in Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie has 13 climats, and Morgon six, perhaps the best known of which is Côte de Py, basically a hill of schist. (For completeness, the other five are Grand Cras, Les Charmes, Corcelette, Les Micouds and Douby.) 

But as Cyril Chirouze, the very talented winemaker at Château des Jacques, commented, “not all of the Côte de Py is not the same.”  Much like the famed Clos Vougeot in the Côte d’Or, where location in that vast vineyard is key, the location of the vines on the Côte de Py also matters.  Indeed, some producers are already identifying a subplot there, Jarvenières, towards its base, that produces slightly less firm wines and labeling them with that name.

To make matters worse, some producers use proprietary names in addition to, or instead of, place names.

Still, it’s an exciting time for Beaujolais.  Changes in grape-growing, winemaking, and site specificity are on the way.  Guillaume Striffling, another talented Beaujolais producer, says that he has specific plots in Regnié, which produce distinctive wine but cannot use their names because they are not recognized officially.  To be recognized, the climat must be approved by the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine), the French governing agency that regulates wine, which he notes is a long bureaucratic process. His Gallic philosophic streak is apparent when he remarked, “often in the wine business when you are planting a vine, you think to yourself ‘this is not for me, this is for my children because everything in the French (wine) industry takes a long time.’”

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Email me your thoughts about Beaujolais at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

July 17, 2019