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Beaujolais Rising
By Michael Apstein
Jan 12, 2016
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A transformation is occurring in Beaujolais, and within a few years the world will see the wines from that region in a whole new light. For most consumers today, Beaujolais is synonymous with Beaujolais Nouveau, which all too often is a grapey, gooey wine. But, in my mind, the future of Beaujolais surely lies with its crus, which are prohibited from making Nouveau. These ten villages, located in the hilly northern reaches of the region, have unique granitic soil and produce wine that is distinctive enough to be labeled solely with the name of the village, often omitting the name Beaujolais entirely. It’s what’s happening within the crus--a Côte d’Or-like parcelization--that explains why Beaujolais will reclaim its reputation as a top wine region.

Beaujolais, a top wine region? Really? Well, a price list from 1911 showed that the 1906 and 1907 wines from Moulin-à-Vent, considered by most to be the top of the Beaujolais cru, were selling at the same price as wine from Vosne-Romanée, according to Thibault Liger-Belair, a leading grower located in Nuits-St. Georges. It would not surprise me to see the vineyards of the crus classified, as they are in the rest of Burgundy, during the next two decades (which is a blink of an eye in terms of the history of French wine bureaucracy).

Edward Parinet, whose family owns Château Moulin-à-Vent, one of the region’s top-tier producers, believes that although Moulin-à-Vent has the biggest potential for parcelization because there are upwards of 30 distinct lieux-dits, the other crus have the ability to identify individual climats and notes that more and more producers are doing so.

Certainly growers who focus on wines from Morgon and Fleurie, two of the other top crus, have embraced the concept. Alex Joubert, the winemaker at Château de Raousset in Fleurie, believes it’s normal to have separate bottlings because, according to him, “The wines are clearly different from the start, immediately after fermentation.” Château de Raousset has been bottling by parcel since just after the turn of this century, when they started to isolate wines from Grille-Midi, a unique parcel in Fleurie. They’ve added a Morgon from the Douby lieu-dit and even one from Chiroubles called Bel-Air because they recently acquired sufficient acreage there to make a separate bottling practical.

Domaine Roger Lassarat, a top producer in the Mâconnais known for his distinctive individual bottlings of St. Véran and Pouilly-Fuissé that reflect site differences in those appellations, purchased about 9 acres in Moulin-à-Vent in 2008. He is doing there what he has done brilliantly in St. Véran and Pouilly-Fuissé. Lasserat focuses on the individual climat in Moulin-à-Vent, but instead of using the name of the climat, he uses a proprietary name, Vers La Chapelle, for his bottling from the lieu-dit Les Brussellions, presumably for marketing simplicity.

Even a quick survey tasting of the crus of Beaujolais at the annual Palais des Congrès tasting held during the Hospices de Beaune Auction weekend reveals a multiplicity of producers focusing on individual climats within the cru: Domaine Mee Godard has three in Morgon (Courcelette, Grand Cras and Côte de Py), Jean Foillard and Frédéric Berne both bottle wine from Morgon Courcelette. I could go on, but you get the picture. It is not an isolated phenomenon.

New producers in the region, such as the Lardet family, who, in 2012 purchased an existing estate in Moulin-à-Vent and renamed it Le Nid, is making separate cuvées, La Rochelle and Rochegrès, identified by parcel. Perhaps Thibault Liger-Belair, who owns over half an acre in Richebourg, one of the grandest of the Burgundy Grand Crus, made the biggest statement when he purchased vineyards in Moulin-à-Vent. As he relates it, his neighbors thought he was crazy; “You own in Richebourg, why bother with Beaujolais?” But he told me he’s there to stay, looking forward to the challenge. He prides himself on being in it for the viticulture, not just a Burgundy négociant interested in marketing the wines.

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In reality, though, it was a Burgundy négociant, one of Burgundy’s best, Maison Louis Jadot, that saw the opportunity in Beaujolais first and seized it. Twenty years ago this year, Jadot purchased the acclaimed, but neglected, Château des Jacques in Moulin-à-Vent. Jadot has subsequently shown their enthusiasm for the potential of the crus with purchases of additional vineyards: 65 acres in Morgon, 15 acres in Fleurie, 10 acres in Chiroubles, 5 acres in Régnié, and 2.5 acres in Chénas. And I suspect more are in its future.

In Moulin-à-Vent, where Jadot has had the longest experience, Château des Jacques harvests and vinifies wines from unique and distinct parcels, including Clos de Rochegrès, La Roche, La Grand Carquelin, and La Rochelle, depending on the year. In addition, Château des Jacques makes a blend from various vineyards within Moulin-à-Vent, labeled solely as Moulin-à-Vent, analogous to their village wines from the Côte d’Or. In Morgon, Château des Jacques has a bottling that comes solely from their plots in the climat of Côte de Py, one of the five most important lieux-dits of Morgon (the other four are Charmes, Grand Cras, Courcelette, and Douby.) Although Château des Jacques owns plots within two climats of Fleurie, Grille-Midi and Bel-Air, it has yet to bottle them separately, intending instead to do so as it gains experience with the wines coming from the plots.

Cyril Chirouze, the new winemaker at Château des Jacques who was trained in both viticulture and enology and is perfectly suited to take the property to the next level, articulates the challenges and logic behind parcelization. He explains that although they are only 70 miles from the Côte d’Or, Beaujolais has a very different geology. The hilly northern part of Beaujolais is really an extension of the Massif Central, an ancient mountain range formed at about the same time as the Appalachian Mountains.

Geologically speaking, the area was studded with huge sub-marine volcanoes. Chirouze emphasizes that the differences among the cru--all of them are composed of volcanic soil--is a result of the kind of volcanic stone that is present, whether the ancient stone and now soil originated from the magna or the center of the volcano, or the chimney, or whether it came from the lava-like stone at the top of the volcano. For example, the dark blue-black stone present in Morgon’s Côte de Py and in the Côte de Brouilly represents lava-like debris from the top of the volcano.

Indeed, the soil in Moulin-à-Vent is decomposed volcanic debris, like sand on the beach--granular without organic material and incapable of holding water. This is a soil that needs the Gamay and vice versa. Though it is often said that grapes need to suffer to produce fine wine, Gamay needs to suffer even more. Otherwise it is too prolific, which is why Philip the Bold described it as “the despicable and disloyal Gamay” and banished in from the Côte d’Or in the 14th century. The clay limestone soil there allowed the Gamey vines to over-produce, resulting in dilute and uninteresting wines.

Chirouze believes that most of the differences among the cru can be attributed to the sub-soil because, he says, the weather throughout this northern stretch of Beaujolais is basically the same. That said, with interdigitating hills, the exposure and the elevations vary enormously, which undoubtedly contributes to the differences among the climats and the rationale for parcelization.

La Roche lies practically adjacent to Moulin-à-Vent’s iconic windmill and sits about 5 feet higher than Clos du Grand Carquelin, which is just across the road. Chirouze notes that there is typically a two-day difference in ripening between the two. The grapes from Rochegrès, which is only 500 meters away and 300 feet higher in elevation, typically ripen a week later compared to the other two climats. Château des Jacques’s fourth climat, La Rochelle, which it just started bottling separately in 2010, is south-facing (i.e., warmer) with darker soil, which explains why it is always a more concentrated wine. Chirouze insists, “It is crazy to blend them at vinification because the wines taste entirely different.” Cyril thinks that speaking of a cru, such as Moulin-à-Vent, as a homogenous wine, “Is a shame”, because of the individual variations within the climats. He is emphatic that, at Jadot, “We are convinced of the differences of the terroir.”

To allow the terroir to express itself, Château des Jacques and the other producers focused on terroir needed to revert to the traditional fermentation of the Beaujolais region--that is, the more Burgundian methods used prior to the whole-bunch carbonic fermentation introduced in the 1950s to make Beaujolais Nouveau: In other words, a return to hand-harvesting, destemming, long maceration and barrel aging.

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Tasting the wines from the various climates of Château des Jacques demonstrates clearly that parcelization is a valid viticultural concept and not just a marketing gimmick. The wine from La Rochelle is deeper and richer, while La Roche’s wine is taut and mineraly. The bottling from Clos de Grand Carquelin has a flowery elegance to it, while the wine from Clos de Rochegrès, with its darker fruit and broader tannins, needs years in bottle to show its stuff. Of course, marketing the wines may become more difficult because adding seemingly obscure place names to labels runs the risk of confusing consumers with too much information.

But the real marketing challenge will be to transform the public’s impression of Beaujolais from the tutti-frutti early drinking Beaujolais Nouveau to a real wine that requires several years--sometimes more than a decade--of bottle-aging to show its true character and grandeur.

The official start of the classification of the vineyards--the application to the INAO, the national wine-governing body, began in 2008. Chirouze laments that, at present, “we can only dream about a premier cru classification.” The biggest hurdle the producers face, according to Chirouze, is finding examples of single vineyard bottlings that go back far enough to convince the INAO that the wines and the climats are distinctive. For now, however, he notes with a certain sadness that, “Only a handful of growers work for the terroir. Many people still have the quantity mentality.” What the Beaujolais region really needs, he adds, “is for people to behave as real winegrowers and winemakers.”

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January 13, 2016

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