The Other Burgundy
Buoyed by a series of excellent vintages and led by a crop of energetic winemakers with something to prove, the Beaujolais region is on the rise. While the region has a wine making tradition and history that dates back centuries, the region has seen significant swings in its reputation and fortunes.
Beaujolais entered the second half of the twentieth century as a sleepy country cousin compared to its more famous neighbors to the north in the Cote D’Or. Like many regions back then, the development of modern winemaking tools has created efficiencies that allowed growers to churn out vast quantities of cheap, cheerful fruity wines, some not so cheerful ones, and a few more serious wines from the best producers and vineyards.
In the 1970’s, a local celebration of the harvest was marketed into an international fad, and the race to get Nouveau Beaujolais to market first (after the legal release date of the 3rd Thursday of November) became all the rage. The short-term prospects were good. Nouveau’s quick fermentation allowed producers to sell the wines in a matter weeks rather than months and years. Production soared, quality arguably suffered, but the impact on cash flow was monumental.
The problem was that they were building their reputation on a faddish wine of dubious quality, and when the fad died, as fads inevitably do, it left a bad taste in the mouths of many consumers. Even during the Nouveau boom years, there were a handful of growers who saw the writing on the wall, realizing the only way to achieve success was to focus on quality over quantity, and craft wines that captured the essence of the grapes and unique terroir of the region. These visionaries eschewed the modern dictates of commercial production and began to follow the lead of biodynamic pioneers like Jules Chauvet. They began with a move away from the methods that they felt resulted in bland, generic wines and moved “back to nature” with organic, biodynamic and natural grape growing and winemaking.
Today many more are following the trend. The top wines from these growers are highly sought after by connoisseurs and top Sommeliers and are now found on the lists of some of the best restaurants in the world. They have been helped by higher prices in Cote d’Or for Burgundy, and more flexible and open-minded consumers.
The region is comprised of the catch-all Beaujolais AOC producing lighter, fruitier wine mainly from vineyards in the south, or Bas-Beaujolais, which is flatter terrain with sandstone and clay soils. Carbonic maceration is widely used to ferment the wines without extracting hard tannins, and the result is soft, fruity wine for early consumption. North of Villefranche is the Beaujolais-Villages AOC, with steeper hills, higher altitude, and soils composed of sandstone, schists, granite and some limestone. The wines here must have a slightly higher minimum alcohol, lower yields per acre, and are a step up in terms of body while maintaining a fresh, fruit driven nature.
The best sites are the hillsides where the soils are mainly granites and schists in vineyards surrounding the ten Cru Villages of Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. Each has its own subtle stylistic nuances, with more structure and complexity than simple Beaujolais – sometimes more reminiscent of their Pinot Noir based cousins to the north than the rest of Beaujolais. The best can age for a decade or more, yet most are medium-bodied, accessible when they are young, and work with food much like Pinot Noir, pairing with poultry, game birds, grilled meaty fish and lighter meats like pork or veal.
Some of the best can be found in the Kermit Lynch portfolio including Guy Breton, Nicole Chanrion, Chignard, Diochon, Jean Foillard, Marcel Lapierre, and more. Other noteworthy producers include Julien Sunier, Jean-Paul Brun, and Georges Descombes. The wines range in price from under $10 for Beaujolais to the high-teens to the mid $30’s for the Crus, making them quite a bargain. With a series of excellent vintages on the market, especially 2014 and 2015, it is an excellent time to explore a region very much on the move. Cheers!
Chris Cree is one of 40 Masters of Wine in the US and Director of Education and Retail Operations at the Pluckemin Inn, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winning restaurant and online wine shop.