Beaujolais, a Nouveau Tale of Vinous Envy and The Despised Grape
In just around three weeks time on the third Thursday in November, the first bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau will depart Burgundy and head for the tables and shelves of wine shops and restaurants around the world.
Almost two thirds of Beaujolais’ entire production will be sold through the Beaujolais Nouveau campaign.
What anyone who purchases a Beaujolais Nouveau wine will drinking is a wine made in the shortest legally allowable period between picking, fermentation and bottling.
The idea of an early made wine is however not a recently invented marketing trick.
From the very earliest records of winemaking there was always a rush to make a wine from at least some portion of that summer’s crop of grapes to celebrate the end of the harvest and to test the bounty of the gods or nature depending on your religious outlook.
Over the next few weeks across Europe there are many local festivals being held which will celebrate a successful harvest with a few barrels of just completed, hopefully fully fermented grapes. These wines now even have an official EU designation as Primeurs, the word Nouveau is now more broadly defined in the EU as any wine placed in bottle and sold before the next harvest, but I do not think the Beaujolais Nouveau makers will be changing their labels any time soon
Most of these simple, just-cooked wines were for in-house local use only, partly perhaps because they did not want outsiders thinking this is what their best wines were going to be like. In the Rhone, Provence, Tuscanny, the French South West these wines are drunk at trestle table parties in the local mayor’s hall or Caves Co-Operative
The reason Beaujolais Nouveau is famous is that it was the first of these local, quickly made celebratory wines to come to the attention of an urban market and one of the first wine regions to really begin to exploit that attention in the media. Of course all this was in some way perhaps to over compensate for the fact that Beaujolais had always felt overlooked and shunned because of its location, right next to some of the most famous and sought after wines on the planet for over 1000 years.
Its next-door neighbour is Burgundy proper.
I say Burgundy proper because the Beaujolais wine region is legally part of Burgundy and to my mind should be embraced wholeheartedly by the rest of Burgundy.
However, from the Macon region, right on its border to the imperious Cote D’Or with names like Nuits St George, Clos De Vougeout, Gevry Chambertin, Montrachet and Meursault you will find almost no one willing to think of Beaujolais as a fellow Burgundy region.
In Beaujolais, we have a wine region with some major issues.
The great wines of Burgundy are as is well known, made from two grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, every fine wine that you might mention is made from one or the other of these two grapes. This uniformity was not accidental.
The Dukes of Burgundy for 500 years made sure that these two noble grapes dominated, with several statutes being passed first to outlaw other grapes and then around 1450 to order the ripping up and destruction of other grapes, specifically Gamay, a grape they considered to be a crude, poor quality and rustic peasant affair that could undermine their noble wines.
Gamay is the main red grape of Beaujolais.
A Despised Grape
It is hard to imagine that anyone sensible to outside opinion or to the little matter of sales could have wanted to persist with planting and cultivating Gamay in the face of such comprehensive slander as was levelled at Gamay in the 15th Century.
Remarkably that is just what happened in the lands adjacent to the Dukedom of Burgundy, the province of the Duke of Beaujeu, which today we call Beaujolais.
Beaujolais is a region about 100km long and around 40km wide that sits between France’s second city, Lyon and the city of Macon the southern capital of Burgundy.
Lyon is the secret to the story of the persistence with Gamay.
The vast majority of Burgundy’s admittedly high quality wines were destined for the aristocratic families of France and Europe. That left the little matter of a huge city full of thirsty workers on the very doorstep of Beaujolais.
The Romans, of course, had planted vineyards in Beaujolais first and had identified most of the best sites for vines. These good sites are all at the northern end of Beaujolais, which is quite hilly, rolling countryside full of some of France’s most gorgeous hidden valleys and picture postcard beautiful villages. Their names will be familiar to wine lovers, Fleurie, Morgon, Julienas which was allegedly named for Julius Caesar and its rival for the most authentic Roman legacy AC Regnie, where they have a better claim that their vines were planted by high ranking Romans.
These villages form the 10 Cru of Beaujolais, the ten best wine appellations which also include Moulin A Vent, Chiroubles, Brouilly and the AC Saint Amour which only seems to sell wines in Ireland once a year on St. Valentine’s Day.
All of these Cru are located in the northern half of Beaujolais, the part nearest to Burgundy and the city of Macon.
A Sub Soil Apart
Although close to Macon, the sub soil of Beaujolais and its dramatic, rising and dropping landscape of hills and valleys are made up of very different material, not limestone, but granite, with some schist and limestone patches. The hillsides and valley floors offer very different growing conditions with very fertile, clay and loam in many of the valleys.
These loamy, rich soils which occupy valley floors in the north of Beaujolais, are much more widespread in flatter southern Beaujolais. The lands are in essence too good for high quality wine production. The 10 Cru are located on poor soils and slopes that are agriculturally the worst in the region, ideal for vines destined for winemaking.
In Beaujolais, the Gamay grape, not Pinot Noir dominates because it responds well to the more challenging nature of the sub soil. Pinot Noir is a fickle, weak vine that is can be ruined by heat, cold, over-watering, drought and dozens of pests.
In Northern Beaujolais, the soils in the valleys, as I have seen can turn to mud, the hills are steep and the granite unforgiving, this is Gamay country, the gentle well drained slopes of the Cote D’Or in Burgundy is much better suited to picky Pinot.
The whole southern half of Beaujolais where a great deal of wine classified as AC Beaujolais comes from is at best a marginal area for wine production. Crops here are very large, perhaps too large, getting the grapes to 11% of alcohol is a trial every year, with the addition of sugar always on the horizon.
In March 2009 in court in Villefranche-Sur-Soane, a larger town in Beaujolais, around a dozen men were convicted in relation to sugar. Two men were found guilty of selling 600 tonnes of sugar without receipts and the rest with either possessing undocumented sugar at their wineries or in a few cases having wine that had been chaptilized.
Chaptilization is the adding of sugar to wine to provide some food for the yeast to convert into alcohol. If you have poor, plump watery grapes they might give you alcohol levels of 5% or 6%, very low in a wine. Adding sugar will solve this problem. It is naturally illegal in most circumstances in countries like France with strict rules.
The selling of sugar, no questions asked at harvest time, to winemakers is therefore a crime in France. Beaujolais is where many of these crimes are found, nature is trying to tell the southern Beaujolais something.
Beyond Beaujolais Nouveau
It will not surprise you, dear reader, to find out that Beaujolais Nouveau wines tend to come from this southern region of Beaujolais.
So, perversely perhaps, to my mind, Beaujolais Nouveau is in fact a near perfect response to a region that otherwise can produce such marginal and modest wines.
The vast bulk of these wines then are sold quickly and cheaply, for the fun and casual drinking of millions of people across the world. They are lowish in alcohol, they are light in colour, low in tannins, quite fruity and most attractive when chilled.
They have a place on the shelf, provided that place is cheap enough and that they are drunk entirely fresh.
The history as we have seen was that this was always a local event, mainly for the population of Lyon, but as transport improved Paris became a market for these young, fresh and fruity wines.
In 1937 when the Appellation Controlee system was formalised in law, the key law for Beaujolais was that they could not sell Beaujolais Nouveau before 15th of December, showing that the wine was now more than a local curiosity and trying to increase quality by making sure the wine was fully finished.
This left little time for sales before Christmas and after World War II, this was brought back to the 15th of November.
Then in the early 1960s, the most influential name in Burgundy arrived on the scene, Georges Duboeuf.
Georges Duboeuf was obsessed by Burgundy, today he essentially owns a whole village called Romaneche-Thorins, where he has built one of the world’s best, ok perhaps the world’s only wine theme park. The whole village is a living display of how wine is made, how the lives of winemakers and growers is spent.
It is actually quite poignant and goes far beyond a few barrels and tanks, the railway station is set up to show how transportation impacted on wine. If you are ever in the area it is well worth a detour, it is about an hour north of Lyon airport where Aer Lingus flies hundreds of thousands of Irish ski holiday makers into the French Alps each winter.
Duboeuf’s wines all feature very vibrant floral labels that set them, some might say, garishly apart from anything else on the French wine shelves, but in adopting this approach he foresaw what the New World wines would do in the late 1990s and today with their eye-catching labels.
Duboeuf created the modern craze for Beaujolais Nouveau, popularising the phrase, Il Est Arrivee, a typical Parisian Chalk Bar sign that declared they had the Beaujolais Nouveau wine for sale.
Duboeuf fostered the media mania for the race to be the first restaurant or bar to have the Beaujolais Nouveau throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Duboeuf himself has moved on in many ways and now the winery and his company try to look a Beaujolais in a rounded fashion with wines from the 10 Cru and from Beaujolais Villages dominating.
Beaujolais Villages is the name given to wine from the better northern half of Beaujolais that sist outside of the 10 Cru and it represents a very credible and rising level of quality.
The 10 Cru of Beaujolais: Fleurie, Moulin a Vent, Brouilly, Regnie, Chiroubles, Cote de Brouilly, St Amour, Chenas, Morgon and Julienas can all produce wines of the highest ambition. The Gamay on this soil and stone produces, very complex wines that range from the perfumed violet delights of AC Fleurie wines to the tannic and intense wines of Moulin A Vent. These wines can be long lasting and can evolve into very fine wines over time, Chateau de Pierreux in the heart of AC Brouilly is a wine beating at the doors of Grand Cru status.
The future for Beaujolais as a fine wine region is in the Cru wines, these named villages are the ambitious top line, they can be very attractive wines and they sell for considerably lower prices than their Burgundy cousins.
Here are some possibilities to begin your exploration.
Avant Garde Beaujolais
Domaine Lapalu, Viellies Vignes AC Brouilly 2007 (90) around €20.95
Chateau de Pierreux AC Brouilly 2008 (90) around €19
Domaine De Vissoux, AC Fleurie 2008 (89) around €20.75
Domaine de la Madone, AC Fleurie, 2008 (89) around €18
Kings Of The Old Guard
Georges Duboeuf, AC Brouilly 2007 (89) around €16
Drouhin, AC Fleurie 2006 (89) around €19
Louis Jadot, Domaine de Poncereau, AC Fleurie 2007 (90) around €20