Now when was it that Beaujolais started to become unfashionable?
In the 1980’s it was still high on a wine buyer’s list of priorities; typically pigeon-holed as ‘light and fruity’ but, without doubt, still ‘worthy’. Then came the ‘marketing coup’ that was Beaujolais Nouveau. Sales went through the roof and, at last, there was a home for all those hectolitres of plonk that would normally be sent for distillation – because (for years) they had no market.
So, where did it start to go wrong? There were probably two factors at work; firstly the mass-market began to associate the name of Beaujolais with its mass-market product, Beaujolais-Nouveau, and possibly some of the fine-wine market did the same too. Quite independently, the rise of the rich, ripe and similarly priced New World wines coincided with the softening of the Beaujolais customer-base. Apart from a bit of fun in the bar during the third week in November why would the mass-market buy a product that they expected to taste like B-N when, for the same price, they could buy a concentrated, alcoholic and sweet oak-aged old vine Shiraz? The mass-market has bought into tasty beverages, not ‘xyz appellation’ to pair with their salmon entrée…
Positioning a product for the mass-market brings with it the disadvantage that there is greater exposure to the cruel winds of ‘fashion’, and ‘Beaujolais’ in the last 10 years has simply fallen out of fashion. For a number of years now, trying to sell Beaujolais has been on a par with trying to sell German wines – tough! Our commiseration should really be reserved for the smaller domaines, the quality and commitment of whom are on exactly the same level as any domaine from the Côte de Nuits or Côte de Beaune – even they are held to ransom for the sins of Beaujolais-Nouveau.
Is there a way out? Actually I think so, primarily it must be by taking the average quality of the wines to new levels – exemplified by the wines of Potel-Aviron below and also Louis Jadot’s heavy investment in the region – but also the consumer and critic must be prepared to accept that the improvements merit space at their tables. Interestingly these quality producers are (apparently) having to distance themselves from the name of Beaujolais; you will usually find the name of the Cru (village) but rarely a reference to Beaujolais on their labels…
A brief introduction to Beaujolais
The southernmost point of ‘greater Burgundy’ is a 50 kilometer stretch of hilly country directly south of the Mâconnais and Puilly-Fuissé region – this is Beaujolais. The granite hills at Beaujolais’ northern end typically provide vineyards that have a high proportion of sand in their soils, a composition which seems to provide exactly what the Gamay grape requires, hence, Beaujolais is the home of Gamay. These northern hills are where the Beaujolais Crus can be found – the top wines of the region.
In addition to the crus of the north there are 39 villages that have to right to produce ‘Beaujolais Villages’ and many more who can simply make ‘Beaujolais’ – together they produce about twice as much wine as the Côte d’Or. Details of the crus follow…
Beaujolais is the home of ‘carbonic maceration’, a method of fermentation that elsewhere has largely died-out – though it could be the most ancient of wine making techniques – from old records it seems probable that (for instance) Château Lafite still partly employed this process in the early 1800’s. Young fruity aromas are a characteristic of this process – cherry, banana, raspberry – and it seems that only as people moved to bottle-aging and longer maturing of their Bordeaux wines, was the process slowly phased out.
The fundamental characteristic of carbonic maceration is that the grapes undergo a self fermentation (actually inside the grape) before yeast and malolactic fermentations; for this to happen the grapes must be harvested as near as possible without breaking the skins. In reality this process takes place in the presence of a small amount of grape must – the grapes in the bottom of the tank inevitably become crushed so there is also yeast fermentation – the heat from which actually helps to push the carbonic fermentation. Once the carbonic maceration is complete the grapes are pressed and the juice then allowed to (yeast mediated) ferment to dryness; a normal malolactic fermentation then follows. Wines produced with the traditional burgundian fermentation lose some of that overt fruitiness of their macerated cousins, but also lose some of that bubble-gum ‘confection’ and estery aspect on the nose.
It is now becoming more and more common to find a hybrid approach in the winery – 20-80% carbonic maceration and the rest by ‘normal’ yeast-mediated fermentations. The resulting wines retain some of the expected Beaujolais aromatics, but with more structure and potential longevity in the cellar.
Nicolas Potel was together with Stéphane Aviron at the Lycée Viticole in Beaune, in fact Nicolas smiles at the thought and points out that Stéphane was the good one at school – he actually finished! Stéphane is of Beaujolais stock – his father was a local wine-broker with a small domaine – and since 1993 when Stéphane was just 14 years old, he worked the vines in Chénas.
In 1999 Nicolas needed some Beaujolais for a client and, of-course, went to Stéphane. While sorting out the order they started to talk about the possibilities for a ‘new style’ of Beaujolais; top crus, traditional (Burgundian) fermentation rather than carbonic maceration and elevage in oak. The stage was set, and propitiously their first wines were launched from the very good 2000 vintage. Parcels from six crus were chosen for both their exposure and their vine-age, and each year these same parcels are bought. The parcel in Chénas are the oldest vines from Potel-Aviron cuvées; Stéphane has one piece of paper that shows a part of the parcel was planted in 1913, the rest pre-date his paper but it’s not known by how much. The consequence of these old vines is that yields are always lower, closer to 25 hl/ha than the 50 that is typical.
Where possible the grapes’ fermentation and elevage are done locally by the owners of the vineyard sites. Stéphane is there for the crushing as he sees this as crucial to the final quality. If it’s not possible to do locally, the grapes end up at his family domaine. The fermentation is classically Burgundian with local (natural) yeasts, and punching down before placing in oak barrels. The highest quantity of new oak is reserved for the biggest wines and even here it is only about 20%. With 10+ months in oak (about six months longer than most other domains that barrel-age) we have wines with (as we shall see) with a much more sophisticated tannic structure – very fine – carbonic maceration is anyway not known for resulting elegance. Despite all these changes, Stéphane is quite modest in his drinking windows for the wines, though he does say that he likes to keep the fruit essence of Beaujolais. The 2004’s he thinks will be drinking at their best around 5 years from the vintage, mainly due to their excellent balance, though the debut 2000’s are all still singing today.
Tasted in Nuits with Nicolas and Stéphane in January 2006, the 2004 wines had been in bottle for about 2 months. The bottles were also quite cold ~12°C but that wasn’t to the detriment of their presentation. For some of the wines we compared their counterparts from the 2003 vintage – just like in the Côte d’Or it was also a hard and hot vintage in the hills of Beaujolais – Nicolas and Stéphane joked that pouring the grapes out of the baskets sometimes sounded like they’d collected rocks as the grapes were so hard and dry!
Medium cherry-red colour. The nose is about red fruit with a subtle milk-chocolate coating and a faintly estery top-end. In the mouth your instant impression is that of a freshly presented fruit confit that leaves your mouth-watering into the finish. Not quite medium weight, but a really super length. Elegant wine – a real summer evening drink.
Vanilla accented nose of deeper colour stoned fruit. Fresh, high-toned complexion in the mouth with lots of very fine tannin. This is a lovely un-forced example, beautifully balanced, even serene, but still a most serious wine. Bravo.
A little darker colour – the soil here is more limestone and clay. The nose is deeper still. Once again there is great balance, but there is also a step-up in concentration. Again very fine tannins. Lovely wine and certainly more intensity than in the Fleurie.
The soil here has higher levels of iron and manganese. Similar colour to the Juliénas. The nose is a wide and fresh expression of red berries with a few darker skinned notes and hints of milk chocolate. Beautiful poise, concentrated and pure with the most tannin so-far, but again in a sophisticated package. I’d characterise it as brooding wine, full of potential.
The oldest vines from these cuvées. The deepest colour of any wine. It’s also the only wine that majors on cedary spice notes, instead of fruit – even warming the glass and swirling makes for little change. This is a powerful wine, plenty of tannin that has just an edge of astringency, though like the rest of this family they are finely textured. Not quite the elegance of the other cuvées, but then this is obviously a very young wine. The other wines are about precision, whereas this is about power – really etching itself into the palate. Stéphane suggests leaving this for a year before drinking – I’d suggest 2 or 3!
Back to the more ‘classic’ nose of the other crus; wide with both depth and interest. Stéphane believes this is the best terroir of Beaujolais. It is another very young wine with plenty of tannin. Fresh, concentrated and long. Another year in the cellar will bring this around very nicely!
Denser on the nose, less width. This has a big impression in the mouth, tannin coats the palate and whilst not ‘un-fine’ there is not quite the elegance of its counterpart in 2004. Still the balance is almost good despite lower acidity. Today quite dense and primary.
Less than 20 hl/ha in 2003 due to hail and heat. Like the Juliénas there is an extra depth on the nose but less width. It’s a little tight, quite hard to pick out individual elements. This shows plenty of structure, lots of well-grained tannin. Another dense and primary effort that needs more bottle rest.
The nose here is more expressive with higher tones padding out the deep core of fruit. Fills the mouth, plenty of dimension, good acidity and lots of tannin – but well-mannered tannin. As far away from a summer aperitif as you can get, this is serious wine that begs to be paired with food. I would still leave this at least one year in the cellar, and perhaps 3 might be better.
Château de Pierreux
Originally a 14th century fortress, the much re-modelled Château produces some quite amazing wines.
Set in 100 hectares of land – 77 in the appellation of Brouilly – the Château faces directly to the Mont Brouilly. Via Mommessin, the Château came into the ownership of JC Boisset in 2003. Mommessin are currently renovating the building as a place of reception within the vineyards.
Part of the domaine is biodynamic and even uses horses for the ploughing. No training wires are used as the vines are pruned in a goblet system – the pendant grapes held securely by the strong branches. Green harvesting helps to keep yields down while much of the work in the cuverie is based in Burgundian tradition.
Some cuvées take the hybrid approach with a mix of carbonic maceration and barrel elevage, others are fully Burgundian. I tasted the two approaches wines with Jean-Baptise Terlay of Mommessin in March 2006, these are early samples, but showcase also the very deep colours seen across the region for the 2005’s. In particular the Réserve du Château is an incredible wine – Jean-Baptiste say’s that the wines of the 1980’s are still drinking rather well!
From the core of the appellation. A high-toned, effervescent nose – this wine saw 50% carbonic maceration, and truly brings a blend of fruit and texture. There is plenty of tannin, though this will become rounder once bottled. Super intensity of fruit and medium-plus length. Quite a Beaujolais.
From one block of vines – La Roche. 100% de-stemmed, 3 weeks maceration and elevage in 2-5 year-old barrels ex the Clos de Tart, where the wine will stay for ~18 months. Deep, almost impenetrable colour. Equally deep and serious nose. The palate shows plenty of tannin and an incredible depth and wealth of black-skinned fruit. Impressive hardly does justice to this wine, incredible potential!