The market for Beaujolais is moribund.
The great regions are known by their great wines – unfortunately today it’s the reverse for Beaujolais – people think instinctively of Nouveau – and really that’s the crux of the problem.
There is a grand culture of vines here in the Beaujolais but less-so of wines… That’s changing now, as more and more producers are selling direct and entertaining buyers. Indeed there are many small, dynamic areas or sub-sub-segments; fizz, natural wine, vins de garde – even in Beaujolais villages. Yet Beaujolais remains a region dominated by large companies and the expectation of cheap wines – even if their intrinsic quality would suggest higher pricing.
In 2005, there was nearly 21,000 hectares of vines producing Beaujolais, by the end of 2015 it was more like 16,000 hectares: one-quarter of the vineyard has been lost in the last 10 years! And Beaujolais is largely a region with old vines, so 5,000 hectares of history has been lost – at 10,000 plants per hectare that’s 50 million lost vines!
Everything comes and goes in waves; the 1950s were hard here, but in the 1960s and 1970s, Beaujolais was much more highly prized than today; one producer who made a study recounts “If you take the bulk price for Saint Amour at that time and index link that price, it would now be the (75cl) equivalent of €22-23. Today it is actually below €3…” Indeed, many, many producers sell their own ‘crus’ ex-cellar for €10-12 per bottle. It could be more like €7 if you want to buy in multiples of pallets…
But what about Nouveau?
As one producer puts it: “The Beaujolais was once a quiet area and everyone used to drink it. It was a popular week-day wine – Beaujolais or Beaujolais Villages during the week, a cru at the weekend. Suddenly, because of our promotion of Beaujolais Nouveau, a marketing monster was unleashed – our success was unbelievably fast – first Paris, then Lyon, then all of France, then all of Europe. East coast then west coast USA followed, then Canada then Japan. This was a crazy wave of sales, and no question, we chose to ride that wave with races to get the bottles and even Hollywood stars in Villefranche. Beaujolais Nouveau became the latest boy-band of the wine-world – it was largely drunk and pissed by the end of November – only 2-3 months after it was harvested.
“Let’s be clear, plenty of money was made; we could go on holiday to the Seychelles for three months in November – not like our boring counterparts in Beaune. Unfortunately this was a house of cards because it was never underpinned with quality… But today it’s about survival, many producers would now collapse if there was no Nouveau…”
Not just producers, there’s also a context of social unrest too. Beaujolais Nouveau sales peaked at the millennium – it’s been downhill since then. There was a big problem associated with Nouveau 2 years ago, when there were demonstrations by growers and a real threat of riot and violence, because the bulk price that they were offered was simply too low. That time the demonstrators won, and the offer price was raised from €1.70-80 per litre to €2.20/litre. 2015 was, and it seems 2016 will be, lower yielding so despite a constant downward price pressure, for now, these potentially violent demonstrations, indeed riots, are less likely. I reiterate, for now.
Whilst the market for Nouveau in Japan seems remarkably resilient, it seems that they are an aberration, as the global demand goes down 6-7% every year… “Beaujolais Nouveau is too much a marketing concept and not a place…” I guess that it also doesn’t help that Nouveau remains the binge-drink of choice for the youth of France – yes, it happens in France too!
But the problem is not just Nouveau:
So – Is the brand of Beaujolais dead? Well, despite some bright spots in the market, the answer for the overwhelming majority of the market, is currently ‘yes.’ There are some producers that refuse to use the word ‘Beaujolais’ in any of their marketing or on their labels – and there are others that continue to try to resuscitate the brand.
Very low prices have been enabled by production practices; a reliance on herbicides for example. The first thing I noted about Beaujolais was the relative wasteland that first greets the eyes – even in many of the most renowned lieu-dits; Whilst that’s certainly unfair to some growers, it is quite fair when looking at Beaujolais as a whole to characterise it as a wonderful profit-centre for the purveyors of herbicide and other chemical treatments – clearly not just for years, but tens of years. When I discussed this with a vigneron in the Côte d’Or, he pointed out – “I guess you’ve never been to Muscadet then; the cheaper the wine, the more likelihood that it will be ‘chemically managed.'”
The producers will counter ‘It’s not a simple herbicide/no herbicide equation; on the steep sandy soils of Beaujolais a tractor won’t work – indeed it is dangerous – and where a tractor can’t gain traction, neither will a horse.’ Which is a fair comment, yet the vines were adequately cared for, for 100s of years ‘pre-herbicide.’
What is eminently clear is that you can only, with great difficultly, plough between the rows of classic goblet-pruned gamay vines, and chemicals mean an easier life – and let’s not forget, lower labour costs – particularly if you can easily sell your wine – Fleurie’s famous La Madone (above right) is a grubby example of this. One organic producer offered the following vignette “We’d been working very hard, trying to plough between rows, do the treatments, trying to contain the weeds, et-cetera. One neighbour’s vines had not a single blade of grass, and one day he offered a tip – ‘you are clearly working very hard, but if you want an easier life, you can do as I do; take a herbicide for wheat (not allowed!) and instead of the official dose of 1 litre per xx, use 1.5 litres (also not allowed). See how easy it is…'” Here is somebody who, coupled with a full yield, would happily sell very cheap, so regardless of some producers working to polish the brand, there are equally others happy enough to further tarnish it, producers where price, not quality, is king.
Sometimes the appellation rules also conspire against a ‘quality approach;’ even wines from the crus can legally be ‘finished’ and sold in the December following the harvest – only one month more elevage than for Nouveau! Almost as extreme is the cru of St.Amour, undeniably, potentially, a great wine, but most is bottled by the start of the year to fulfill orders for Valentine’s Day in mid-February – hardly the processes to (re-)build a brand!