The problems are manifest, but it’s time to look for ways out:
A Place to Visit:
For a wine to have market relevance, I often think that it must come from a place that compels people to visit, offering the opportunity to live the region and learn about the region. Actually Beaujolais has everything that a ‘wine-tourist‘ could wish – it is one of the most beautiful wine-regions, to my eyes matched only by the southern Mâconnais where the rocks of Virgisson and Solutré stand proud. There are many great restaurants, over 150 châteaux and there are even virtual guides that you can download and play/listen as you drive. One special aspect is that even the best domaines in Beaujolais still have their doors open to casual visitors – with wine available to buy!
Similar to the Côte d’Or, the Beaujolais region is 50km north to south. Despite the number of châteaux, the locals claim that there’s never been a lot of money in Beaujolais wine – the numerous château here are not really on the Bordeaux producer model, rather a significant majority were built-in the 19th century as country homes for the well-off inhabitants of Lyon – one of France’s largest cities. Some had a hectare or 2 of vines – some more – but mainly to be seen as farms. Over the years most of the grand houses remained but sold off their vines to other producers – today many offer beds and even locally produced wines.
Other than effective promotion, there is nothing missing in the Beaujolais ‘offer‘ here.
The shorthand is pinot and chardonnay for clay and limestone (argilo-calcaire), and gamay for granite. Yet, Beaujolais is far more complex than that; in addition to the granite there is schist – hard and blue-green – there is also clay and even clay-limestone, the classic argilo-calcaire of the Côte d’Or. The schists and granites are often degraded (worn down) to a friable coloured sand – a very poor ‘soil’ indeed – even the weeds grow slowly. But the gamay vine does seem very much at home here, delivering a wine that is much more profound than any gamay encountered in the Côte d’Or. But Beaujolais isn’t about just a complex soil; it’s a hilly landscape of every possible vineyard orientation, pitch and altitude – it’s a landscape that often reminds me of northern Italy – the hills often topped by small hamlets.
Given what I have described, Beajolais has an almost impossible complexity – at least if you believe that you will taste the difference in every terroir used for the gamay grape – yet, just like pinot in the Côte d’Or, the gamay grape is the glue that bonds the region, the recognisable ‘hook’ in the different cru’s wines. But tending the vines is problematic…
The traditional goblet-pruned vines of Beaujolais are the calling-card of the region – today they are also symbolic of the issues of the region.
Labour was once cheap, food and a roof over your head was enough for many manual labourers. So the vines were well-tended with more than enough people equipped with hoes to weed and maintain them. Because some of the hillside slopes are much steeper here than you will find in the Burgundy, ploughing was never an option – just like the layered bush approach of Burgundy before phylloxera – as the gaps between the goblet vines was insufficient. Even if there was enough space to plough, horses had insufficient traction on steep, sandy, decomposed rock soils. Herbicides were a revolution for owners!
Today, lots of producers, in a nod to current practices in Burgundy, are planting in cordon (Jadot at St.Jacques was one of the first in 1996) or attempting to modify their goblet vines to cordon:
- By strong pruning, such as the cutting of some ‘arms’ – the problem is that this is quite a ‘mutilating’ approach to pruning, so there are many losses to ESCA, just like in the Côte d’Or for pinot.
- Others are slowly training their old goblet vines so that all the arms will eventually point in two directions – this is much less mutilating but it can take 5-10 years to satisfactorily accomplish, but with very-much less replanting along the way. Cordon pruning allows the air to travel under and through the vines, which is much harder to achieve with goblet – indeed that’s an Achilles’ Heel of goblet-pruning – in certain conditions the air cannot circulate in the canopy and so becomes a home for mildew.
The aims of these goblet-modifications are simple – to allow enough space between the rows of vines that it’s possible to plough without hitting the vines. This is really the first step to converting the old vine heritage – 100 year old vines are really not uncommon – of the region to Organic, Bio or Biodynamic farming methods.
Claude-Edouard Geoffray of Château Thivin comments “Here, since 2004, we are allowed to plant in cordon, and all our new plantings are done like this. It’s really much easier to plough., we have better aeration and so have cleaner grapes too. We have been raisonnée in our vines for at least 15 years, and have some sites already in Bio, but some of the steep slopes in goblet will require more time.
“I think my generation are really starting to make a change, but it takes time.”
Personally, I’d prefer to see the preservation of goblet-pruning – even if it takes 10 years to modify the vines to allow ploughing – because it’s in the DNA of the region and an important point of differentiation. Mechanisation doesn’t just open the door to ploughing – it can also open the door to machine harvesting, which really isn’t an option here for now, for the same reason that you can’t plough with a tractor. Of-course these changes in pruning regimes are a luxury that some segments of the market (producers!) simply cannot afford as they are already locked into the €2.20/litre death-spiral of wine pricing. I see their only option as better quality for a slowly increasing proportion of their production, directly sold, at correct pricing…
But what about pricing?
If nothing else, improving the position of Beaujolais in the hierarchy of wines, really means getting a fair price for their wines. For well-managed estates, much of the work, the variable cost, is the same in Beaujolais as it is in Chambolle-Musigny – it’s just that there is much less oak aging in Beaujolais. Yet even the most ambitious of producers have reticence at asking €20 for a bottle of Moulin-à-Vent, even if it is worth €25 because a supermarket Moulin à Vent might cost €10, indeed probably a majority of that appellation is transacted in bulk for less than €5, so it’s hard to be double the price of a big volume merchant.
It is also really too facile to say that Beaujolais is great value because it is one-third of the price of a villages Gevrey-Chambertin – we should have a better concept of ‘the right price’ – the Gevreys are clearly too high, but Beaujolais is equally too low. I see the relative pricing of wines today ‘about right‘ in Chablis, 2-3 times too expensive for much of Côte d’Or Burgundy, about right for good producers of Mâcon-Hyphen wines, Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Véran, but quality Beaujolais is often being sold for 30-50% of its true worth. Some producers are bucking that trend, pricing their top cuvées in the range of €18-€40 – and whatever I might think about some of those wines, I’m unsure if they are making headway…
But, for people prepared to manage their vines in a positive / more sustainable way, I think Beaujolais for €7-€9, Beaujolais Villages for €8-€12 and ‘crus’ for €15-€30 are absolutely fair pricing. Today that is largely a dream for the vast majority of wine producers, but sustainable prices, such as these, are required for sustainable viticulture producing great raw materials from moderate yields, to then enable great wine-making.
But right pricing requires a pull from the market – how can that be engineered?
I was discussing this with a producer in Fleurie, and they came up with a very insightful observation: ‘During the 1970s heydays of the Beaujolais, the wines of the Rhône sat in a market as moribund as that of the Beaujolais today – what did they do to turn that around? Actually it wasn’t just them that made the change, it was a relatively young reviewer with a palate for the region, and a lack of fear at awarding wines 100pts – that man was Robert Parker. Of-course, Parker didn’t effect the change on his own, but the success of those that he rated highly, caused a ripple effect as other domaines saw a route to turn around their fortunes.‘ So who today is going to champion the wines of the Beaujolais, and dole out market-bending 100 point scores in mainstream publications?
I liked Clive Coates for his ‘marking within context’ approach and I well remember him saying that “Just as there are 20 out of 20 wines in (…for instance Richebourg…) there are also 20 out of 20 wines in the Beaujolais.” Unfortunately I don’t think that Clive ever scored a Beaujolais above 18 – and more typically 13! So it seems that saying it, and actually doing it are two different things. Which is the reviewer who will have the (of-course metaphorical) cojones to award a Saint Amour 100 points? Clearly not me – but only as I don’t score 😉
But, as already alluded to, it’s not just about critics – those critics need the wines and the producers to champion too. In many cases it will need new producers, new names or new generations at old names, people with no history, no burnt bridges, to take their appellations and wines forward – which, in turn, will also make life easier for the critics, AND probably bring in even more critics and reviewers.
But Prestige Cuvées? It’s time for Beaujolais to get their house in order!
Really the most disappointing thing about tasting my way (my palate, so my way) through Beaujolais, was being subjected to many producers’ ‘top cuvées.’ My experience suggests that a majority of top cuvées are often caricatures of wines, more vanilla desert with a coulis of (sometimes) fresh fruit, than interesting wine experiences. There is no Beaujolais history here, they are vulgar things. Even wines with 2-3 years in bottle are still heavy with the scent of the vanilla additive – some producers even suggesting that these were their most Burgundian style wines – my simple reaction being BS and YUK – in equal measure.
Clearly the size of your tasting glass makes a difference; I can see that the large tasting glass I used when I visited Château Moulin à Vent – more like I might use at home – rendered the vanilla to a modest accent, but the smaller tasting glasses used in my big blind tasting accentuated the vanilla much more in the same wines.
There could be many things at play here – an inferiority complex thinking that their wines cannot be great with gobs of oak, or maybe gamay is more susceptible to oak than pinot – which I doubt. Toasty oak aromas and flavours and lots of oak tannin texture I’ve hardly experienced in Beaujolais, but there’s vanilla pie, lots and lots of vanilla pie.
Beaujolais is better without vanilla pie…
If Beaujolais really wants to (re)join the big-time, it’s probably time to partner with somebody like Kumamon or even Hello Kitty!