Wine region: Beaujolais
My great mate Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has an enormous cellar full of the last century’s best Beaujolais vintages. He… has his cellar rigged up with a quadraphonic high fidelity phonograph set on a continuous loop. This device plays his hit musicals over and over again at considerable volume. The wines seem to love it, for they are amongst the finest examples of aged Beaujolais that I’ve ever tasted.
Sound and Wine – Oberon Kant
Beaujolais is a French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) wine generally made of the Gamay grape which has a thin skin and few tannins. Like most AOC wines they are not labelled varietally. Whites from the region, which make up only 1% of its production, are made mostly with Chardonnay grapes though Aligoté is also permitted. Beaujolais tends to be a very light-bodied red wine, with relatively high amounts of acidity. In some vintages, Beaujolais produces more wine than the Burgundy wine regions of Chablis, Côte d’Or, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais put together.
The wine takes its name from the historical Beaujolais province and wine producing region. It is located north of Lyon, and covers parts of the north of the Rhône département (Rhône-Alpes) and parts of the south of the Saône-et-Loire département (Burgundy). While administratively considered part of the Burgundy wine region, the climate is closer to the Rhône and the wine is unique enough to be considered separately from Burgundy and Rhône. The region is known internationally for its long tradition of winemaking, uniquely emphasized the use of carbonic maceration, and more recently for the popular Beaujolais nouveau.
The region of Beaujolais was first cultivated by the Romans who planted the areas along its trading route up the Saône valley. The most notable Roman vineyard was Brulliacus located on the hillside of Mont Brouilly. The Romans also planted vineyards in the area Morgon. From the 7th century through the Middle Ages, most of the viticulture and winemaking was done by the Benedictine monks. In the 10th century, the region got its name from the town of Beaujeu, Rhône and was ruled by the Lords of Beaujeu till the 15th century when it was ceded to the Duchy of Burgundy. The wines from Beaujolais were mostly confined to the markets along the Saône and Rhône rivers, particularly in the town of Lyon. The expansion of the French railroad system in the 19th century opened up the lucrative Paris market. The first mention of Beaujolais wines in English followed soon after when Cyrus Redding described the wines of Moulin-à-Vent and Saint-Amour as being low priced and best consumed young.
The Gamay grape is thought to be a mutant of the Pinot Noir, which first appeared in the village of Gamay, south of Beaune, in the 1360s. The grape brought relief to the village growers following the decline of the Black Death. In contrast to the Pinot Noir variety, Gamay ripened two weeks earlier and was less difficult to cultivate. It also produced a strong, fruitier wine in a much larger abundance. In July 1395, the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe the Bold, outlawed the cultivation of Gamay as being “a very bad and disloyal plant”-due in part to the variety occupying land that could be used for the more “elegant” Pinot Noir. 60 years later, Philippe the Good, issued another edict against Gamay in which he stated the reasoning for the ban is that “The Dukes of Burgundy are known as the lords of the best wines in Christendom. We will maintain our reputation”. The edicts had the affect of pushing Gamay plantings southward, out of the main region of Burgundy and into the granite based soils of Beaujolais where the grape thrived.
“Beaujolais is nature with its fragrances, its light, its infinity, evening rest and morning enthusiasm.” Jules Chauvet
The soils of Beaujolais divide the region into a northern and southern half, with the town of Villefranche serving as a near dividing point. The northern half of Beaujolais, where most of the Cru Beaujolais communes are located, includes rolling hills of schist and granite based soils with some limestone. On hillsides, most of the granite and schist is found in the upper slopes with the lower slopes having more stone and clay composition. The southern half of the region, also known as the Bas Beaujolais, has more flatter terrain with richer, sandstone and clay based soils with some limestone patches. The Gamay grape fares differently in both regions-producing more structured, complex wines in the north and more lighter, fruity wines in the south. The angle of the hillside vineyards in the north exposes the grapes to more sunshine which leads to harvest at an early time than the vineyards in the south.
There are twelve appellations and ten crus in Beaujolais. Of the crus Brouilly, Régnié and Chiroubles tend to be the lightest and most instantly drinkable, Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie, Saint-Amour produce more medium-weight, structured wines and Julienas, Chenas, Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent require a certain amount of ageing before they reveal their full potential.
There is now more to these wines than jam today. The Beaujolais-Villages and Régnié from Domaine de la Plaigne have impressive colour and extract; the Brouilly from Domaine Cret des Garanches is enticingly juicy but with the sort of tannin to tackle food and the quartet from Didier Desvignes (there’s a name for a viticulteur) are certainly no bubblegum bimbos. And now to prove that Gamay from old vines on poor soils can compete with the posh neighbours in Burgundy: welcome a silky Moulin-à-Vent from Gay-Coperet, a brilliant, lively Fleurie from Yvon Métras, bitingly mineral Brouilly from Domaine Lapalu and the inimitable Morgon from Jean Foillard. Here be premier cru-sading Beaujolais, intense, naturally made wines from old vines and low yields using minimal sulphur. Gimme that Gamay!
Some growers make wine of truly transcendent deliciousness:
Take the Foillards in Morgon, for example. Morgon is in the heart of the Beaujolais, and is as tumblingly pretty a winegrowing landscape as you can find anywhere. Jean Foillard is one of the region’s greatest growers, and he has a big parcel of vines up on the Côte de Py, whose iron-stained, ‘rotten’ (or crumbled) schist soils produce wines out of which regiments of cherries march like gleaming toy soldiers.His wife, Agnès, has turned their rambling old farm into a warm, modern guesthouse where I stayed that night, eating, as darkness fell, with her and the children. When we had tasted wine a little earlier, the children were playing in the courtyard; an old neighbour (the man who organised the village band) had dropped in; other guests had arrived, tasted and talked about the wine, comparing it to others they knew. Bordeaux, maybe… or a fresh red from Chinon… and what about Santenay?... or then there’s Poulsard from the Jura… Their voices faded. I wrote in the book about the intense emotion Jean Foillard’s Morgon suddenly produced in me; what I didn’t write about was how, at the same moment, I was suddenly hit by an overwhelming sense of rootedness. The Foillards seemed, for a few moments, like their own vines, anchored in the Côte de Py, belonging to it, exploring it for a short lifetime, before their own children arrived, and their children’s children, and so on, like another line of toy soldiers, marching off into the future.
With Jean-Claude Lapalu’s wine you can detect the fists behind the fruit. This is one of the new crew of sternly-made rock steady cru Beaujolais. Grapes are hand-picked and sorted, loaded by conveyor to avoid damage, and given neither SO2 nor cultured yeasts during the fermentation. During 8-10 days maceration a wooden grill is used to enhance extraction. The wine stays at least a half year on its fine lees gaining power and complexity. And yet the Brouillys are neither heavy nor clumsy and one could easily imagine them ageing ten to fifteen years.
The old vines were old when Jean-Claude’s grandfather began farming them in 1940. Is this where the schist of Côte de Brouilly touches the signature granite of Brouilly? It seems almost to inhabit a hypothetical halfway house between Beaujolais and Priorat! The old vines Brouilly is the combination of two cuvées, one made by carbonic maceration, the other a traditional vinification with destemmed grapes, (Jean-Claude only uses indigenous yeasts and doesn’t use any sulphur during vinification,( there is only some added at the bottling and then only in very small quantities: 2gr/hl). The cuvaison lasts for10 to 20 days. The two cuvées are then assembled after their malolactic fermentation and spend the winter in stainless steel tanks. The dark red fruits on the nose and palate can’t disguise a probing minerality; if ever granite was translated into liquid this is the case.
Brouilly, Croix des Rameaux, from beautifully exposed prime parcels of eighty year old vines and aged in three-to-five year old barriques after a long cuvaison, disports a wonderfully wild nose of leather, tar and red cherry and palate-punching dark fruits: stylistically it seems to straddle Burgundy and the Rhone
Although Lyon looks south to the Rhone, its true partner-in-wine is Beaujolais (the local Cotes du Lyonnais wines are Gamay). A primeur wine with that familiar slight prickle of gas is good to slug with fish and country salads as well as soft cheese. A Beaujolais-Villages would suit a plate of charcuterie. Chiroubles and Brouilly, although fruity, still have sufficient weight and acidity to tackle dishes like pig’s trotters. Régnié would also trough well with various parts of the pig, while an aromatic Fleurie will happily wash down equally aromatic andouillette. Morgon, one of the more full-bodied and robust of the cru Beaujolais, could cope with game and beef. Overall the Beaujolais wines are adaptable, juicy and fruity. Gamay may not hit great heights, but when you’re eating… simplicity is a friend to simplicity.
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