Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2009-10-06
What if the vineyards of Beaujolais, with their range of terroirs offering Gamay alone an incredible diversity of expressions, were among France’s finest? Unjustly disparaged after several decades of frenzied obsession with productivity, the wines of Beaujolais, when produced by winegrowers with a passion, provide unequalled pleasure!
Beyond the clichés
In France, when people talk about Beaujolais, a slight disdain is often accompanied by a certain snobbery, dismissing this wine as a "popular" drink.
So how can one make people understand that this region also produces great wines which, at 10 years old, can be compared with the finest Burgundies of Côte de Nuits? It’s simple – instead of using the name “Beaujolais” just say: “Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Morgon, Juliénas or Saint-Amour”… all classified châteaux of Beaujolais (there are 10) whose granitic soils favour the development of the famous Gamay Noir à jus blanc (black Gamay with white juice).
What is a real Beaujolais?
When young, a Beaujolais wine is first and foremost a fresh, fruity “vin de plaisir” that is drunk among friends with a good Charolais goat’s cheese... But after 10 years, Gamay – commonly treated with contempt by “connoisseurs”* – takes on an extraordinary dimension with animal and game flavours that take it closer to Pinot Noir. Tasting blind, an old Morgon or venerable Fleurie can thus be mistaken for Chambolle-Musigny and Gevrey-Chambertin. The notable difference is in the price: between 8 and 14 euros for the Beaujolais, as opposed to 40 or 60 euros for the Burgundies!
To achieve this result, you don’t just need to have the terroir (granitic and schistose soils well exposed on the hillsides), it is also necessary – following the example of a few conscientious winegrowers – to respect certain rules difficult to put into practice in the context of a predominant industrial viticulture in Beaujolais: cultivation of vines, respect for soils, control of yields, manual grape harvesting, sorting of grapes and traditional vinification.
Very much in the minority in the early 1980s, these idealists also understood that the use of chemical yeasts (such as isoamyl acetate, responsible for the famous banana aroma) was erasing the mark of the terroir and contributing towards standardising the style of the wines. Avoiding chaptalising, filtering and sulphating their wines as much as possible, they have not only saved the honour of Beaujolais but also defined ahead of time a qualitative process that is essential in these times of worldwide overproduction of wine.
A diversity of terroirs
What is fascinating in Beaujolais is to see how the Gamay expresses the soil in which it is planted! The great Fleuries are immediately recognised by their floral nose of faded rose, iris and violet, while the good Morgons are distinguished by their fleshy aspect and cherry aromas. The best Moulin-à-Vents, renowned as the most tannic of Beaujolais, have a brilliant ruby colour when young and flavours of truffle, coffee and spices in their maturity.
Through their commitment and passion, the few winegrowers who we recommend are benchmarks: you will find their wines on the wine lists of the most famous restaurants and wine merchants in France, Europe, the United States and Japan.
Their gourmet wines are the result of a traditional technique of vinification that is peculiar to Beaujolais. The grapes, picked by hand when ripe, are placed intact and not destemmed (hence the prohibition of mechanical harvesting) into a vat. When the vat is full, the weight of the grapes releases a little juice in which the fermentation begins.
But the main work of the yeasts is carried out inside the berries. The addition of carbon dioxide to the vat (carbonic maceration), as demonstrated by Jules Chauvet**, protects the juice from oxidization and from the bacteria present in the air (one can thus dispense with So2) and accentuates the Gamay’s fruity flavours. To obtain Beaujolais Nouveau, the must is pressed after 3 or 4 days of fermentation and the juice is put into vats without the skins.
It is bottled one month later! The vintage wines ferment for longer (6 months), in contact with the skins and their indigenous yeasts.
The pretty village of Villié-Morgon is home to two exceptional winegrowers.
Marcel Lapierre, of course, is one of the leading figures of Beaujolais. This disciple of Jules Chauvet was one of the first, in the early 1980s, to have revived environment-friendly cultivation practices. His 1985 is an exceptional wine. His Vieilles Vignes, deemed too atypical to benefit from the AOC and therefore downgraded to simple Vin de Pays, are sublime in depth.
Jean Foillard, for his part, works the finest terroir of Morgon, the famous Côte du Py, which produces extremely complex and fruity wines that are silky and subtle, very similar to Pinot Noir after 5 years. His separately vinified Vieilles Vignes are also fantastic.
Some of the finest terroirs of Beaujolais are to be found in Fleurie! In the 1950s, during a tasting, Jules Chauvet was able to recognise blind the origin of any particular cuvée here, because each parcel of land not yet treated chemically had its own identity at the time!
Yves Métras’ sulphur-free Vieilles Vignes are wonderfully delicate with a dazzling fruity taste (cherry and gooseberry).
More traditional and less committed to the risky path of “vins naturels” (natural wines), Michel Chignard is also one of the most accomplished winegrowers of the whole Beaujolais region. His Vieilles Vignes des Moriers are of constant quality and improve with time: the 1991 that we tasted was comparable to the great Burgundies of Côte de Nuits!
Georges Descombes produces sulphur-free, crisp and fresh Brouillys that are best drunk when young, within 4 years.
Jean-Claude Lapalu has for his part produced an absolutely extraordinary Cuvée Vieilles Vignes 2003 that has fooled more than one! Even his Beaujolais Villages and Beaujolais Nouveaux are delicious. A winegrower to watch.
Moulin-à-Vent is traditionally the most prestigious wine of the Beaujolais region. The best wines produced here are sometimes of better quality than the most expensive Gevrey-Chambertins!
Although the Paul Janin et Fils estate remains a historic benchmark, we fell in love with the very pure and rich Moulin-à-Vents of Martine and Pierre-Marie Chermette. This couple of wine buffs who live in Les Terres Dorées produce wine in the traditional way. In the simple Beaujolais-Village appellation, their wines are always of admirable purity and very often surpass the vintage wines!
Still very much underrated, the Chardonnay-based Beaujolais Blanc is a real treasure that represents only 1% of total production! Even so, it is not simply a curiosity for tourists.
The one produced by Jean-Paul Brun, a self-taught winegrower who inherited the Terres Dorées estate in 1979, offers an intense nose, predominantly floral, with aromas of dried fruit and notes of aniseed, citronella and grapefruit. Delicious as an aperitif.
*It was driven out of Burgundy in 1395 on the orders of Philip The Hardy, who already considered it unworthy of competing with the noble Pinot Noir! The result of a cross between Burgundian Pinot and Croatian Gouais, Gamay is nonetheless a marvellous grape variety, early ripening and productive, which likes granitic soils. It dreads spring frosts and demands meticulous care. Beaujolais is its favoured land.
**Jules Chauvet devoted his life to the scientific study of wine and, in the 1960s, was the first to sound the alarm bell to denounce the abuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in French vineyards. He demonstrated the possibility of dispensing with sulphur (an antibacterial product deemed indispensable by winegrowers, but toxic at high doses), since it exists naturally in healthy grapes. As a wine maker and merchant, he was also General de Gaulle’s appointed supplier!
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