Sponsored Feature - Filling in the Holes: Beaujolais

How this Simple Country Wine is Reaching New Depths

By John Szabo, MS

This article was commissioned by InterBeaujolais.

Beaujolais: it’s on everyone’s lips. And a stellar 2017 vintage will increase the flow. Read how an aesthetic shift to lighter reds, a natural wine movement, an invasion from the north, a surge of ambitious post-modernists, a string of good vintages, and especially how a thousand holes are conspiring to re-shape Beaujolais as both a serious, and seriously fun, wine, with a story of diversity to tell. Or, jump straight to the Buyers’ Guide.

“We’re digging holes to fill holes of knowledge,” Isabelle Letessier tells the small group of Canadian wine writers gathered in the Espace Brouilly in the quaint village of Saint-Lager on a crisp and bright November morning. Letessier is a soil specialist (a pedologist, technically) with nearly four decades of experience, and founder of Sigales, a French consultancy specialising in mapping vineyard soils. She’s been charged by Inter-Beaujolais, the region’s inter-professional body, to catalogue and map out the region’s geology and soils and has arrived this morning with twinkling eyes and a buoyant step to share the results of her work so far with the enthusiasm that only geologists, pedologists, and particularly keen wine lovers could muster.

It’s not what I was expecting.

Canadian journalists tasting at Chateau la Chaize (photo by John Szabo)

Aspiring sommeliers learn early on that Beaujolais, like the nearby northern Rhône, sits on granite in the north, where the ten Beaujolais crus are located, and bits of sand in the south, the origins of basic Beaujolais. It’s a picture as straightforward as a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau. You’ll read it in textbooks, and would have, until recently, heard the same story from most winemakers themselves in the region.

But as not every bottle of Beaujolais is ‘Nouveau’ these days (in fact, only about 1/3 of production, and dropping), the pedological story of the region, too, is far, far more complex. And Inter-Beaujolais has invested upwards of a million euros to find this out. Letessier and her team have dug just shy of a thousand soil pits throughout some 16,000ha of vineyards in order to meticulously map out Beaujolais’ twelve appellations and hundreds of climats – that utterly Burgundian word that applies to one discreet parcel of land with a distinctive expression communicated in its wine. It’s one of the most comprehensive and extensive soil mapping projects I‘ve yet encountered in the wine world.

The decomposing red granite soils of Chiroubles. (photo by John Szabo)

Is it worth it? Yes.

Why? Concretely because Letessier’s goal is to make recommendations on how best to grow gamay in each soil type, which will inevitably help growers make better wines. And eventually the information could be used to help earn official premier cru status for the Beaujolais’ most coveted parcels, wind in the sails for any region.

But more metaphysically, the results also provide a verbal framework for the entire region, enabling winemakers to deliver a more credible message, and more accurately articulate the nuances of place that they are so increasingly eager to reveal in their wines.

Wine lovers, for their part, now have something tangible to hold on to, a literal and figurative road map to follow as they wind through these pastoral hills and experience gamay in its marvellous multiplicity.

Looking out from Mount Brouilly. (photo by John Szabo)

Though marketers will tell you that the simpler the message the better, wine is one shimmering exception. We cherish, and revel in diversity, in shades of flavour, in subtle textural disparities, in which-to-age and which-to-drink-now discussions. No fine wine region exists that isn’t a study in delicate contrast, gradations and degrees. And Beaujolais, it turns out, is surprisingly rich in diversity. Knowing that is certainly important.

Not surprisingly, Letessier’s research, and the discussion it has engendered, neatly coincides with (and helped cause?) a sea change in the fortunes of Beaujolais and the respect accorded to its wines in the last decade. After the inevitable collapse of markets in the 1990s and 2000s, brought about by the unsustainable success of (gradually worse) Beaujolais Nouveau in the 1970s and 1980s, Beaujolais is now on every hip sommelier’s list, taken and treated seriously. It even has a nickname in sommelier circles: Bojo. A sure sign of arrival.

Many other factors have contributed to the Beaujolais revival. The birth of the modern natural wine movement so popular these days, for example, can be traced back to Beaujolais. It was in the late 1970s/early ‘80s when a group of four winemakers – Guy Breton, Jean Foillard, Marcel Lapierre and Jean-Paul Thévenet, under the prophetic guidance of an elderly Jules Chauvet and his assistant Jacques Néauport, went utterly counter-culture in the hey-day of industrial nouveau and began making wines from low-yielding, old vines farmed organically by hand, fermenting traditionally with wild yeasts, ageing in barrel, and bottling unfined and unfiltered with little or no sulphur dioxide.

Early winter snowfall. (photo by John Szabo)

Such practices are common today, but imagine how radical, and foolish, they would have appeared at the time to industrial farmers dumping fertilizers, maximizing yields and selling all of their grapes to negociants for a packet of French Francs. Ahh, hindsight. Yet the approach of the ‘Gang of Four’, as they came to be known, sparked a both local and worldwide shift in winemaking philosophy that is still cresting today, and has done much to revive interest in Beaujolais.

(Just don’t make the mistake of calling the wines of these producers “natural”. Ironically, all of those I spoke to were uncomfortable with the categorization, not wanting their clean wines to be associated with so many of the faulty ‘natural’ wines on the market these days.)

While there’s still plenty of work to be done, vineyard management and winemaking have dramatically improved. The technique most commonly associated with Beaujolais, called carbonic maceration (putting whole grape bunches, stems and all, without first crushing the berries into the tank and blanketing with carbon dioxide, allowing an intracellular fermentation to occur within each berry, before traditional alcoholic fermentation begins, which produces the typical pear drop, candy, and bubble gum-type flavours especially in Nouveau versions), is less practiced than it once was, or is done only partially.

Old gamay vine, goblet-trained. (photo by John Szabo)

The contention by some that the inclusion of stems is needed to give gamay structure, “is nonsense”, according to Jacques Lardière, the now-retired former head of winemaking for 42 vintages with Maison Louis Jadot, including the company’s Château des Jacques in Beaujolais. “Gamay has more tannins than pinot noir”, he continues. “The problem was that yields were too high, and the wines had no substance. But reduce the yields to 40-45 hectoliters/hectare, and what you get is amazing”.

Full carbonic, and even worse, thermovinification (heating grapes/must to near-boiling prior to fermentation to increase colour and tannin extraction from over-cropped, deficient grapes) also tends to erase any sense of place. So, there’s really no point in digging a thousand holes to see what you’ve got if all the wines will taste the same in the end any way. It’s not enough simply to incant variations in terroir, the wines must also actually show variation.

Lower yields, and more traditional Burgundian winemaking (crushing and de-stemming, or partial carbonic) have certainly improved quality and (sub)regional transparency. It’s an approach that has been largely embraced by the new generation of young winemakers that has joined the well-established names, heading to (or remaining in) Beaujolais in part because land is far cheaper than in Burgundy to the north and the northern Rhône to the south. That many are also willing to take on steep hillside vineyards – over one-third of the region is classified as “mountainous” – and preserve lower-yielding old vines –there are plenty of centenary vines – and farm them organically or biodynamically, has also raised overall quality.

Mount Brouilly (photo by John Szabo)

The astronomical rise of prices in Burgundy has also occasioned a number of winemakers from there to head south to buy land, such as Frédéric and Chantal Lafarge, and Thibault Liger-Belair to name but two, broadening the pool of talent, but also helping to get Beaujolais on the most coveted wine lists through their powerful distribution leverage.

The upward pressure on quality has also lit a fire under the negociants, an important commercial force in the region that still accounts for more than two-thirds of sales, and most consumer’s first taste of Beaujolais. The higher-end wines from Jadot, Boisset, Mommessin (esp. “Grandes Mises” range) and even Duboeuf crus (all of whom also own vineyards, in addition to purchasing fruit), for example, are better than they have ever been in my lifetime.

A string of good vintages, most famously the classically perfumed 2014 and 2016, big and powerful 2009, 2011 and 2015, and most recently the extraordinary 2017, have also given producers a leg up. And then there’s been the worldwide aesthetic swing towards lighter, fresher reds, which happens to suit Beaujolais producers and the gamay grape just fine. And value, even at the top end, is hard to match.

Moulin-à-Vent (photo by John Szabo)

The net result is that top Beaujolais, especially the crus, are now sold on allocation, a situation that would have been unimaginable a decade or two ago. In an interesting twist, there has even been a move to re-imagine Beaujolais Nouveau as a premium wine, using old vines farmed organically/biodynamically, bottled unfiltered with minimal SO2 (try Jean-Paul Brun’s or Foillard’s, for example).

I’m considering all this and more as Letessier continues her presentation on the subtleties of saprolites and granitic sands, both decomposed granites but physically and chemically different, and “roche bleu”, literally blue rock, a very hard type of igneous rock called diorite that underpins some of Beaujolais’ sturdiest crus like, for example, Morgon Côte de Py, Côte de Brouilly, and parts of Juliénas. We compare lighter, fruitier straight-up Beaujolais from sand and sandstone, to more serious Beaujolais Villages, taste some excellent Beaujolais blanc from limestones (a small fraction of production), and sip through the ten crus to explore the diversity of fruit expression and texture, from red to black, from supple to fine-grained and firmly tannic. It’s a fascinating experience.

If you’re not yet tuned in to the quality and diversity of the new (not Nouveau) Beaujolais, seek out the recommended wines and producers below to start. It’s serious fun.

Flash-Card Generalities on the Ten Crus of Beaujolais

Tender, supple, fruity & generous:
Chiroubles, Brouilly, and Régnié

Perfumed, delicate, fine and elegant:
Fleurie, Saint-Amour, Chénas

Powerful, intense, structured, complex, with longevity
Côte de Brouilly, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent

Recommended Classic Producers

Matthieu Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Georges Descombes, Alain Coudert (Clos de La Roilette), Guy Breton, Jean-Louis Dutraive, Yvon Métras, Jean-Paul Thévenet, Jean-Claude Lapalu

Recommended Lesser-known or Up-and-Coming Producers

Julien Duport, Laurent Gauthier, Pascal Aufranc, Christophe Pacalet, Stéphane Aviron, Domaine Jules Desjourneys, Anne-Sophie Dubois, Nicole Chanrion, Dominique Piron, Château du Moulin-à-Vent

Buyer’s Guide: Recommended Beaujolais in Market

You can find many more available at your favourite LCBO store at this link.

2016 Chateau du Moulin-à-Vent Couvent des Thorins, Moulin-à-Vent ($29.95) Dense and meaty, richly fruity, quite dark and spicy, this is serious, concentrated Beaujolais, with fine structure and balance. I love the salty, zesty acids and the fine-grained, refined tannins, as well as the lingering finish. Elegant, complex, structured and enjoyable, all at once. Very well done. (Private Order. Agent: Brand New Day)

Chateau Du Moulin à Vent Couvent Des Thorins 2016

2015 Laurent Gauthier Grand Cras Vieilles Vignes, Morgon ($21.95) This is a solidly composed, well-structured and complex Beaujolais from the usually sturdy Morgon cru, and in this case the climat of Grand Cras, a parcel of the Morgon hill. Fruit has entered a lovely drinking window and remains fresh and lively considering the heat of the 2015 vintage. I like the fine, firm tannins, the balanced-zesty acids and the overall fine detailing and lingering, perfumed, savoury finish. Tidy stuff. (August 4 VINTAGES Release – there is still some left.)

Laurent Gauthier Grand Cras Vieilles Vignes Morgon 2015

2016 Jean Paul Brun L’ancien Beaujolais ($23.95)
A traditionally fermented Beaujolais, like all of JP Brun’s wines, the ’16 L’Ancien is a sleek, elegant, supple wine of great style and freshness. Made from ancient vines (80+ years old), there’s real depth of flavour, and tannins are fully ripe and polymerized, giving a beautiful silky texture, framed by ripe-fresh acids. Fruit plays in the red berry spectrum as expected, lifted and floral, with almond blossom and cherry stone notes. The finish lingers impressively. Really very delicious.

Jean Paul Brun L'ancien Beaujolais 2016

2016 Louis Jadot Combes aux Jacques, Beaujolais Villages ($17.95) Very deep colour; the nose is engaging and ripe, intensely perfumed, very pretty with its ripe-fresh red and black berry character. The palate is mid-weight, zesty but plush and mouth filling, savoury and fruity, with modest structure but good to very good length. This is certainly one of the best vintages in memory for this standard classic listing, overdelivering on every level. Drink, or even hold for a couple of years without hesitation. (VINTAGES Essentials.)

Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages Combes Aux Jacques 2016

2017 Georges Duboeuf Brouilly ($18.95) Clean and fresh, with lively, dense dark berry fruit, ripe but still vibrant, with attractive floral tones. The palate is properly mid-weight, zesty and crunchy, with well-delineated fruit and very good length, and traditional (not carbonic maceration) character. 2017 is shaping up to be the best vintage in memory, as this example from Duboeuf shows. (General List.)

Duboeuf Beaujolais Brouilly 2017

2014 Stephane Aviron Côte de Brouilly ($27.95, Consignment, Nicholas Pearce Wines)
I tasted a number of Aviron crus side by side, and found the Côte de Brouilly to be surprisingly open and lifted, slightly candied, already evolving nicely at this stage, for this usually sturdy cru. It is in the midst of shifting from pure red fruit into a more tertiary, slightly earth-inflected, though far from fully mature, while tannins are light but still firm and dusty, pricked up but the resolute acids of 2014. Length is solid – a very engaging and enjoyable Côte de Brouilly, perhaps not the most age worthy from the Brouilly hill, nor from the Aviron range in general, but this bottle affords lots of pleasure. Fans of more structured wines should head straight to the 2014 Stephane Aviron Juliénas ($27.25, private order), the most serious of Aviron’s crus. He sources his Juliénas from two vineyards both over 50 years old, on rather stony, granite parcels, making it also one of the more dense and meaty, structured and serious versions of the cru overall, authoritative and powerful, chewy and meaty, with genuine depth and length. In a similar vein, the 2014 Stephane Aviron Morgon Côte de Py, ($19.95, private order) while open, fruity-juicy, and immediately engaging and inviting on the nose, shows the cru’s firm tannins once the fruit fades, alongside a touch of bitterness on the back end. I’d say this should cellar another few years to soften the tannic clutch and allow more flavour development – it’s rather rigid for the time being, but should come around after 2020. All tasted November 2018.

Stephane Aviron Côte De Brouilly 2014

Stéphane Aviron Juliénas 2014

Stephane Aviron Morgon Côte De Py 2014

You can find many more available at your favourite LCBO store at this link.

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

This article was commissioned by InterBeaujolais. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery or region. Our critics independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted to WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the profile. Wineries and regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.