Beaujolais: Soaking the Silk Road

Discover Beaujolais with a Curated Case and Happy Hour

By John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by Inter Beaujolais.

How did Lyon’s famous silk trade spin off into a wine industry that produces one of the world’s most beloved and convivial wines today? Read on to find out how tough working conditions had a happy side effect, and drink like a 17th century Canut with the special WineAlign Beaujolais Discovery Case and enjoy the same wines with Michael and John during our Discover Beaujolais Happy Hour on Thursday, December 15th at 6 p.m on Zoom. Details below.

Silk Into Wine

In Lyon, the ancient capital of the Gauls, a labyrinth of more than 400 tunnels and secret passageways — les traboules — weave together through the Croix-Rousse district in the old town. They’re one of Lyon’s many architectural attractions, with discreet doors and concealed staircases leading you through tucked-away courtyards, and clandestine galleries in the ancient heart of the city. But more than adventure, the traboules are mute remnants of the once-thriving silk industry that fuelled Lyon for centuries.

Six hundred years ago, the traboules served a much more practical purpose: to provide the city’s silk trade workers, or canuts — from the word canette, spool, on which silk was kept prior to weaving — easy access to their workshops and to the merchants at the foot of the Croix-Rousse hill. The passageways also connected merchants to the Sâone river, where the precious woven works were shipped to points north and south throughout France and beyond. Lyon was an end point on the silk road and enjoyed a monopoly on raw silk imports by Royal Decree from 1540. The city’s silken handicrafts became among the most prized throughout Europe. And at the same time, the silk trade inadvertently gave rise to one of France’s youngest wine regions: Beaujolais.

The dark side of this luxury business was the growing disparity between canuts and wealthy merchants. Working conditions were dreadful and payments a pittance. In standard medieval fashion, vast vineyards were planted just to the north of Lyon to produce wine to quell the canut revolts and mollify, quite literally to a degree, the workers. Thus “modern” Beaujolais wine was born as a form of currency to pay silk trade workers.

Photo courtesy of Etienne Ramousse – Inter Beaujolais

Although Beaujolais today falls administratively under the greater Bourgogne Region (Burgundy) thanks to reforms imposed by Napoleon III in the mid-19th century, the region’s wines were never produced for the Dukes or citizens of Burgundy; they were exclusively for the townspeople, and especially the canuts, of Lyon.

“Beaujolais is the youngest [modern] wine region in France,” Matthieu Lapierre, of the celebrated Domaine Marcel Lapierre, tells me. “In the 15th to 16th centuries, Beaujolais was replanted on the ruins of Roman vineyards, and from just a few hundred hectares, vines grew to cover some 20,000 hectares at their greatest expanse in just a couple of centuries.” Today Beaujolais has 14,500 hectares, which is still considerable.

Townspeople from Lyons and nearby Rouen moved to the countryside to tend the vines, and most of the buildings in the Beaujolais date from this period — “often in the Italian-Tuscan style,” continues Lapierre, who has more than a passing interest in the region’s history. The architects of Lyon were Italian, and the influence of Italian merchants who controlled a large part of the silk trade permeated well beyond the industry itself.

Photo courtesy of Etienne Ramousse – Inter Beaujolais

Vineyards were initially planted to varieties like pinot noir, chardonnay and gouais, along with other ancient grapes that have since disappeared, as they have, also, in nearby Bourgogne to the north. But gamay soon emerged as the most suitable grape variety for the Beaujolais, where a combination of largely granite-based soils and cool, continental climate favoured the production of bright, light, fruity wines that could be shipped to Lyon shortly after harvest and consumed within the first few months, lasting at least until the following year’s harvest.

Further north in Burgundy’s famous Côte d’Or region, Duke Philippe le Hardi had banned gamay in 1395, decrying the grape as “vil et déloyal” — vile and disloyal. It had been observed that gamay grown in the limestone soils of the Côte d’Or, with its lower acidity,had a tendency to succumb to a disease called piqûre lactique, which would manifest in the cellar with sluggish fermentations and lactic acid bacteria. “So, after you had paid for the year of farming and for the harvest and for making the wine, and the wine is in barrel, and then it turns to vinegar,” explains Lapierre. “That’s why it was called unloyal and vile.”

But gamay grown in the Beaujolais didn’t succumb to piqûre lactique, especially when processed using the technique called carbonic maceration. This type of vinification involves putting whole, intact bunches and berries into a tank and saturating it with carbon dioxide. An enzymatic process softens the berries and creates a series of fruity aromas in the ester family of compounds, before the bunches are removed and pressed off so that standard alcoholic fermentation can proceed. This style of winemaking gives Beaujolais its characteristic fresh berry and pear-drop aromas and flavours.

Carbonic maceration is the most traditional form of winemaking in Beaujolais, even if many producers now opt to use techniques practiced in Burgundy, with partial destemming and crushing and no carbon dioxide saturation prior to fermentation.

The last 20 years in Beaujolais have witnessed the transformation from a source of simple, quaffable red wines to a region capable of yielding structured, sturdy yet still affably fruity wines that can vie with top notch pinot noir from the north, especially after several years in bottle. The standard of winemaking expertise has never been higher, and now the region’s leading producers have turned their sites on identifying and highlighting the unique characteristics of small parcels of vines scattered throughout the Beaujolais’s ten cru appellations.

As in the Côte d’Or, vineyard land here has been mapped out for centuries. There are hundreds of so-called lieux-dits, or “named places.” These are single vineyards that are beginning to appear with greater frequency on labels, as with the premier and grand cru vineyards in Bourgogne. There is as yet no official classification of these parcels, though applications are already being prepared to request official status from France’s appellations governing body, the INAO. Expect more single-parcel Beaujolais in the coming years.

The next chapter in Beaujolais will be written in ever-finer detail as the land comes under greater scrutiny by a growing cadre of quality and authenticity-obsessed vignerons.

Begin your exploration today, and drink wines of quality that would have satisfied not only the canuts, but the wealthy silk merchants of Lyon as well.

For more information on Beaujolais and its 12 appellations, visit:

Beaujolais Discovery Case and Happy Hour:

John and Michael will be featuring six wines during the Discover Beaujolais Happy Hour on Thursday, December 15th (6 p.m. to 7 p.m.) on Zoom. You can order the carefully curated Beaujolais Discovery Case which includes all six wines being featured in the Happy Hour and will arrive at your door in time for you to sip along with Michael and John. The price of the mixed 6-pack is $199 (excluding shipping). The first 50 Beaujolais Discovery Case orders will receive a printed copy of Beaujolais, Expressions of a Vineyard. The Happy Hour will be recorded so if you can’t join us live, you can watch the playback and taste and discover these exciting wines at your leisure.

Step One:

Step Two:

Included in the Case:

1 x 750mL Domaine d’Argenson Cote de Brouilly Cuvée Première 2017
1 x 750mL Domaine Nicole & Romain Chanrion Côte de Brouilly 2018
1 x 750mL Chateau de la Chaize Brouilly 2019
1 x 750 mL Stéphane Aviron Chénas AOP 2020
1 x 750 mL Loron Juliénas Domaine de la Vieille Église 2020
3 x 250mL Miss Vicky O Joie Fleurie 2020
PLUS – 1 x bag of Torres Black Truffle Chips

Domaine D'argenson Cuvée Première 2017

Domaine d’Argenson Côte de Brouilly Cuvee Premiere 2017
John Szabo – The Côte de Brouilly cru sits within the larger Brouilly cru, near the summit of Mont Brouilly at up to 300 metres. A preponderance of thin, stony, bluish diorites (granites), yields some of the most structured examples of Beaujolais. Argenson’s wine is made from vines more than 50 years old. It’s a juicy, firm, fruity and well-balanced Côte de Brouilly, with excellent depth and structure, drinking really well at the moment. I love the fresh red cherry flavour, the sapidity and gentle salinity, and the impressively lingering finish. Fine stuff; drink or hold until 2027.

Nicole & Romain Chanrion 2018

Domaine Nicole & Romain Chanrion Côte de Brouilly 2018
John Szabo – Nicole and Romain Chanrion are the current custodians of this estate, in production since 1861, at the foot of Mont Brouilly. This 2018 Côte de Brouilly is evolving nicely at this stage, having shed the youthful flush of fruit and shifted into a more earthy, savoury ensemble, though there’s still of course fruit simmering underneath. Tannins are balanced if still grippy on the palate, acids ripe and succulent, and length and depth very good to excellent. Natural and pure fermented gamay in the traditional northern Burgundian fashion. Drink or continue to hold another 2–4 years without concern, likely longer for a fully mature experience.

Chateau De La Chaize Brouilly 2019

Chateau de la Chaize Brouilly 2019
John Szabo – Brouilly is the southernmost and largest of the Beaujolais crus, stretching out from the foot of Mont Brouilly and its chapel (Notre-Dame aux Raisins). Wines tend to be more fruity and accessible in youth than the smaller, higher, Côte de Brouilly cru within. The historic, picture-perfect Château la Chaize is one of the architectural gems of the region, completed in 1676. Today La Chaize’s vineyards are in conversion to organics with an ambitious plan to get to carbon neutrality and zero waste in the near future. The 2019 is clean and open, only just beginning to turn the corner towards maturity, though holding onto significant fruit. I like the gentle cinnamon spice, the bright, ripe cherry-raspberry fruit, and the fine-grained, dusty tannins. Solid length and depth. A nicely representative example all in all; drink or hold 2–4 years. 

Stephane Aviron Chénas Vieilles Vignes 2020

Stephane Aviron Chénas 2020 
John Szabo – Chénas is the smallest cru in Beaujolais, named after the ancient oak forests (chênes) that once covered the commune before they were cleared in the Roman era. The wines of Chénas are generally lifted and bright, fruity and elegant, though Aviron’s 2020 shows a pleasantly twiggy-herbal-stemmy profile from whole bunches, with plenty of joyful fruit underpinning the ensemble. I like the fleshy dark cherry fruit on the palate, the silky-firm tannins, and the excellent length in the category. A superior cru; drink or hold late into the decade.

Héritiers Loron Domaine De La Vieille Eglise 2020

Loron Juliénas Domaine de la Vieille Eglise 2020 
John Szabo – Named for the most famous Caesar, the Juliénas cru covers the southern and south-eastern slopes of Mont du Bessay. The styles of wine from here are more varied than other crus thanks to the most diverse soils in the Beaujolais. The hillside has zones of granitic, sedimentary and “rotten rock” soils, with various exposures and elevations that runs from 230 metres up to 430 metres in the far northwest. This wine is part of Jean Loron’s premium Beaujolais range of estate-grown wines, produced in a deconsecrated Church in Juliénas. It checks in at a very ripe 14.5% alcohol, offering a full-bodied, fleshy, concentrated palate replete with dark cherry and raspberry fruit. Tannins are sleek and suave, acids equally ripe but sufficient to buoy the ensemble, and length excellent, carried on gentle alcohol vapors. A very attractive and robust Beaujolais all around, drinking well now but cellar-able deep into the decade.

Miss Vicky O Joie Beaujolais 2020

Miss Vicky O Joie Fleurie 2020 (250 ml)
John Szabo – Fleurie, a Roman legionary, produces the most delicate and elegant of the Beaujolais crus, born on fairly homogenous pink granites on the slopes of La Madone, the hill that towers over the appellation. Don’t be put off by the packaging of this wine. For one, cans are far more sustainable than glass bottles. They’re also convenient, chill rapidly and don’t require any special implement to open. And in this case, for a wine destined to be enjoyed young and fruity, it makes perfect sense, while the quality is far better than what you might suppose. It pours a deep red ruby colour and offers an array of spicy and fruity aromas in the classic gamay register, with genuine depth and concentration. I love the succulent acids, the firm but ripe, grainy tannins, and the sapidity and light salinity it delivers, increasing desire for another sip. It’s ready to enjoy now with a light chill — canned wines won’t really evolve much, or at least very slowly. Note: the Beaujolais case contains 3 cans of this wine.

This feature was commissioned by Inter Beaujolais. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines — good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or 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.