In his latest opinion piece, Wickhams director Dan Farrell-Wright explores the value of Beaujolais for both winemakers and consumers.
A hot dry summer means that this year’s harvest has started earlier than usual for many in the northern hemisphere – and a sunny August should be good news for the vintage.
I know that many in the trade dismiss Beaujolais Nouveau, but I love it as a way of getting customers excited and interested in the current harvest. It highlights the possibilities of the vintage, and the quality has improved drastically in recent years.
Talking to one of our winemakers, Cecile Dardenelli from Domaine bel Aevnir in La Chapelle-de-Guinchay, she tells me that the quality of the grapes is high this year with good concentration of fruit, although yields are low.
Of course, there is more to Beaujolais than just Nouveau and Beaujolais Nouveau Day (17 November) is an opportunity to introduce customers to the region and the great value it offers.
As with all French regions there is a strict appellation system. It starts with the very broad Beaujolais AOC and the quality improves as you move to the Beaujolais-Villages AOC where the villages can include their name on the label, for example Beaujolais-Blacé. Finally, there are ten cru villages whose labels display only the village name. From north to south these are Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte-de-Brouilly.
There are two grape varieties permitted in the region, one white and one red. Interestingly both grapes are the children of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. The first, Chardonnay, accounts for less than 3% of production and is used to make Beaujolais-Blanc. The second, Gamay, is the grape the region is best known for which is used for red wine and a miniscule production of rosé.
Beaujolais Blanc is an excellent alternative to Mâcon Chardonnay, but it isn’t easy to find. The wine generally has the same steely minerality you expect to find in Chablis or Mâcon, but with slightly riper stone fruit flavours. It’s roughly a third cheaper than its close neighbours and therefore offers superb value.
The region’s red wines tend to be light bodied, low in tannins, with fresh acidity and fruity flavours (think cherries and strawberries). This is especially true of Beaujolais AOC and Beaujolais-Villages AOC wines. They are perfect drunk young and even slightly chilled. There are lots of good, inexpensive, examples around.
Yet, if you know where to look, you can find great structure and ageability, too. The cru villages are the obvious places to start. Most cru wines will improve with time, with Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie and Côte-de-Brouilly being the most age-worthy appellations. One of the most satisfying things about Beaujolais wines is that they taste great at all stages of their life – I get as much enjoyment from a one-year-old Morgon as I do from a ten-year-old Morgon and maybe the reason I love Beaujolais is because (like many consumers) I’m impatient – waiting thirty years for a Barolo to come of age is hard.
It’s worth highlighting that at the turn of the 20th century wines from Morgon had the same status as illustrious vineyards in Burgundy. And 14th generation winemaker Dominique Piron (previously of Maison Piron) has recently created Clos de Vieux Bourg, a new venture using his families’ historic vineyards on the Côte du Py in Morgon. When I spoke to him recently, he explained that in 1932 his great-grandfather had the opportunity to purchase two parcels of vines which at the time had roughly similar land value. Benoit Piron decided to buy the parcel in Morgon rather than the other, Clos de Tart, in Burgundy. A mistake? I don’t think so. “Javernieres” Morgon 2020 from Clos de Vieux Bourg is available now, it is enjoyable young, but a few years bottle age will reward the drinker with an incredibly complex and layered wine for a very modest outlay (£25 RRP), certainly not something you can say about Clos de Tart.
Land values in Beaujolais and Burgundy have diverged significantly in the past 100 years, which puts land in Burgundy out of reach for many young, ambitious, artisan winemakers. These are just the sort of winemakers to look for in the Beaujolais-Villages plain where land is cheap. One such winemaker, Jean-Baptiste (JB) Bachevillier, recently bought three old vineyards in Blacé and created Domaine Mont Joly. Although an eighth-generation winemaker, he is the first in his family to own vineyards. He spent time studying at Plumpton College, England, and worked on vintages in the US and Australia before returning to France.
All his wines come from old vines (nothing younger than 40 years old) and they have a power about them that you don’t expect to find in Beaujolais. My favourite party game at the moment is to serve JBs wines, blind, to see how long it takes friends to guess that these are Gamay. His Beaujolais-Villages “85.45” (£30 RRP) has been vinified traditionally and spent 21 months in oak – it is as far from the old image of light, fun Beaujolais as you can get.
If you want to discover more about Beaujolais, there is a trade and press tasting, Beaujolais Colours, taking place in London on October 13. All the wines and winemakers mentioned in this article will have wines available to taste at the event.