2009 – the year of Beaujolais


This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

See our tasting notes on 130 Beaujolais 2009s

Beaujolais has had a pretty ignominious fall from grace and popularity since the Beaujolais Nouveau hoop-la of the 1980s. (What was the point of that race to get the first bottle of two-month-old wine to London again?) Even a wine lover as keen as me has for several years been able to count the number of Beaujolais tasted, let alone drunk, on the fingers of one hand. But 2009 – such an exception throughout Europe – is the vintage that should change all that.

In stark contrast to the excesses of Bordeaux 2009, with embryonic Ch Pétrus being offered at almost £3,000 a bottle, how about delicious 2009s that are stuffed full of fruit, cost well under £15 a bottle and are actually delicious to drink? Now.

Beaujolais may suffer from the fact that its defining grape, the thin-skinned Gamay, has no reputation outside the region. Nor has the standing of Beaujolais been helped by a scandal or two affecting some of the more commercial producers. So the modest price of the wine, just a few euros a bottle from the cellar door, has remained static for the last five years or so. UK importer Roy Richards of Richards Walford is a fan of well-made grower's Beaujolais (and supplies a number to the likes of Berry Bros). Impressed by the exuberant quality of the 2009s, he told his favourite growers earlier this year that this really was the year when they should put up their prices. The quality well justified it and if they didn't at least echo what has been happening to the price of France's grandest wines, they would find themselves well and truly left behind.

There was much doubtful discussion of his proposal in the Beaujolais region itself. Wouldn't they be taking a risk? Could the market stand a price rise? And then one grower finally broke free of the pack and promised he would write to Roy with a proposed price increase. Roy finally received his response, announcing the dramatic price rise of 50 cents a bottle.

This is a wine region, and a delightful wine style, you should not overlook if you view wine as something to be drunk and enjoyed rather than traded in. It is also important to know that the style of Beaujolais has evolved quite considerably. The sort of wines sought out by quality-conscious importers are a long way from the pale pink concoctions that smell of pear drops, nail-varnish remover and/or bananas that result from Gamay grapes fermented with feverish haste. Styles have evolved considerably over the last decade or so and the good wines have much more substance and extract, although they are rarely more than 13% alcohol and are often less. (Although please note that the alcohol levels noted in my tasting notes are based on what is printed on the label. My fellow wine writer David Schildknecht suggests that many of these wines are at least a full percent higher than stated.)

They are much more likely to have been made in much the same style as red burgundy from further north. In fact an increasing number of producers based in the Côte d'Or, home of the smartest burgundies, have established operations in Beaujolais. Louis Jadot was one of the first with their acquisition of Ch des Jacques along with Nicolas Potel and his joint venture Potel-Aviron, about whom I wrote in 2003. Thibault Liger-Belair has followed them, as have the Henriot family, owners of Bouchard Père et Fils in Beaune, who bought Ch Poncié in Fleurie in 2008 and have turned it into Villa Ponciago, of which they have high hopes.

Many of the most concentrated 2009s made in the Beaujolais region are not at their best yet, and it is only the lightest, most forward wines that I would recommend drinking already. Typically this means the best of the wines carrying the appellations Beaujolais, from the flatter land that stretches north of Lyons, and the higher, more granitic land that qualifies as Beaujolais-Villages. These are precisely the sort of wines that demonstrate the fatuity of applying numerical scores to something as visceral and subjective as wine appreciation. These are stupendous wines – but for early drinking rather than keeping. To what extent should they be penalised for their lack of suitability for dusty cellars and the saleroom? Discuss.

Most of the more 'serious' wines are made in the villages, or crus, that have their own appellations. They are, in very roughly ascending order of body and ageability, Regnié, Chiroubles, Chénas, St-Amour, Fleurie, Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Juliénas, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent, whose most concentrated wines are traditionally said to become more and more like Pinot Noir-based red burgundy with age. There are some fine producers outside these hallowed blue-shaded hills, however, such as Jean-Paul Brun of Terres Dorées. And the quality of any Beaujolais, cru or not, depends on the skill and commitment of the producer, typically a family smallholder in this region, and the precise altitude, orientation and subsoil of the vineyard.

More and more fine Beaujolais is now sold with a specific vineyard name as well as an appellation, not unlike the heartland of Piemonte – Barolo and Barbaresco country whose small hills and fragmented topography find an echo in the Beaujolais villages. Some of them, Côte de Py in Morgon, for instance, very obviously impose their strong mineral character on the wines grown there. But Beaujolais prices are just a fraction of those of a vineyard-designated Barolo.

The 2009 vintage was exceptional because the summer was delightfully warm without being too hot – and one defining characteristic of Beaujolais is its relatively high acidity that, in a less ripe vintage, can be uncomfortably dominant but in 2009 is the most delightful complement to all that ripe, crunchy, mouth-watering fruit. When we spent a sunny afternoon in the Beaujolais hills on the last day of August – sleeping off a good lunch – we fretted about missing our plane from Lyons, the narrow, twisting roads were already so encumbered by tractors trundling their loads of healthy purple grapes to various village cellars. So ripe were the grapes that the official start of Beaujolais harvest was unusually early, and a whole week before the end of August in the lower AC Beaujolais vineyards on the plains.

I am delighted to see that some UK merchants have already responded to the obviously superior quality of the 2009 vintage by many special offers of 2009 Beaujolais. Those I have found so far are chez Berry Bros, Hicks & Don, Stone, Vine & Sun and The Wine Society, although note that Chrstopher Piper has long specialised in Beaujolais.

Some top producers

Dom de la Bonne Tonne, Jean-Marc Burgaud, Dom de la Chapelle des Bois, Gérard Charvet, Michel Chignard, Louis-Claude Desvignes, Georges Duboeuf (top cuvées), Laurent Gauthier, Ch des Jacques, Lapalu, Lucien Lardy, Thibault Liger-Belair, Bernard Sante, Dom des Terres Dorées, Ch Thivin, Villa Ponciago, Dom Georges Viornery, Dom du Vissoux, Dom de la Voûte des Crozes.

See our tasting notes on 130 Beaujolais 2009s