Things are really looking up in the kingdom of Gamay. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Six years ago almost to the day I wrote an article on France’s wine orphans – Muscadet and Beaujolais, bemoaning the fact that these bargain wines were so routinely overlooked and that wine production in each region was becoming financially untenable.
The quality and ageability of Muscadet may have soared but growers in the Muscadet region in the hinterland of Nantes have suffered the most savage series of spring frosts – three in the last four years. I’m delighted to report however that in Beaujolais just north of Lyons a corner has definitively been turned. The economic doldrums of the region that resulted when the world fell out of love with Beaujolais Nouveau at the end of the last century kept land prices attractively low for young newcomers with a different, more artisanal concept of winemaking. There is a whole new generation in the region now, as Julia reported here and here, producing wines that appeal to a new, younger market.
Beaujolais exports were up 22% last year, with demand particularly strong from what you might slightly carelessly call American hipsters, or at least influential American sommeliers. The US has overtaken Japan – the last stronghold of demand for fast-fermented Beaujolais Nouveau – to become Beaujolais’ most important export market, with the UK still in third place.
We Brits apparently favour the medium-quality Beaujolais-Villages rather than basic Beaujolais tout court or the generally superior wines that carry the name of one of the region’s ten special individual crus: Chiroubles, Régnié, St-Amour, Brouilly, Fleurie, Côte de Brouilly, Juliénas, Chénas, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent, in roughly ascending order of body and longevity.
I’m quite surprised by the fact that the UK is the world’s third biggest beaujolais importer since I don’t see nearly as much good beaujolais on shelves and lists in Britain as I’d like – particularly in view of the value to be had from a well-made example. Mind you, as might be expected in a region with players ranging from neophytes, through ambitious, highly leveraged enterprises, to relatively industrial-scale négociants, prices are all over the place.
But apparently, as reported excitedly by Jean Bourjade, managing director of InterBeaujolais, host of a generic tasting in London last week, beaujolais was the second most-stockpiled wine by British wine merchants laying in stocks in advance of what they anticipated would be Brexit-induced chaos at the end of March this year. (Champagne was the number one choice.)
The booklet accompanying the tasting gave either ex-cellar prices in euros or recommended retail prices in pounds for all 194 wines shown. (Nineteen of them were white or rosé because M Bourjade thinks that is where the future may lie for Beaujolais but I cannot agree.) For the reds, all made from Beaujolais’ very own grape, the refreshing Gamay that comes into its own when grown on granite-based soils, prices of the cru wines varied from less €5 (around $5) ex cellar for Vins Descombe’s Ch de Pougelon 2018 Brouilly to £35 ($45) on a UK shelf for one of the most serious 2016s from the Château du Moulin-à-Vent. But the best wines of Beaujolais can easily rival burgundies that cost many times more.
At the tasting was Devon wine merchant Christopher Piper, who also makes beaujolais himself at Château du Pavé in Brouilly. He reports in our Members’ forum how he realised in 2010, ‘our soils in Beaujolais were (technically speaking) “knackered” – lifeless and saturated with agrochemicals. Gradually, we have breathed life back to a mosaic of complex soils and also reduced our yields to around 40 hectolitres per hectare. As the vines became healthier themselves, less and less organic sprays (copper especially) have been necessary as well.’ He is far from the only producer to have turned away from industrial production methods in both vineyard and cellar and he notes approvingly, ‘a group of amazing youngsters in the Beaujolais region, who have played an integral part in the elevation of Beaujolais’ reputation and quality.’
Unfortunately the wines of too few of these amazing youngsters were, presumably for reasons of local politics, represented in the recent tasting but I have included those I know in my list of recommendations below. See others mentioned in Julia’s two recent reports mentioned above.
What was very clear when tasting those wines currently represented in the UK was the polarisation of styles. Some producers seem still to be making wine to a twentieth-century recipe in which concentration and ripeness are the most valued qualities whereas others, presumably most of those ‘amazing youngsters’, are making round, fruity, gentle, often relatively pale (and sometimes not star-bright) wines whose style and impact are completely different. Then there are those with a long history of making wonderfully reliable wines in a style somewhere in the middle such as Château Thivin, Jean Foillard – and Marcel Lapierre, whose wines are closely associated with the natural wine movement and are now some of Beaujolais’ most expensive, with every justification.
Both styles should last pretty well, and certainly there is no need whatsoever nowadays to regard beaujolais as a wine that needs drinking young. In fact wines from the two most ‘serious’ crus Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent positively demand ageing in bottle and can be superb at 10 years or even considerably more.
The rather classic 2016s from a challenging vintage for growers are only just coming into their own now, even if the fleshier 2017s may have more immediate appeal. The 2018s, many of which were shown last week in London, have great promise but most are still too young to drink now, certainly those from the crus. The 2015s were generally riper than the 2014s, whose chief attribute was the freshness that is traditionally associated with beaujolais. The 2013 vintage was very successful and examples from tiptop producers may well be tasting beautifully now. Although beaujolais is traditionally associated with summer drinking, these are serious wines for drinking at any time of year – nicely filling the price gap below burgundy. Gamay, after all, belongs to the same genetic family as Pinot Noir, the great red burgundy grape.
The comments about vintages above apply generally to cru beaujolais but Beaujolais-Villages, from the better-but-not-best land in the region, can provide lovely summer drinking served fairly cool, with or without food. As can straight Beaujolais from the best producers, the perfect red wine substitute for white wine.
RECOMMENDED BEAUJOLAIS PRODUCERS
UK stockists are given in italics.
Pascal Aufranc, Concept Fine Wines
Ch des Bachelards, Hedonism
Dom de la Bonne Tonne, Huntsworth Wine
Jean-Paul Brun, The Wine Society, BI Wines
Dom Jean-Marc Burgaud, The Wine Society, Berry Bros & Rudd, Cambridge Wine Merchants
Domaine Chapel, Vino Vero, The Good Wine Shop
André Colonge, Woodwinters, Quaff and many others
Louis-Claude Desvignes, Berry Bros & Rudd
Jean-Paul Dubost, Pierre Hourlier, Bottle Apostle, Montrachet
Jean Foillard, Roberson, Buon Vino
Mee Godard, Raeburn Fine Wines
Le Grappin, legrappin.com
Ch des Jacques, Wine Direct
Dom Lafarge Vial, Howard Ripley, Corney & Barrow
Thibault Liger-Belair, Berry Bros & Rudd, Stannary Street
Ch du Moulin-à-Vent, Stannary Street
Christophe Pacalet, Raeburn Fine Wines
Dominique Piron, Averys, Laithwaite's
Olivier Ravier, Strictly Wine, Corking Wines, Slurp
Domaine Rochette, James Nicholson, Lea & Sandeman
Julien Sunier, Roberson, Wine & Greene
Domaine Thillardon, Christopher Piper Wines