It’s Beaujolais time again. Not Beaujolais drinking time (it’s always that), but tasting it. Yesterday, Westbury Communications and Beaujolais Wines UK put on a Tasting at The Trampery on London’s Old Street. There were close to two hundred wines to taste, and I doubt I’ve been in the presence of so many wines from this region before. It’s fair to say that it was up there with the best Tastings of the year so far.
The theory was to highlight the 2016 vintage, although as it turned out the majority of the wines appeared to come from 2015, and there were one or two older wines. With the samples set out as a range from white/rosé, through Beaujolais, Villages, and then the ten Crus, it was in theory possible to judge the individual AOCs. But as with Burgundy, the conclusion here was that it is normally safer to look to the individual producer. That said, Morgon did show itself to be perhaps the most consistently impressive cru over the whole Tasting. Maybe that is in part down to personal taste, and partly because of the impressive producers based there.
With so many 2015s on show, it was really rather instructive. There has been some criticism of some wines from this very ripe year, but from this Tasting it was clear that where producers had managed to moderate alcohol levels, the wines could be as delicious as ever. Also, having tasted many 2015s already, I feel that they are all settling down a bit as they get used to being in bottle. It is only when you see alcohol levels clearly very high for Beaujolais that you worry, but even here, it’s not black and white. Foillard’s Côte du Py, after all, registers 14% (not the 12.5% in the catalogue), and that is a very fine wine.
Just by way of background, before we hit the wines, it’s worth setting out a few Beaujolais facts. The region has 3,000 producers, who farm 17,000 hectares of vineyard. Less than 2% of that vignoble is Chardonnay, for the white wines, the rest, of course, being Gamay. The region produces 110 million bottles each year, of which 42.4 million come from the ten named Crus, the pinnacle of the Appellation pyramid.
Soils in the region are more mixed than is often generalised. Granite is the main rock type, of which there are several different kinds. But there are also clays, and, importantly, limestone. The white wines, mainly produced from vines in the far south, and north, of the region (towards the famous Macon Crus) are normally grown on these limestone soils. Of the Cru villages, the largest are Brouilly and Morgon (7.5 million bottles from 1,257 ha, and 6.8 million bottles from 1,115 ha respectively). The tiniest is Chénas (just 1.3 million bottles from 250 ha).
You will see below that many of the producers I liked best are either organic or biodynamic, and some are what we would call “natural wines”. I make no apology for these preferences. I heard a lot of conversations whilst tasting. Where another taster was critical of a wine I liked, they generally seemed to come from an older age group and had something of a conservative air about them. Where a wine I loved was praised, it was often by someone from a younger demographic. Perhaps that mirrors life in the UK right now.
That was absolutely true of Julien Sunier’s wines, which I felt were some of the best on show. I point this out not to be critical of those preferring a more conservative approach, but merely to warn you of my own preferences – for lively fresh fruit, a lick of acidity, and something a little different, perhaps. None of the wines here seemed burdened with any great excess of funk, not to me at least. But some sulphur levels were proudly low.
Beaujolais Blanc “69” 2016, Christopher Coquard – This is made from old vines (up to 40-y-o), gently pressed and aged in steel. A simple wine, which was a good palate cleanser, and introduction to the tasting.
Beaujolais Blanc 2015, Domaine de la Bonne-Tonne – This was a step up, though no more expensive. Coming from the “Pizay” lieu-dit, in Morgon, it had a nice mineral edge, clean, with a touch of nuts and butter on the finish, with a citrus freshness running right through. Seeking distribution.
Beaujolais 2015, Château Cambon – This is not inexpensive for straight Beaujolais (about £11 to the trade, ex VAT, from Les Caves de Pyrène). It’s nice and fresh from whole bunch pressed fruit. With medium colour, that fruit is pretty plump. The key is 80-year-old vines and, after a 15 day fermentation, ten months in old oak. Sulphuring is negligible. The label may be simple, but, for straight Bojo, the wine is deceptive (in a good way).
Beaujolais “L’Ancien” VV 2015, Pierre-Dorées (Jean-Paul Brun) – Brun produces his wines from the far south of the region (at Charnay), and he’s been a favourite producer of mine, across his range, for longer than any other producer mentioned here. L’Ancien is slightly funky, again in a good way. It gives you a lighter fruitiness from destemmed grapes (made in a more Burgundian way, and just 12.5% abv), but it doesn’t lack depth, nor interest, for a wine at this level. Delicious. OW Loeb is the importer.
Beaujolais-Villages “La Sambinerie” 2016, Richard Rottiers – This is a light wine, but with an intriguing sourness on the finish. The vineyard is close to Moulin-à-Vent, and it’s Ecocert organic, made by semi-carbonic maceration, with malo in old barrels. Seeking an agent, this wine comes with a rrp of £16.
Beaujolais-Villages 2016, Maison Trénel – Although this is a negociant wine, it’s a simple, light and fruit-filled Villages with fresh cherry flavours. The Wine Society sell this, and it is very reasonably priced. The vines are around 45 years old, in Clochemerle and Perréon. Ten day maceration, 30% destemmed, and aged six months in cement. There is also a Saint-Amour, which is quite pretty, the sort of Valentine’s Day wine to fit the cliché, but very nice in an easy drinking sense. The Wine Treasury were listed as bringing that one in, though I don’t see it on their web site.
Régnié “Chamodère” 2016, Domaine les Capréoles – is a light and vibrant wine from the newest of the Cru villages. There’s not a lot of substance, but it is very pretty, and as it isn’t expensive, that makes it an attractive proposition.
Régnié “Diaclase” 2015, Domaine les Capréoles – has an extra degree of alcohol (14%) and a more purple colour. The nose is bigger and deeper too. This wine is certainly more serious, though I’d love to try them again – the former does have charm, and is cheaper.
Regnié 2015, Antoine Sunier – In the clamour for Julien Sunier’s wines, don’t forget his brother, Antoine, who also makes exquisite Gamays. This 2015 has a beautiful perfume on the nose, and is very purple in the glass. Classic Gamay in fact. You can tell you have something a bit different here. The fruit is smooth and there’s a nice cherry twist on the finish. There’s more body than you expect from Régnié, and this is lovely. I don’t know to what extent there’s a friendly sibling rivalry, but game on! Not cheap though.
Régnié “Vin Sauvage à Poil” 2015, Château de la Terrière – This bursts with cherry fruit, although there was also a whiff of alcohol on the nose initially (14%). It’s quite big and ripe in the mouth, typical of 2015, yet it had presence and a certain style which won me over.
Régnié “Grain & Granit” 2014, Charly Thévenet – Charly’s Régnié comes off pink granite and clay with alluvial stones in the vineyard. The wine is aged on fine lees in older Burgundian barrels after carbonic maceration, and as with all of Charly’s wines, there is minimal sulphur added at bottling. This has a Pinot Noir paleness, but it is very much cherry Gamay all round. Serve a little cool. It tastes “natural”, and it’s really good. Charly is, of course, the son of Beaujolais giant, Jean-Paul Thévenet. Contact Roberson for both Thévenets’ wines (father and son).
Saint-Amour “Vieilles Vignes” 2015, Château Bonnet – This has more structure than the Trénel Saint-Amour mentioned above, but it also has an abundance of fruit. I think this is a 2015 that needs a bit of time, not lots, just to realise the potential that is there.
Brouilly “Terre de Combiaty” 2016, Domaine Manoir du Carra – This comes from a 3 ha lieu-dit with high density planting. The cherry fruit bouquet is refined. The colour is pale, but not especially so. This is around €5.50 ex-cellars, so pretty good value.
Brouilly “Vieilles Vignes” 2015, Jean-Claude Lapalu – I’d been itching to taste Domaine Botheland’s Brouilly, but the wine hadn’t turned up. My disappointment soon disappeared when this appeared a few bottles along the line. These are very old vines, between 60 to 80 years old. It’s made by carbonic maceration, but for around ten days, after which it is aged for six months on fine lees in old wood. Just 2 g/hl of sulphur is added at bottling. The lees ageing gives texture and there’s a little tannin and bite. Delicious. Another offering from Les Caves de Pyrène.
Brouilly “Combiaty” 2015 and Brouilly “Corentin” 2014, Domaine Laurent Martray – Both of these sites are on the same soils (granite with sand and silt) in Odenas, and vinification is conventional (but see below), so it’s a chance to look at the two sites in consecutive vintages. “Combiaty” has very easy going fruit, a little body, a simple but tasty wine. Ageing is in foudre and new muids. “Corentin”, from 2014 with an extra year in bottle, and from a more classical vintage, has more complexity on the nose, a little more depth and more subtlety on the palate, without appearing to sacrifice fruit. This wine was aged in “oak barrels”. Both were attractive, the 2014 Corentin seeming a little more serious. Justerini’s are listed as importer.
Brouilly “Cuvée Prestige” 2010, Domaine du Château de la Valette – This was the oldest wine I tasted yesterday. The vines are 100 years old and the soils on the lieu-dit of “La Valette” near Charentay are clay and limestone, not granite. The nose is quite developed, but not towards the Pinot Noir bouquet of the cliché for older Beaujolais. It has depth, but also (despite its age) tannic structure, perhaps because it is made from a yield of just 25 hl/ha. In all honesty it tastes younger than seven years old. But quite an impressive effort. Seeking distribution.
Fleurie 2015, Julien Sunier – For me, this was the pick of the very many Fleuries on taste, but as I intimated in my introduction, it wasn’t a wine without controversy. It comes from a lieu-dit called “Niagara” at only a little below 500 metres’ elevation, on granite and quartz. The nose is very pretty, and elegant too, but the wine has structure, more so than many 2015s. No hint of flab. Alcohols are highish, but 13.5% is not excessive for the vintage. You can tell there is minimal sulphur addition, yet it is well handled. Roberson import Julien Sunier.
If I was going to recommend any other Fleurie wines, I’d point you towards Lucien Lardy (Bibendum), but I can’t mention everyone.
Chénas “Quartz” 2015, Dominique Piron – Chénas isn’t seen all that often. As I said in the introduction to this Tasting, it’s the smallest Cru in terms of production. This is listed as another import by Roberson (although I can’t currently spot it on their web site, and Piron’s other wines seem to be available through a number of UK merchants). It’s not a wine I’d tried before, and it was impressive, with plump fruit combined with a high note on the nose. The palate to me displays the kind of mineral definition suggested by the name of the cuvée.
Morgon “Les Charmes” 2015, Château Grange Cochard – This is a different proposition to the wines which have preceded it. Morgon has a reputation for structure but Les Charmes is pretty dark in colour for Beaujolais. It’s also structured and tannic at this stage, and 13.7% abv is not exactly restrained. Yet it will be interesting to see how this ages, as it suggests potential.
Morgon “Côte du Py” 2015, Château Grange Cochard – has an even higher abv level, 14.3%. It’s just as dark, but much more mineral, and it seemed, counter-intuitively, the more balanced of the two at this stage. Interestingly, viticulture and vinification with these two wines is very similar, so they do show site differentiation. These wines definitely have the potential to age. Both are available through Raeburn in Edinburgh.
Morgon 2015, Julien Sunier – This cuvée comes from two sites, Les Charmes and Corcelette (of Foillard fame). Ageing is for eleven months in barriques on fine lees. This Morgon is less pretty than Julien’s Fleurie. It’s also plumper, with more rounded fruit. Which do I like best? Impossible to say. I can only repeat that these were among my top wines of the day. Contact Roberson for availability. Julien Sunier has unquestionably become a star of the region fairly quickly. The only downside, prices have risen somewhat swiftly as a result.
Morgon “Tradition, Le Clachet” 2015, Jean-Paul Thévenet – What can I say about this wine? It’s clean, perfectly in balance and lovely, but I think it will benefit from a bit of bottle age, for sure. The vines are pretty old (70), and yields are low for the region. Colour (and plenty more besides) comes from punchdowns during fermentation. Ageing is for about eight months in 5-to-7-year oak. Classic. As with son, Charly’s, wines, contact Roberson.
Morgon “Vielles Vignes” 2014, Jean-Paul Thévenet – There’s a touch more funk on the nose than with the “Tradition”, but it’s also a bit livelier and, with a swirl, fresher. This could be the vintage. It’s a step up from the previous wine, and around £4 more retail. It still has the structure to make me recommend keeping it, though.
Morgon “Côte du Py” 2014, Domaine de la Bonne-Tonne – You’ll recall I tasted this domaine’s white earlier in the Tasting. I’m not going to argue that this wine is in the same class as Thévenet’s Morgons (above), nor the wine which follows. But this Morgon is relatively inexpensive for this famous Cru. It’s paler than one might expect, made with an all round lighter touch. If you say you expect something different from the Côte du Py, well fair enough. But this wine is worth a mention for its good value.
Morgon “Côte du Py” 2015**, Domaine Jean Foillard – Is this the king of the Crus? The Côte is made up of crumbling granite and schist of considerable geological age. The wine here is nurtured like a frail child at every stage. It first sees cement tanks and open fermenters, soaked with protective CO2. Pressing is gentle, and everything is done using gravity. It is aged on fine lees for between six to nine months in old wood of various sizes. What it doesn’t see in the vineyard is any chemicals (including sulphur, although a tiny bit of SO2 is added at bottling in the normal cuvée).
For all that, you get structure. It’s hard to read at just under three years old, but the 2014 has seemed to me very impressive at every stage, and this 2015 follows in its wake. The cherry fruit is rich, but herbs and spices add a dimension rarely found in Gamay. It has a long life ahead of it. Note that alcohol is 14% abv, not the 12.5% listed in the catalogue to the Tasting. This is quite high, but Foillard seems to handle it impecably. **Equally, this was the 2015, not the 2014 as listed, but don’t worry which you are buying if you come across it.
To sum up, if merely to repeat what I said in my introduction, this was a brilliant Tasting and, considering the sheer number of wines on show, extremely well organised by Westbury Communications. I kind of wished Beaujolais Wines UK had laid on some branded pens (as the good people of Saint-Chinian, and Comté, had laid on recently), and I could have done with exiting through the gift shop to snag one of the delicious “I Love Beaujolais” t-shirts sported by Westbury’s Christina Rasmussen, but I’m just greedy for merch!
As to vintages, well 2014 is often elegant and intense, whilst 2015 is ripe…to very ripe. But we mostly knew that. 2016 does appear to have been successful in terms of quality and overall levels of production, though spring hail was a bane for many producers. Still, compared to Burgundy, the region was perhaps lucky.
There were two seminars during the day, which I didn’t get to. In the morning, Christopher Piper spoke. Christopher both makes and imports Beaujolais. Last time we met, he was writing a book on the region. I missed him yesterday, but I sincerely hope he’s going to be able to publish it. In the afternoon, Jamie Goode had the lectern. I really wanted to attend that, but it was full and I didn’t fancy waiting around for an hour on the off chance (very off chance with Jamie on stage) that someone dropped out.
I hope the wines I mentioned whet your appetite for one of my favourite wine regions. A few of the wines above were tasted as a result of recommendations from others as I was moving around. Meeting another friend for a drink afterwards, I realised I’d missed the wines of the Château de Moulin-à-Vent (especially the “Champ de Cour”), and the wines of Domaine Mee Godard. But I’m sure that if you are extra keen to read about more wines, others will be writing/blogging about the Tasting too.