Thursday saw the annual trade tasting for Inter Beaujolais, organised to perfection once more by Westbury Comms at The Trampery on Old Street. In my second article (to follow) I plan to provide an overview of the 2016 and 2017 vintages by highlighting the (er, my) best wines at the tasting. There will be rather a lot of those – my own outlook is very positive, because although quantities were affected by hail (especially in 2016 in some crus), the wines generally show a return to classical elegance after the riper wines of 2015.
I thought it better to focus my first article on Jamie Goode’s excellent Masterclass on some of the new faces in Beaujolais. This gives me an opportunity to paint a picture of the revival taking place in the region. Jamie’s introduction could have been written by myself, so aligned is our take on what has been happening and where Beaujolais, as a wider region, might go.
From the post-industrial Nouveau era there has been a quiet revolution in Beaujolais, fittingly started by the Gang of Four (some might actually call it the Gang of Five: Lapierre, Breton, Thévenet, Foillard, and some would add Yvon Métras) under the influence of Jules Chauvet, a negoce and research chemist who many would call the father of the French natural wine movement.
From small beginnings and a storm of negativity from the establishment this movement encouraged a host of young people to change their whole approach to winemaking, and with it they changed the way that wine is drunk and appreciated all over the world. Low intervention wines are in many cases replacing (or at least becoming equal to) beer as the preferred recreational drink in bars the world over. Gluggable, smashable and glouglou are descriptions replacing collectable and fine wine (pronounced fane wane) for so many younger drinkers who identify more with the hard-worked, soil-encrusted, hands of young vignerons rather than the grey suits and Hermès ties of the estate owners (rarely winemakers) of the unaffordable classics, in the post-Parker era.
Young winemakers have populated regions with affordable land over the past decade or so, and for a time Beaujolais could be so-described. It saw an influx of new producers along with the children of established producers, increasing this century, as indeed did Jura and The Loire, as the natural wine movement grew. This has coincided with an influx of investment from the wine regions between which Beaujolais is sandwiched, Burgundy and the Northern Rhône, for the same reasons, vineyard prices having blasted off the planet in the classic regions (especially neighbouring Burgundy) during that time.
Of course not all of the great wines of the region are natural wines, but what the natural wine movement has done is create a dynamism that is benefiting everyone. All this comes at a time when the old norms of heavy oaking and big, jammy, fruit are becoming less fashionable in the wine world as a whole. People are looking for lighter wines, fruity, digestable, and (to use one of Jamie’s favourite descriptions) smashable. As the Goode doctor said, Beaujolais is a region whose time has come. You have the talent and the wines, and now you have the market too.
Gamay (wow, it took me a long time to mention the grape variety) lends itself so well to carbonic, or semi-carbonic, whole bunch fermentation, yet this is not the only method of winemaking employed in the Beaujolais region. Many young producers are using what some would call more “Burgundian” techniques, with pumping over and crushing. What is very clear is that the move to either zero, or minimal, sulphur additions is becoming popular with all of these young producers, whatever techniques of winemaking they use. This philosophy, and indeed low intervention winemaking as a whole, requires absolute focus on clean grapes (sorting out any damaged or diseased berries is essential), and a spotlessly clean winery.
Doing less, as Jamie pointed out, actually takes more skill and effort. What low sulphur wines appear to give you, along with the lifted fruit of carbonic maceration, is a wonderful texture somehow absent in more interventionist wines. This texture is in my view enhanced (and this doesn’t only apply to the Beaujolais region) by a return to using cement and concrete (either the old style of tanks or modern eggs and suchlike). All of this just seems to make Beaujolais at all levels so much more interesting. It’s ironic that by adding a little complexity through grip and texture the wines become, counter-intuitively, more pleasurable to knock back.
It also increases the wines’ versatility. You can drink them on their own, slightly chilled in summer and at room temperature at other times, but they go well with modern bar food (charcuterie, cheeses, rillettes etc), and many accompany a simple onglet (with frites, of course) to absolute perfection.
What next for Beaujolais? We have seen the rejuvenation (should that be “reju-vin-ation?) of the Crus, and the beginnings of the same thing happening in the Villages and straight Beaujolais appellations. There is now exciting wine being made as Beaujolais tout-court which costs very little and gives a lot of pleasure. We have also seen the revival of Beaujolais Nouveau in the past few years. Not of the mass produced semi-industrial product, but wines made in relatively small quantity by those new producers. Gamay makes a perfect early release primeur if it is done with love and care.
Another notable development comes in the number of lieu-dit or single vineyard parcel wines being released. When we talk about the diversity of terroirs in Beaujolais, even within the crus where it’s certainly not remotely all granite as some books might suggest, there is no better way to highlight this than by releasing named parcel wines. After all, we all know Morgon’s Côte de Py. There are many more worthy sites which will appear on labels more often over the next vintages. The fact that the wines do taste different vindicates this approach.
Jamie also recognises the potential for Chardonnay in the region. Back in the 1990s I remember buying a mixed case of wines from Jean-Paul Brun, whose estate is far south of the famous Crus of the region. One of those wines was his Terres Dorées Chardonnay, and I loved it immediately. I sadly see all too little of it these days, but Jamie rightly identifies the still inexpensive limestone-marl sites, mainly down in the thus far unfashionable south, as one of the great potential growth areas for Beaujolais.
The future looks bright, if in fact more red and white than orange here. Let’s hope that the appalling weather events which have struck Beaujolais in recent years don’t spoil the party. As Inter Beaujolais’ Geoffrey Bénat told me, the thing they need to work on is to raise the profile of the region enough so that, without becoming expensive and unaffordable (like Burgundy, for instance), the producers can get a little more money for their wines, so as to make the rejuvenation of the Beaujolais region sustainable. I for one hope in this he succeeds.
Jamie’s Masterclass allowed the crowded room an opportunity to taste eleven wines from some of the fresher faces of Beaujolais, and I shall run through them relatively swiftly. Many will get a second mention in my next article.
Domaine Séléné Beaujolais 2017 – I tasted this quite early on in the main room and immediately identified this producer as interesting, both for the wine and for their packaging. The New Beaujolais usually comes with more inspiring labels which will appeal far more to a younger audience than the more traditional style. Something producers should note. Whole bunch fermentation, with the addition of 1g/litre of sulphur and nothing else. Fruity, with that lovely grainy texture. Glouglou but not at all soft and simple, and it should cost less than £15.
Kéké Descombes Beaujolais-Villages “Cuvée Kéké” 2017 – Kewin has a famous father (George), but has gone in a slightly different direction. His wines, some of which I have already bought (from Solent Cellar via Red Squirrel), are one of my discoveries of the past year. This wine, from “Courcelles” off granite, is made by semi-carbonic vinification. You notice immediately how bright this is, with drive and focus, yet with structure too. There’s a tiny bit of volatility, but for me this is a small enough amount to add personality.
Clotaire Michal Beaujolais-Villages “Napoléon” 2016 – This wine comes off sandy soils. Westbury’s Christina Rasmussen had created a wonderful display of Beaujolais rock types in the main tasting room, which illustrated so well the complexity of the different sub-strata and soils throughout Beaujolais. It’s biodynamic with plump fruit, quite pronounced fresh acidity, and more of that texture we so love. From Totem Wines.
Domaine Chapel Beaujolais-Villages 2017 – David Chapel has been based in Lantignié since 2015, probably the most likely village to gain cru status in the future. He didn’t have a wine background, being a former Sommelier and resident of New York, but his father had gained three Michelin stars in France (one of only nineteen chefs with that honour back in 1973) and is credited as one of the fathers of Nouvelle Cuisine.
This Villages comes from three named parcels at 380 metres altutude on decomposed granite, using high-density planting, and is made via whole bunch fermentation, aged in cement. It is very expressive, light in colour but lively, elegant and harmonious too.
I’d been keen to try the wines being imported by Rupert Taylor’s new Uncharted Wines venture, and this didn’t disappoint.
Romaine Saint-Cyr Beaujolais-Villages “Kanon Keg” 2017 – A young vine cuvée off clay-limestone made with 100% whole clusters and cold carbonic maceration. It sees eight months ageing in concrete tank. The wine is “bottled” in kegs and this method of delivery is the new and exciting way of serving wine “on tap” in bars which several producers have been experimenting with (most notably Andrew and Emma Nielsen’s Du Grappin label over previous vintages, and here from Uncharted Wines).
This is a simple wine, the fruit reminding me a little of a Fox’s Glacier Fruit sweet, very cherry, but very much made for quaffing in a bar, and in that context (and with just 12.5% abv), just right. Only 150 kegs produced, though.
Charly Thévenet Regnié Cuvée Grain et Granit 2016 – Charly needs little introduction, hailing from one of the great Beaujolais families, but he also had the good fortune to work for a while with his father’s friend, Marcel Lapierre. He started with three hectares of Regnié vines in 2007 and set out to build his own reputation. There are rumours that father and son may get back together again very soon, but in the meantime this particular wine has been just so good in recent vintages that I pray it continues to be made.
The grainy structure is very evident in a wine from 350 metres altitude on granite/clay with alluvial stones. The grapes are chilled before carbonic maceration, followed by ageing in old Burgundy barrels. Thick cherry fruit with a touch of tea leaf make this quite distinctive…and delicious. One of the best wines of the day. Roberson bring these into the UK.
Domaine Chardigny Saint-Amour “A la Folle” 2017 – this is a domaine run by two brothers, Pierre-Maxime and Victor-Emmanuel Chardigny. You rarely see Saint-Amour wines retail in the UK (it was once a Valentine’s Day fixture, but Saint-Amour is in fact the second smallest of the ten Beaujolais Crus). This one is made distinctive by super high density planting (12,000 vines per hectare) on mainly clay/alluvium/limestone, and winemaking includes long vatting of two-and-a-half weeks with two pumpovers a day…so a far more “traditional” vinification, but of course not traditional for Beaujolais. It produces a more extracted style of wine, which highlights the diversity in the region.
Pierre Cotton Brouilly 2016 – Jamie painted a picture of Pierre Cotton’s cellar, a hotchpotch of very old barrels which looks kind of terrible, yet hides one of the region’s rising talents. Cotton’s Regnié performed very well at the main tasting, and the samples others tasted from here appeared very good judging by the reaction of the room. It was just that, sadly, the sample I tasted from was diagnosed as slightly faulty (not just by me but by several of those around me). But I am excited by Pierre Cotton’s project and I will not let one possibly not quite perfect bottle stop me trying more. Kiffe My Wines imports Cotton. See Part 2 for his Regnié.
David Large Côte de Brouilly “Heartbreaker” 2017 – Like Pierre Cotton, David Large has his labels well sorted. You can’t beat a bit of nostalgia for the cassette tape! David’s vines on the Mont de Brouilly are on Piedmont soils. I was informed that these are in fact “diorite”, with which I’m more familiar. Diorite is a soil type apparently not “volcanic” (as I had thought) but formed from volcanic activity, and the “mont” is not, as I had wrongly assumed for decades, an extinct volcano.
Yields are very low and the wines undergo a semi-carbonic maceration in concrete tanks for 14 days, after which the must is pressed, and finishes fermentation in fibreglass vats. Sulphur is added, but just 2g/litre. The wine is focused and fresh with very nice fruit, and I’m not sure why this guy is still looking for representation in the UK?
Domaine Anita Chénas “Cuvée P’tit Co Les Bureaux” 2017 – Anita Kuhnel is yet another very new Beaujolais vigneronne, starting out in 2015. Vinification here is uncomplicated, with semi-carbonic maceration over ten days, followed by eight month’s ageing in cement tanks. This cuvée is very purple in colour with carbonic fruit character on the nez. It tastes fruity and easy going with less texture than most of the wines here, but it is none the worse for that. You would only pay €6 ex-cellars for this, and Anita is currently looking for UK distribution. Possibly worth popping in here if you are in the region.
Yohan Lardy Moulin-à-Vent 2016 – This wine comes from southerly exposed vines in a lieu-dit called Les Michelons. This is a classic example of why we should see more vineyard names on labels. Here, Lardy and his group of likeminded growers possess 85-year-old bush vines (gobelet pruned), whose grapes undergo a low temperature carbonic maceration followed by ten months in wood of various sizes. No sulphur is added.
The result is very much a natural wine, but the old vines really give depth to the very clean fruit. Really good. I need to pay more attention to Monsieur Lardy.
This is a mere snapshot of the new and younger names in Beaujolais. I could add a good many more, not least my own personal favourite Julie Balagny (whose wines may be a little too lively for the more traditional drinker). They show, I hope, a dynamic and vibrant region well on the way back to full health after years in the commercial doldrums. I hope that Beaujolais continues to grow its success. If it takes the lack of affordability in nearby regions (Burgundy, Rhône) to make people focus on Beaujolais once more, so be it. Don’t forget, his was once a region held in high esteem for just the kind of wines we are returning to again today.
Jamie Goode’s Masterclass went a long way to reminding us of what we are missing if we don’t encourage people to drink The New Beaujolais. Yet as the main tasting event proved, there are wines of no less interest from more traditional sources too, also a reminder of the breadth of diversity in the region, which can only be another strength.