Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Let's go back to Beaujolais for a minute....


What Beaujolais represents for most consumers? A young, simple, fairly nondescript red fruity is somewhat true for a tiny, negligible part of the Beaujolais production...However, it is wrong to think this way about Beaujolais wines, because they have some much more to offer.

You see, the "mediaticommercial" (overly-marketed by the press) event of the arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau, each year on the third Thursday of November, make this just fermented wine a symbol and the flagship of Beaujolais. However, the fame of Beaujolais Nouveau is declining a bit more each year for lack of quality and consistency, somewhat dragging the Beaujolais name in the mud. To stop it, we have to inform people that there is more to Beaujolais, its wines, its people, its villages and its region, than Beaujolais Nouveau. We have to revamp the stained image of Beaujolais.

First thing first, whether you trust me or not, and I can already hear you say:"I usually stay away from Beaujolais!" or "I don't like these fruity wines" or "Beaujolais never really please me...", you have to know and be aware that Beaujolais wines, like in the rest of Burgundy (yes, yes, Beaujolais is the southern part of Burgundy, monsieur!!!), can also be rich, complex and authentic wines of character and personality, with "Crus" (designated by the village name of origin on the label) able to match and rivalize in depth, length and age potential, many wines from other reputated French appellations. Now that I triggered your interest about the subject, you can't ignore Beaujolais anymore. Let's develop a bit.

The appellation lies on the left bank of the Saône River, between Mâcon and Lyon, in the Rhône Department (can be translated as a County). And here again, you say: "The "Rhône department" but I thought we were talking about Beaujolais?" I know, I know, it is confusing for most people even for the French. It became so confusing that it is only lately, over the last few years, that some producers, who used to write on their labels the name of the town (where their winery is located) followed by the name of the department "Rhône", stopped doing it, especially for the American market (and export in general), to stop and definitely avoid the consumers' confusion. So, get it, Beaujolais is a wine region, part of Burgundy, within the Rhône Department....

To even create more confusion, I will even say that only Beaujolais wines are produced in the "Rhône department", only Beaujolais and no Rhône wines you get it? Go figure...this is the French way: "Why make it simple, when you can make it more complicated?" In fact, Rhône wines are only produced in the Rhône Valley commencing about 20 miles south of Lyon, from vineyards planted all along the banks of the Rhône River, North to South, from Vienne to Valence (see my previous post on Côtes du Rhône). So Beaujolais are produced in the Rhône Department (county) and the Rhône wines are produced in most of the other Departments following the Rhône River valley, except the Rhône Department itself...(any question?...)

Back to our Beaujolais and its various type of soils.

In the northern part of the appellation (south of Macôn, in a triangle between the town of "La Chapelle de Guinchay", "Beaujeu" and "Belleville"), the ancient vineyards, some dated from the 10th century, are planted on rolling hills of granitic-schist based soils. It is the land of the "Cru(s)" (Brouilly, Morgon, etc...) where the wines have more structure and complexity.

The southern part, is flatter with richer, sandstone and clay based soils with some limestone patches. The Gamay grape ripens differently in both regions-producing more structured, complex wines in the north and lighter, fruitier wines in the south.

The climate here is quite remarkable, the whole region, protected from the west wind by the Massif Central, has a temperate continental character influenced by the Mediterranean Sea and the geological corridor of the Rhône and the Saône River. Beaujolais is a different world regrouping some of the best characteristic of both neighboring wine regions, the south of Burgundy and the nothern Rhône Valley, under the same roof.

Beaujolais produces many different wines in three colors: Red and Rosé made solely with Gamay, and White made predominantly with Chardonnay and a touch of Aligoté. The whites and Rosés only represent a small amount of the entire production, Beaujolais are mainly red.

Gamay is the red grape variety of predilection for Beaujolais. Thin skin and fruity, this grape offers its best expression when grown in the Northern part of the appellation, where the Crus come from.

Beaujolais are elaborated under a very specific vinification method, called carbonic Maceration, which consists to macerate the whole berry usually for a short period of time: 3 to 6 days, 7 max for Beaujolais Nouveau and Beaujolais AOC, sometimes longer for higher level wines like the "Crus". The fermentation occurs in the berry itself, at an intracellular level, which helps to develop fruit and aromas.

Usually fermented and aged (resting) for a few more months in stainless steel tanks, Beaujolais may also be aged in used large oak barrel to add dimension and texture. Some producers may also use newer and smaller barrels to add flavors and volume, but it is a practice which is still rarely or partially used. Beaujolais producers are mainly traditional and the quality of the fruit is the main concern.

Beaujolais AOC and Beaujolais Superieur AOC: usually fruity, simple and balanced, the Superieur may have a bit more depth, but usually these wines remain pretty fresh, young and have poor ageing potential. To drink shortly after bottling.

Beaujolais Villages AOC: slightly richer (don't get me wrong, we are still talking about Beaujolais....) and more structured, they are usually more representatives of the particular terroir they come from.

Cru du Beaujolais AOC: the highest rank in Beaujolais classification, the Cru Beaujolais represent the best of what Beaujolais can offer. The Cru(s) are named after the 10 Cru villages (or areas of origin) and do not necessarily mention the name "Beaujolais" on the label. Compared to other regions, like Burgundy, a Beaujolais Cru isn't a single vineyard or a parcel, it represents a much larger area of production with many vineyards surrounding a specific village (i.e: Morgon).

The 10 Cru(s) are:

  • Fleurie: Usually light-medium bodied, fruity and floral yet harmonious and easy going. Check out a few of my favorite producers (in the US market): Chatelard, Clos de la Roilette, Henri Fessy and Domaine des Grands Fers.
  • Morgon: Usually a bit earthier and robust, medium-full bodied and more fruit forward than Fleurie. Some of my favorite producers include: Chateau de Pizay, Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton and Potel-Aviron.
  • Moulin-à-Vent: Usually the most structured and age worthy of the Cru, balanced with very good fruit expression, medium to full bodied. Some of my favorite producers: Henry Fessy, Domaine Diochon, Pascal Granger and Vissoux.
  • Juliénas: Usually quite rich and fruity with a spicy touch, medium to full. Interesting producers to check out: Pascal Granger, Michel Tete, J.J. Vincent and Potel-Aviron.
  • Chénas: next to Moulin a vent, similar yet a bit lighter and more floral, light to medium bodied. Interesting producers to check out: Hubert Lapierre, Domaine de Côtes Rémont and Jacky Janodet.
  • Saint-Amour: Medium to full, a bit earthy, with spicy and floral touch. Not so exported in the US market. Interesting producers to check out: Jean-François Trichard, Pascal Berthier and Domaine Cheveau.
  • Brouilly: the largest cru of Beaujolais, light to full bodied wines depending on the producer, mostly recognized for their easy going attitude, fruity character and wild red and dark berry aromas. Interesting producers to check out: : Henry Fessy, Chateau de la Chaize, Chateau des Tours and Chateau de la Terrierre.
  • Regnié: Full bodied, age worthy and forward with usually riper fruit characteristic. Interesting producers to check out: Henry Fessy, Christian Ducroux, Charly Thevenet.
  • Chiroubles: light to medium from high vineyards, mineral, delicate and perfumy, floral and red berry aromas. Interesting producers to check out: Coquelet, Trenel, Cheysson.
  • Côtes de Brouilly: medium to full, concentrated, usually less earthy than Brouilly, mineral and fruit forward yet not too heavy. Interesting producers to check out: Chanrion, Chateau Thivin (Claude Geoffrey), Jean-Paul Brun "Terres Dorees".
There are quite a few more very interesting producers to discover in Beaujolais, some imported in small quantity to the US market and most of the other producers sold only on the local French market and in Europ.

Among some of my long time favorites in the US market, I would like to say that Jean-Paul Brun "Terres Dorées", Pascal Granger, and Chatelard remain some of my personnal Beaujolais go-to wines for quality and value.

As you may have notice, I voluntarily avoided putting the name of Duboeuf, Louis Jadot and Drouhin. As the grand son of a winemaker myself, I will always try to support the small, artisan winemaker who strives all year long in his vineyards to craft and produce the best wines his terroir can give. As some of you may have understand by now, I do have nothing against branded name but I do have no real interest to promote them.

To finish this post on Beaujolais, I should also remind you that exquisite, supple, refreshing whites and rosés wines are also produced in Beaujolais. Many from all the above producers are worth trying and will suit any occasion.

As always, continue to enjoy sharing and drinking wine with family and friends, with or without food, in moderation of course. Wine often put back a smile on your face and animate the conversation. It is a good source of happiness and it is very healthy (in moderation of course).


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