Nouveau? No!

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | feb. 2017

Noveau? No!: What's new in Beaujolais

For centuries wine in France (specifically Beaujolais) was shipped in barrels and sold from barrels because no one knew how to keep contents from partially empty containers from deteriorating. Each new vintage would be shipped off to market still seething its way through the final stages of fermentation. Most of these wines were pretty rough and intended for short-term consumption.

Growers were still shipping barrels of new (and probably fizzy) Beaujolais to restaurants in Lyons and Paris as recently as the 1930s. The barrels were set up on the bistros' zinc counters and, once tapped, run off into pitchers from which it was served. In Paris, there were bars known for the new Beaujolais that arrived each fall to much local fanfare. This wine with “beaded bubbles winking at the rim" brought to the shabbiest of these little holes-in-the-wall bistros visions of the distant countryside, celebration and the cultural tradition that survived into the 1980s of “Nouveau Beaujolais est arrive!"

There was nothing formal or official like the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) to control the quality, designate the area of production or the winemaking process. In many instances, un-ripe grapes were picked in order to get the wine to market quicker and then huge amounts of sugar were added to the fermentation vats to initiate the process that was euphemistically called “chaptalization." Eventually, however, bureaucracy stepped in to clean up the mess. In 1938, the practice of selling a Beaujolais freely outside of the new appellation laws was curtailed and wartime measures that controlled the release of all wines broke the tradition altogether. These restrictions instituted under the Nazi puppet Vichy Administration were not revoked until 1951 when the authorities fixed December 15 as the date that wines of the new vintage could be released. Growers immediately asked for exceptions to the rule and on November 9, 1951, permission was given for Beaujolais growers to release certain wines for sale en primeur, which meant one month earlier than December 15. You may think that this desire to get the wines to market early was more urgent than needed, but the wineries, just like any farm or business, depended on the cash flow from selling their products to feed themselves and pay their workers, as well as repairing equipment and investing in new equipment for the following year.

That was when Beaujolais Nouveau (or Beaujolais Primeur as some people call it) was first given official recognition. In 1985, the primeur release date of November 15 was changed to the third Thursday of November so that arrival of the new wine in far-flung places could be tied to a weekend of celebration all over the world. I still remember my first Nouveau celebration at Roc's Lounge in Charleston, Illinois, when I tasted the fresh wine that had off-putting banana flavors, stained your teeth and mouth purple and gave me a Gamay grape induced amnesiac hangover. The wines then showed up in liquor stores the next day and sat on the shelves until they were put in the discount bins. As young wine drinkers' palates became more refined they looked at other wine varieties and Beaujolais production dropped dramatically. No one in Beaujolais knew that they were headed for a near death experience. By the early 2000s, huge quantities of unsold wine, as much as three million gallons from a single harvest, was being sold off for distillation into industrial alcohol. In southern Beaujolais, whole properties were abandoned for lack of demand and Gamay grapes rotted on the vines for lack of buyers.

While production of Beaujolais had started a catastrophic fall, there were a few brave souls in Beaujolais that saw the train wreck coming and were concentrating their efforts in a different direction. But it is useful to understand the viticultural area of Beaujolais before detailing the efforts to save the brand. Beaujolais is comprised of 22,000 acres just north of Lyons. This area is just north of the Macon and Burgundy regions and is near the ancient Massif Central, a granite outcropping older than the Pyrenees and Alps. The decomposed granite has washed down into the soil and gives the different Cru Beaujolais their distinctive tastes. There are 10 Crus; Brouilly, Fleurie, Regniè, Juliènas, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Saint-Amour, Chenas and the rare Chiroubles. On the Cote de Brouilly, the vines are planted on splintered blue-black rock (reputed to be the hardest in France), mixed with pink granite, at Juliènas. In Morgon, there's schist between the upper vineyards and clay lower down. Moulin-`a-vent has deposits of manganese so heavy that they were mined commercially and the relative toughness is thought to be connected to this presence. Each cru has distinctive characteristics. One might be no more than a particular aroma. Brouilly, it is said, is grapey, while Fleurie smells of violets, Saint-Amour of peach and Chenas of spices.

Site (terroir) is vitally important in Beaujolais because the Gamay is such a low key varietal. Gamay wines express the character of the vineyard or it expresses nothing. Because of this, the yield of the grapes from each vine must be severely restricted and wine making as nonintrusive as possible. A few winemakers recognized this characteristic and realized that the trendy Beaujolais Nouveau movement was not going to last.

Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thèvent and Jean Foillard were vintners that were 30 years ahead of their time. When Marcel Lapierre took over the family Domaine from his father in 1973 he embarked on a path set by the winemaker, chemist, researcher and viticultural prophet Jules Chauvet who spoke out about “natural wine," that is wine that was made before the miracles of modern chemistry that produced pesticides, herbicides and other synthetic products. Marcel and his “gang of four" as Kermit Lynch referred to them, put their respective vineyards on the path to eliminating all chemicals in the vineyards and farming organically. They harvested late, completely avoiding “chaptalization." They instituted rigorous selection by culling out all but the healthiest grapes. Today these methods are used throughout Beaujolais and are considered revolutionary as well as traditional. Unfortunately, Marcel's last harvest was in 2010, but his family carries on his traditional practices. His son Mathieu and daughter Camille continue the work their father pioneered while now introducing biodynamic vineyard practices and ensuring that Marcel's legacy lives on.

With the last three vintages: 2013, 14 and 15, we are now seeing a renaissance of long dormant quality in an ancient region whose best wines once rivaled (in the 1800s) grand cru Burgundies in both price and esteem. The three wines I've selected represent that ideal. They are reviewed in order of their strength from light to hearty.

The Georges Duboeuf 2014 Moulin-`a-Vent “Flower Label" is 12.5 percent alcohol, is intense in color from deep garnet to dark ruby. It is suggestive of violets and cherries with moderate tannins, good length and velvety mouth feel. This wine will pair best with creamy cheeses like brie, roasted chicken or light pasta dishes. And do not forget to serve this up this coming summer with pasta salads or grilled chicken.

The Clos de la Roilette 2015 Fleurie is 13 percent alcohol. My first taste of this beautiful wine started with aromas of irises, violets, roses, then on the tongue black currant strawberry and peach. This is also distinctly smooth and elegant. Like a fist in a velvet glove, this wine will pair with heartier fare like grilled sausages, lamb chops, paella or pasta with tomato sauce.

The Marcel Lapierre 2015 Morgon is 13.5 percent alcohol, is harvested from 60-year-old vines and is the most robust of all the cru Beaujolais. A beautiful deep garnet is highlighted with hints of ruby at the edges as you twirl the glass. The fruits are darker with black cherry liqueur, plum and apricot. This is a broad-shouldered wine that pairs well with the same types of food that match well with Pinot Noir, such as beef stew, wild game such as rabbit, grouse or a roasted duck. This wine is also capable of some bottle age. Buy a case and lay it down in your cold basement and sample a bottle every year. You will be amazed at the changes.

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