Beaujolais: A wine for all seasons

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | april 2019

Usually my April column is devoted to picking the best Rosés for the summer, but after reviewing the available wines in local stores I've come to the conclusion that the “drink pink” craze has peaked. To begin with, Rosés are usually cleared out of store shelves after Labor Day through sales and discounts; that didn't happen last year. To me, lack of interest and overstocking of marginal wines that are more like Kool-Aid than wine caused this. I took stock of what was left on the shelves recently and found the likely dogs posing as Rosé, like a “40 Ounce Rosé” in one of those plastic bottles with a screw cap. I guess that one is only for folks that like malt liquor. Then there was one called “Soft Rosé” from the Oliver Winery (I think they once produced crappy wine for Bartles and Jaymes) in Bloomington, Indiana, probably designed for a delicate millennial “snowflake.” The Relax Rosé, which is packed in a pink bottle the same hue as a Pepto Bismol bottle, had lots of dust on it and is probably not selling well. Keeping with the color theme, White Girl Rosé offered reduced calories and probably like lite beer is tasteless. Then there was Black Ink and Dark Horse; what was wrong with pink? The oddest one that I'm still wondering about had a label with only the following printed on it: Protected Geographical Indication Drama (Greece), that's it, over and out “Klaatu barada nikto.”

So let's talk about why Beaujolais should be your drink of choice for summer sipping. To begin with Beaujolais is made with the Gamay grape. Gamay is a light, fragrant grape, used in plain Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages — delicious and supple wines that should be drunk young (within two years of the vintage date). The Cru Beaujolais are wines that can age. I have some 2015 Cru Beaujolais in my cellar that are going to taste great this year and next. The other thing that makes these wines a summer drink is the lower alcohol level and the ability to take a slight chill without getting astringent. Another reason to look for these wines is the fact that the last four years have been great ones for Beaujolais. 2014 through 2017 have had superior crops with the type of light quaffable wines that go well with just about anything off the grill. Another reason to try Beaujolais is cost. A decent Village-level Beaujolais can be had for about 10-15 bucks. Really great Cru Beaujolais can be found for around $20. When I say great I mean over-the-top quality to price ratio. The Moulin au Vent in this article was rated 93 by James Suckling and was $20 bucks at the Main Street Market in Egg Harbor.

One of the biggest reasons for drinking Beaujolais is the quality of the wines. Way back in the 1970s Beaujolais was a mess. The wines, or more appropriately “the product,” was shipped in barrels up the Seine on barges in barrels and unceremoniously dumped at restaurants and cafes in bottles on pallets. The wines were produced with one idea in mind: How do we get the wine to our customers as quickly as possible? The result was that grapes were picked way too early, before natural sugars had adequately formed. Then, to compensate for the lack of ripe grapes, bags of sugar were added to the fermentation, producing a mess of a wine known as “Nouveau Beaujolais.” It was horrible, hangover-producing, insipid crap and it nearly put the Beaujolais out of business. In fact, in 2001 several million gallons of Nouveau were destroyed after no buyers were found, one French wine critic referred to it as “vin de merde” or “wine of shit.”

Fortunately, there were a few iconoclasts in Beaujolais who saw the drop in demand for their wines as an indication that they were doing something wrong. The late Marcel Lapierre and Jean Foillard of the Morgon region were first to change the approach and worked to upgrade their vineyards and procedures to eliminate pesticides and farm organically. The near-death experience also led to eliminating chaptalizing or adding sugar to the fermenting grapes. In order to do this, the growers had to pay attention to the growth of the natural sugars in the grapes. Emphasis was changed from haste to market to quality and cleanliness. In short, Beaujolais is making world-class wine and selling it at competitive prices. Beaujolais has not gone unnoticed in California where some northern California wineries are trying to reproduce the success of the lowly Gamay grape of France.

Starting after the millennium, a new generation of winemakers started assuming the reigns of prominent Beaujolais producers. The wines I've selected are from these young people and have taken Beaujolais' reputation to new heights.

At Domaine Chignard, Cedric Chignard took over for his father, Michael, in 2007. The winery, which was founded in 1900 produces two cruBeaujolais: Juliènas and Fleurie. I selected the Fleurie for this article because I like the scents of iris, violet and rose which reinforces the name Fleurie, which means flower or bloom. The wine also has delicate aromas of strawberry and peach. The Gamay grapes for this wine are grown on granite soil and the vines are over 60 years old. The grapes are hand harvested and fermented whole cluster. The wine is fermented in stainless steel and aged in old oak barrels called foudres that hold up to a thousand liters. This is a small vineyard of about eight hectares or about 20 acres. I found this bottle in Chicago, but it is worth seeking out on winesearcher.com. Kermit Lynch also carries this wine on his website as well where he describes it as light and playful, perfect for a picnic lunch.

Quentin Harel took over the responsibility for his family estate in 2012. The vineyard which has been in the family since 1768 is in the town of Saint-Étienne-des-Oulliéres, just south of another cru, Brouilly. Harel produces the cru Beaujolais Morgon on just over three acres. His family has been farming the land organically since 1980 and achieved certification in 1998. The Morgon parcel consists of granite, manganese and schist, which give the wine a mineral hint. The vines are over 80 years old. The wine is made using whole cluster fermentation with five pump overs. This Morgon is aged for six months in 400-liter demi-muids. This is a powerful wine built to age as well as drink early. I would serve it with a grilled pork tenderloin or hanger steak.

The Georges Duboeuf Domaine de Rosiers Moulin au Vent is available locally at the Main Street Market in Egg Harbor for about $20. It is rated at 93 points by James Suckling. Duboeuf buys the grapes from Gérard Charvet owner of the Rosier Domaine (Rosier means Rosebush) Charvet took over his father's century-old estate in 1983. It is also organically farmed and repeats many of the aforementioned techniques to produce cru Beaujolais. This Moulin au Vent has a deep garnet color with aromas of black currant and roses. Thirty percent of the wine is aged in new oak which imparts a vanilla aspect. The oak aging gives the wine a Burgundian meatiness that will go well with coq au vin or grilled quail. I bought two cases of this and will save some for future drinking.

Château Thivin is the premier winery in the Cote de Brouilly. Cru Brouilly is my favorite Beaujolais and this estate is exceptional. It was built on the site of an ancient volcano which juts out over the Saône river valley. Thivin was purchased in 1877 by the Geoffrey and remains that family's property today. The family played a role in establishing the Brouilly appellation during the Great Depression. Richard Olney, the food writer who wrote “Provence, The Beautiful Cookbook” and edited the Time-Life series “The Good Cook”extolled the virtues of this winery. The vineyard is made up of decomposed pink granite and the 50-year-old+ vines are grown on the 48-degree slopes of that volcano. The vineyard has been farmed organically since 2008. The wines are aged in large oak foudres. The foudres are oak neutral and made with two-inch thick staves as opposed to demi-muids,which do add an oak character. The staves on demi-muidsare ¾-inch thick, which also allows more oxygen on the wine. Hamburgers or ribs on the grill would go well with this beautiful wine.

I'm writing this while the snow starts to melt from this record winter and as I write my mouth is watering from thoughts of these wines with my first outdoor meal. Please look for these wines, it is worth the search.

--banner image by Shunichi Kouroki / cc by 2.0

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