Back For More Beaujolais
BY NEAL MARTIN | AUGUST 26, 2021
My first foray into Beaujolais was not writing about it, but shipping it from one side of the world to the other. Mea culpa: I played my part in the not-so-carbon-neutral tradition of freighting jumbo jets full of Beaujolais Nouveau to Japan every third Thursday in November. Fortunately, I was never asked to dive into a swimming pool foaming with Gamay. I just had to get it there on the dot.
Back then, Beaujolais Nouveau defined the region. But there was another side to Beaujolais, inspired by the work of Jules Chauvet, which gestated a counter-movement of terroir-driven, low-intervention and sulfur-free wines, often made according to organic or biodynamic principles. Beaujolais was ahead of the game as these tenets spread around the world. To this day, the region remains home to both high-volume, commercially minded producers and tiny artisan winemakers.
During my six weeks in France this June, I spent three days in Beaujolais to assist my colleague Josh Raynolds, who was unable to travel during lockdown. He sent me a list of producers likely to be absent from his report, and I did my best to fill in the gaps. The organizational body InterBeaujolais did a sterling job of arranging a professional tasting in Villefranche-sur-Saône, and then afternoons were spent visiting growers. So, readers should treat this as a supplementary report aimed at providing the widest coverage possible.
I must admit that initially I was tentative about adding to an already intense workload. Did I want to take on more? I was still decompressing from three weeks of tasting in Bordeaux, not to mention all the driving. But you can guess what happened!
Looking south from the hills near Morgon.
As soon as I set eyes on its verdant rolling hills and began conversing with winemakers, as soon as I delved into the local cuisine and drank the wines, I fell head over heels in love with Beaujolais, like an old flame walking back into my life. There is a heart-warming sense of simplicity here that is becoming a rare commodity. Whereas the Côte d’Or fights to retain its spirit as corporations buy the choicest cuts of vineyard and its wines become unaffordable to its loyal followers, Beaujolais finds itself unburdened with inheritance or tax issues, nor does it witness generations of family ownership snuffed out by the cursory wave of a checkbook. Its wines uphold their raison d’être of being drunk and savored, not misappropriated as investment vehicles. That might change as the standard of Beaujolais achieves new heights, but today the region offers more and more outstanding wines at a level of affordability that is winning fans, consumers, sommeliers and merchants alike. Sure, there is a hipster element to Beaujolais that occasionally seems to take prominence over the cardinal rule that wine must be fault-free and delicious irrespective of philosophy. Even though, given the brevity of my trip, I could only take a snapshot, it was patently clear that Beaujolais remains a dynamic region with much to offer.
I am going to broach my findings by appellation.
I have found that this category has come on by leaps and bounds since I started covering Beaujolais a number of years ago. Whereas these used to be just entry-level cuvées, nowadays many winemakers understand that Beaujolais-Villages is their ambassador, the entry point for many consumers. There are several wines here that impressed: the 2019 Beaujolais-Village Blanc En Verchères from Domaine Longère, the 2020 from Domaine des Jeunes Pousses (more on them later), one of several sulfur-free examples from Domaine des Nugues, and a lovely 2020 Crêt d’Oeillat from Domaine Striffling from 80-year-old vines. Also check out the sous-bois-tinged 2020 offering from Domaine de la Bêche and the 2020 “Vinif à Papa” from Domaine de la Madone, courtesy of Arnaud Despres.
Occasionally, the warmth of the growing seasons dominates the wine, and there were examples that lacked complexity and came across a little cloying. However, overall, this was a pertinent reminder of how Beaujolais-Villages in the hands of a skilled vigneron can offer so much drinking pleasure.
Coming back to Domaine des Jeunes Pousses, I was unfamiliar with the name until I encountered two wines at the InterBeaujolais tasting. I was impressed by both. This project was set up by Thibault Liger-Belair, who already makes excellent Moulin-à-Vent, and the clue is in the name: “Jeunes Pousses” translates as “young shoots.” It is a wine-funding project that allows young winemakers to obtain first-hand experience of organically/biodynamically farming 5.2 hectares of vines in Beaujolais-Villages and Chénas over a three-year period, after which they hand over to the next budding vignerons. These 2020s were crafted by Angela Quiblier and Hugo Foizel. Judging by the quality of this pair, they are names to look out for in the future. Investors in Domaine des Jeunes Pousses receive wines in compensation. You can find more details at winefunding.com. I would like to see more of this initiative, since it counterbalances the trend of leasing out vineyards to famous names.
This was the first village appellation that I tackled, and it started disappointingly with wines that failed to achieve full phenolic ripeness. Fortunately, three examples from Château de Javernand and Domaine de la Grosse Pierre showed how well a Chiroubles can perform. I am just not sure about Javernand naming of their new cuvée.
Sonja Geoffray surrounded by the old oak foudres.
The flights from Régnié were added to my tastings and highlighted a new name for this writer: Philippe Viet. Viet’s wines have not been reviewed by Vinous before. He worked in IT in Paris and London before falling in love with Beaujolais, working with Domaine Paul Janin in Moulin-à-Vent. He now farms 2.5 hectares in Régnié-Durette in Haute-Ronze, as well as 0.60 hectares in Fleurie and another parcel of 1.20 hectares in Corcelles from 2020. From day one Viet banned chemical usage, and he’s working toward organic certification, using whole bunch fermentations, manual de-vatting and gentle pressing, and aging his Régnié wines in egg-shaped tanks. Viet’s wines immediately stood out for their vivacity and purity, not to mention the artistry on the label. Philippe Viet is a name to look out for.
Brouilly/Côtes de Brouilly
I have a lot of respect for these appellations, particularly the latter. It was a pleasure to make a return visit to one of its finest exponents, Château Thivin, where I tasted the latest releases as well as components for the forthcoming 2020 vintage and a couple of mature bottles cleaved away for my recent Mature Burgundy article. Co-proprietor Sonja Geoffray greeted me at this quaint, picturesque winery perched on the Côtes de Brouilly, since Claude Edouard was busy out in the vines after a turbulent period of inclement weather. She told me that they were not too hard hit by frost in 2021, as they have fruit on the second shoots, although they had lost a little to hail that week in June.
“We started the 2020 picking on 24 August for the Beaujolais Nouveau and Rosé, then the heart of the picking was 28from August,” Geoffray continued. “The grapes ripened quickly and we were scared about the rising sugar levels, but it was important to keep the good ripeness and the anthocyanins. As the 2020s were fermenting, the perfume in the winery was amazing. I never smelled anything like that. They quickly went through alcoholic fermentation but the malolactics are slow and some cuvées are still going through them. We don’t want to force it. In 2019, I think the wines became a bit blocked in terms of maturity. The wines are quite Burgundy-style after the more opulent 2018s.”
The 2019s from Château Thivin are from the top drawer. I have a personal preference for the Côte de Brouilly La Chapelle, which comes from the top of the hill, over the Cuvée Zaccharie, which tends to show a little more wood that I find slightly masks the terroir. That said, both will age supremely well. One fascinating wine that I tasted is the 2018 Utopia, from an experimental parcel. Here, Sonja Geoffray has planted varieties resistant to fungal infection: a blend of Prior, Chamboucin and Sauvignon Gris. To be honest, it did not rock my boat, but hey, you don’t know until you try these things.
Elsewhere in the appellation, do check out the Monternière from Nicolas Bordeau, which was elegant and sported a lovely saline finish. I also found a lot to admire in Paul Janin’s “Terroir d’Odenas” in Brouilly.
Paul-Henri Thillardon in the vines located just behind his winery in Chessignol.
During my short stay in the region, I visited one of its leading winemakers, Paul-Henri Thillardon, at his winery in the village of Chessignol. “I cropped at 38hl/ha in 2018,” he explained as we toured the vines between showers. “It was a generous vintage as we had good concentration. But it was difficult to vinify due to a slow fermentation that didn’t finish until winter. I did a little bâtonnage to complete it. I decided to bottle early with 10mg/L of total SO2 in the bottle. The 2019 season was warm and dry. I began harvesting on 18 August but the wines do not reflect the warmth. Despite the lack of rain, the wines didn’t really suffer. I prefer 2019 to 2018 as it is more juicy.” Thillardon’s wines are beautifully balanced and I concur that the 2019s have more complexity and terroir expression compared to the 2018s. That said, his 2018 Chénas Chassignol, from vines located behind his winery, is an absolute peach, while his 2019 Chénas “Vibrations” from granite soils just edged out the Les Blémonts and “Coup Double.” Readers will also find notes for his Vin de Table, Le Sud du Nord, and a very commendable 2020 Petnat made from grapes that didn’t quite reach ripeness.
This was a mixed bag. The 2019 Clos de l’Amandier from Grégoire Hoppenot showed great promise with its mellow and satisfying bouquet, while the 2018 Fleurie from Domaine des Nugues was denser and opulent, yet retained harmony and precision.
The appellation of Saint-Amour was a hit or miss, several wines seeming to have been picked before phenolic maturity had been reached, causing some underlying greenness under their sweet veneers.
Just a small number of wines from Juliénas turned up at my tastings at InterBeaujolais, though I was particularly struck by the 2019 Juliénas “Tradition” from Domaine du Clos du Fief. The 2018 Les Fouillouses from Domaine Romanesca also overcame the warmth of that summer to produce a wine that was slightly over-extracted but offered plenty of joie-de-vivre.
Richard Rottiers at his winery. His daughter’s wonderful piano playing was wafting across the courtyard.
One of the strongest appellations in Beaujolais, Moulin-à-Vent bestowed a cluster of excellent wines, such as the sensual 2019 Les Vignes du Trembley from Paul Janin and the Champ de Cour from Domaine Romanesca. The Vieilles Vignes de 1903 from Yohan Lardy was fleshy and nubile, full of tension toward the finish. Some of the best wines will deserve two or three years’ bottle age, so hopefully consumers will resist the temptation to crack these open prematurely, before they show what they can do.
I popped in to see Richard Rottiers at his winery in Romaneche-Thorins. Rottiers is one of Beaujolais’s effortlessly “cool” winemakers, a man with a laid-back air that disguises his conscientious ethos. Since starting in 2007, he has expanded his holdings to five hectares of vines around Moulin-à-Vent, converting them to organic in 2012 (certified in 2015). He practices a traditional approach to winemaking: gentle extraction using remontage and délestage, and a maximum of 12 months of barrel aging. I have rated his wines highly in the past, though I felt a couple of cuvées came across slightly candied. His Côte de Brouilly showed a little heat on the finish that was highlighted by an excellent Moulin-à-Vent Montperay and “Dernier Souffle,” so called due to its site, adjacent to the cemetery. Both the Les Thorins and the Champ de Cour, the latter from a 0.80-hectare parcel of old vines, were taken from barrel, and the longer élevage gives them a little more weight and density. They should both be well worth seeking out once bottled.
Jean-Marc Burgaud, among the best winemakers not just in Morgon, but in Beaujolais.
The strong Morgon appellation at my InterBeaujolais tasting served up some really superb wines: the floral 2018 Morgon Charmes from Olivière & Alexis Depardon and a showy yet controlled 2019 Morgon Corcelette from Grégoire Hoppenot and Domaine Striffling. Where Morgon fell short was in terms of the bunches being picked too late, resulting in some overripe characteristics, more evident in the 2018s that I tasted than in the 2019s.
Returning to Beaujolais, I had to call in at one of the region’s best winemakers, Jean-Marc Burgaud. I have adored Burgaud’s wines since my first foray into Morgon. If anything, Burgaud is fine-tuning his craft, as evidenced by the fabulous showing of his 2020s. “We had 25mm of rain in Lantignié but nothing in Morgon,” he told me as we settled down for a lengthy tasting in his barrel cellar. “That gave me very good maturity in difficult soils. The Beaujolais Village has just 12.8° alcohol with perfect skins. Sulfur was only used after the malolactic in order to have 15-20mg/L of free SO2 and 50-60mg total SO2.”
I would serve one of Burgaud’s Morgon wines to anyone unconvinced that Beaujolais can make world-class wine. He just has that “touch.” Consistency runs through his range, although his Morgon Côte du Py is blessed with je ne sais quoi and, as proven by my recent “Mature Burgundy” piece, inbuilt longevity. Burgaud told me that one of his importers tried to persuade him to bottle his parcels separately, but I agree with him: the blend is greater than the sum of its parts. However, he does make a special cuvée under the title of “James” from a small parcel close to the cross at the summit that is only produced in the finest growing seasons. His mineral-driven 2019 shimmered with nascent energy and should age well over the next couple of decades. The good news is that Burgaud has just purchased another hectare in La Coucelette. I cannot wait to see what he can conjure from this propitious vineyard.
Anthony Thévenet, among vines in Morgon up to 150 years old.
I also visited Domaine Anthony Thévenet, which took a couple of phone calls to locate, as the winery is tucked away discreetly in Villié-Morgon. Thévenet is a winemaker that Josh Raynolds has covered on Vinous, but this represented my first introduction. I completely understand why Josh was so enthused by Thévenet – these wines quietly blew me away. Thévenet, who earned his chops at Georges Descombes and Jean Foillard, established his own domaine in 2013 upon inheriting three hectares of vines from his grandfather. He vinifies using carbonic maceration, and ages his wine in demi-muids and used barrels for around seven months with no SO2 until bottling, meaning that wines have less than 15mg/L of sulfites.
Before the tasting, we drove up to inspect the vines that Thévenet vinifies separately for his Morgon Cuvée Centenaire. I was astonished when he told me that these gnarly vines are around 150 years old – surely some of the most venerable in France, and they are still going strong! The 2017 Morgon Cuvée Centenaire was pixelated, crystalline and complex. As I state in my review, it will give a Grand Cru from the Côte d’Or a run for its money. Just 1,200 bottles are produced, but try to grab one. Eventually vines do become unproductive, which means that Thévenet had to uproot the 90-year-old vines that went into his Cuvée Julia with plans to replant them next year. Readers should also look out for his wonderful 2017 Chénas Vieilles Vignes, which overcame hail damage to produce a very cohesive and harmonious wine that should age extremely well in bottle.
At the InterBeaujolais tasting, the small number of wines from Chénas were good, though nothing really put its head over the parapet apart from Pascal Aufranc’s 2020 “Naturellement,” which deserves some bottle age.
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