The Beaujolais Craze
“The bottom line is that Beaujolais is struggling,” Fred Lockwood tells me. “Beaujolais Nouveau was a huge success, but the fad has largely passed, hastened by falling quality. During the Nouveau craze people became increasingly ignorant about the traditional Beaujolais wines. And with the world now awash in wine, a comeback seems hard to imagine. At least the name ‘Beaujolais’ is well known.”
Lockwood, along with his wife, Helen, own the Maison des Bulliats winery in the village of Régnié, the most recently designated (in 1988) Beaujolais Cru. He occupies a rather unique position in that he is a winery owner in France but was actually born in Ontario, Canada. He and his wife, both having retired from careers as university professors, purchased the property with its 7.75 hectares of vines in 2005.
Today, the Lockwoods are presented with the same dilemma facing many a Beaujolais producer: namely, how to get this famous wine back into the limelight. It’s going to be a tough go, as Lockwood freely acknowledges, but it’s not all doom and gloom. The 2009 harvest was one of the most glorious the region has seen (“the best since the last ice age,” Lockwood jokes) and 2010 is shaping up to be exceptional as well. A new wave of young, quality-minded winemakers is focusing on the region, and investment is starting to flow as well. With Nouveau madness largely expunged, eyes are now shifting to the top end Cru wines. Who knows, the stars and planets may be aligning in just such a way as to usher in a new Beaujolais renaissance.
more than nouveau
As many readers no doubt already know, the Beaujolais region occupies the southernmost part of the Burgundy region proper. However, its geographical connection is one of the few things it shares with Burgundy. While there is a small amount of Chardonnay and Aligoté planted in Beaujolais (used for the increasingly seen Beaujolais Blanc and Beaujolais-Villages Blanc), this is the land of the black Gamay grape, which yields purple-tinged red wines (and a small amount of rosé). And where the Pinot Noir-based Burgundies to the north are serious, expensive and often in need of a primer to comprehend (see “Burgundy From The Beginning,” Tidings December 2010/January 2011), the wines of Beaujolais are easy to enjoy, easy to pay for and relatively easy to understand.
Basic Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) Beaujolais can be made throughout the region.
AOC Beaujolais-Villages represent a step up in character and are made in and around 39 villages in the northern part of the area.
The top tier is occupied by the 10 AOC Beaujolais Crus, which, from north to south, are Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly (the latter two being vineyard areas rather than actual villages). All these wines are referred to as vins de garde to distinguish them from …
… Beaujolais Nouveau. The fast-fermented, pink/purple stuff released to the world on the third Thursday in November is more significant as a particularly successful marketing initiative than as a serious wine. The original idea was to vinify a simple, fruity wine to celebrate the harvest and quench the thirst of the pickers.
By the 1970s, the Nouveau release had morphed into a national craze that went global through the 1980s and into the 2000s. Asia, in particular, went loony for the stuff. Japan imported almost 13 million bottles in 2004. Demand began to outstrip supply, and often when this happens quality takes it on the chin, and it did too with Beaujolais. The thirst for Nouveau began to quickly subside (Japan imported a paltry five million bottles of 2009 Nouveau, despite the quality of the vintage). Growers began to panic, and the region’s vineyard area has shrunk by close to 20 per cent since 2005 when the French government subsidized uprooting programs.
back to the future
Getting the region back on course with quality wines presents a major challenge. But there are many who feel that the time is right for a comeback, including Mark Allen, Area Export Manager for Maison Louis Latour. A venerable name in Burgundy, Maison Louis Latour purchased the long-standing Beaujolais house of Henry Fessy, a family-operated, Brouilly-based establishment that has specialized in the production of Beaujolais Cru wines since 1888. Since the purchase, the vineyard area of Henry Fessy has, in fact, increased from 11 hectares to 70.
“Over the years there have been many efforts to restructure the vineyards,” Allen explains, “and, sadly, many wine growers have thrown in the towel. Production is no longer the same; it is now only 800,000 hectolitres compared to the 1.4 million hectolitres in the past. However, we believe that this beautiful region has emerged from the ‘Nouveau days’ and is committed to restoring its noble origins by promoting the excellence and premium quality of the Cru Beaujolais.”
While vignerons hope for a change of heart and mind among consumers (and among themselves), production techniques at the wineries have also been changing. Part of what gives Beaujolais wines their juicy, in-your-face fruitiness is the fermentation process known as carbonic maceration. The process (Coles Notes version for brevity) involves allowing for a pre-crush, intercellular fermentation of the grapes under a blanket of carbon dioxide. The resulting wines are vivid in colour, low in tannins and very fruit-forward. “Carbonic maceration seems to have diminished somewhat, although it is still seen by many consumers as the Beaujolais method,” Allen admits, adding that Henry Fessy has remained true to this method which Allen claims results in the best overall balance. So what has been replacing carbonic maceration?
“Well, recent years have seen a rush towards ‘la thermo-vinification,’ formally known as ‘la maceration préfermentation à chaud’ or MPC,” Lockwood reveals. “In MPC you superheat the grapes to about 60-plus degrees Celsius followed by a quick cooling and an early pressing. The idea is, as we understand it, to extract the fruit and colour by the ‘excessing’ heating, and capture it by the ‘quenching.’” Sounds intriguing, but what are the results like? “Helen and I think MPC is a bad idea,” Lockwood affirms. “Generally we don’t appreciate this style, which for us has a further downside of a banana taste, hardly something native to the Beaujolais region.”
However, the technique does practically guarantee a certain consistency, which is something the big négociants (wholesalers) are looking for. In Lockwood’s eyes, this sort of “security” leads to a trade-off in character. “MPC may be suited to the modern world, where McDonalds hamburgers must be consistent worldwide — a guaranteed taste which you are used to, no surprises, but no thrill of adventure. For us, the last is what wine is all about. Having said all this, in the past couple of years we have sensed a return to the traditional vinification (which we do) and the goût du terroir-selling argument prevalent among great wines. This is what we believe in.”
towards the light
If production methods have been in something of a state of flux, it seems logical to wonder if there have been changes in the style of Beaujolais wines. I asked Lockwood if Beaujolais was taking on a more “serious” style and he felt, quite rightly given his perspective, that the question itself put a negative spin on Beaujolais. “Yes, [the wines] are ‘light and fruity’ — the grape variety is Gamay.” Indeed, the majestic Rieslings of the Mosel are also “light and fruity,” but no wine aficionado would claim they aren’t “serious.” But my (perhaps unconscious) bias against “light and fruity” may point to a real bias shared among both consumers and critics. Look at recent red wine trends. Big, hot and liberally oaked Aussie Shiraz and Argentine Malbec was/is (respectively) hot stuff. And influential critics seem to be all over reds that are “massively structured, powerfully extracted and ultra-saturated” with “gobs” of this and “lashings” of that. It would appear that “charming and elegant” doesn’t carry much weight (sorry) in the land of “big and brawny.”
However, Beaujolais’ charm and elegance may well be the slingshot that takes down Goliath. There’s a growing trend worldwide for a return to wines that harmonize with food, that don’t leave your head spinning after two glasses and that seduce the palate rather than blow the mind. A wine that complements rather than commands. Add to this the ever-toughening drinking and driving laws coupled with a greater concern for health, and Beaujolais’ “deficiencies” (and I use that word with the utmost caution) now become selling points. And when you consider the stratospheric prices of some other fine French wines, the price point for even the best Beaujolais is peanuts.
What goes around comes around, or so the saying goes. So keep your eyes on Beaujolais. I hear she’s coming ’round again.