Producers of France’s forgotten wine are targeting middle-aged women in their new marketing. The forever-young BEVERLEY BLANNING MW wonders if they’re not selling themselves a bit short

Producers of France’s forgotten wine are targeting middle-aged women

in their new marketing. The forever-young BEVERLEY BLANNING MW

wonders if they’re not selling themselves a bit short.

Can you remember the last time you drank Beaujolais? It’s something of a forgotten wine; we all know it, but it doesn’t occur to us to buy it any more. The winemakers of Beaujolais, perhaps sensing that the time is ripe for a revival of interest in their wines, decided to seek out the next generation of Beaujolais drinkers. Their conclusion? That the people most likely to enjoy their wines are women over 40 – and what better place to find them than the Women’s Institute (where you don’t have to be over 40, but I think it helps)? Their efforts to introduce the wines of Beaujolais to this group appear to have been very successful; the women of the WI have embraced Beaujolais wine, running tasting courses and even serving Beaujolais at their AGM.

According to researchers, Beaujolais red wines appeal to people who usually

prefer white wines and lighter reds. The two members of the WI who have become ‘Beaujolais ambassadors’, and who I met recently in the region, Jane and Yvonne, fitted this mould. ‘I like Beaujolais because it’s lighter than the heavy reds my husband buys from Chile, Argentina and South Africa,’ said Yvonne. Dominique Piron, owner of the eponymous domaine, says: ‘Beaujolais is the intermediate wine between white and red. And it’s easy to drink. People want wines to drink, not to think about.’

But what if you’re one of those people who does want to think about their wine?

Is there more to Beaujolais than just a gluggable substitute for white wine? Beaujolais has many of the credentials of a fine-wine region: complex soils, ancient vines and traditional, handmade wines. The vines – nothing but Gamay grapes for the reds, which account for 99% of the wines – are more densely planted here than anywhere in France, and probably the world. This means that almost everything in the vineyard must be done by hand. Only by planting the vines close together, to create competition between the plants, can producers achieve sufficient concentration and flavour in the grapes to make wines of any merit. The traditional style of winemaking, still widespread today, involves putting whole bunches of uncrushed grapes into the vat.Here, they undergo an unusual kind of fermentation known as semi-carbonic maceration. The whole, uncrushed berries begin an internal fermentation, while those that have been crushed by the weight of the other grapes ferment in the usual way, through the action of yeast on the sweet grape juice.

Ageing gracefully

Although this type of winemaking flavours the production of light, fruity wines for consumption within five years of bottling, most of the people you meet in Beaujolais are quick to point out that their wines can age well. As if to prove

their point, some producers are using oak ageing to create wines that positively

demand time in bottle. Marie-Elodie Zhigera, who has recently taken up her grandmother’s vines in Fleurie, became convinced of the merits of making wines to age after tasting wines dating to 1911, with local resident and well-known critic Michel Bettane. Her two wines so far (from the 2006 and 2007 vintages) have structure and impressive depth of flavour, although they are quite marked by oak at present.

Another advocate for oak and long ageing is Guillaume de Castelnau, of Château des Jacques, owned by Burgundy producer Louis Jadot. He gives their top Beaujolais wines the full Burgundian treatment. After a long period of fermentation and maceration to extract as much as possible from the grapes, the wines from five individual sites in the Moulin-à-Vent cru are aged in new oak. A tasting of these five wines from the 2000 vintage shows that the wines are still fresh, and the terroir quite distinct from one parcel to another. De Castelnau says: ‘Gamay ages well because it always keeps its supple tannins. Some say Gamay ages better than Pinot Noir; Pinot can become dry over time.’

For anyone who has tasted an older Beaujolais, there’s no question that they can age. Gamay retains its fresh acidity, and as de Castelnau says, its tannins remain soft. Whether it should be aged is another matter. It appears that the highest compliment you can pay an old Beaujolais is to liken it to something else: Pinot Noir. ‘Ahhh, ça Pinote,’ is the usual, smiling comment from the winemaker who puts his nose into a glass of 10 yearold Beaujolais. This desire to compare

Gamay with the more highly regarded Pinot Noir further north probably stems from the fact that Beaujolais is, for the purposes of wine classification, a part of

Burgundy. But while the aromas of old Gamay are uncannily Pinot-like (and undeniably enticing), I have yet to tastean aged Beaujolais that could match the appeal or completeness of a decent aged Pinot Noir from Burgundy. After the initial seduction of the aroma, the Beaujolais palate invariably fails to deliver

either substance or complexity – and the vibrant fruit of its youth is gone.

Instead, it remains ‘correct’, a pleasant curiosity, a ‘who would have thought it would last so well?’ sort of wine. Claude Geoffray of Château Thivin sums it up when he says: ‘The wines last, but don’t get better.’

Identity crisis

Château des Jacques’ use of new oak is uncommon in Beaujolais, because oak so

easily overwhelms the sensitive Gamay grape. More usually, growers use barrels that are several years old, or much larger oak vats, to minimise the impact of the barrel on the wine. ‘I use oak purely to let the wine breathe,’ explains Jean Foillard, a winemaker in Morgon, ‘Do you notice the wood? If you do, I’ve failed.’ Some of the top growers use virtually no oak at all. Jean-Marc Desprès, of Domaine de la Madone in Fleurie, is almost apologetic about his top wine, an oak-aged Cuvée Prestige: ‘We do that for people who like it, people who want it.’ Given my own preference for his spectacularly good Cuvée Spéciale Vieilles Vignes (which is unoaked, and made with fruit from 70- to 100-year-old vines), I suggest that maybe he doesn’t want to put his best grapes in oak? ‘No – I prefer unoaked wine. It’s the most natural,’ he says. Part of the explanation for producers’ eagerness to show alternative facets of their wines is because they want to move away from the damage inflicted by the often thin and mean wines of Beaujolais Nouveau.

Vincent Audras, a winemaker in Juliénas, notes, ‘We have an image that is the opposite of Bordeaux and Burgundy. There, it’s based on the great wines; here it’s based on the primeurs.’ This perceived image problem is a particular nuisance for anyone trying to buy good-quality wines from the region, because it is rare to find the word ‘Beaujolais’ on any bottle coming from one of the designated cru vineyards. This means that unless you recognise the names of the 10 crus, you will be at a loss to know if the wine is from Beaujolais at all (the crus are listed on the previous page, if you’d care to learn them before your next wine-buying sortie). Jean Bourjade, director of the producers’ association, says, ‘I think only 10% of Beaujolais cru producers put “Beaujolais” on the label; they think the term doesn’t sell.’ Although most winemakers shrug non-committally when asked about this, Claude Geoffray is more direct: ‘I took it off the label to make room for the name of my cuvées,’ he says, ‘but it’s true that the word doesn’t add anything. To most people, the word Beaujolais means bottom of the range.’ Another reason the producers need to convince the world that their wines are worthy of more serious attention is that they are expensive to produce. There have been moves to relax the rules on density of planting, to allow more mechanisation and therefore reduce the costs of production. But quality-minded producers see this as a false economy. Jean-Marc Burgaud, a Morgon producer, says: ‘People think that by producing more cheaply, the price of the wine will be cheaper and we’ll sell more, but it’scompletely untrue. It’s better to focus on quality; that way the wine will sell.’

It’s interesting to note that, unlike other wine regions, in Beaujolais the cost of making an excellent wine is very similar to the cost of making an average one, since everyone is compelled by law to follow the same artisanal methods of production. The best wines are made by sensitive producers who understand how to coax the best from the fragile Gamay grape. The challenge they face is to create a wine with sufficient flavour and aroma, without extracting harsh tannins from the stems. ‘We need the stems for the tannins,’ says Jean-Marc Desprès, ‘but we only have one variety – we can’t afford to make mistakes.’ Some producers (Desprès included) have taken to removing a portion of the stalks from the bunches before they are fermented, to create a more rounded style. Some, including Château des Jacques, destem completely. The stalks can be difficult to ripen and may impart green flavours and a rough texture to the wine. Jocelyne Dépardon, of Domaine du Point du Jour in Fleurie, doesn’t destem her grapes, but focuses a lot of her attention on making her wines as smooth as possible. She says, ‘It’s the hardest thing to do to get supple tannins, to achieve structure without hardness. You have to be very careful. I taste a lot.’ Many producers manage the temperature of their fermentations to ensure that tannins are extracted gently, and the fresh, distinctive aromas of Gamay are retained.

Playing to strengths The producers of wines from the Beaujolais crus are lucky to have the best sites, although possibly a little too much is made within the region of the distinctive characteristics of each cru. (One winemaker I met waxed lyrical about the exact geology of the site that accounted for the flavours of the wine we were tasting, before realising he’d mixed the bottles up and needed to change his story). More important than the cru is the producer. ‘Tasting blind, I don’t always recognise the site,’ says Jocelyne Dépardon, ‘but I recognise the winemaker.’ Just like the rest of Burgundy, a good producer tends to have the knack of making good wine from anywhere: try anything from Domaine des Terres Dorées, Château Thivin or Domaine du Point du Jour, and you won’t be disappointed. There is a strong argument for the producers of Beaujolais to focus on what Gamay does best, rather than try to force their wines to fit the mould of something they feel the world expects from them.

There are some excellent and good-value gems to be unearthed in the region from winemakers who understand the value of what they have, and manage it with care. There is no need to insist on the ageability of a wine that can be so delicious in the forward flush of its youth. For here lies all the appeal of the best Beaujolais: precious young fruit from rare, old Gamay vines, transformed into naturally aromatic, succulent, appetising wines that never tip into excess. Few places in the world can do that as well as Beaujolais.

Château des Jacques, La Roche, Moulin-à-Vent 2000

Bright colour. Nose complex and evolving. Palate still very fresh and youthful, with precision and interest. Highly drinkable. £19.99 (2002); Evy,

F&W, Wmb

Château Thivin, Cuvée La Chapelle, Côte-de-Brouilly 2006

Lifted, floral nose leads into a palate packed with fresh, fruit. Really good. £13.99; Wmb

Domaine de la Madone, Cuvée Spéciale Vieilles Vignes, Fleurie 2006

Deeply coloured, with explosive, rich aromas of crushed red berries. Rich and juicy palate, with clean, pure fruit and a mineral edge. Good depth of flavour. Pretty delicious. £9.95–£10.95; BRW, NDW

Domaine des Terres Dorées, Fleurie 2007

Mid-ruby colour. Powerful, rich nose, red and black fruits. Supple, rich palate, with very good concentration. Lovely depth of fruit and excellent balance at only 12%

alcohol. N/A UK; +33 0478 479 345

Domaine du Point du Jour, Vieilles Vignes, Fleurie 2006

Floral, fresh and appetising, deliciouslyround and supple palate. Exactly how it should be – wonderful. £12.95; NDW

Domaine du Vissoux, Les Trois Roches, Moulin-à-Vent 2007

Dark purple colour; lifted, fresh, fragrant nose. Palate quite delicious: fresh, round

and soft, but stuffed with blackcurrants and blackberries leading to a sweet, dark,

seductive finish. £93.15 (case of 6); WSr

Jean Foillard, Cuvée Corcelette, Morgon 2006

Aromatic and intense nose of violets and spice. Gentle and elegant palate, with good purity of fruit and concentration. Delicious and supple. £17.75; HBa

Bernard Métrat, La Roilette Vieilles Vignes, Fleurie 2007

Mineral and fresh wine, with good density of round fruit. £12.45 (2006); BBR

Domaine Robert Perroud, La Fournaise du Pérou, Côte-de-Brouilly 2006

Deep purple colour. Nose has rich, black cherry and spice aromas. Lovely rich and

ripe palate. Very charming; fresh black fruits and spice. £8.99; Lam

Jean-Marc Burgaud, ‘Vallières’, Régnié 2007

Lovely fragrance, with black pepper spice. Interesting wine, with soft and fleshy fruit. Very good. £9.23; Abn

All wines to drink now and up to four years.

Written by Beverley Blanning MW