Despite recent controversy, the king of Beaujolais, Georges Duboeuf, has grand plans to further expand his wine empire, writes Anthony Rose.
The irony of the quote from George Duboeuf, ‘I was very lucky. I just met the right people at the right time,’ given in Wine Business Monthly in 2003, won’t be lost on the producer, who has every reason to regret his implied vote of confidence expressed in Sylvain Dory.
Dory is the winemaker who dropped Duboeuf in the merde last year by blending barrels of quality Beaujolais with cheaper stuff to disguise a poor 2004 vintage. Dory admitted the error, resigned, and was handed a three-month suspended sentence and €3,000 fine. For the apparently not so infallible ‘Pape du Beaujolais’, the verdict was a self esteem-puncturing €30,000 fine and the sort of negative press he could have done without.
Looking younger than his 73 years, with the familiar lithe figure and bouffant mop of grey hair, Georges Duboeuf is still smarting. The French press gorged on ‘l’affaire Duboeuf’ but he makes no excuses. ‘Cross-blending is all very well, but it’s illegal in France,’ he says. So how did he get into such a mess? He still seems bemused, having appointed Dory to run the new winery as an experienced and trusted winemaker who knew the suppliers. ‘I’d been buying wine from him for many years. I knew what he could do and I trusted him with the responsibility.’
Duboeuf, who noticed irregularities in volumes but not enough to set off alarm bells, suggests Dory’s tricks were designed to cover up a poor harvest in 2004 rather than for profit. Months later, when the INAO and the anti-fraud division had had time to work out the technical data, they spotted the fraud. When Duboeuf found out, the wines were declassified: Juliénas blended with Morgon to Beaujolais Villages, and Villages blended with Beaujolais to straight Beaujolais. ‘The growers were all paid and we took the loss on board. The curious thing was that Sylvain had nothing to gain, and neither did we.’ Nothing to gain, but with sales of a quarter of the region’s 12 million cases of Beaujolais, exports to 120 countries and €100 million a year turnover, everything to lose.
Long before Sylvain Dory came along to rain on his parade, Duboeuf had kick-started the process of turning a humble working man’s vin de café into a global phenomenon. Duboeuf was born at Crèches into a family of vineyard owners in Pouilly-Fuissé, for all one knows with the same haunted parking meter face and a nose already equipped to sniff out a good Beaujolais. His father died when he was two, so it was his older brother Roger who instilled in him an undying passion for wine.
Birth of a winemaker
A stint in Paris with its monotony of métro, boulot, dodo (tube, job, bed) wasn’t for him, so he sped back to Mâcon, to learn from M Rivoire at the Mâcon Regional Laboratory. The wines improved, but the rewards didn’t, so he clambered on his bike to visit the local restaurants, including Paul Blanc’s two-Michelin-star Chapon Fin in Thoussey. Blanc took to Duboeuf and to his Pouilly-Fuissé. When chefs of the calibre of Paul Bocuse, Pierre Troisgros and Alain Chapel stopped off, they were sufficiently impressed to take the wine themselves. Blanc commissioned a red, so Duboeuf took a bottling machine round his grower mates in Beaujolais.
Duboeuf went on to form a syndicate of 45 growers, the Ecrin Mâconnais-Beaujolais, but when it fell apart amid squabbling, he started up as a négociant in 1964. Did he ‘invent’ Nouveau? He pooh-poohs the idea. Long before the war, the first fruits of the new vintage Beaujolais had flowed regularly into the cafés of Lyon and St Etienne. Nouveau was legitimised in 1951 by the INAO’s creation of 15 November as the official release date and was taken up by Gérard Canard, later director of the UIVB (Beaujolais Bureau), who had the idea to turn the date into ‘a sort of Bastille Day of wine’.
Alexis Lichine’s exhibition ‘De la Vigne et du Vin’ at Château Lascombes so impressed Duboeuf that he set up his own Taste d’Or in Beaujolais. His lavish parties and a flair for linking film stars, sporting heroes, chefs and artists with Beaujolais rubbed off. Sales of 1.1 million cases in 1970 grew to 6.4 million by Nouveau’s heyday of 1986, with yields almost treble those of the early part of the century. According to Duboeuf, it was the British who contributed most to the export drive, with the first Beaujolais Nouveau race in 1972.
‘Why were we so successful?’ says Duboeuf. ‘Maybe thanks to a flair for marketing, or the ability to communicate a passion for the product. Beaujolais is about capturing the quintessence of Gamay, of the terroir and always the stamp of the vigneron. There’s no good négociant without a good vigneron.’ His empathy with the growers and an exhausting schedule of tasting, analysing and cataloguing earned him the growers’ respect. ‘There’s no secret, just a lot of hard work, dedication and a good relationship with the vigneron. It has taken me a long time to build up this network of 400 vignerons and 20 coops.’
Duboeuf built his new €6 million winery in 2002 in order to guarantee a certain level of quality. He’s not entirely happy with the quality of Nouveau today, and admits that ‘there will always be those who love or hate it’, but he doesn’t accept that it’s ‘an industrial product made by chemists’ as dismissed by Andrew Jefford in The New Wines of France. ‘That’s false and ridiculous. Nouveau is difficult to make, but I can assure you that tasting a good one blind, you can’t tell it from a Beaujolais cru.’
Is Nouveau yesterday’s wine? Duboeuf doesn’t think so. ‘We’re always being told Beaujolais Nouveau has no future but if we can continue to sell 4.5 million bottles, it shows there are still customers who love its charming, seductive qualities.’ He acknowledges the encroachment of the New World, but feels Beaujolais is a ‘terroir’ wine, while Australian wines, for example, are ‘climate wines’ designed to the buyer’s specification. ‘The problem is that we do Beaujolais, Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais Villages, Beaujolais crus, domaine wines, Pouilly-Fuissé, vins de pays, vins d’Ardèche, and our agents tell us consumers want simplicity.’
Duboeuf would like to see the French classification system simplified and its pleasures better communicated. ‘In Beaujolais, there are 1,000 hectares too many, so we need a balance between supply and demand.’ Beaujolais has recently become a mixed zone in which AC and vins de pays can both be made, so he suggests Gamay could be made as a varietal in a new vin de pays de Gaule or blended with Syrah as a vin de pays des Coteaux Rhodaniens. ‘It would be completely different from Beaujolais, with more structure. Nobody has done it yet, but why not?’
Surely Duboeuf himself couldn’t be contemplating taking on a new challenge? You never know. Duboeuf, 74 in April, shows no signs of tiring in his mission to create new wines and conquer new markets. Nor does he appear to be in a mood to hand over to the heir apparent, his son Franck, any time soon. Although the glory days of Nouveau may be over, there can be no doubt that as and when the inevitable occurs, the living, beating heart and symbol of Beaujolais will be as determined as ever to pass on both the business and the legacy in as good shape as he’s in himself. I wouldn’t bet against it.
Duboeuf At A Glance
Born: Good Friday, 14 April 1933 in Crèches, near Chaintré, Pouilly-Fuissé
Education: Local village school until 12, then school and college in Mâcon
Family: Wife Rolande, two children, Franck and Fabienne
Career path: Wine, wine and wine
Hobbies: Running, walking, skiing, cycling, swimming. Supports Lyon (football) and Biarritz (rugby)
He says: ‘It’s family, friends and sharing the pleasure of all the happy moments that we can enjoy together, like we do in the wine profession. It’s what we do’
They say: ‘The dreadful, thin Beaujolais Nouveau that used to come over stamped Beaujolais with a terrible reputation. It wasn’t surprising that people went for the greater body and colour of the New World. It was the volumes of cheap wine that did the damage, not Duboeuf, who was never cheap, but consistent in his quality.’ Roger Harris, Beaujolais importer.