Buyers ignoring Beaujolais are missing out on a classic summer drinking red, says JOHN LIVINGSTONE-LEARMONTH
Beaujolais is being squeezed. Year 2000 exports were the lowest since 1996, below even the 1989 figure. Britain’s 2000 imports were 25% down on 1989, 17% down on 1990, and 14% down on 1998. Even the two leading importers, Germany and Switzerland, are buying less. So are two excellent vintages, 1999 and 2000, enough to halt the sales slump and the slippage of its image? No: the issue is structural. The next three to five years are destined to reshape Beaujolais in a number of changing, often alarming ways. There are several constraints in Beaujolais. The average holding is small, just about 6ha (hectares) across the 22,700ha of vineyards. So heavy investment in cellars and machinery barely justifies itself. Under 17% is domaine-bottled and few domaines handle more than 70,000 bottles.
Pricing is far too volatile to build a consistent quality image.
The négociant trade, especially the Burgundians, pick up and put down Beaujolais as it suits. Too many growers rely on this trade to get rid of their wine quickly and painlessly: fast money, but out of their control. The shadow of Beaujolais Nouveau, the great forgettable wine, still looms. The tragedy is that Beaujolais provides some of life’s purest wines. Serve these good, true wines to the lost generation brought up on a diet of black, turbo-charged reds – and you find they are liked.
Georges Duboeuf, the pioneer and king of Beaujolais (vineyards pictured), still tasting 15,000 wines a year in his late 60s says: ‘Our ace card is the style of wine. It’s not like anywhere else. The fruit and the suave style cannot be repeated.’
The debate here is whether a dropping of yields would benefit the area. The 10 crus are allowed 58 hl/ha, Villages 60 hl/ha and Beaujolais 66 hl/ha. There are growers on both sides of the argument, however, Duboeuf (vineyards pictured) has come down in favour of reducing yields. ‘They must be more rigorous,’ he says. He is already taking steps on this. ‘In 2000 we asked five local growers to limit their Moulin-à-Vent to 40hl/ha, across a total of 10ha. We pay them the difference. They cut their pruning back from eight to just six buds per plant, for instance, and dropped grapes in August.’
But Serge Condemine, another leading Morgon grower, feels differently. ‘The costs and the taxes would kill you if you cut back to say 45 hl/ha. Think of the vineyard treatments against mildew, oidium etc, the cost of manual harvest (by law). At 50 hl/ha the pressure would be real, below that a non-starter.’ For him, quality improvements must come out of the vineyards by other means.
In the last 10 years, more natural methods have been gradually used. The movement is not widespread, though. There is less talk of la lutte raisonnée in Beaujolais than in other areas. One of the leading lights in natural methods is Marcel Lapierre of Morgon. Many people accept that his wine can be fantastic, although some years work less well than others. The fact that his vineyards are finely cared for can be in little doubt. ‘I never spray anti-rot because you kill a lot of the yeasts. That then means you must be careful not to put down too much manure, since too much nitrogen will weaken the plant’s resistance.’
Here the prime danger to Beaujolais is the expansion of thermovinification techniques. The winemaker heats the filled vat up to 60–70˚C for 12 hours, then cools it right back, adds extraneous yeasts and vinifies around 20–25 degrees for four to five days to get the fruit. The extreme heat brings colour and aroma and is a main way of vinifying primeur wines, not those meant to possess greater structure. By contrast, an excellent, thoughtful and careful grower like Jean-François Garlon vinifies in the 23–28˚C range and 32–25˚C range for his Primeur and Beaujolais. But at the end he takes the trouble to extract all the juice, cool it and leave it on the chapeau for two hours. ‘This brings fresher aromas and very good colour, plus a polyphenol extraction to achieve a vin complet,’ he remarks. ‘All I’m doing is working naturally.’
On the details of vinification, yeasts, sulphur use and chaptalisation are the big three items. Across the thousands of domaines, there is restricted commitment to the use of only natural yeasts if possible. People like Lapierre, Foillard and three or four forward-lookers at Morgon, Garlon and some of the younger growers pay attention to this. But it is not a widespread practice. There is a marked cut in sulphur use by all the open-minded ‘thinker-growers’. ‘I now only sulphur the wine at the end of the malolactic fermentation,’ says Jean-Paul Rampon of Chiroubles. ‘I avoid the reductive taste that can bring, and also get the malo to perform better.’
Chaptalisation use is declining, but nature has played its part. Global warming has advanced harvesting by 7–10 days compared to 15–20 years ago. Some growers started at the end of August in 2000, like 1997 (only 1976 before was comparable). Higher degrees of alcohol, in excess of 12% are common. The impressive Château des Jacques is a leading exponent of new and young oak, but most growers prefer to start with used casks and only lightly expose their wines to it. More cellars are introducing cooling systems and stricter temperature control, though there are still issues of control and quality. ‘Too often there isn’t enough care and wisdom in vinifications,’ says Duboeuf. ‘I am less sure about winemaking standards than I used to be, as the generations advance, so that is why we are building a winery and will start to buy and vinify grapes from 2002 on. We might start with 3,000 to 4,000hl spread across the range [maybe 1.5% of all Duboeuf wines, and 0.3% of his Beaujolais range].’
Beaujolais is a paradigm for wines suffering in an ever more competitive field, where big marketing spend and perception count for much. Examples abound of the difficulties faced by growers these days. Tête says: ‘I sell no wine in Lyons now, it’s only 40 miles away but the wine is not sellable. Instead I look to Paris, Brittany and Normandy. Lyons is a Rhône city now.’ Louis Champagnon, maker of excellent Chénas says: ‘There has been publicity for Beaujolais Villages in Lyons, but the crus are not really wanted.’ Condemine agrees: ‘Just the name Beaujolais in publicity is not ideal. The word ‘quality’ doesn’t spring to mind, and the crus are the wines that are left out.’
So what to do? Could Beaujolais choose the ‘cult’ route? That would make it a table wine, without the Beaujolais name or a commune name, except on the address. Some semi-elite wines are made, for example the 6,000 to 12,000 bottles for each of the five specific clos at Château des Jacques, and Duboeuf’s special wines, due to start from 2002 onwards. Yet so little wine is sold direct in bottle from the domaines. The 1999/2000 figure for the 10 crus was 29%, but progress is slow: the 1991/1992 figure was 26%. One word comes to mind: inertia.
‘People take too much of a short-term outlook which leads to chaotic pricing,’ says Duboeuf. Beaujolais in cask shot up from 1,800FF (£165) in 1998 to 3,000FF (£275) in 1999. Moulin-à-Vent reached 4,800FF (£439) in December 2000 and by June 2001 is down to 3,500FF (£320). They must act for the longer term.’ He warns: ‘I see the next three years like this. Those who make very good wine will be offered good prices. Those who make good wine will receive reasonable prices. Those who make ordinary wine will find life difficult, those who make bad wine will see no buyers at all. There isn’t too much wine in the Beaujolais, there’s not enough really good wine.’
Condemine sums up: ‘The growers must get out and about more. More bottling, more direct selling from the domaines is required and, of course, more investment.’ Christophe Pacalet, a progressive, quality-conscious buyer of grapes that he vinifies, agrees: ‘We need to get back to quality. Beaujolais Nouveau is bad for your head and your stomach. From working abroad I realised that people want hand-made wines with only small intervention from the grower. So low sulphur, natural yeasts and so on.’ Guillaume de Castelnau of Château des Jacques echoes this: ‘The vignerons must accept changes to make progress.
2000: wines show fantastic, juicy fruit. A lot of extract, dynamite wines in some crus like Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. Some hail in Juliénas, also Saint-Amour, Chénas and Brouilly. Very hot, late summer, before then quite cool.
1999: a great year. Paradox of quantity and high quality. Lots of structure in the serious wines. Great balance, maybe more than 2000, also more backbone. Length very good, a lot will age well.
1998: is a tough year, rather lean. Some hail eg Juliénas. The wines lack core and can be dry.
1997: low acidity, fleshy wines that are now very tasty in their second phase, with more cooked fruit and smoky secondary tastes. Not a vibrant year.
1996: have mostly turned to the Pinot side, plenty of cooked fruit, plums. Some acidity still evident on the finish.
1995: very good indeed. Still going strong in the usual crus.
FOOD AND BEAUJOLAIS
Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages, Saint-Amour, Chiroubles and Brouilly:
apéritif, charcuterie, chicken, Brillat-Savarin, St Marcellin cheese.
Côte de Brouilly: apéritif when young; roast meat with age.
Fleurie: hors d’oeuvres, roast lamb.
Juliénas, Saint-Amour: chicken, white meats, terrine de campagne.
Morgon: apéritif. Red meats, sauced chicken. Mature Saint-Marcellin cheese.
Moulin-à-Vent: game, sauced meats. Barbecues, goats cheese when young.
Marked by tight textures, nothing too fleshy and collapsible. Orderly tannins, a quiet lurking presence giving a fine frame around the wines. The crus hold pure fruit flavours, with a minerality often encouraged by low levels of chaptalisation.
- Jean-Paul Brun, Domaine des Terres Dorees Sav
- Blaise Carron RHr
- Château Cambon
- Alain Chatoux M&V
- Jean-Francois Garlon RHr
- Yves Metras
- Domaine du Marquison, Christian Vivier-Merle
- Domaine du Vissoux, Pierre-Marie Chermette
- Beaujolais Villages
- Cave des Vignerons de Chenas RHr
- Domaine de la Madone, Jean-Marc Despres Loe, Pim, RHr
- Domaine des Nugues, Gerard Gelin Eto
- Domaine des Vignes du Tremblay, Paul & Eric Janin
- Domaine du Clos du Fief
- Michel Tete L&W
- Jean-Charles Pivot
Delicious fruitiness, a mix of blackcurrant and raspberry. Excellent in 2000 with a super-charged flavour. Can age and turn to more firm texture after 5–6 years.
- Château Thivin, Claude Geoffray Adn, B&T, Bac, RHr
- Alain Michaud M&V
Pure fruit, dark red flavours, good grip. Tannins float around in the background, can age nicely over eight years or so. Always quite open. Underrated.
- Domaine Jean Benon RHr
- Domaine Champagnon Pip
- Fernand Charvet Bac, Sel, Wmb
- Domaine Jean & Franck Georges
- Hubert Lapierre L&W
- Raymond Trichard
Aroma wine, with fruit and elegance. Barely noticeable tannins. Floral aromas. Gentle red fruits on palate.
- Georges Boulon
- Domaine Emile Cheysson L&W
- Domaine du Pressoir Fleuri, Andre Meziat
- Jean-Paul Rampon
- Pierre Savoye
COTE DE BROUILLY
Can keep longer than Brouilly. Bouquet can show flowers: iris, violets. Spiced, pepper, mineral tones on the palate with strawberry, bilberry, raspberry flavours. Good tannins.
- Château Thivin, Claude Geoffray GWW, RHr
- Nicole Chanrion L&W
- Domaine de la Pierre Bleue, Olivier Ravier Odd
Overtly fruited. Bouquet can be floral – iris, peony plus light fruits. Delicate red fruit flavours, often wild strawberry. Can drink very well after a year.
- Domaine Berrod Adn, Arm, HBa, Tow
- Michel Chignard M&V
- Clos de la Roilette J&B
- Domaine Jean & Franck Georges
- Domaine de la Grand Cour, Dutraive Ame, Bac, Dby, Sel, R&S, ThH, Wim, WSo
- Domaine de la Madone, Jean-Marc Despres Buc, RHr, ThH
- Georges Duboeuf, Domaine de Quatre Vents BWC, Vir
- Yves Metras
Tends to close up and strengthen. Some spice, pepper on the end, also cherry-kirsch, cassis aspects. Can show lively fruit with discreet tannic edges in the first 18 months.
- Domaine du Clos du Fief, Michel Tete L&W
- Domaine Gerard Descombes Bac, Ggr, Par, R&S, Wrt
- Domaine des Pivoines, Alain Peytel
- Claude Joubert Ave, Tan, WSo
Wild fruit, floral aspects on the bouquet. Tight red-black fruits on palate. Can close in its second year, and return with grilled coffee.
- Domaine Joseph Chamonard
- Louis-Claude Desvignes
- Georges Duboeuf, Gravallon and Chaponne BWC
- Jean Foillard HBa
- Marcel Lapierre Bib, VTr
- Domaine des Souchons, Serge Condemine Odds
- Jean-Paul Thevenet
The longest-lived cru, with a meaty, chunky flavour and texture. The biggest scale, most manly Beaujolais. Chewy, smoky.
- Domaine Berrod Adn, Arm, HBa, Tow
- Alfred Gino-Bertolla
- Château des Jacques HaM
- Domaine Champagnon Pip
- Domaine Bernard Diochon Loe
- Domaine des Vignes du Tremblay, Paul & Eric Janin Pip
- Jacky Janodet Ggr, HvN, Mar, Shf, SWC, Tan
Shows a fruity intensity. Black fruits. Good to drink early on. Tannins are gentle.
- Georges Duboeuf Sai, Unw
- Jean-Paul Rampon
Suited to early drinking. Floral bouquet with classic red fruit flavours.
- Domaine de l’Ancien Relais, Andre Poitevin
- Domaine de la Cave Lamartine,
- Paul Spay; Domaine des Ducs
- Domaine des Pierres, Trichard
- Georges Duboeuf BWC