Andrew Jefford finds out how Beaujolais is setting itself to rights – with help from the great 2015 vintage. Read below and see several Beaujolais Cru wines to seek out.
“Thank God for 2015!” I was in Villefranche, chatting with Jean Bourjade, the Director of Inter-Beaujolais at the beginning of this month, and it was when I asked about 2015 that he broke into that English expostulation. The quality of the cru wines from that vintage is outstanding (see a selection of tasting notes below), and it seems to have come at the right time for the region as it slowly lifts itself out of the doldrums which saw 6,000 ha uprooted over the last decade and a half. There’s nothing like a good vintage to put wind in the sails.
According to Bourjade, Beaujolais has just spent a million euros on the most comprehensive soil study ever undertaken by a single region. This is being carried out by the Isère-based Sigales (a company which has carried out similar vineyard studies in Switzerland, as well as for Mâcon, Savoie and the Rhône regions), and it’s involved taking over 6,000 soil core samples as well as digging 600 different trenches all over the region since 2010. At least 1500 Beaujolais growers have got involved in meetings connected with the study, and each of the ten crus now has a much more comprehensive soil map than those formerly available. The study is concluding with further research in the Beaujolais-Villages and Beaujolais zone at present.
What every wine student learns is that Beaujolais is (along with the nearby northern Rhône) one of the few French regions to boast ‘granite soils’ — but the study has filled out this vague generalization with ample detail. There’s only one cru, for example, whose soils are entirely based on weathered granite materials (saprolite), and that is Chiroubles. Only three others (Fleurie, Régnié and Moulin-à-Vent) can claim that over half their soils are derived from granite.
For the rest, the picture is much more complex, with many soils based on alluvial deposits and sedimentary materials of volcanic origin (the ‘blue stones’ found particularly in Côte de Brouilly and Juliénas, but also to a lesser extent in Morgon, Brouilly and St Amour). Juliénas has the lowest percentage of granite-derived soils (just 14%). In general, the trenches dug by the Sigales team showed that the average maximum depth to which the roots reached was 142 cm: deep enough to prove that a huge amount of weathering of bedrock has gone on in Beaujolais over the last several million years.
Of course an incantation of soil types can only take producers some way towards an understanding of the potential of his or her vineyards, but there is widespread recognition in Beaujolais that research of this sort, and the cherishing of qualitative nuance which it implies, has been neglected in the past. Something else the region is doing, stressed Bourjade, is encouraging growers to use lieux-dits names as a way of recovering the ‘climats’ which Beaujolais once possessed (each climat grouped together a number of different lieux-dits under a communal name, Côte de Py in Morgon being a well-known example). These climats were detailed and submitted to INAO in the early part of the twentieth century – but, with typical bad luck, the Beaujolais dossier was lost as some point. The region itself only discovered this in 2009 when it was informed by the INAO that the climats had ‘no official recognition’ – hence the recovery effort.
What we could call swelling ‘Beaujolais Pride’ is not simply evident at a regional level but among growers and, no less importantly, négociants, too. To cite just one example, I was impressed with the ‘Grandes Mises’ series of cru wines from Mommessin when I tried these in 2014, and when they again showed outstandingly well in the 2015 tasting I went to visit their base at Quincié. “We have around 50 growing partners in Beaujolais,” oenologist Jean-Baptiste Bachevillier told me, “and we’ve been working with many of them for a very long time. The idea was to work with them on parcel selections, to make really serious wines – wines which can hold their head up high and give Beaujolais back its fine-wine identity.” That is indeed what’s needed, at every level — and 2015 has helped.
The Beaujolais 2015 vintage
The growing season, growers reported, unfolded according to the script they would have written for themselves – except that quantities were smaller than they would have liked. The main threat to quality came towards the end of July, when the vines were beginning to show signs of drought stress, but cooler nights and showers in August helped enormously, with most beginning harvest towards the end of that month. Acidities were fresher and balances livelier than in 2009, while the wines avoided some of the hardness of 2005, with a sweeter and more tender style. Beaujolais vinifications are so various and sometimes risk-taking in style, however, that it’s still important to buy on recommendation; my January Villefranche tasting revealed disappointments as well as great buys (some notes were made during an earlier visit in October 2015).
2015 Beaujolais Crus: A selection
Brouilly, Ch de Pierreux 2015
The Boisset-owned Ch de Pierreux in Brouilly is one of the region’s most lustrously endowed estates, with no fewer than 190 ha planted with Gamay. The 2015 is dark, with scents of dark cherry and dug earth; the palate is intense, crunchy, spicy, pure and long, very much in the black-fruit idiom but without ever toppling into clumsiness. 90
Chénas, Vigne de 1939, Pascal Aufranc 2015
Deep, dark, almost saturated black red, with a fine architecture of lush, rich fruits: cherry, mulberry, almost peach, too. There is impressive depth of fruit, resonance and inner perfumes to this amply ripe, old-vine cuvée. Supple tannins (though the fruit is not destemmed). 90
Côte de Brouilly, Ch Thivin 2015
Perhaps it’s auto-suggestion, but you expect airy grace from vineyards on the slopes of Mont Brouilly, and that’s always what the limpid, refreshing yet ringingly pure wines of Ch Thivin provide. The 2015 vintage, though, enabled the fruit to gather its forces to almost overwhelming effect: unusually intricate allusions on the nose, then a cloudburst of fruit on the tongue, singing, vivid and graceful. 93
Fleurie, Clos de la Roilette 2015
Alain Coudert’s 9-ha Clos de la Roilette shows copy-book floral aomas in 2015 (peony and freesia bringing the plum-strawberry extra charm). On the palate there’s a big splash of red fruit with both flower and spice perfumes (a touch of tar, too) to carry, jostle and tickle the fruits along. 91
Juliénas, Ch des Capitans, Duboeuf 2015
As you’d expect, there are many outstanding Duboeuf bottling from 2015 and the Ch des Capitans stands out not least because it’s one of the oaked wines of the vintage which carries that extra flavour charge with great panache. The ‘Capitans’ climat is one sited on alluvial piedmont soils, and the wine’s weighty, dense, unctuous style, with lots of chew to it, strikes a very different note to most of its peers. 91
Morgon, Côte de Py, Dominique Piron 2015
A gruffer, stonier, less evidently fruity scent than many of its peers, though warm, vivid red fruits are nonetheless in evidence. On the palate, this is a dense, close-grained and impressively structured – textured, grippy, warm, almost meaty, packed with an energy which comes from fruit but which seems to express so much more than fruit. 92
Moulin-à-Vent, Ch du Moulin-a-Vent 2015
The aromas of this 2015 are finely composed already: fresh red and black fruits, and a gentle honeyed sweetness to balance out that freshness and give it some filling warmth. On the palate, this is complex, fine-meshed midweight with deftly woven fruits, currants and spices. An exercise in unforced grace from a vintage in which it was easy to push all the buttons. 91
St Amour, Mommessin ‘Les Grandes Mises’ 2015
I enjoyed tasting this new Mommessin range so much that it’s hard to pick out just one wine from it (it includes, by the way, a Morgon Grand Cras as well as a Morgon Côte de Py), but the St Amour version effortlessly dominated the other wines from that cru with which it was served, with ample aromatic elegance, freshness and sweet charm. The palate was concentrated, elegant again, delicately structured and aromatically precise: a grippy black-cherry base with a mist of fresh raspberry top notes. 91
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