Beaujolais Renaissance

Six centuries after Philippe the Bold exiled the “vile and noxious” Gamay grape from Burgundy in favor of the “elegant” Pinot Noir, Burgundians are once again embracing the grape in the wines of Beaujolais. The region has long been known primarily for Beaujolais Nouveau, a beverage closer to alcoholic grape juice than wine, but is now undergoing a dramatic change as Beaune-based négociants buy vineyards and identify unique parcels for separate bottlings. In short, even the most skeptical need to reacquaint themselves with Beaujolais.
The recent invasion of Beaujolais from the Côte d’Or started in 1996 when Maison Louis Jadot, one of Burgundy’s best and brightest producers, purchased the Château des Jacques, a 67-acre estate in Moulin-à-Vent, the most important of the region’s 10 named villages or crus. (The 10 crus are distinguished by their location in the northern part of the appellation where the soil is mostly granite. The other thing that distinguishes the crus from the rest of Beaujolais is the regulation that prohibits vintners from producing Beaujolais Nouveau).
Although Jadot is a leading producer of Beaujolais-Villages, a blended wine coming from a broad area within the Beaujolais appellation, the focus at Château des Jacques is the individual vineyard. Depending on the vintage, the Jadot team may make up to five distinct wines from individual small vineyard sites within the estate, Clos de Rochegrès, Clos du Grand Carquelin, Clos de Champ de Cour, Clos de la Roche and Clos des Thorins, in addition to a Moulin-à-Vent, which is a blend of the parcels that comprise the estate.
Jadot expanded their Burgundian philosophy–each vineyard reflects a unique terroir–when they purchased another estate in Beaujolais, this time in Morgon, another of the highly regarded crus. Jadot bottles wines from specific parcels within the estate, such as Morgon Côte de Py, under the Château des Jacques label. (Previously the wines were labeled using the former names of the estate, Château de Bellevue or Château des Lumières).
Jacques Lardière, Jadot’s winemaker of 40 years, believes Beaujolais has the potential to make great wines. He does not hide his disdain for Beaujolais Nouveau (a.k.a. Beaujolais Primeur): “Beaujolais Primeur is a bad expression of Gamay. The grape has so much more to offer if handled correctly.” For Lardière, that means handling Gamay they same way he handles Pinot Noir–with a manual harvest, partial destemming, a three to four week fermentation, (not carbonic maceration) and aging in oak barrels.
The bottlings of the 2009 Château des Jacques from the individual parcels are stunningly good, the best array Jadot has made. Despite an underlying firm minerality that accounts for a family resemblance, the wines are distinct and amazingly different. The antithesis of Beaujolais Nouveau, all would benefit from a few more years in the bottle. The Clos des Thorins, dense and deep, has an almost chocolately essence while the more floral Clos de Champ de Cour delivers hints of graphite. The Clos de la Roche is even more aromatic and packed. The firm Clos de Rochegrès reflects the granite stoniness of the site, while the Clos du Grand Carquelin is positively explosive. The Château des Jacques Moulin-à-Vent, a blend from the parcels, conveys a firm earthiness with attractive tarry nuances.
Although Jadot, with its Burgundy-like parcelization, has brought the concept of focusing on noteworthy vineyards to a new level, it was Georges DuBoeuf who started the trend when he began bottling and commercializing individual growers’ wines by putting their name on the label, as in Jean Descombes’ Morgan. DuBoeuf, the region’s leading producer measured by volume, is often both praised and vilified, sometimes simultaneously; praised for resurrecting and promoting the region in the 1960s and 1970, and vilified for killing its reputation for fine wine with the proliferation of Beaujolais Nouveau, which in the early 1990s represented half of the region’s production.
Another major entry into the field occurred when Joseph Henriot and family, owner of Bouchard Père et Fils, another top-notch Beaune-based négociant, purchased the Château de Poncié. For years, Jadot had purchased grapes from this large, 300-acre estate (half of which is planted to grapes) located in Fleurie, another cru of Beaujolais, and bottled the wine under the Château de Poncié label. But when the property went up for sale, it was Henriot who grabbed it in 2008. Henriot changed the name to Villa Ponciago, reflecting its Roman roots, which will allow him to expand into other cru and bottle them under that name, just as Jadot has used the Château des Jacques label for its estate Beaujolais, regardless of location. Henriot undoubtedly will do the same thing in Beaujolais that he did in Chablis, where in 1998 he purchased, transformed and catapulted William Fèvre into the top tier of Chablis producers.
The venerable Maison Louis Latour’s entry into the Beaujolais real estate market is perhaps the most surprising since, unlike Jadot and Henriot, this house has not purchased any vineyards anywhere in Burgundy for over 100 years. That the first purchase in over a century should be Maison Fessy in Beaujolais speaks highly for the promise of the area.
Louis-Fabrice Latour, head of the family-run Maison Louis Latour, insists that Gamay has the potential to produce superb wine when its planted in the right place and vinified properly.
Bernard Retournaz, head of Louis Latour USA, Latour’s US importing arm believes, “Beaujolais is undervalued.” He notes there are numerous abandoned vineyards in the greater Beaujolais area, although not within the boundaries of the 10 crus, because growers can’t earn enough money to make it worthwhile maintaining their vineyards. He thinks it is particularly significant that the Burgundy négociants are actually buying land in Beaujolais and not just making an investment there to produce wine. He says, “It’s the difference between being a renter and an owner.”
Of the three Beaune négociants, Latour will have the greatest depth in Beaujolais with their purchase of Maison Henry Fessy because with the acquisition comes vineyards in nine of the ten crus. Although Fessy produces Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages, Latour plans to focus only on the crus. Laurent Chevalier has been installed to supervise winemaking. He articulated his goal succinctly, “to show the clear delineation of each cru from the others.”
Fessy’s line-up of 2009s show the distinctiveness of the crus. The Regnié has real backbone, the Côte de Brouilly has more floral notes and the Chiroubles delivers lots of bright red fruit. Fessy’s Morgon is firm but filled with lush black fruit flavors and is very different from the exotic spiced-filled Julienas. The muscular Chénas at one end and the flowery bright cherry-like flavors of the St. Amour at the other shows the broad spectrum of the crus. Even though Fessy’s wines are more forward than those from Château des Jacques, their Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon would benefit from another year or two in the bottle.
The superb 2009 vintage in Beaujolais, which is currently widely available at the retail level, gives consumers the opportunity to discover how stunning these wines can be. While Beaujolais Nouveau is grapey and fruity, the 2009 Beaujolais crus have depth and substance, combining a firm minerality, lush black or red fruit flavors and alluring spice. Since the Gamay grape has naturally high acidity, the wines are energetic and lively, not dull or heavy. In short, they’re real wines.
July 26, 2011