BEAUJOLAIS IS MUCH MORE THAN NOUVEAU
Let’s address the elephant in the room right away: Beaujolais Nouveau. Although Beaujolais is an ancient winemaking region planted by the Ancient Romans after their conquest of Gaul, Beaujolais wines only seriously entered American consciousness in the 1970s, peaking in the 1980s, and petering out by the turn of the century, all due to Beaujolais Nouveau. In short, Beaujolais growers have a tradition of celebrating the end of the harvest in September/October by vinifying and bottling a portion of the harvest immediately, to release in the third Thursday in November. The product is simply known as new (nouveau) wine and is light, raw, and sometimes a little sweet depending on who is bottling it and is meant to be a frivolous celebratory beverage. As transportation improved in the 20th century, an actual competition arose around how fast the cheap barrels of Beaujolais Nouveau could be shipped to restaurants and cafes in Paris for the seasonal celebration, and then with media coverage came car and truck races to other metropolises in the UK and other countries in Europe, and the races, more so than the wine, started to be followed by North Americans. In Beaujolais, it is not uncommon for wines to be produced and sold by négociants, that is, a winemaker who purchases either grapes, juice, or sometimes even fully fermented wines and vinifies, bottles them, and/or blends them to create the finished product. As such, one particularly enterprising negociant, Georges Duboeuf capitalized on the North American attention and bought ever-increasing amounts of the Beaujolais Nouveau being produced, even encouraging growers to release more, to import to the United States. Americans, who for the most part were just developing their wine palates in the 1970s were enthralled with its drinkability. Unfortunately, as they began to attain a palate for more serious wine, their collective memory of Beaujolais was stuck on this celebratory throwaway version. As a consequence, by the turn of the century, the Beaujolais region, which had bet the bulk of its export market on Nouveau, saw production plummet to the extent that it had to discard 1.1 million barrels of Nouveau in 2001.
So that’s Nouveau. Onward to a fuller picture of Beaujolais! If you look at the map of France depicted on the excellent mapping of Beaujolais on the following page by Vineyards.com, you will note an attached yellow region stretching north of the little red notation of the Beaujolais region – that’s Burgundy. Pinot Noir and Gamay vineyards were interspersed in a greater combined region of the two until 1395 when the Duke of Burgundy in the northernmost territories outlawed the cultivation of Gamay in his lands, which was followed by another edict 60 years later by another duke in the north as they wanted the more “elegant” and native (the Gamay grape was introduced by a crusader in the 10th century who brought vines back from the Middle East and because of its hardiness spread quickly) Pinot Noir varietal to define their winegrowing region’s reputation. The result was that Gamay plantings were pushed south into less desirable granite-based soils where Pinot Noir was difficult to cultivate, but where the Gamay varietal not only continued to grow abundantly, but even thrived.
Over 95% of Beaujolais wines are produced from the Gamay grape, and most by a winemaking technique of semi-carbonic maceration. We describe carbonic maceration in the June 2022 wine club selection; semi-carbonic maceration is a little different in that the grapes are not completely sealed off from oxygen in a tank; instead, the whole grape clusters are put in cement or stainless steel tanks and the bottom third of them are crushed under the weight of gravity where carbon dioxide is released to stimulate a type of fermentation from the inside of the grape in the absence of oxygen. Since Gamay grapes already tend towards fruity, this method enhances this fruitiness and downplays the tannin. Not all Beaujolais uses this method, however, and as the grapes ferment longer, they develop more tannins and more body.
There are also microclimates and terrain within this designated Gamay-centric Beaujolais region that are not as granite heavy, which bring out different expressions of the Gamay varietal. As such, the Beaujolais region is divided into twelve appellations, Beaujolais AOC, Beaujolais-Villages AOC and ten Cru Beaujolais appellations.
The Beaujolais AOC appellation is focused mainly in 60 villages in the south of the region, but encompasses 96 villages throughout the entire Beaujolais region, and it accounts for over 40 percent of all Beaujolais wine production; a large portion of Beaujolais AOC of which is Beaujolais Nouveau. The Beaujolais-Villages AOC is located throughout the northern half of the Beaujolais region, and accounts for one-quarter of total Beaujolais production, and only a small portion is sold as Nouveau. The ten Cru Beaujolais appellations, from north to south, include Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. Unlike Burgundy where Cru appellations are vineyards within estates, Cru appellations in Beaujolais are determined by entire areas in the foothills of the Beaujolais mountains where the climate and soils help the Gamay varietal to produce rich, nuanced wines, and each Cru makes wine that differs in character from the other Cru Beaujolais wines. Cru Beaujolais wines do not use the word Beaujolais on the label, mainly because of the catastrophe of the international Nouveau production meltdown, and to that point, the Cru Beaujolais winemakers are not allowed to produce Nouveau. To give you a representation of the different expressions of Beaujolais wines, we have selected for the November Wine Club a wine from the Beaujolais-Villages AOC, and two Cru Beaujolais wines, one from a northern Cru Beaujolais, Moulin-à-Vent, and one from the southernmost part of the Cru regions, Brouilly.
The Beaujolais-Villages AOC covers 39 villages in what is known as Haut (high) Beaujolais, concentrated mostly immediately north of the southern half of the Beaujolais region that comprises Beaujolais AOC vineyards and is also sprinkled among and around the more northern Cru regions. As mentioned previously, only a small portion of Beaujolais-Village AOC wines end up as Nouveau. Most are released the following March after the harvest. The vineyards are in hillier areas than Beaujolais AOC vineyards with more schist in the soil, so the grapes take on a fuller character than Beaujolais AOC, but the wine still shows off the grapes’ fruity, low tannin tendency and is meant to be consumed young, within two years.
Beaujolais-Villages AOC vineyards are in hilly terrain.
Featured November Amaro Wine Club Beaujolais-Villages wine: Domaine Des Frontieres Beaujolais-Villages (2020)
Domaine des Frontières was founded in 2013 by Jeremy Thien who left a 15-year career as chief of staff in the French parliament to pursue a lifelong dream to produce wine in his native Beaujolais. He has a little 16-acre estate where he hand-harvests his grapes and vinifies them in the traditional semi-carbonic method for a purposefully short maceration in order to show off the fresh, fruity flavorful character of the Gamay varietal. Jeremy is extremely hands-on during the carbonic maceration process, checking on the yeast activity twice a day to make sure optimal flavors are being extracted.
FOOD PAIRINGS: Smoked salmon, mushroom and ham quiche, roasted turkey
Hands-on owner Jeremy Thien in his vineyards
Moulin-à-Vent translates directly as “windmill,” and spans part of the towns of Chénas and Romanèche-Thorins (see map, page one). Before taking on the Moulin-à-Vent nomenclature the wine was actually called the latter, Romanèche-Thorin, but because it shares some similarities to Chénas appellation wines, also, it changed its name in 1936 after attaining AOC status. The name is a nod to windmill that sits 600 feet above sea level on the high hill in a central location in the region. The region is known for having a high level of manganese in the soil, which at high levels can be toxic to Vitus vinifera vines, but if managed properly can result in low-yielding vines that produce grapes, and in turn wine, with lots of character. Producers usually add to this character by aging the wine in oak for additional structure and tannin. The resulting wines from Moulin-à-Vent are the most full-bodied and powerful examples in Beaujolais and are appropriate for storing in cellars for aging.
The Bouchon Family
Featured November Amaro Wine Club Moulin-à-Vent wine: Barbet Moulin-à-Vent Vielles Vignes (2018)
The Loren family have been landowners and negociants producing wines from the harvests of their own and big and small independent estates in Beaujolais and Burgundy since the early 1800s. In 2006, Xavier Barbet and his brother Nicolas, representing the 8th generation of the Loron family purchased prestigious vineyards in Champ de Cour, Les Perelles, and Bruyeres des Thorins in the Moulin-à-Vent appellation. The brothers tend to their land while relatives tend to the Maison Loron negociant operation. The Gamay grapes are destemmed before being subjected to a cold maceration that lasts five days followed by a long, 25-day fermentation to extract the most color and tannins possible, and aged in barrels and large foudres for a year, resulting in a big wine that disguises its big alcoholic base with a deep, concentrated velvety character… like a premium Burgundy.
FOOD PAIRINGS: rabbit in mustard sauce, veal kidneys, stuffed turkey, eggplant dishes
The vines for the Salvaje wine grow in the woods on the outskirts of the traditional vineyards.
Brouilly is the southernmost of the ten Cru Beaujolais appellations and also the largest Cru Beaujolais, deriving its name from the nearest mountain, Mont Brouilly. The mountain takes its name from a famous Roman lieutenant stationed in the area, and in fact, Roman soldiers in the first century BC were the first to plant vineyards in the area, and in the Middle Ages, Benedictine monks took over cultivation before landowning families moved in.
Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly are the only Cru Beaujolais appellations that permit grapes other than Gamay to be grown in the area albeit in small amounts: Chardonnay, Aligote and Melon de Bourgogne (all white grape varietals).
Featured November Amaro Wine Club Brouilly wine: Château de la Terriere Brouilly (2019)
Château de la Terriere is in Cercié, France, which also borders the Côte de Brouilly cru (see top northeast of orange section on Beaujolais map above). The estate dates back to the 14th century, with vineyards that face Mont Brouilly. Farming is completely organic and the winery has a longstanding, serious commitment to sustainability. The grapes are hand-harvested and rigorously sorted and destemmed with a long maceration of 25 days and aged 12 months in 2- to 5-year-old oak barrels.
FOOD PAIRINGS: Brie, quiche, sautéed scallops and mushroom risotto, seared tuna and salmon, pan-fried mushrooms
Medieval depiction of the harvest at Château de la Terriere