David 7 May 2015
It’s getting harder to get my hands on decent Bourgogne Rouge at reasonable prices. So I’ve been tasting elsewhere and what I’ve found might surprise you.
It’s clear many people don’t take Beaujolais seriously; no doubt the fault of Beaujolais Nouveau. This cleverly marketed wine is the face of the region; hardly a surprise given it accounted for about half the region’s production in the 1980s and still accounts for about a third of it today. Released with great fanfare on the 3rd Thursday in November each year, this light, simple and fruity wine is, more often than not, dilute and commercial. Unfortunately this has tarnished the reputation of the rest of Beaujolais.
Luckily not all Beaujolais is like this and if you know where to look you’ll find interesting, complex and even age-worthy wines. But best of all, this jaundiced view of Beaujolais means it’s some of the best value drinking around.
Located north west of Lyons (the gastronomic capital of France) Beaujolais is technically part of Burgundy but has always had its own identity and rustic charm. Lying between northern and southern France, it stretches a good way south of Burgundy to the top of the Rhône Valley. In a good year Beaujolais produces more than greater Burgundy combined.
Beaujolais has 3 classifications:
1. Beaujolais AOC - basic Beaujolais from anywhere within the appellation.
2. Beaujolais Villages AOC - a step up from Beaujolais AOC. Tends to be a little deeper in colour and character. Comes from any of the 38 named villages based in the northern, hillier area of the appellation.
3. Cru Beaujolais - the most serious of the Beaujolais, which in some cases may be cellared for up to 10 years. From one of the 10 named village ‘Crus,’ each slightly different.
Nearly all wine from Beaujolais is made from the red grape Gamay. In Beaujolais it produces a unique style of light, red wine that’s elegant yet vibrant, with low tannins, high acidity and flavours of raspberry, cherry and cranberry.
The Oxford Companion to Wine describes Gamay as
“paler and bluer than most other reds, with relatively high acidity and a simple but vivacious aroma of freshly picked red fruits, often overlaid by the less subtle smells associated with rapid, anaerated fermentation such as bananas, boiled sweets, and acetone.”
Needless to say, bananas and acetone aren't something I look for in a wine but the ‘anaerated fermentation’ responsible is a process known as carbonic maceration. This involves fermentation within the uncrushed grapes in a sealed, carbon dioxide rich environment. And while bananas and acetone are the result in less than ideal circumstances, done properly, the result is beautifully soft tannins and lifted and intense fruit aromas.
A series of scandals and a downturn in Nouveau production in the late 90s to early 2000s saw a handful of serious Beaujolais producers emerge. They present Gamay in a new light “showing more purely its fine, refreshing and sometimes peppery, red fruit.” Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes.
These winemakers tend to use more traditional Burgundian vinification methods (ie. yeast, crushed grapes and skin contact) in conjunction with, rather than relying solely on, carbonic maceration. As the Oxford Companion to Wine notes: “Beaujolais… is increasingly being made in a more concentrated, 'Burgundian' style.”
These days the better estates are producing lovely clean, interesting and complex wines; terroir driven, single vineyard, barrel-aged and estate-bottled. These are winning the critics over and providing serious competition for entry level Burgundy.
See what I mean...
1. Dominique Piron (Domaine De La Chanaise) Beaujolais Villages 2013
The Piron family has been growing grapes in Morgon, in the north of Beaujolais, since the 16th century. 14th generation winemaker Dominique Piron took over the estate in 1971 where he works with his American wife, oenologist Kristine Mary. The couple now farm 45 hectares of vineyards scattered among several different Crus in Beaujolais.
“[Dominique Piron] has been one of the architects of the revival of Morgon, tackling with boundless energy the expression of wines of terroir, vinified in the pure tradition of Beaujolais.”Le Guide des Meilleurs Vins de France.
Although not certified, the Pirons farm their vineyards with organic methods. Fastidious quality control sees even the Villages wines carefully selected from single vineyard parcels.
The fruit for this wine comes from vines with an average age of 50 years in a 3ha vineyard in the preferred north of Beaujolais. Made with a judicious use of carbonic maceration, the wine has then been bottled under screwcap to ensure its freshness.
The wine is a clear ruby red and deliciously fragrant. Bright, clean and vibrant, you’ll find beautiful red-fruit characters developing, as the wine gets some air, to notes of strawberry and glacé cherry. But there’s more to this wine than you first suspect. Lightweight and elegant, it’s supple in the mouth with plenty of pepper and spice on the finish. The tannins are delicate and with fresh acid balancing the fullness of the fruit, there’s no notion of sweetness. Much more than you’d expect for the price.
“Very punchy, pure and fragrant on the nose with delicate but precise florals and spicy nuances. Good fruit depth and nice fragrance that epitomises concentrated, pure Gamay of Beaujolais. Some white pepper, too. Very nice start.”Patrick Walsh, Cellarhand.
Several top restaurants love the value this wine offers, including Cumulus Inc in Flinders Lane, Melbourne, where you’ll find it for $68 a bottle.
I can offer it for $28 a bottle. SOLD OUT - Check availability
2. Pierre Chermette (Vissoux) Cuvée Traditionelle Vieilles Vignes 2013
Pierre-Marie and Martine Chermette’s Domaine Vissoux is one of the leading estates in Beaujolais and remains the highest rated Beaujolais producer in the French wine guide, Les Meilleurs Vins de France.
“… have virtually no equivalent. Their depth and definition place them above the rest.”La Revue du vin de France.
“… one of the beacons of Beaujolais quality.”David Schildknecht, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
Vissoux is based in the tiny town of Saint-Vérand, in southern Beaujolais, but have vineyards in other areas. The estate was among the first in Beaujolais to use sustainable agricultural practices, avoiding the use of any chemicals in the vineyard as far back as the 1980s. The winery follows suit; there’s as little intervention as possible.
The Cuvée Traditionnelle is the estate’s standard-bearer. First bottled in 1986, it was made in response to the increasing popularity of bland and homogenised Beaujolais Nouveau. The fruit is from a 4ha estate vineyard which, unusually for the area, has prized granite soil. This, along with the age of the vines (35-80 years old) may account for the wine’s ‘cru-like’ level of structure and depth. The grapes are handpicked and whole bunch fermented with natural yeast, using a semi-carbonic method, after which it spends 4-6 months in huge, ‘up to the ceiling’ old oak casks. It’s low in sulphur, unfiltered and comes in screw cap.
The colour is again clear ruby, but slightly bluer than the first wine. On the nose and palate you’ll find blueberry, evolving into red fruit and wine gums as the wine opens up. Intertwined with this is an appealing savoury element, which hints at prosciutto and spice. Plump and generous (in the context of Beaujolais of course) this wine has an unexpected and pleasing depth. Clean acid and soft, fine tannins make this very easy to drink.
“It's certainly a more potent wine than expected. Deep, dark fruits, a lushness and coil of swirling spice. Pulls long in flavour, saturates the palate with Black Forest cake flavours, finishes with a tickle of acidity and soft, pillowy chewiness. Very easy to like, and with concentration that speaks of a more assertive Beaujolais wine. Confident.” 91 points, Mike Bennie, The Wine Front, Jan 15.
“It’s raised the bar considerably for ‘standard’ non-cru Beaujolais and it remains today a benchmark. In fact this is still an atypically, ‘traditional’ Beaujolais and one of the most succulent, rewarding and authentic wines you could hope to find in the region.”Rob Walters, Bibendum Wine Company.
You’ll find this wine at many of France’s best restaurants and bars, including the famous Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris.
I can offer it for $32 a bottle. Click here to order.
3. Château Thivin ‘Clos Bertrand’ Côte de Brouilly 2012
Château Thivin is the leading estate in the Côte de Brouilly; one of the smallest of the Crus of Beaujolais at just 300ha. The appellation covers the steep slopes of the extinct volcano Mont Brouilly and the wines are at the more robust and concentrated end of the Cru Beaujolais scale.
Thivin is the oldest estate on Mont Brouilly; the date 1383 still visible above one of its cellar doors! Its success dates back to the purchase of the property by the Geoffray family in 1877, at which time there were only two hectares of vines. Today Claude and Evelyne Geoffray run the 25ha estate with their talented son Claude-Edouard as 6th generation winemaker. Château Thivin has vineyards on all sides of Mont Brouilly with some as steep as 48˚. Conversion to organic cultivation started in 2008 and is expected to be complete by 2020.
The Oxford Companion to Wine refers to only one producer in its entry on Côte de Brouilly, “Château Thivin is a landmark producer.” In Andrew Jefford’s acclaimed book New France, Château Thivin receives the equal highest rating for an estate in Beaujolais. The estate was also one of only a handful of producers recommended in Decanter Magazine’s article “Beaujolais: Revival of the Fittest” (May 2015). “Château Thivin… are helping take cru Beaujolais to the next level.”
Legendary US wine guru Kermit Lynch is also a big fan of Thivin, describing it as “the benchmark domaine of the Côte de Brouilly; everything about it is exceptional.”
Clos Bertrand is a single, walled vineyard near the estate’s main house, with the same footprint as the 14th century vineyard of the same name. The fruit is handpicked and whole bunch fermented for 10 days with no crushing. It’s then pressed after a week then aged in 600L old oak barrels for almost a year. Interestingly a small amount of Chardonnay is included. There’s no fining, no filtering and low sulphur.
The wine is a clear garnet and slightly denser than the previous two. Wow! The uninitiated wouldn’t know this was Beaujolais. There’s more structure, weight and power than I was expecting. Let it open up to vibrant strawberry, blackberry and raspberry notes laced with more savoury fennel seed, pepper and chocolate. Grippy tannins and firm acidity balance its lovely depth and weight in the mouth. But it’s the long smooth finish that’ll keep you coming back. This is very pleasurable drinking.
This is drinking beautifully now but may be aged for up to 8 years. You’ll find it at Ezard restaurant in Melbourne for $80 a bottle.
I can offer it for $39 a bottle (limited quantity available). SOLD OUT - Check availability