How Beaujolais is both under-rated and over-rated

A recent bottle of what may the best wine from the Beaujolais – Jadot’s Clos St. Jacques Moulin à Vent – set me thinking about the contrast between the halo effect of the top wines of Burgundy and the depressing effect of Beaujolais Nouveau. Wines such as Romanée Conti give a lift to the whole Burgundy region, whereas Beaujolais Nouveau makes it difficult for the top wines of the Beaujolais region to break out. I suppose the difference is that no one comments much on generic Bourgogne, so the predominant criticism of Burgundy concerns the top wine, but “Le Beaujolais Nouveau Est Arrivée” became such a catch phrase that it defined the image of the region.

All Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape, but you might never know it by comparing Beaujolais Nouveau  with the top wines – produced in nine Crus, of which Moulin à Vent, Fleurie, and Morgon are the best. Most Beaujolais has always been made for early drinking, but Beaujolais Nouveau is the extreme case, bottled when fermentation has barely finished. It was a lifesaver in the 1950s when sales of Beaujolais were depressed, and was marketed so successfully that eventually it rose to about half of all Beaujolais. In decline today, it is now about a third of all production, but still it has a terrible effect on the reputation of the region. It can be a refreshing enough drink when made by a good producer, but it’s closer to fermented grape juice than to wine as such, and it needs to be drunk within weeks rather than months. It has given the region such a poor reputation that the Crus don’t even put “Beaujolais” on their label, eliminating all possibility of a halo effect from the top wines.

Perhaps it’s unfair to say that as Beaujolais as such is over-rated since it rarely attracts much positive attention, but there remains an awful lot of Beaujolais, or even wine at the higher level of Beaujolais Villages, that is only marginally better than Beaujolais Nouveau. But let’s say that at its price level even a better Beaujolais has difficulty competing for the new consumer, who likes wine with more obvious fruits and density on the palate. It’s hard to see what Beaujolais can do about this, since the combination of the Gamay grape with terroir and climate just isn’t going give a more flavorful wine.

Gamay is not a great grape. Philip the Bold tried to eliminate it in 1395, but the incentive to grow something so prolific kept it alive and well in Burgundy until the mid twentieth century. When phylloxera hit the Côte d’Or at the end of the nineteenth century, almost 90% of black grape plantings were Gamay. It wasn’t until around the second world war that Pinot Noir became clearly established as the majority grape. Since then, Gamay has been relegated to the outskirts. What little remains in Burgundy is used exclusively in the Passetoutgrains blend with Pinot Noir; and I have to say that in pairwise tastings to compare a producer’s Bourgogne Pinot Noir with his Passetoutgrains, I have never preferred the latter. The blend always seems clumsy, with muddy fruit flavors, compared with the elegance of Pinot Noir, even at the generic level. Gamay has had its last fling in masquerading as Burgundy, because recent protests abolished the loophole that allowed some Beaujolais to be described as Bourgogne Rouge.

But if any wine could persuade me that Gamay can have pretensions to greatness, it is Moulin à Vent from the old Château des Jacques. I remember this when it was part of the Thorin estate; always a powerful wine, with good structure, and some capacity to age. The estate was purchased by Jadot in 1996. The major part is planted with Gamay, but there is a separate Clos planted with Chardonnay. (The same change in the rules that eliminated Gamay under the Bourgogne label means this must be labeled Beaujolais Blanc and not Bourgogne Blanc.) The wine is made along Burgundian lines, with punch down during fermentation, and maturation in oak varying from new to two year old.

I remember enjoying older vintages, up to about ten years of age, when the wine was made by Thorin, so when I saw the 2005 vintage available soon after release, I thought it would be interesting to purchase a few bottles and see how they matured. So far the wine has been doing well, in fact well enough that I wish I had a sufficient supply to keep the experiment going a bit longer. Initially it was quite dumb, with a slightly thick quality to the fruits, but my tasting notes taken at yearly intervals (below) show that it has slowly  developed variety and complexity. I don’t think it has reached its peak yet. The most recent bottle, a couple of days ago, much reminded me of Pommard, and I think it will become increasingly more like Burgundy as it ages.

With increasing pressure on price, with Burgundy beginning to follow Bordeaux into the realm of disproportionate prices, can the Beaujolais Crus become somewhere to take refuge, especially where there are wines with aging capacity? Of course, the Crus themselves cover a rather wide range of qualities: only Moulin à Vent, Fleurie, Morgon, perhaps Juliénas and Chénas, really have the capacity to show developing flavor variety and complexity with age. Except in rare cases, Gamay is not going to compete well with Pinot Noir, but the top Beaujolais Crus are certainly worth a look.

Moulin à Vent, Château des Jacques, Louis Jadot, 2005

Tasted 2011            This might now easily be mistaken for a Pommard village wine from a good producer. Granted the fruits are a little more black than red and there is a slightly spicy edge to nose and palate, and the impression is a little less refined – but then Pommard can be quite rustic. The wine is aging quite slowly, but the black cherry fruits of the palate are becoming soft and supple, yet are still supported by ripe tannins. The overall impression on the palate is smooth with a lovely balance of fruits to acidity and tannins. The wine should continue to improve for another few years and may well become more Burgundy-like as it ages.

Tasted 2010    Very good, sweet ripe fruits on the palate and nose, but still fairly straightforward – one was hoping for some complexity to begin to emerge by now. More ripeness showing than earlier years, but seemingly less complexity at the same stage. Just a faint touch of tannin on the finish suggests there may be enough structure for the quality to come out in the next year or so.

Tasted 2009    Still a dark ruby color with purple hue. Black fruits on the nose are a little stern. Quite full on the palate, sweet ripe fruits of black cherries, plums, blackcurrants, but some ripe tannins give support for longevity. A little monotonic in its youthful flavor spectrum, but more complexity will develop. Can drink now but will hold and improve for several years.

Tasted 2008    Purple color is quite dark. Dominated by black fruits on the nose, mostly cherries, and quite full on the palate with a smooth impression of dark fruits and good tannic structure. Give it three or four years for the tannins to resolve and it will be an example of the peak of what a Beaujolais Cru can produce. Extraordinary value.

Overall rating 88, drink now-2016

Moulin à Vent, Château des Jacques, Louis Jadot, 1996

Tasted 2003            This wine shows what Moulin à Vent can accomplish. It is dark garnet color with black hues and a narrow pink rim that does not yet show any orange. The medium intensity nose has some astringent notes and hints of Burgundian farmyard overlaying black fruits. It is relatively stern on the palate. Dry, with just above average acidity, medium density black fruits showing, and a distinct bite on the finish due to the acidity and some tannins. The alcohol is high for the appellation at 13% and can be discerned on the nose, but does not obtrude upon the palate. This wine could easily be mistaken for something from farther North, in Burgundy proper.


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