The Old Guard in Beaujolais: Complete Contrasts

I wound up my week in Beaujolais by visiting two long-time producers, whose approach to making Beaujolais could not be more different, but each of whom typifies the very best of their approach.

I remember Château des Jacques when it was owned by Thorin and produced a single Moulin à Vent, usually (in my view) the best wine in the appellation. (There was also sometimes a vieilles vignes cuvée coming mostly from the lieu-dit of Rochegrès). Thorin were famous for adopting a completely different policy from the semi-carbonic maceration that dominated (and still dominates) Beaujolais. Wines were treated in a Burgundian way and aged in oak barriques, something that was regarded with horror by other winemakers in the region.

Purchased by Jadot in 1996, Château des Jacques has been considerably expanded over the past two decades, from 43 ha solely in Moulin à Vent to more than 80 ha, mostly in Moulin à Vent, Morgon, and Fleurie, but including 9 ha that are used to make a Beaujolais Blanc. Winemaking policy remains unchanged: “Our philosophy is to produce Gamay that is able to age and reflects its terroir, we really want to show that Gamay is like Pinot Noir in reflecting terroir,” says winemaker Cyril Chirouze. “So we make wine like Burgundy, everything is destemmed. Many people equate Beaujolais with carbonic maceration [which requires whole bunches] but in fact carbonic maceration started to be used only in the fifties, we consider that the real tradition is to make wine like Burgundy.”

Château des Jacques is a building site today because the old winery is being completely renovated.

“There is a blend from each commune, which we regard like a village wine in Burgundy, and 7 different single vineyard wines, which we could compare with premier crus. You might think this is the difference between grand vins and second wines, but it’s not like that at all, we take the best barrels for the blend for the commune, and then if there is enough we make the single vineyard wines.” The blends are matured one third in cuve and two thirds in barrique, with only a little new oak; the single vineyard wines are matured in barrique, with about 20% new oak.

A new cuverie is being constructed and should be ready for the 2017 harvest.

Tasting the range is much like a tasting in Burgundy. The communal blends are textbook illustrations of their appellations; Morgon is the tightest, Fleurie moves towards fleshiness, and Moulin à Vent shows breadth and that sense of minerality (I call it iron in the soil although if there’s any mineral in Moulin à Vent it’s really manganese). In the lieu-dits of Moulin à Vent, Carquelin (with some clay in the soil) is a little rounder than La Roche (which is sandier), and Rochegrès has a sense of purity and minerality enhanced by its high elevation. Moving to Morgon Côte du Py (at the same elevation of 360m as Rochegrès), there’s that typical sense of tension. All of the wines require aging: I tasted a horizontal of the 2014 vintage and I would wait at least 2-3 years before starting any of them. We concluded the tasting with a 1996 (to celebrate the anniversary of Jadot’s purchase) and it still in excellent shape.

My next visit was to Domaine Paul Janin (also known as Domaine de Tremblay) where “the history is very simple,” says Eric Janin. “It goes back to my great grandfather, who was a tonnelier and bought several parcels of vines.” My grandfather bought some vines in the Tremblay lieu dit, which became the official name of the domain. “The domain has both increased and diminished since then.” Today there are 7.5 ha, all in Moulin à Vent, except for a hectare of Beaujolais Villages. There are three cuvées from Moulin à Vent: Vignes de Tremblay, which is a blend from several plots; Heritage, which is an assemblage from plots planted by Eric’s grandfather in the 1930s; and Le Greneriers, which a single vineyard wine from around the house. Vinification follows what you might call recent tradition, with whole bunches going into the vat with only a little destemming, giving carbonic maceration for the first few days, followed by maturation exclusively in stainless steel.

The Janin domain is in the heart of Moulin à Vent, a stone’s throw from Château des Jacques.

The wines are the quintessence of maturation in cuve, emphasizing purity of black fruits, with cherries merging into more aromatic notes in warmer vintages. Tannins can be felt on the finish but are very supple. There is greater concentration going from the Vignes de Tremblay to the Vieilles Vignes and then to the single vineyard wine, but there is always that sense of finesse and focus. The 2014 vintage is wonderfully approachable already. The same sense of purity and precision carries over to the Beaujolais Blanc.

There is something for everyone here. I wouldn’t like to argue as to whether there is a “true” style for Beaujolais, but it’s obvious from comparing the two producers that you can make top notch wines in more than one way. All serious producers in Beaujolais feel they are laboring under the burden that it’s difficult to get away from the image of Beaujolais Nouveau—which is why the Crus rarely put Beaujolais on the label—but it’s worth recognizing that the Crus, especially the top ones of Fleurie, Morgon, and Moulin à Vent, can be interesting, and reflective of terroir and Gamay, just as much as better known varieties.

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Young Turks in Beaujolais: Julien Sunier

Beaujolais has been in the doldrums as long as anyone can remember. Briefly rescued by the success of Beaujolais Nouveau in the 1980s, the solution became the problem as Beaujolais became a synonym for very fruity inexpensive wines. The so-called Gang of Four led by Marcel Lapierre caused something of a revolution by focusing on making more natural wines to bring out terroir. “My father was part of a group that rebelled against the industrial production of Beaujolais,” says Mathieu Lapierre, adding, “We try to make natural wines but it’s difficult to defend them from the industrial system.” It’s a measure of his attitude that when asked about global warming, he says, “I’m not sure about that, the real question is why some people in Beaujolais chaptalize; if you reach 12% do you need more alcohol?”

One feature of some new producers in Beaujolais is that they don’t come from a winemaking background, and their different approaches to winemaking show that it’s possible to make great Beaujolais in more than one way. Julien Sunier’s parents live in Dijon, but were not involved in wine, but Julien became involved in winemaking, getting an exposure to Beaujolais when he set up a winery for Mommessin. In 2008 he decided to establish his own domain.

Julien’s winery is well off the beaten track for Beaujolais, in a converted farm in Avenas, which originally he bought as a residence. “The elevation here is 750 m,” he says, “and you know you can’t have vines above 600 m in Beaujolais.” Originally he bought the farm to be a place to live. “I had a bad idea of Beaujolais when I came here, the Nouveau idea,” he says, “but after working at Mommessin I decided to start my own domain.” We tasted his wines in the living room of his stylish house, which used to be a cow shed; the winery is adjacent. He rents vineyards in Regnié, Morgon, and Fleurie. “From the start I decided to be organic, and that represents 90% of the effort,” he says.

Julien’s house, stylishly converted from a cow barn, is at the left; the winery is at the right, with tanks outside to take advantage of the natural cooling of 700m elevation.

“Winemaking is natural, we do not use any of the 250 oenological preparations. We stopped chaptalization and filtration in 2010 and I add only a gram of sulfur at bottling.” The length of maceration varies. “If it’s a rich year I will leave it on the skins and do something generous, but we don’t look for extraction, I won’t do pigeage or pumping over. So even when there is a long maceration, there is not too much extraction. I want the vintage to present itself.”

Julien’s entry level wine is a Vin de France called Wild Soul. It comes from purchased grapes from Beaujolais Villages—the hailstorms of the past two years left many growers short of grapes so that unusually they decided to buy some to augment production—and it shows slightly spicy red fruits with just a touch of aromatics. “This is an example of Gamay made in the old way, when I taste with people from the village they say it’s like the wine their grandparents made. I didn’t invent anything, I’m just trying to forget the last 60 years.” It’s declassified to Vin de France because of continuous problems getting the agrément for the AOP. “The people who do the agrément don’t like my style, they like thermovinification [a winemaking method that critics say homogenizes wines]. I’ll play the game for the Crus, but for this I wanted to emphasize the domain.”

For the Crus, wines are transferred to barriques before fermentation has ended, so they really get some exposure to lees as they age. In 2016, the Regnié is smooth and silky, the Fleurie is smooth and spicy with hints of Fleurie’s fleshiness showing, and the Morgon is taut, crisp, and precise. Julien points out that when he was at Mommessin he found an old wine list showing that in the 1920s, the Crus of Beaujolais priced the same as Chambolle Musigny, and although he doesn’t say it, you feel that his aim is get back there.

Cuisine is Alive and Well in France: A New Gastronomic Destination in the Beaujolais

The death of cuisine in France has been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps nowhere but France could there be a tiny village with two restaurants as innovative as those in Saint Amour Bellevue, in deepest Beaujolais.

Established by chef Cyril Laugier and his wife Valérie in 1996, Auberge du Paradis in Saint Amour has been my watering hole in the Beaujolais for several years. The hotel has a great atmosphere; Cyril and Valérie are what the French would call très sympa. A boutique hotel, the building gives the impression of having been constructed over time from several different buildings, so there all sorts of unexpected turns as you find your way to your room. Decoration is very stylish, if somewhat idiosyncratic; I suppose I would describe it as French/Italian modern. Breakfasts give the most fantastic send-off before spending a day tasting: I use the plural because they are different every day—even the jams, uniquely spiced, are different every morning. Cyril serves the breakfast himself.

The restaurant obtained a much deserved Michelin star in 2014. The current menu starts with a sorbet of aubergine, with a curry vinegar, and basil herbs. The subtle Asiatic influences made this the killer dish for me. It was followed by tuna, marinated with herbs, confit peppers, and Kashmiri influences. Then there was pork that had been marinated in soy, before being cooked in the oven, together with a spaghetti of cucumber. The desert was equally innovative, raspberries with cream of roses. Overall, the style of cuisine seems to have become more forceful over the years I have been coming here.

The restaurant at Auberge du Paradis was redecorated in 2014 and is elegant and spacious.

Within a hundred yards across the street is a more recent arrival, 14 Fevrier (named for Valentine’s day) by Japanese chef Masafumi Hamano, who came to France in 2004 after working at a French restaurant in Tokyo. He started the restaurant in 2013 and obtained a star from Michelin immediately. The elegant restaurant shows a Japanese aesthetic and the cuisine is modern French with a Japanese twist. Amuse bouches included a hibiscus macaroon, a verbena macaroon, and vichyssoise with a watermelon sorbet. The first course was described as a pana cotta, but at first sight had nothing to do with it. It turned out the pana cotta was underneath a gelée of turnips. The surprise combination of flavors made this the killer dish for me. The next course was cobia (a meaty white fish) in a lobster sauce. The combinations of unexpected flavors can be a bit tricky to match with wine, but all worked brilliantly.

14 Fevrier is stylish and spacious with a Japanese aesthetic.

A feature of these restaurants, as well as many others visited on this trip, has been the treatment of vegetables. I remember that when l’Arpège, the three star in Paris, changed to a vegetarian menu some years ago, it was regarded with a certain degree of suspicion. But now treating vegetables as an important component in their own right, not merely an accompaniment, has become common. I might go so far as to say that this month in France has been an education in vegetables, coming both from the exceptional quality of the produce to innovative treatments.

Being in Beaujolais, both restaurants have excellent wine lists with many reasonable choices. At Auberge du Paradis, we had a top Pouilly Fuissé, the 2009 Instarts from Château Beauregard. The richness of the year is beginning to overtake Beauregard’s classic style, but the wine is at its peak now. At 14 Fevrier, we tried a white Nuits St. Georges, les Terres Blanches from Daniel Rion, also 2009, which was interesting as we had tasted the range of reds at the domain a couple of days earlier; it showed the same sense of textured power.

Both restaurants essentially have a single menu, which changes periodically. (At 14 Fevrier there is an alternative choice for the fish course.) I do not know what criteria Michelin has for awarding stars—I am not sure that anyone knows, including the Michelin inspectors—but both restaurants have one star. The food at both shows a level of innovation and complexity that would suggests two star, so I suspect the holdback is the fact that each presents only a single menu, with little or no choice. But Saint Amour is the place to go in the Beaujolais.

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.