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.

Young Turks in Beaujolais: Mee Godard

Maybe it’s time for another revolution, and perhaps the recent study of soil types, represented on the walls of several producers by copies of the multicolored maps showing the soil types in the Crus, has been a contributory factor. Visiting producers, say, twenty years ago, most would have one, or at most two, cuvées from a Cru. Now it is common to find multiple cuvées from each Cru, each representing specific terroirs. Morgon is a case in point. It’s a sign of how things are changing that Louis-Benoît Desvignes recollects, “When I started a special bottling (the Vieilles Vignes from Javernières on the Côte de Py) in 2009, people thought I would lose customers.” But this week I visited several producers who make cuvées to express different terroirs in Morgon, from the sandier soil of Corcelette, to the more alluvial soil and greater clay of Grand Cras, to the volcanic terroir of Côte du Py.

Mee Godard was studying biology at university when her father suggested she might become an oenologist, and a minor in wine science led her to Oregon and then back to France. Why Beaujolais? “Because I discovered these wines at a tasting in the region. When I left my winemaking job in Beaune, I came here to look for vineyards.” At the end of 2012 she was able to buy in house in Morgon that came with 5 ha of vineyards. A year later she added another hectare in Moulin à Vent, and this year another hectare. The house is just at the edge of Côte du Py, which has long been recognized as Morgon’s best climat.

Mee is still building the domain, with a base in Morgon.

Mee’s winemaking is distinctive. “I try to make vins de garde. I try to use as much whole bunch as possible, mostly about 70%, so there is some carbonic maceration, but I don’t want to have a lot, just some in individual berries.” Both pigeage and pumping-over are used. Everything is aged in wood, using a mixture of barriques, demi-muids, and foudre with only a little new wood. “Last year I didn’t buy any new wood, the year before I bought a new demi-muid.”

These are certainly wines for aging, quite reserved at first. Tasting the three cuvées of Morgon from 2013 through 2015, Corcelette tends to show red berry fruits with a touch of tannin at the end, Grand Cras is a little broader with just a touch more aromatic lift, and Côte du Py is the roundest and richest, but always with that sense of tension, and precision waiting to emerge. 2013 is the most uptight, even a little stern, 2014 opens out to broader expression, and 2015 is the richest. There is also a cuvée which is a selection from a special plot in Côte du Py, called Passerrelle 557, which shows striking purity of fruits. These are real wines expressing terroir but needing time to develop; a million miles away from the soft aromatics without backbone of most Beaujolais, they prompt a comparison with Burgundy.

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 Son. 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.