The winemakers of Beaujolais are not happy this year.
That seems odd, considering they live in some of France's most beautiful villages, where old stone houses are decked with flowers amid hillside vineyards heavy with grapes, a half-day's drive south of Paris.
But to hear the growers tell it, the world is in a perilous state. New wines from Australia are flooding the market, even in France. The cost of labor—each grower hires students, retirees and migrant workers to pick the grapes—keeps going up every fall. The European Union wants to reduce production by ripping out thousands of vines. Even the weather is causing trouble—by being too good: An unusually warm spring meant that this year's harvest began in August, throwing summer vacation schedules into chaos.
Worst of all, the bright, fruity Beaujolais Nouveau that became a worldwide fad in the 1980s has gone the way of all things, throwing these villages' once-booming economy into a palpable slump, if not quite a bust. It's still released on the third Thursday in November, but there's no longer quite the same exuberance for the autumnal rite of passage.
Shaking his head as he led a walk through the vineyards, winemaker Jacques Perraud said, "The demand isn't there."
Happily for visitors, the winemakers' worries haven't made them inhospitable. Quite the contrary: They are happier than ever to see you. They want you to know that Beaujolais isn't just its Nouveau, a novelty wine that many of them were never that happy to be famous for.
No, the vintners of Beaujolais would much rather be known for their high-end work: the 10 special crus, such as Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon, the best of which can compete with the elegant wines of Burgundy to the north. The worldwide wine glut has held down prices: A bottle of perfectly nice Beaujolais can be bought at a winery for $6, a good cru for $11, and much of the best for $16.
Even better, Beaujolais may be France's prettiest wine region, worth visiting for its summer and fall landscapes even more than its wines.
Real wine enthusiasts, when they come to France, may aim for other spots on the map: Bordeaux in the southwest or Burgundy in the center. But the terrain that produces the world's most refined wines in those regions often turns out to be, well, disappointing: nothing but long rows of vines marching along gentle river valleys.
Beaujolais, on the other hand, is worth a journey and a stay. Most of its wine is merely fun, not quite distinguished. But the countryside is lovely: rugged hills and winding roads, villages with ancient stone churches, forest ridgelines touched at sunset by tendrils of fog. It's like the wilder parts of Napa, but with church bells and châteaux.
And the food—this being arguably the "foodiest" part of France, where people talk about the provenance of not only their wines but also their chickens—is simply splendid.
A visit to Beaujolais is mostly about simple pleasures, because that's the only kind here: a countryside made for walks, bike rides or lazy drives, vest-pocket villages with flower-lined paths, hundreds of little wineries with owners who want you to taste their wares, dozens of little restaurants trying to outdo one another with local ingredients, and plenty of good inns. This is France at its least intimidating. The wine is unpretentious, and so are the restaurants and hotels. Jeans and khakis are fine most of the time; at dinner, a casual dress or blue blazer will do. Tourists are valued here, and many people speak workable English. All are gently supportive when an American bravely tries to use his high school French. There are no real museums to visit (except one—more on that later), no serious art to admire, no historical monuments to speak of—just landscapes, food and wine.
The French come here mostly for the walking and biking trails, and so did we. In late May my wife, Paula, and I headed into the Beaujolais hills armed with little more than a rented Peugeot, a Michelin guidebook and walking shoes. At 3 o'clock one afternoon, just as the guidebook promised, a winemaker appeared on the steps of the old stone church in the center of Vauxrenard, a village of tile-roofed houses clinging to a west-facing slope. It was Perraud, a rangy, silver-haired man with a sun-baked face and wary eyes that made him look like a Gallic Gary Cooper, a third-generation grape grower and, that Saturday, the village's designated vineyard guide.
"You're here for the walk?" he asked, allowing a tentative smile. "Good, then. Let's go."
As we followed him on the village's well-marked, two-mile "wine path," here and there a few tiny plots of vines had been taken out of production in exchange for subsidies from the European Union.
"They're talking about building houses on this one," Perraud said, gesturing with disapproval at a sandy, denuded slope between two fields of glorious spring-green vines. (The sandy soil, produced by slowly eroding granite, is what makes the wine so good.) But the rest of the view, from the pine-green mountain range down across symmetrical vineyards to the broad Saône River Valley below, was sunny and glorious.
"On a clear day you can see the Alps," Perraud said brightly, the troubles of wine-selling forgotten for a moment. He bent down to a gnarled root. How old? "Forty years old, maybe more," he said with respect.
A few minutes later, we were inside the Perraud family winery—a small but tidy workshop with a mechanical presser, a handful of fermentation tanks and a total of four oak casks for the family's best product, its Moulin-à-Vent. (The name means "windmill," after an old mill in a vineyard; it's one of those 10 special crus.) The tasting room was spartan—a small wooden bar and a picnic table set on a pea-gravel floor—but the tasting was free, and the wine was delicious. "Not bad," Perraud allowed. The price for a bottle of his best 2-year-old Moulin-à-Vent: $9.50.
Another winery was just around the bend in the road, and another after that. The family-owned wineries of Beaujolais are tiny. Twenty-five acres of vines is considered a good-sized property; 18 acres is the average. A holding that size produces enough grapes for about 38,000 bottles of wine a year, but most of the fruit is sold to Georges Duboeuf, Louis Jadot or other big winemaking houses. In the Perrauds' case, two-thirds of their grapes go to Duboeuf; of the 20,000 or so bottles they make under their label, only about 1,000 qualify as Moulin-à-Vent.
In the evening, a few hours later, we stood on an old terrace in Juliénas, two villages to the north, and watched the sun set over the same ridge after bathing the vineyards in golden light. We sat down for dinner in the courtyard of a charming restaurant, Le Coq à Juliénas (coq au vin, delicious cheeses, several pages of wines from the neighborhood). And we repaired happily to a country inn, the Auberge de la Boucle, whose sole defect was the noisy debate, early the next morning, between the innkeeper's dog and a neighbor's angry goose.
The villages here are only a few miles apart, tantalizingly close on the map. But the landscape is rugged enough—all hills and canyons and switchbacks—that our initial plans to hike a neat circuit through three or four villages a day turned out to be overly ambitious.
Happily, each village came to the rescue with its own little walking map: one trail for vineyards, one for forests, one to take you by the old chapel and so on. We discovered it was easiest to choose a village, start at the main square (inevitably centered on the church) and chart a hike along one or two of the designated paths, depending on how energetic we felt and how much time we had before the next meal. There are well-marked bike paths too, both along the main highways and a converted rail bed. (Rails to trails has taken hold in Europe too.)
Up in the hills, the traffic is sparse and unthreatening, unless you count the otherworldly appearance of insect-like high-rider tractors built for straddling 3-foot-tall vines.
From the village square in Fleurie, just down the hill from Vauxrenard, we followed a well-marked trail through a vineyard (the farmer politely returned our wave from his tractor) and a little wood, down paths lined by purple delphinium and along country roads punctuated by farmers' ornamental rosebushes. (Is there any other country where farmers adorn their working fields with flowers just for enjoyment?)
The reward, after a 35-minute climb, was a hilltop chapel with another breathtaking view. The downhill walk to the village took only 25 minutes, and the reward was lunch under an umbrella on the veranda of an old bistro: salade beaujolaise, a local specialty made with a poached egg, croutons, chopped tomatoes and chunky bacon on top of greens.
Fleurie also boasts the best restaurant in the area, the Auberge du Cep. Owner Chantal Chagny is something of a local legend: She started out doing classic French cuisine—"elaborate dishes with elaborate sauces, lobster, all that sort of thing," she said—and won two Michelin stars, achieved this year by only 65 restaurants in France.
Then six years ago, she decided to simplify her life and her restaurant. She rewrote the menu to focus on ingredients from the surrounding provinces—no more lobster, but some of the finest meat, fowl and freshwater fish in all of France. She told Michelin to feel free to take away her two stars. ("They said no one had ever told them that before," she recalled with a wicked smile.) Michelin stripped her of one, but prudently left her with a single star, to see if this Alice Waters-style experiment in regional cuisine could work.
We had cream of asparagus soup (it was asparagus season) that was heavenly, mild spring lamb that was a revelation and, for dessert, a pungent homemade sorbet of cassis—black currants—that would have been worth the trip by itself. The meal was expensive by local standards—about $230 for two, including a bottle of Fleurie from a winery whose vines we probably walked by earlier in the day—but oh, was it memorable.
"Americans are our best clients, Americans and Germans, because they love the idea of good regional cooking," Chagny said. "The French still aren't quite sure." She might have been exaggerating out of hospitality; as far as we could tell, most of her 14 tables were occupied by French patrons (although there was one Briton who dined by himself, looking positively ecstatic).
Still, a reservation can be hard to get. Last year, the late R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr. of the New York Times listed Chagny's restaurant as one of 10 in the world that merited a journey; his two-paragraph mention provoked newspaper and TV stories in France and Germany and sent armies of European gourmets to Fleurie to discover a jewel that had been hidden in plain sight.
Among the region's wineries—which could, by day three, turn into a bit of a blur—the Château de La Chaize, the only classic big-château winery among the 10 crus, is worth mentioning. Relatives of François de La Chaize, one of Louis XIV's military officers, have been growing grapes and making wine here since 1676, clinging to the property through the revolution and wars. The winery is newer than the castle; it was built between 1771 and 1811 and is still being used.
The vaulted stone cellar didn't need air conditioning to stay cool in 1771, and it was just as cool when we walked through it on a hot day last spring. The current proprietress, the Marquise de Roussy de Sales, inherited the château from an aunt who married into the La Chaize line; even if she's not technically a La Chaize, she has devoted herself to maintaining the winery, the château and its gardens full of boxwood and lavender. She has responded to the challenge of slumping consumer demand by marketing some of her low-end production in 5-liter boxes (only in France) even as her high-end réserve de la marquise wins glowing reviews.
The marquise and her 242 acres are an exception though. For most Beaujolais growers on smaller holdings, bottling proprietary wine is not economical.
Three-quarters of the region's grapes are sold to the wine merchants, the négociants, who blend, bottle and market Beaujolais worldwide. The largest, of course, is Georges Duboeuf, the marketing genius who made Beaujolais Nouveau a global phenomenon two decades ago. Duboeuf is the Robert Mondavi of Beaujolais, respected and resented in almost equal measures. He and his son Franck, his designated successor, buy about 20% of the grapes produced in this area. Like the Mondavis and Gallos of California, they would like more respect for the best wines their giant company makes, but the ocean of just-pretty-good wine that made the family fortune keeps getting in the way.
Down in the Saône River flatland by the old railway station of Romanèche-Thorins, from which much of his wine was shipped, Duboeuf has built a tourist-friendly wine museum that's one part industrial visitors' center, one part mini-Disneyland. Call it Georges Duboeuf World. (Might as well; Mr. D's signature—part of the trademark on his wine label—is emblazoned on every building.) There's the usual winery tour, in this case a big one, with impressive stainless-steel fermentation tanks and row upon row of oak aging casks. But there's more: a spectacular gallery of old wine tools and machinery, games for kids to play (quizzes, not drinking games), a not-quite-Disney-caliber audio-animatronics show about life in the vineyards, a tasting room built as a reproduction of a 19th century brasserie and an outdoor cafe. Also, a train museum with Mr. D's model trains, a big formal garden and a first-rate gift shop with all the wine tchotchkes you ever dreamed of. Did we mention one of the prettiest Victorian-style restrooms in France?
The ladies at the ticket counter—it's $21.50 a head—recommended four hours to do it justice. We gave it 90 minutes. Don't tell anyone, but we actually enjoyed it.
What to do with all the wine you've bought? As you know, you can't carry liquids onto the plane anymore. We packed three of our best finds—wines that aren't sold in the U.S.—inside our sturdiest suitcase, cushioned by shirts and sweaters. (Serious oenophiles buy Styrofoam packing forms.) All three bottles made it home, and we've already served them at dinner parties. It's hard to resist: "We found this outside the nicest little village in Beaujolais. Can't buy it here; they don't make enough to export. The winemaker said it was one of the best he'd ever made."
From LAX to Lyon, the nearest airport to the Beaujolais region, connecting service is available on American, Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, Aer Lingus, United, Air Tahiti Nui, Delta and British Airways. From Paris, the region is about 41/2 hours by car and a little more than two hours by high-speed train. From the train station in Mâcon (a famous white wine town), Fleurie and Juliénas are about 12 miles away, reachable by rented car, bicycle or taxi.
Bicycles are available for rent in Beaujeu at Les Sources du Beaujolais, Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, 011-33-04-74-69-20-56, and in Mâcon at ProCycles, 011-33-03-85-22-81-82. For more information, go to www.beaujolais.com or visit tourist information offices in Fleurie and Beaujeu.
The most elegant hotel in the area is the Château de Pizay, Morgon, St. Jean d'Ardières, 011-33-04-74-66-51-41, www.chateau-pizay.com (doubles from $183). Others include Hôtel Les Maritonnes on Route de Fleurie in Romanèche-Thorins, 011-33-03-85-35-51-70, www.maritonnes.com (from $108); Hôtel Le Villon, Boulevard du Parc, Villié-Morgon, 011-33-04-74-69-16-16, www.hotel-levillon.com (from $82); Hôtel des Grands Vins on Rue de la Grappe Fleurie in Fleurie, 011-33-04-74-69-81-43 (from $92).
Too many to list, but here are a few: Auberge du Cep, Place de l'Église, Fleurie, 011-33-04-74-04-10-77, perso.orange.fr/ mercurebeaujolais/cep.htm (dinner $61 to $129); Chez la Rose, Le Bourg, Juliénas, 011-33-04-74-04-41-20, www.chez-la- rose.fr; and Le Coq à Juliénas, Place du Marché, Juliénas, 011-33-04-74-04-41-98, www.coq-julienas.com.
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Doyle McManus is The Times' Washington Bureau chief.