Beaujolais grows up

Beaujolais is moving beyond its short and fast history of high-profile marketing.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

As this country’s wine tastes shift away from bombast toward more balanced efforts, let’s imagine we could reduce that trend to a single wine from a single place. This wouldn’t be a wine made to floor you, overpower you or incite some rapturous state. It wouldn’t be a “great” wine, a high-scoring wine. On the contrary, it would be a wine that symbolizes the waning years of point-score piety, a wine for which profundity is an option but not an expectation, a wine whose sole purpose is to charm. And if you’re going to be moved by it, it will be due not to the wine’s depth or complexity but to its simplicity and clarity of expression.

To me right now that place, that wine is Beaujolais. The region’s wines, made from Gamay Noir, have never been more lucid, more honest, more pure in intent than in these last two vintages, 2009 and 2010. When I open a lightly chilled bottle of, say, the organically grown 2009 Morgon from Georges Descombes, I know I will not have to grasp at anything or wait for the wine to come to me. Its luminous uncomplicated beauty will be immediately apparent, and I know that with each sip I will feel something that is altogether rare and fleeting in bottles of wine or, really, in life: I will feel joy.

No one could have predicted this kind of success for the region 10 years ago. In 2001, more than a million cases of unwanted wine, most of it Beaujolais Nouveau, were destroyed or distilled after languishing in the markets. Production far exceeded demand, and the careless winemaking had sullied the region’s reputation and driven consumers away.


But as this was happening, a small but influential coterie of natural wine advocates, Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton and Jean-Paul Thévenet among them, were finding their voices in the region’s best village wines or crus. Fed up with indolent vineyard work, gaudy marketing campaigns and aggressive cellar practices, these grower producers dedicated themselves to more sensitive vineyard management and deliberately unobtrusive winemaking, using indigenous yeasts, zero additions and little or no sulfur.

Their efforts paved the way for the global phenomenon we now know as the natural wine movement. As a result, the best Beaujolais aren’t just emblematic of a place — they’re models of anti-interventionist winemaking. And in two spectacular vintages, it’s easy to see the fruits of this labor.

Additionally, their success with cru bottlings has inspired improvements in other regional efforts — even Beaujolais Nouveau.

There is nothing like a great vintage in France to show off a region’s strengths — but most speak of 2009 in Beaujolais in terms usually reserved for depictions of heaven. Warm but not too warm, the vintage was sunny and mercifully storm-free, leading to extremely high quality fruit. Many believe that the 2010s, just now rolling into the market, may be even better.

Such conditions elevate all wines, but even the usually just-good wines have been just spectacular. In most years, Beaujolais wines reflect a tension between fruit and earth elements. Some years, you could say, the earthbound elements win out. In 2009 and 2010, they are exquisitely matched, with bright red berry fruits balanced against soil-like inflections with uncanny grace — so graceful, in fact, that for the moment the stubborn stigma of cheap, concocted Beaujolais Nouveau bottlings has been set aside.

Beaujolais Nouveau started out innocently enough. Négociant (winemaker and merchant) Georges Duboeuf saw an opportunity in the 1970s to expand the market for his fruity, just-finished wines from non-cru sites as France’s first to market. They became popular in Lyon bistros, then Paris brasseries, then across the country. Duboeuf’s great breakthrough was to globalize this provincial post-harvest event — as you read this, cases of Beaujolais Nouveau are being hurried to the world’s largest cities: New York, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles and beyond. It has become a harbinger of the holiday season: case stacks of Beaujolais Nouveau are as synonymous with the holidays as Christmas lights.

But such a sales boon was not without cost: To ready wine for such global demand, Nouveau’s rapid production begot many dubious cultural practices, including untenably high yields, corrected with chaptalization (the addition of sugar) and the use of a fast-acting yeast called 71B that frequently gave off an aroma of banana or bubble gum, or both.

Jules Chauvet, a winemaker and chemist, led the charge against the industrialization of Beaujolais along with Morgon producer Lapierre. In their cru-wines, they cut yields, amended soils and discouraged pests naturally; Chauvet espoused fermentations that employed carbonic maceration, a whole-berry fermentation technique that produces smooth and fruity wines of almost irresistible charm. Chauvet died in 1989, but with a coterie of colleagues, Lapierre formed a fraternity that became the foundation of the natural wine movement.

Lapierre died last year, but his son Matthieu continues what his father had started: “Marcel was the first to be impolite and aggressive with the system,” he says of his father, “when the system wasn’t interested in tradition; the system was ‘easy money.’” Even though their wines represented just a tiny fraction of the region’s production, their influence was felt far and wide.

One of the most radical changes enacted by natural winemakers in Beaujolais was to bring to a close an era of egregious chaptalization practices; they slashed yields to the point where grapes could ripen fully, obviating the need for added sugar. “We make much more concentrated wines,” says Georges Descombes, whose yields are less than 40 hectoliters per hectare, or about 2.5 tons an acre, far from the area’s legal limit, which was once as high as 58 hectoliters/hectare. “I think we are now much closer to making a vin de terroir.”

Negociants too are exploring more natural practices. Burgundy negociant Maison Louis Jadot has been a player in Beaujolais for decades, but with its purchase of the famed Morgon estate Chateau des Jacques, its commitment was dramatically renewed, starting with viticulture: Just as in Burgundy, Jadot is encouraging more responsible viticulture in Beaujolais, including biodynamics.

Jadot vinifies Chateau des Jacques in a traditional way, eschewing carbonic maceration, resulting in a wine that’s uncommonly structured and Burgundian for Beaujolais, but one that reveals intriguing facets of the Gamay variety — a dark-fruited, floral, highly structured wine. “When you make wine this way,” says Jadot’s general director, Jacques Lardiere, “it’s maybe not as pretty as the wines made with maceration carbonique — but it’s wine!”

Even Beaujolais powerhouse Duboeuf is redirecting cultural practices to reflect more responsible vine growing. The winery is actively encouraging sustainable viticulture among its many growers, but, more important, Duboeuf now insists that producers bring them wines vinified with indigenous yeasts. And last year in Japan, they gave an organic Beaujolais Nouveau its premiere.

Nouveau remains the enduring dilemma of the region. Credit must go to Duboeuf not only for his commercial success — Nouveau was one of the most effective wine promotion campaigns ever devised — but for portraying his region’s wines as ones of celebration and simple pleasures. At the same time, growers and négociants are desperate to overcome the impression that a wine made quickly isn’t merely plonk.

Some, like Matthieu Lapierre, chafe at the restrictions that Nouveau represents. “I don’t want to follow a timeline,” he says. “It’s not as if magically nature can follow the economic dictates of a commercial system so the world can drink this wine for a few weeks in November.” Instead, Lapierre makes a young wine released when it’s ready, which he calls Raisins Gaulois, loosely translated as “French grapes” (as Beaujolais has no vin du pays, it must be released as a Vin de France).

Others, like Descombes, are interested in making Nouveau better. He’s been playing around with his Nouveau style for the last few vintages — striving for the happy immediacy of a vin de primeur but with better raw material, from his cru vineyards. “I want to make a wine that will give you an excuse to have a glass of wine during the day,” says Descombes. He is fond of saying, with disarming certitude, “Beaujolais is a party.” And in the right hands, with vintages like the last two, it’s hard to argue with him.