Burgundy’s southernmost and sometimes most scenic wine producing region actually falls into the administrative department of the Rhone, and extends from the southern border of the Maconnais as far as the city of Lyon. Climate, topography, geology, grape variety and winemaking techniques are by and large quite distinct from the rest of Burgundy. There are some 20,000 hectares under vine, most of them the Gamay a Jus Noir, and the total production is often as great as in all of the northern Burgundy regions combined. The Beaujolais is qualitatively weighted to the north, where the limestone of the southern Maconnais gives way to granite slopes, ideal terroir for the Gamay. Here we find the ten Beaujolais crus, St-Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Brouilly, and Cote de Brouilly, where the wines are considered so distinctive that they are entitled to drop the word Beaujolais altogether from the label. Although the Burgundy negociant Louis Jadot has a presence in these villages, as does the seemingly ubiquitous Beaujolais house of Georges Duboeuf, there is a strong tradition of domaine bottling. The terroirs of Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent and Cote de Brouilly in particular are capable of producing wines which defy Beaujolais typicity, giving wines which can show a tendency to taste more like Pinot-Noir as they age, which in many cases they are able to do for decades.
Outside of the crus, the next qualitative level is Beaujolais Villages, also weighted to the north and the foothills of the Massif Central to the north-west. If a wine is the produce of a single village, the name of that village may be appended on the label. In excess of half of all Beaujolais comes from the south of the region, the Bas-(or more pejoratively the Batard-) Beaujolais. Whilst there are in fact some fine sites on limestone and clay-limestone slopes, it is onto the flatter land towards Lyon that the region was extended in the boom years and which have been responsible for generating some of the least worthy wines to bear the name Beaujolais.
The vast majority of Beaujolais is made by one or other of the region’s negociants or co-operatives using carbonic maceration or semi-carbonic maceration, a vinification method which, most particularly when combined with synthetic yeasts and following heavy sugar chaptalisation to bring the potential alcohol up from its legal minimum of 10% to somewhere near its maximum of 13%, gives a bright, light bodied red wine characterised by aromas of bananas, pear drops and bubble gum, but with little or no reference to its viticultural, geographic or geological origins. This method and style reached its apogee with Beaujolais Nouveau, a fad which burned itself out in the 1990s, taking much of the market for the wines of Beaujolais with it.
There is, of course, much more to the story than this travesty of real wine, and it is one that is of increasing interest to us. The history of the region, as with the rest of burgundy to the north, and the Rhone to the south, has its origins in the Rhone – Saone trade route from northern Europe to the Mediterranean. The Romans certainly exploited the vine in the area that is now covered by the Crus Beaujolais in the north, and the story continues through the eras of the monastic and Burgundian ducal dynasties. There has followed a strong and growing culture which might be romaticised as the ‘paysan-artisan-vigneron’ which survived the industrialisation of wine production here, and so too one of quality, the two neatly combining in an anarchic streak which seeks to restore the best of tradition and is perfectly prepared to defy the authorities in so doing, most obviously personified here in Jean-Paul Brun of Terres Dorees.
This new influx, here most usually generational rather than migrant, often hold as the inspiration the legendary ‘gang of four’, the late Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thevenet, and Jean Foillard, themselves disciples of the spiritual godfather of natural winemaking, Jules Chauvet, who called for a return to tradition in Beaujolais – old vines, no synthetic herbicides or pesticides, harvesting fully ripe grapes thereby doing away with the need to chaptalise, indigenous yeasts, vinification a la style Bourguignonne, and low use of sulphur dioxide.
Good Beaujolais, at its most simple, is characterised in France by the word gouleyant, to the Anglo-Saxon gulpable or quaffable. However, it is capable of being much more, and, as mentioned above, can carry real class and potential for interesting development in bottle when from the finest terroirs and the best producers.
As with the Pays Nantais in the Loire, we firmly believe that the Beaujolais region stands on the threshold of an exciting new story which is carrying with it a new appreciation for its wines, and it is one that we will be following closely.