Beaujolais: riding the rollercoaster
Author: Will Heslop
Once lauded, then laughable, Beaujolais has endured a fickle following and a questionable reputation. Will Heslop charts the highs and lows of this underrated region, and explains why it apogee is yet to come.
What’s your view of Beaujolais? Your response is likely to depend on your first encounter with this oddly divisive wine (and, by implication, your age). Perhaps it was a glass of bright purple, bubblegum and banana-scented liquid, quaffed to the strains of Duran Duran, during the Beaujolais Nouveau craze of the 1980s. If you’re a little older, it may have been watching Abigail’s Party, whose early audiences supposedly tittered at hostess Beverly’s gaucheness when she puts a bottle of Beaujolais in the fridge. Millennials, on the other hand, will be aware that some reds are best served chilled, assuming their first sip of Beaujolais was at one of the hip wine bars which have staged its resurgence – and where chilled reds from Bierzo, Sicily and elsewhere are concomitantly de rigeur.
These vignettes illustrate the shifting status of Beaujolais in the UK market. It was one of the first wines to gain a foothold as wine consumption quadrupled from 1960 to ’80 (yet wine remained somewhat exotic, hence Beverly’s confusion). Fast forward to the ’80s and ’90s, when Beaujolais Nouveau was accessible enough to sweep the nation, and it became a byword for frivolity. Today, Beaujolais has been reincarnated as both hipster favourite and – at entry level – supermarket staple. But these snapshots only tell half the story. Peaks in popularity have been followed by troughs, most notably in the late-’90s and early-2000s, when Beaujolais Nouveau (which had come to define the region for many consumers) fell dramatically out of fashion.
The nadir came in 2002, when the equivalent of 13 million bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau remained unsold, much of it ending up as salad dressing. With Beaujolais deservedly back on trend, it’s an apt time to look deeper into the region’s history and explore the reasons behind its see-sawing reputation.
A brief history of Beaujolais
Beaujolais is a region rich in history. Grapes were first planted here by the Romans, who were eventually succeeded by Benedictine monks as the impetus for viticulture and winemaking. The Benedictines identified many of the best terroirs which would, centuries later, constitute the 10 Crus. Contemporary wine lists reveal that around the turn of the 20th century, wines from Moulin-à-Vent (before it was designated a Cru) were particularly prized, often costing more than those from the most prestigious villages of the Côtes de Nuits. Even so, by this time, the lion’s share of wine made in Beaujolais was inexpensive and unambitious – a fruity, thirst-slaking red for the growing populations of Lyon and, since the advent of railways, Paris.
Gabriel Chevalier’s comic masterpiece Clochemerle, published in 1934 and set in the eponymous (fictional) village in Beaujolais, confirms that – despite its commercial success – then, as now, Beaujolais lacked the renown of neighbouring Burgundy:
“One thing is certain: Beaujolais is little known, both the wine and the region, by gastronomes and tourists alike. In terms of wine, it is sometimes seen as the fag end of Burgundy, merely the tail of the comet. Away from the Rhône, people tend to think a Morgon is nothing more than a pale imitation of a Corton.”
Barthélemy Piéchut, the self-aggrandising mayor of Clochemerle, would have approved when, in ’36, the first five Crus were established (though he would have questioned why Clochemerle was not among them). The Crus were intended to highlight and safeguard the region’s finest wines, many of which bore little resemblance to “basic” Beaujolais.
While the establishment of the Crus was a significant moment, it paled in comparison to the decision made in ’51 to move forward the permitted release date of new wines from 15th December to 15th November. A number of négociants recognised the potential marketing coup of having their wine delivered first to the bistros of Paris. But it was a local lad, Georges Dubœuf, who coined the term “Beaujolais Nouveau” in the ’60s and, over the coming decades, would corner the key export markets of Japan, the US and UK.
Releasing the wine so young necessitated certain winemaking techniques, which accounted for the distinctive style of Beaujolais Nouveau. Dubœuf and others fine-tuned the technique of carbonic maceration (when whole bunches are fermented in carbon-dioxide-rich containers) and, later, thermovinification (briefly heating the must to hasten the extraction of colour and soft tannins, but killing ambient yeast and other helpful enzymes). Although Gamay lent itself to such techniques, the resulting wines were homogeneous, and revealed nothing of the grape’s capacity for complexity – or Beaujolais’s myriad terroirs.
Even at the height of demand for Beaujolais Nouveau, in the ’80s, a backlash was brewing among a small number of the region’s growers. Those advocating a different approach included Louis-Claude Desvignes and the group christened the Gang of Four by influential American wine personality Kermit Lynch: Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thévenet and Jean Foillard. Lapierre and Foillard, in particular, would become darlings of the Natural Wine movement of which Beaujolais is today a stronghold. Like them, Desvignes was committed to sustainable viticulture, but his revolutionary act was simply to replicate the slow vinification and long maturation favoured by his father and grandfather, which had become profoundly unfashionable. Not only did his Morgons take longer to make, they were vins de garde, often requiring several years to “come round”.
The next generation
By the beginning of the new millennium, when a lake of unwanted Gamay was amassing, the dominance of Nouveau had stilted the development of winemaking in Beaujolais. But the consequences were not all bad. Vineyards remained relatively cheap, drawing an influx of young winemakers, inspired by the wines of Lapierre, Desvignes et al. What’s more, many of the vineyards available to buy were steeply sloped, rocky (primarily granite) and contained old vines – little use to growers seeking high yields, but catnip to the likes of Julien Sunier, who spent months sleeping in his car in order to afford three tiny plots in Régnié, Fleurie and Morgon.
It was inevitable that vineyards of such promise would also capture the imagination of Burgundian winemakers bent on a fresh challenge. Thibault Liger-Belair was one of the first to acquire vineyards, in 2008. He now has over 10 hectares – including a parcel of century-old vines – across a remarkable patchwork of soils in Moulin-à-Vent. More recent investors include Louis Boillot, whose young son Clément has enthusiastically taken charge of the project.
Whatever their background, a sense of fun seems to unite many of the best winemakers in Beaujolais today. The vibe at tastings such as Bien Boire en Beaujolais, organised by Louis-Benoît Desvignes (the son of Louis- Claude), is upbeat and unpretentious; it is this, almost as much as the quality of the wines, that appeals to the taste-makers championing Beaujolais. A measure of the confidence running through the region is the unprecedented number of respected domaines which, in ’17, released a Beaujolais Nouveau. Top examples from Le Grappin and Guy Breton are as light and fruit-driven as the Beaujolais Nouveau of yesteryear, but with crunchy red fruit to the fore, a clear granitic character and no trace of bananas. Yet another thrilling twist for the Bojo rollercoaster.
Browse our selection of Beaujolais here.