Beaujolais is calling
The region is located in east central France, south of Burgundian region Maconnais and North of the Rhone Valley. The grapes enjoy a temperate and semi continental climate. In the Northern part of the region where the crus are located the landscape is made up of gentle, rolling hills with granite and schist soils and some limestone. Often the wine label will not state “Beaujolais” when coming from the communes classified as “Crus” this can be quite confusing for new-comers. Keep an eye out for the following – St Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Brouilly and Cote de Brouilly.
The Southern part of the region is flat, the vines are planted on rich soils with clay often appearing. Wines produced here often fall under the regional appellation of “Beaujolais AC” and are often light, early drinking styles.
The grape responsible for Beaujolais, one of my favourite wines is Gamay. Naturally the wines tend to be light in tannin and colour with high acidity. Typically consumed youthful and chilled. There is a more serious side of this grape and wines coming from Morgon and Moulin a Vent can taste quite similar to Pinot with age.
Most know Beaujolais for its Nouveau style of wine which is often reminiscent of bananas and bubblegum. A thin light wine rushed through the winery to be released around the world on the 3rd Thursday of November. The commercialisation of Beaujolais began with the Nouveau trend in the 70s and 80s.
In its peak nearly half of all Beaujolais AC was sold this way. The region was pumping out a ridiculous amount and as a result quality quickly dropped.
Today it’s a worn out fad wine that only remains a wine of interest in a few cities across France. Many consumers aware of the Nouveau tend not to take this region too seriously or aren’t aware of the gems it offers. Beaujolais is a great region to look out for, offering excellent value for money, especially the cru wines.
There are a few people responsible for this shift, most notably Jules Chauvet who is often named the godfather of the natural wine movement (pictured below). He was a winemaker, gift taster and research chemist who focused on yeast, carbonic maceration and Malo Lactic fermentation . He studied nature in order to know what was needed to work with it rather than against it. He spoke out against the use of chemicals in the vineyard during a time when almost everyone was spraying or use additives in wine. Perhaps a traditionalist at heart who wanted to return to the old practises of viticulture and vinification. Old vines, no chemical sprays, harvesting late to obtain the ripest fruit, sorting grapes to only use the healthiest and minimal doses of sulphur dioxide and putting an end to chapitalisaiton is what he insisted on. He forever changed the path of the winemaker Marcel Lapiere who would go on to further inspire others.
If Chauvet is dubbed the god father of the natural wine movement, Lapiere is the father. At the time he was considered a rebel along with other local vignerons Guy Breton, Jean Foillard and Jean Paul Thevent. The group was dubbed the “gang of four” by American wine importer Kermit Lynch. In the 1980’s they were going against the norm and changing their vineyards and wine making techniques to what they were before the synthetic chemical revolution took place.
Georges Descombes is the unofficial 5th member of the gang. In addition to working with his vigneron father he also worked at a local bottling company. He had the opportunity to taste many wines as he travelled from cellar to cellar though it was the wines of Marcel Lapiere that struck a chord with young Georges who would go on to attempt to create wines with the same elegance and purity.
In the late eighties Descombes took over his family estate and began to push the already old-school approach of the estate even further by practising organic viticulture and stopped the use of any additives. To combat vine pests and diseases he will use sulphur, copper and algae-based powders. His vineyards are located in 4 cru communes, Brouilly, Chiroubles, Morgon and Regnie as well as 2HA of Beaujolais Villages.
The grapes are harvested by hand from old vines and stored in a temperature controlled container. He allows the grapes to cool before beginning fermentation as the wild yeasts are very fragile, high temperatures can endanger them at a crucial time of their life. Fermentation takes place in cement vats where a traditional semi-carbonic maceration occurs for around 30 days. Each Cru vineyard will produce an old vine “Vieilles Vignes” Cuvees, they are vinified separately and aged in barrel of six months. His wines are vibrant, fresh, become aromatic with some air time and possess the structural skeleton allowing them to age.