November 18, 2009

Crus du Beaujolais

Crus du Beaujolais: These very flavorful and quite distinguished red wines are unjustly unknown and underrated in the U.S. 

On November 19, forget about the overblown celebration of Beaujolais Nouveau, an often not very exciting unfinished wine, and open instead a good bottle of Morgon, Chiroubles, Julienas, or Moulin à Vent.

In June I had the good fortune to attend a very professionally organized wine tasting of “BEAUJOLAIS CRUS”, at the very pleasant wine shop and wine seminar center of JUST GRAPES located on West Washington Blvd. in Chicago. That event that was repeated in 2 other U.S. cities in 2009, Washington DC and New York City, is put together under the sponsorship of EXPRESSIONS D’ORIGINE, Domaines et Châteaux en Beaujolais, a trade and promotion association comprised of 14 privately-owned wine-growing estates located in the 10 Crus du Beaujolais AOC production areas.
I was very happy to participate in that event since it allowed me to get reacquainted in a very positive perspective with the wines of some of these ‘’crus’’ that I did not have many opportunities to taste over the last 10 years in Chicago. Most of them unfortunately are not very commonly found in local wine stores and shops.
A very different and much more complex and interesting wine that the ‘’ Beaujolais Nouveau’’ that Americans enjoy so much for no valid reason, which will be pour on Thursday November 19.
It is very unfortunate that the “Crus du Beaujolais” are relatively unknown by the American public at large since they are very flavorful, well made, and in any case gazillion times more interesting that the over-hyped and over-marketed ‘’Beaujolais Nouveau’’ that you find in every store and bistro in town every year, when it is released on the third Thursday of November after midnight.
Beaujolais Nouveau is a fresh,fruity, sometimes aromatic, wine but, for my own taste, it is deprived of any real personality and structure. It first appeared in French cafés and bistros after its production was approved by the French government in 1951. In the fifties and early sixties, it was quite amusing and charming to drink that ‘’new wine’’ pressed a few days after harvest time, from a small barrel or a glass jug located at the end of the bar. You would drink a glass while eating some ‘’charcuterie’’ or a piece of cheese, and it would be an occasion to chat and laugh with other regulars of the café in a merry and relaxed atmosphere.
That tradition started in the bistros and cafés of Lyon, Villefranche sur Saône, and of course in the nearby producing villages of the Beaujolais region. But pretty soon it became popular first in Paris and then in other large cities where the ‘’négociants’’ (wholesalers and brokers) of Beaujolais wines where commercially active.
In the early 50s you did not find Beaujolais Nouveau in its present bottled form in wine stores. And its consumption was limited to a few cities in France, in Geneva, Switzerland, that is close to Lyon, and whose citizens have loved Beaujolais for several generations, and a few cafes in Brussels, Belgium, and that was it.
In 1966 the famous NICOLAS company, that has hundreds of wine stores all over France, organized for the first time special ‘’Beaujolais Nouveau’’ events in its 250 Paris stores.
Pretty soon, the famous advertising slogan ‘’ Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé’’ was posted on the windows and counters of every café and wine shop of France.
That type of wine is made by wine-growers producing the regular appellation ‘’Beaujolais’’ in 72 villages of the Southern and Eastern portion of the Beaujolais region, and in lesser proportion by wine-growers of the appelation ‘’Beaujolais- Villages’’ located in 38 townships . These wines are sold with a ‘’Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau’’ label. 

It is in fact, like all the red Beaujolais wines, made exclusively from GAMAY NOIR à JUS BLANC grapes. The Nouveau is hand-harvested. The not-destemmed whole bunches of grapes are then macerated for a very short time, 4 or 5 days at the most. (‘’Beaujolaise’’ vinification is almost always done through carbonic maceration).
After a first fermentation, the juices drawn from the vats and those resulting from pressing are assembled, an put in vats for a second cycle of fementation. The vinification last about one month from harvest time.
The well-known “négociant’’ Georges Duboeuf built a large part of his reputation in the U.S. on that Beaujolais Nouveau, when in fact several of his ‘’crus du Beaujolais’’ wines are much better and more interesting to drink all year long
In fact I am sad to say that the craziness about Beaujolais Nouveau, which started in the U.S. in the mid-seventies and lasted until the mid-nineties, probably killed the reputation of Beaujolais in general and of Crus du Beaujolais in particular.
Many trade people started to wonder where all this “Nouveau” consumed from Melbourne to Tokyo and from Vancouver to Rio was coming from, since simple math could allow you to calculate that more of that mediocre stuff was drunk than the legally allowed production would permit.
Several scandals regarding dubious production,blending, and distribution methods, (the most infamous one touching Georges Duboeuf, the largest négociant of that area), that were revealed in the 80’s and 90’s, had a negative impact of the marketability of good Beaujolais and Crus made by serious small producers.

Even in France the consumption of Crus du Beaujolais has been on the downside for more the last 15 years and has suffered from that unjust drop in reputation and favor on the part of wine lovers.
To be honest the fact that some of them have become increasingly expensive at the retail level did not help them either.
And that’s a shame since Crus du Beaujolais are excellent wines that deserve the same respect as wines from the Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Loire, Alsace, Languedoc, Southwest, or Provence areas.
When I was much younger my father would often open a bottle of Moulin à Vent, or of Saint Amour to accompany a good roasted chicken or some “vols au vent”, for birthdays or special occasions. I think he got that taste and tradition from my Grand Papa Laplanche, his father in law, in Geneva, where as I said earlier, this kind of wines have always been loved by the locals.
When I was a student in Paris in the eraly sixtes and did not have much money I would sometimes treat myself to a good camembert with a bottle of Morgon, almost a luxury for me at the time.
I remember that when I was an adolescent in Reims a well-known couple of ‘’’clochards’’ (hoboes) in our neigborhood, when they had collected a few coins, would go to the nearest café and order a glass of ‘’Beaujolpif’’, the somewhat vulgar knickname that was often used by blue-collar people to call Beaujolais after the war.
But later on, during trips to Lyon, I would enjoy drinking that wine in the traditional ‘’pot’’ de Beaujolais (a small bottle of around on pint) when eating charcuterie and other Lyonnaise specialties in the famous ‘’bouchons’’ (small bistrots in Lyon), like the Café des Fédérations.

A few facts about Beaujolais:

The vineyards of this AOC (Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée) officially recognized in 1936, have been producing wine since the days when the Roman legions occupied Gaule and planted vineyards.
The AOC Beaujolais-Villages was registered in 1950. It was the firtst time in the old history of French wines that the word ‘’village’’ was coupled with the name of an appelation. 39 villages were registered in that particular segment of the Beaujolais production.
The Beaujolais was named after the city of Beaujeu in the Western part of this area that was created by some local dukes in the 10th century. Beaujeu was for several centuries the capital of Beaujolais.
Nowadays it is accepted that the city or Villefranche, located more or less at the center of the appelation, is the main hub of that region.
It is located on a relatively narrow strip of land, South of Burgundy per se, 34 miles long and only 8 miles wide. The Southern part of the zone of production is located in an area just Northwest of Lyon, and the Northern part touches the region of Macon.
The vineyards are found in the Northern part of the Rhône Department and the Southern part of the Saône et Loire department.
The climate not as cool as in Burgundy, offers a good mix of sun and humidity.
The soils of the Northern hilly part of the region consist maily of schist, granite, and a little bit of limestone. The Southern part has more sand and clay.
The whole ‘’vignoble’’ covers about 55,000 acres. A little more than 20,000 acres poduce the basic Beaujolais.
There are approximately 3,000 producers
98 to 99% of the wines are red and made from the Gamay Noir à jus blanc.

The relatively rare Beaujolais-Villages Blanc is made of Chardonnay and sometimes Aligoté, and comes from vineyards way North not too far from the Maconnais. The even more rare rosé are made from Gamay.
There are 12 appellations of Beaujolais in 3 groups: Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages, and the 10 Crus du Beaujolais appellations.
Most regular (basic) Beaujolais (half of the total production) are produced in the Southern area (Bas-Beaujolais).
Some of the best Beaujolais-Villages and the 10 Crus are produced in the hilly areas of the North (Haut-Beaujolais).
In years when the alcoholic level might be too low winegrowers are authorized to add sugar, a process called ‘’chaptalisation’’.
All together these wines represent an average yearly production of 130 millions of bottles

Les Crus du Beaujolais

From South (north of Villefranche) to North (at the border with the Maconnais) there are only 10 of them:
Brouilly, and Côte de Brouilly,
Moulin à Vent,
Each of them have a different type of aroma and flavor. Some like Chiroubles , Fleurie and Saint-Amour are softer, fruity, and are considered as ‘’tender’’, elegant charmers easy to drink, and some would say ‘’feminine’’.
All of them are very fragrant

Chiroubles, the highest in altitude, is very ‘’gouleyant’’, meaning that it goes down your throat in a very easy and soft manner. It is calles a very tender wine.
Fleurie is very elegant and has a velvety body. It often develops a lovely aroma of violet.
The Saint-Amour, with its very seductive blend of cherry, peach, red berries, aromas, and a definite floral nose, is called the ‘’lovers wine’’
Some like the Morgon, Chénas and Moulin à Vent are more assertive, have a stronger structure and body, and could be called ‘’masculine’’.
Morgon is perhaps the most often found Cru in bistros and wine bars both in the U.S and in France. It has a very dark purple color and its aromas can be a powerful mix of prune, and dark cherry. Very robust, it can in good years be cellared for 5 to 10 years. It has such typical ‘’terroir’’ characteristics that people say sometimes ‘’that wine morgonne’’.
Some of the best are harvested around the Mont du Py.
Chénas It was Louis the XIII ‘s favorite wine. I love its sometimes explosive mix of aromas and spicy tones that change from year to year. It can be very floral, slightly woody, often spicy, and alays very fragrant. With a good body structure, it can age gracefully for 5 to 7 years. But it always remain pretty elegant and suave.
Moulin à Vent It always had the most prestigious image. It is in some ways the closest to a Burgundy. It can be quite tannic and spicy. Always quite strongly structured and complex in its finish. But it never loses its typically floral and fruity ‘’Beaujolais’’ qualities. Can aged for up to 10 years.
The new kid in town: Regnié: This appelation was created in 1988. This very aromatic and mineral wine is produced by only 80 winemakers from soils composed essentially of pink granite. Very long finish. Nice tannins. I love its subtle but very sexy aromas of small red berries. A well balanced wine practically ignored by most wine merchants in the U.S.
Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly
The first one is a very pleasant wine that is as aromatic, soft, and subtle without being too floral or jammy. It got its name from an officer in the Roman legions, Brulius,who was posted there. It is the largest (in terms of hectares) of all the crus du Beaujolais. Redolent of small red fruits and prunes, it reflects perfectly the fresh qualities of the Gamay. Its tannins are quite soft.
The second one has a much smaller acrage. It is a rather elegant wine with fresh aromas and a delicate finish. To be honest it is not one of my favorites.
Julienas One of my 2 favorites. It has lots of muscle and an ever changing personality, due in part to the large diversity of its soils. It offers a very good balance of structure, spice, aromas, and has a great finish. It is much better after 3 or 4 years.

Good vintage years: The 2007 is very pleasant
I would recommend the 2005 and the 2003.

What kind of food to eat with crus du Beaujolais
Pot-au-Feu, Poule-au-pot, Coq-au-vin, Roasted chicken and turkey, Rabbit stew, Charcuterie, Partridge, Quail, and small birds, stuffed baked vegetables, Hachis Parmentier, Camembert cheese 
Service temperature:
Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages should be served slightly cool, around 55-56 degrees, and Crus du Beaujolais, especially the more robust and full-bodied ones, at 60-62 degrees.
Beaujolais wines do not need to be decanted.
An 8 year-old Moulin à Vent will benefit from being opened 30 to 40 minutes before pouring.

Some producers of crus du Beaujolais I can suggest:

Domaine Marcel Lapierre
Domaine Dominique Piron
Domaine Louis-Claude Desvignes (Côte de Py)
Domaine Jean Foillard
Georges Descombes
Brouilly :
Château de la Chaize
Côte de Brouilly :
Château Thivin
Fleurie :
Domaine du Vissoux
Domaine Michel Chignard
Domaine de la Madonne ( perhaps not yet distributed here)
Domaine du Clos de la Roilette
Moulin à Vent:
Domaine du Vissoux
Chateau des Jacques
Paul Janin
Michel Tête
Clos de Haute Combe
Domaine de Colette
Domaine Piron (Chenas Quartz)
Clos de la Brosse- Paul Baudet
Chiroubles :
Georges Duboeuf
Availability and prices

As far as prices are concerned, you can, in the Chicago area at least, find Crus du Beaujolais for prices varying from $ 14.00 for a Morgon to $30.00 for a Moulin à Vent.
But as usual Trader Joe's offers a decent Morgon ( producer unknown) for $ 5.99. Quite a deal.
Unfortunately, once again in the Chicago area, it is getting more and more difficult to find Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Regnié, Chenas, and Julienas from independant producers.
Several wine stores managers told me that there is practically no more regular demand for these wines.
If all you can find are wines bottled by some of the ''négociants'' try and limit your choice to good houses such as Tête, Jadot, Drouhin, Fessy, Mommessin, Latour, and Duboeuf.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Alain,
    I write as an American (born in Chicago no less) who lives in the 14eme of Paris. My wife is from Roanne, near Lyon, so I know the Rhone-Alps region. I find your posts extremely interesting and well written. I can also attest to their accuracy. For example, immedietly after reading about Je Said Cuisiner, I went into the kitchen to read my wifes copy. I want to congratulate you and encourage you to continue.
    Best wishes,