Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

Can Beaujolais Bounce Back?

(A version of a piece I wrote recently for the Association of Wine Educators Newsletter)

The entry on ‘fashion’ in the most recent (2006) edition of Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine cites ‘lighter-bodied, high acid reds such as those of the Loire and Beaujolais’ as ‘obvious examples’ of wine types that ‘can be said to be generally out of fashion.’  It was therefore intriguing to see the high profile claimed by both of these at this year’s London Wine Fair in May, where the good and the great in the world of wine writing and wine education were lined up in their support. Is the tide really beginning to change?

I was invited by Westbury Communications to present a trade seminar on behalf of Inter-Beaujolais (the association of Beaujolais wine growers) in Newcastle back in late March. I was glad to accept, not just because I’ll gladly snatch the hand of anyone who offers me work in these straightened times, but because I’m fond of Beaujolais, I’ve visited the region fairly regularly over the last twenty five years, and I was also about to take a group there for a brief look at the region in late May as part of a wine holiday. The seminar gave me a chance to take stock.

Interest in the event was, to be frank, a little lukewarm; but we managed to cajole a couple of dozen shop managers and restaurateurs into coming to taste eighteen wines. The wines, which were of a generally high standard, were received with some enthusiasm. But attitude to the category and sales remains mixed. One leading local independent merchant told me later that there is little demand for Beaujolais from his customers who still associate it with insipid Nouveau. Despite the fact that he stocks some very good wines from the Crus, his own opinion is that the region has lost direction, the wines are over-priced and the general quality ‘is not very clever’. In contrast, the manager of a local branch of Majestic finds that demand for Beaujolais is ‘fairly buoyant’. He observes that the wines ‘fit quite well what people are looking for’: lower alcohol, complexity and attractive, approachable fruit.

The attitude of folk who come to the tastings and courses that I organise is also mixed, but those who came to a recent tasting and talk about the ten Crus liked what they found and a couple of experimental food and wine evenings revealed Beaujolais in a new light for me too.

Since visiting Hong Kong last year and especially after a long conversation there with Simon Tam, I’ve been fascinated in the matching of wines to wide range of Asian cuisines. I discovered an exceptionally fine local Chinese restaurateur right here in North Shields (Keith Pun of the Golden Swallow Restaurant) who was just as keen to experiment with food and wine combinations to build upon the results of the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition’s attempt to find the ideal wines to partner a range of classic Chinese dishes. My hunch that Cru Beaujolais would stand up to a spicy Sichuan beef dish proved correct: Morgon, Côte du Py, Vieilles Vignes, 2008, Christophe Cordier (available from Majestic) not only maintained its fruit, but also helped to lift the spice of the dish. A later experiment, this time with East African Asian cuisine, also showed the potential of young, fruity Beaujolais as a partner for a range of complex, spicy flavours. The successful wine this time was the recently released Chénas 2009, Cave du Château de Chénas (also from Majestic).

And so to Beaujolais itself, with a group of sixteen wine lovers in the last week of May. As the trip was split between the Beaujolais and the Mâconnais, our investigation of both regions could only be brief, but it was enough to shed some light on the issues facing the region’s wine producers and also a welcome opportunity to taste a number of wines from the much praised 2009 vintage.

Three conversation with winegrowers stood out, all of whom were concerned about the future of Beaujolais wine and had all made major changes to their viticultural practice or business model in recent years.

Franck Lathuilière tends about 13 hectares of vines mostly classified for Beaujolais Villages, including one substantial single parcel, close to the old family winery near Vaux en Beaujolais (I’m written more about him recently in The Journal). In recent years, he and his wife Annie have diversified their business by offering a gîte for holiday rental and have expanded their wine range to include sparkling wine, both a ‘méthode traditionelle’ and a pink, 8% abv pétillant, as well as rosé, white Beaujolais, grape juice and a range of preserves.  Over the last four or five years they have succeeded in selling their wine to individual clients, local restaurants, a single supermarket in the north of France and to two UK importers. They no longer need to sell wine in bulk to négociants. Franck’s winemaking practices are thoroughly traditional, including aging some wine in large old foudres. He’s in the process of conversion to an organic regime and has begun to experiment with some biodynamic treatments. Like many other growers he has also begun to restructure his vineyard from gobelet to a version of Cordon Royat on wires, to enable him to grass between the rows, a change which he also believes has helped produce earlier, more consistent ripening.

Diversification, change and increased independence are working for him, but he expressed alarm at the financial difficulties faced by many growers in the region, especially in the Bas Beaujolais where some have been forced to grub up vineyards and others, he said planting not only much more Chardonnay but are abandoning the Beaujolais appellation altogether and are trying their luck with Syrah and even Viognier.

This trend was verified by Vincent Lacondemine, who has 4 hectares of vines around Beaujeu, also in Beaujolais Villages. ‘Beaujolais really is in crisis,’ he told me, ‘Eighty percent of the growers here sell to the négotiants, and there’s no profit in that at all.’ His response has been to give up two hectares of land that had been held in métayage (the crop-sharing system that is still widespread in Beaujolais) and to aim for the highest possible quality on his on remaining plots, which he is also converting to organic and reconstructing on wires with grass between the rows. His aim is to make wines that express complexity and minerality and he quizzed me at length about how they may be received by UK consumers. He sells a lot of his wine to Northern Europe, but also to Nick Dobson in the UK, for whom he expresses great affection and respect. He too has diversified his range with a rosé (’I was a bit reticent about it at first and I didn’t get it right first time, but my clients asked for one’) and a white, subtly oaked Beaujolais Villages. My group greatly admired the elegant minerality of this, which from vines grown on a granitic soil was so very different from those of neighbouring Mâconnais.

Further north, Thierry Condemine has 35 hectares grouped around the fine eighteenth-century Château de Juliénas, bought by his great-grandfather in 1907. He welcomes the changes to the rules for the appellation of Juliénas in 2004 that also allow a restructuring of the vineyard and the reduction of the vine density from 10,000 to -6,000 plants per hectare. He has only replanted 1.5 hectares so far, but is delighted with the results. He believes that they not only allows a quicker, more effective intervention to be made if treatments are needed; but that the vines are healthier and ripen more evenly; as his colleagues have also found. Complete reconstructing however, will be he insists, a lifetime’s task. He would dearly love to sell his wines in the UK, but has not yet managed to find an importer and blames the poor exchange rate for his lack of success.

My group enjoyed the wines from all three producers and over the course of our week in the region were impressed by wines from several other domains. They praised their ability to partner food well and welcomed the characteristics of accessibility, lower alcohol and complexity that Vincent Lacondemine strives to achieve and which appeal to Majestic customers back home.

Above all, they were thrilled by the quality of the 2009 vintage, which was consistently fruity and forward, yet rich balanced and often beautifully textured.  A barrel sample of Lacondemine’s single vineyard ‘Le Chapital’ proved a prefect example: spicy and concentrated, with masses of ripe red and black fruit, a splendid balance of juicy acidity, silky tannins and elegant minerality.

They went to the region with mixed expectations, some of which were very close to those of the independent wine merchant I spoke to. They came away saddened and puzzled that some growers feel that they can no longer make a living from Gamay and that the reputation of Beaujolais has fallen so low; yet were certain that if the 2009s they had tasted were readily available at a fair price, they would fly off the shelves. Like me, they wonder if the efforts to change vineyard practice have come too late. Can the magnificent 2009 vintage help to restore the fortunes of the Beaujolais?

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