Beaujolais is repositioning itself in the 21st century, not least through technology aimed at increasing its accessibility for consumers. Not all wine regions can claim that they offer the modern intelligence of a navigation system to guide drivers along back roads in the depths of the French countryside, to the well-hidden crus and villages ready to welcome, yet the Route des Vins du Beaujolais offers exactly that—a surefire way to win more consumers.
On a recent jam-packed stint to Beaujolais, covering three days, three nights, and ten winemakers, we appreciated the new accessibility of the small region and savored the diversity of the Gamay grape, which continues to surprise and delight. Running north to south, Beaujolais is a mere 55km (34 miles) long, making journey times very much shorter than in itineraries of the Rhône Valley or South Australia. We visited almost all of the ten crus, beginning at Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly with Nicole and son Romain Chanrion at Domaine de la Voûte des Crozes and Claude Geoffray at Château Thivin, then Arnaud Briday at Domaine des Chers, with his seductive St-Amour, Fleurie, and Chénas, and finishing at Fabien Duperray, a firm believer in stainless-steel aging who has no trouble allocating his small-production wines (yields average only 25–30 hectoliters per hectare).
We were fortunate to experience the thrilling variety of the Gamay grape across the crus. One particularly revealing producer was Dominique Piron, whose ten or so wines demonstrated the grape’s great and varied expressions. Dominique Piron said, “We try to be as close as possible to what the terroir can give.” The minerality of the terroir is channeled through his granitic 2016 Chiroubles, stonily tense 2015 Chénas Quartz, juicy, silky 2015 Côte de Py, and even a still lively 1991 Morgon. Add in the full range of winemaking styles—carbonic, semi-carbonic, or de-stemmed, with different aging times and vessels—and the expressions of Gamay are myriad. In New York, Eric Hastings of VINTUS importers (previously at Jean-Georges in New York) commented that, “the versatility of Beaujolais on the table is unmatched by most red wines.”
Big-name Beaujolais producers we visited, such as Gang of Four members Guy Breton (who is so understated in his approach that you can barely find his name on the label, which is likely to have been designed by a friend), Jean-Paul Thévenet with son Charly¸ and Château du Moulin-à-Vent, are assisting the region in claiming, or reclaiming, some might say, its position in greater Burgundy and the fine-wine world as a wine to be taken seriously.
On a global scale, the largest importer of Beaujolais (by volume) is Japan, followed by the US then the UK, according to 2016 figures from Inter Beaujolais. Often deemed the gatekeepers of the city, the sommeliers of New York are likely to make or break wine trends, taking into account, of course, the wine’s performance and consumers’ responses. Michael Dolinski, wine director of Junoon Restaurant, New York, is almost split in his reaction to Beaujolais. Although an avid follower, who would enjoy a glass with his own dinner, he still encounters shocked reactions when he proposes that customers enjoy a bottle with their evening meal—a response that suggests Beaujolais hasn’t quite got its intended message as a “serious” wine across just yet. “Sadly, there is still a perception of Beaujolais as being the Nouveau and not a ‘serious’ wine,” said Dolinski.
Down Under, customers at Quay, one of Sydney’s fine dining hotspots with uninterrupted views of the Sydney Opera House, are more open to the idea of drinking Beaujolais, rather than a more pricy red Burgundy, to accompany their meal, says head sommelier Amanda Yallop. “I'm sorry to say that many of today's older wine drinkers still associate Beaujolais with the dark days; it is the younger and newer consumers who are happy to be more playful with their choices and are more likely to ask for advice.” A few factors make Beaujolais such a great choice for Sydney siders. Big reds are no longer the default option, and newer consumers are looking to find a wine that pairs with their food, their mood, and the season—which is a consistently much milder climate. Although Quay is able to give Beaujolais pride and place on the wine list, Dolinski doesn’t do the same at this stage, featuring only two or three bottles. “I think it's totally overlooked,” said Dolinski. “I really like Beaujolais, but I rarely sell it.” “Beaujolais is somewhat of a darling among sommeliers and wine directors,” said Hastings, from a value and price-point perspective. “Personally, I'm a big fan. It offers the possibility of high-quality wine that is affordable.”
While the appreciation of Beaujolais is growing, the quantity of wine from the crus is low, especially where producers choose to produce at well below the maximum permitted yields to get the quality they want. It will be interesting to see how the rising popularity of Beaujolais impacts the market pricing, since production remains relatively small-scale, apart from a few very large producers, said Hastings. Some winemakers in the region are already being taken very seriously, and perhaps greater exposure to their wines, along with more effective marketing, will help to secure it an ever brighter future.
Image credit: Katherine Houston