Over the past 30 years, I have watched the wave of Beaujolais Nouveau rise, crest and break in Japan. It used to be the cultural norm for Japanese adults to drink Nouveau from plastic cups on the third Thursday in November, just as it is to have champagne on New Year’s Eve. Even when quality dipped and the wines began smelling of bananas and bubblegum no one seemed to care, provided it was cheap and plentiful. Today Beaujolais Nouveau is undoubtedly better, but the market has stagnated, with production dropping in accordance with demand. Wine lovers around the world continue to associate Beaujolais with its primeur wine, even though the region has much more to offer. Having come all the way from Tokyo to Provence, I decided to travel a little further to three Beaujolais Cru villages in order to see how serious winemakers are recovering from the Nouveau hangover.
My first visit was to Julien Revillon of Maison Piron in Morgon, and he was not the only winemaker puzzled by the Japanese attitude to Beaujolais. ‘I would like the Japanese sommeliers to understand and appreciate the Beaujolais Cru,’ he said. ‘I think we have everything but it doesn’t work. I don’t know why.’ To be honest, neither do I. Japan is a gastronomic paradise and Beaujolais perfectly complements foods ranging from tempura to teriyaki chicken. Julien Sunier is an organic winemaker in Avenas, near Morgon. His Japanese importer used to take one pallet of Cru wine for every three pallets of Nouveau. When Julien expressed the desire to focus more on Beaujolais-Villages and Cru wines, the importer abruptly cut ties. No Nouveau, no deal.
Another problem was that Japanese importers insisted Nouveau arrive before the official release date in November, since many customers reserve bottles for the occasion. Even with global warming leading to earlier harvests, the deadline was difficult to meet. ‘In 2013 we were harvesting in October,’ recalled Alain Coudert of Clos de la Roilette in Fleurie, ‘so how can you have the wine ready for the middle of November?’ Jessie Ponsinet said that Domaine Guy Breton in Morgon stopped making Nouveau for Japan ‘because they wanted to tell us when our wine is ready. And we said no, we will say when it is ready. It’s our wine. We make a good product.’
And yet none of the nine wine producers I spoke with blamed Nouveau or Japan for the creation and perpetuation of negative Beaujolais stereotypes. ‘The price of a Cru is not so far from the price of Beaujolais Nouveau,’ noted Louis-Benoît Desvignes, a Morgon winemaker. ‘It is very hard for customers to understand that it is different, and there are a lot of customers who don’t really know Gamay at all [Gamay is the grape of Beaujolais]. If you put the price of 30 euros on a Morgon, even if the people don’t know the wine they will think, “Oh, it’s not the same”. In the world a lot of people know the name of Beaujolais thanks to Nouveau and it means that if we are known for our simple wine then the winemakers of the Cru have to be better.’ When Julien Revillon first started working with Dominique Piron eight years ago, the wines were all sold at similar prices. ‘There was a three-euro difference,’ he reflected, ‘but it should be more of a pyramid.’ Julien Sunier agreed: ‘You have to remember that only about 30 percent of the growers are selling in bottles. Most in Beaujolais are still selling in bulk and the prices are very low. The people who start to sell in bottles are not so confident and they think that to be cheap is the solution. But it’s a very short solution.’
To the satisfaction of consumers, prices have remained low while Cru quality has risen. In the span of a generation, Jules Chavet’s natural wine tenets won over numerous converts, including Marcel Lapierre, who was one of the first to eschew pesticides and herbicides while practicing a full carbonic maceration without any interventions. But it took others longer to come around to this way of thinking, as Mathieu Lapierre recalled:
‘When I was 16 my father took me to all of the cooperative cellars to make me taste the main cuvée. Everything was tasting the same. I was not a wine lover or taster, but the way they made wine at that time was so invasive by the adding of sugar, acidity, sulfites, yeast. He wanted to explain to me his winemaking philosophy and he wanted people to be able to recognize if this is a Fleurie or a Morgon or a Regnié. Of course, the vintage can be different but you should recognize that each cru has its typicity.’
Typicity becomes apparent when wine is made naturally with indigenous yeast. Jean Foillard, for example, has three Morgon cuvées. Elegance and finesse are showcased in Les Charmes, structure and power in Côte du Py’s granite-schist hilltop, and lightness in a sandy pocket of Les Corcelettes. ‘With our single grape,’ said Julien Revillon, ‘we can produce lots of different types of wines. The terroir is so complex and now we know it much better than 10 or 15 years ago.’
In addition to the differences created by micro-climates and geological formations, variations in cellar practices also effect taste and aroma. Four of the Beaujolais Cru winemakers I visited continue to use the full carbonic maceration method in which whole bunches of grapes are put into a vat that is sealed and injected with carbon dioxide to induce intercellular fermentation. The resulting wine is joyously fruity, light-bodied, and low in tannin. But the other five winemakers do not add gas to the vat. Some age the wine in oak, while others prefer cement or stainless steel. Fermentation temperatures can vary by up to 10 degrees, and partial destemming, pump-overs and punch-downs are gaining footholds. The only constants? Gamay and granite.
So how can the Cru winemakers change Beaujolais stereotypes? Alain Coudert of Clos de la Roilette sees the high volume of oenotourists drawn to the area as their best chance: ‘We can do tastings so that they understand the quality of the wine.’ Fanny Belanger of Domaine Jean Foillard used to work as a sommelier and she suggested that the element of surprise helps when people have preconceived notions about wine. It was not too long ago that ‘the people in the restaurants could not sell Beaujolais wine because customers would say “No, not that. It’s no good”. But if you gave them a wine to taste they would say “Oh, that’s good, what is it?” “It’s a Morgon, from Beaujolais!”.’ Another way might be to emphasize the versatility of the Beaujolais Cru wines. Pauline Passot at Domaine de la Grosse Pierre in Chiroubles reminded me that freshness and acidity act as natural preservatives. To prove her point, she served a wine that had been vinified by her father in the year of her birth. The 1987 Chiroubles smelled of smoke and flint but was remarkably vigorous and ‘straight’ in the mouth, to use Pauline’s terminology. Because the Beaujolais Cru wines are not overly tannic or oaky, they can be enjoyed in their youth, though they don’t need to be. ‘A great vintage can age,’ echoed Louis-Benoît Desvignes. ‘Beaujolais is a bridge between Pinot Noir of Burgundy and the Syrah of the Northern Rhône.’
The 2015s are superb and drinking well now, but most of my hosts also showed balanced, structured 2009s and 2010s with primary fruit, minerality and spice. Clos de la Roilette’s 2005 had plenty of energy left, as did Maison Piron’s 1991 Morgon. Recommendations are listed below. Find them and drink up!
Full carbonic maceration:
- Domaine Jean Foillard Fleurie 2019 From the Champagne climat purchased by the domaine in the same year as this vintage, a floral, fruity wine that is open now with a generous, soft palate.
- Domaine Marcel Lapierre Cuvée MMXIX This (2019) blend of some of Morgon’s oldest vines offers concentrated strawberry and blueberry aromas on a floral background. Balanced and rich, with a tingle of gas combining with the acidity to make you feel the wine is a living, breathing organism.
- Domaine Julien Sunier Wild Soul 2020 Made from Régnié grapes declassified as Beaujolais-Villages, this offers great value. The structure and purity of fruit take it beyond the Villages level.
- Domaine Guy Breton P’tit Max 2009 Liquorice, spice and a youthful nose full of primary fruit. It is light yet concentrated in the mouth, with a long, dry finish. The 2019 version offers more spice – nutmeg and cinnamon – and perfume.
- Maison Piron Côtes du Py 2018 Graphite, delicate red fruit and a touch of spice with structure and minerality. Good now and for years to come.
- Domaine de la Grosse Pierre Chiroubles Auz Craz 2019 A streak of chalk runs through the perfume and strawberry nose. Full-bodied yet refreshing.
- Domaine Louis-Claude Desvignes Côtes du Py 2009 Look for smoke, white pepper, mint and fern. This wine has beautiful balance and fine but powerful tannins. Wait a little and ripe cherry will emerge. If you can’t find it, the 2018 Côte du Py Javernières is rich yet elegant, with a morello cherry nose, rounded mouthfeel and fine tannin.
- Clos de la Roilette Cuvée Tardive 2010 I preferred this vintage to the more powerful 2009. Ageing like a dignified Burgundy, it is still vivacious with notes of cassis and (a fresh) forest floor.
- Domaine Chignard Fleurie 2010 Ripe red fruits and tobacco in the nose but light and ethereal in the mouth. A wonderful contrast, followed by the domaine’s characteristic dry, powerful finish.
Andrew James is a professor of English literature at the School of Commerce at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. He is currently on sabbatical leave in France at Université Grenoble Alpes in order to write a book on Bandol wine. His great interest as a wine researcher is understanding the evolution of wine-speak, and the reflection of culture in wine language.