Beaujolais would be one of my desert island wines, for the simple reason that it offers sheer pleasure with uncomplicated drinking. For Xavier Bardet of Maison Loron, also vice president of Inter Beaujolais, the unique charm of good Beaujolais lies in “the purity of the fruits rouges” — the red fruit like cherries, raspberries and strawberries — “which comes from the combination of gamay on granite soil.” There is no other wine quite like it, for no other place in the world produces wines with such a wonderful combination of fruit and drinkability, with refreshing acidity.
Although the reputation of Beaujolais has been tarnished by the fashion for Beaujolais Nouveau, these days Beaujolais is more serious and authentic. Simple Beaujolais is light and fruity; Beaujolais Villages has a little more weight, and the 10 crus — subsections of the Beaujolais region — each have their nuances. Chiroubles is the lightest; Brouilly the most fragrant; Fleurie is more floral; Juliénas and Côte de Brouilly are very similar, each with a certain structure; and Chénas has a different terroir, which also makes it more structured. St. Amour is spicy, while the newest cru, Régnié, has more body than some. Morgan can be quite tannic, and Moulin à Vent is most aging-worthy of all the crus. Overall quality has improved enormously, with a better understanding of viticulture and greater attention to work in cellars, encouraged by an energetic generation of young wine growers
A younger generation’s Beaujolais
I went to see Richard Rottiers, who is a typical example of the younger generation. He has vineyards in Moulin à Vent, from which he makes three different wines — Moulin à Vent Classique, Dernier Souffle and Champ de Cour — from nine different plots of land, totaling just four hectares (or about 10 acres). Dernier Souffle, meaning last breath, is a plot behind the local cemetery, and Champ de Cour is based on 70-year-old vines.
Rottiers has a small cellar in Romanèche-Thorins. His method of vinification is what they call semi-carbonic maceration, in which no extra carbon dioxide is added to the vat, and he keeps the grapes submerged to prolong the fermentation for 10 to 14 days. With whole bunches, however, you must not extract too much or else you run the risk of unripe flavors from the stalks. Rottiers likes a refreshing acidity in his wines, and he looks for freshness and balance. Unlike some of his fellow wine growers, he favors a lower fermentation temperature, around 28 C (or 82 F), and never more than 30 C (or 86 F). If the temperature goes much higher, he finds the wine is more tannic and powerful, and that is not the point of Beaujolais. And he ages them in old oak. He is lucky that he has an impeccable source of secondhand barrels, as his mother, Lyne Marchive, owns Domaine des Malandes in Chablis. He did once try a new oak barrel of 400 liters on the rather more powerful 2009 vintage, but oak should never be obvious in Beaujolais.
Beaujolais shifts with age
Beaujolais, particularly some of the more substantial crus, can age, but the character and taste change completely. “Ca pinotte,” they say in the region of more mature Beaujolais, meaning that it takes on the character and flavor of Pinot Noir –- some elegant notes, but no more of Beaujolais’ vibrant freshness. It’s still a good drink, but it is not the same.
Beaujolais has had a run of three lovely vintages. For Xavier Bardet, 2009 is quite simply the best vintage since the legendary 1947, and the result of a perfect summer. Rottiers would beg to differ; he finds the ’09 wines too alcoholic and lacking in acidity. For him, 2010 and 2011 are much better, with a youthful freshness and refreshing cherry fruit — his 2010 Moulin à Vent Classique is everything that good Beaujolais should be. I would be very happy with that on my desert island.
Photo: Richard Rottiers, Beaujolais winemaker. Credit: Rosemary George