Harvest 2014: Deep in Beaujolais

I spent this year’s harvest in postcard-beautiful Beaujolais, where I hoped to get closer to the wine I love so well. As the photo shows, mission accomplished: I couldn’t have got any closer short of swimming in the stuff (maybe a goal for harvest 2015).

This image is of the just-picked gamay grapes from Château des Moriers, headily fizzing in the early stages of fermentation in the winery’s cement vats, or cuves. There they’ll continue to roil and bubble – as destemmed but uncrushed berries – for ten (for Fleurie) to 14 (for Moulin à Vent) days. My bedroom was actually above these vats. It felt like I was living inside a fruity burp for a week…

The process of turning those ripe gamay grapes into refreshing, fruity, appetite-stirring red wine was something I wanted to get a better understanding of while out there. With the help of the winemaker, Gilles Monrozier, I was able to do that. Gilles was kind enough to share his winemaking process with me, which I explain here for anyone who’s interested in the ins and outs of winemaking.

La Méthode

The method for making Moulin à Vent at Château des Moriers goes like this (this is the method for a vin de garde – in other words a wine made for ageing; not a Beaujolais nouveau):

Manual harvest >>> destemming (egrappage) of 50% of grapes >>> vatting (encuvage) into cement vats >>> adding of sulphur (sulfitage) >>> heating (chauffage) to 33°C >>> adding of cultured yeast (levurage) >>> pumping over (remontage) of juice from bottom to top of vat for one hour >>> grillage (submerging of the top layer of fermenting grapes, or ‘cap’, in the juice to extract colour and tannin) >>> pumping over for 10 minutes, twice a day >>> semi-carbonic fermentation for 14 days >>> délestage (draining, or ‘racking’ the fermenting juice and pouring over the grape solids. This is similar to pumping over, except here the liquid is totally separated from the solids for a time. Without getting to complicated, it’s a way of 1) aerating, which ‘softens’ the harsh bits in the wine, and 2) extracting colour and tannin while avoiding extracting the harsher elements on the grape solids >>> sweetening (chaptalisation) >>> maintaining temperature at c.25C >>> Pressing of grapes (pressurage) >>> cooling (refroidissement) to 18C >>> revatting/decanting >>> barrelling (etonnage) >>> malolactic fermentation (natural process that turns lactic into (softer) malic acid >>>  fining (collage) >>> filtration >>> adding of sulphur (to c.60mg/l) >>> bottling (mise en bouteilles).

No walk in the park, is it?

You may be wondering about semi-carbonic maceration. Carbonic maceration is one of the three defining things about Beaujolais (along with the gamay grape and its distinctive granite and limestone soils). It basically means that fermentation happens automatically inside the whole berries (activated by yeasts that occur naturally in the grapes) in an atmosphere in which the oxygen has been replaced with carbon dioxide.

What this does is to encourage the bright berry, floral and, sometimes, slightly banana-like flavours and aromas for which Beaujolais is so well known (particularly in the Beaujolais nouveau style). It also results in less tannin extraction. Almost no fermentation is fully carbonic because when large quantities of grapes are kept in vats, gravity does the job of crushing the grapes towards the bottom of the vat, and this juice will tend to ferment naturally, or, in Gilles’ case, will be prompted into fermenting with the addition of cultured yeast.

The home of natural wine

I’ll admit I didn’t know this before my trip to Fleurie, but Beaujolais is widely credited as the place where the modern natural wine movement began. Jules Chauvet (1907-1989), a winemaker, research chemist and negociant from down the road in La Chapelle de Guinchay, started it. As an interesting aside, he also invented the International Standards Organisation tasting glass, which is used around the world to this day.

Chauvet’s books on the subject have become the go-to manuals for the new generation of natural winemakers working around the world today, but it was his influence of a selection of producers in the nearby commune of Villié-Morgon that shows just how crucial Beaujolais is to the story of modern natural wine.

If the names Jean Foillard, Marcel Lapierre,  Guy Bréton and Jean-Paul Thevenet mean nothing to you, and you’re interested in exploring natural wines, it would be worth making a note. This is the so-called ‘gang of four’ – so the American wine importer and writer Kermit Lynch dubbed them – whose elegant, complex wines, all of them Morgons, all of them the product of grapes, air and nothing else, are some of the most talked-about in the wine world today.

It’s the source of some rancour among winemakers though, and the tension between natural winemakers and conventional winemakers is probably greater in Beaujolais than anywhere else. Conventional winemakers think the idea of natural wine is nonsensical – after all, wine doesn’t happen in nature, it requires human engineering – and that it’s the marketing, and not the wine, that’s good; natural (and organic/biodynamic) wine producers see their methods as the most logical for anyone wanting to produce quality wines sustainably and that reflect their specific terroir.

It’s an argument that will run on and on. I don’t have any conclusions. But one conclusion I have reached is that Beaujolais is a really dynamic wine region – a thought was driven home when I dropped in on Xavier and Kerrie at Château de Lavernette towards the end of my trip.

Xavier’s family has been making wine in Leynes, on the northern edge of Beaujolais, for 14 generations. He and Kerrie, his partner, studied oenology in Napa, California, before returning to Xavier’s family estate to make wine biodynamically. Kerrie explained to me how the culture of winegrowing is changing in and around Leynes.

When she arrived just over five years ago, none of the local vineyards was organic. Now, close to 15% of them are. Kerrie puts it down to a gradually shifting mentality, from one formed in the post-war era of scarcity, when any method for increasing productivity was grasped with both hands, regardless of long-term sustainability, to one of sensitivity to the land and the environment.

Ultimately, as Kerrie pointed out, it’s not even about choosing biodynamics in order to create superior wines (although that’s often an outcome), it’s about changing one’s way of thinking. The Lavernette wines I tried suggest Kerrie and Xavier are on the right track.

Did you know…

  • Historically Beaujolais has been more than a match for the best Burgundy or Bordeaux wines. A 1911 wine list Gilles showed me showed a young Moulin à Vent selling for THE SAME PRICE as a premier cru classé Haut Brion Bordeaux!
  • Traditionally Beaujolais was made to be drunk when very mature – a far cry from the Beaujolais nouveau that has so tarnished its prestigious reputation.
  • The best recent Beaujolais vintages were: 2011, 2009, 2007 and 2005

Bring on le Bojo

I am a hopeless Francophile. As such I have a simple, unreflecting love of:

1: Serge Gainsbourg

2: François Truffaut

3: Shrugging

5: Reeking cheese

6: Wine (esp red)

For me, nothing says France like a glass of Beaujolais (for preference, a Côte de Brouilly, as made around the patchwork protuberance of Mont Brouilly, pictured) and a bit of manure-scented cheese. Forget claret and Burgundy with their insane price tags and tiresome self-importance; give me Beaujolais, Bojo, Bojangles, and the fruitiness, floweriness and minerality of the gamay grape from which it’s made (or rather, from which 98% of Beaujolais is made; 2% of Beaujolais wine is white, which is made from chardonnay).

What makes bojo bojo?
Gamay is one of the defining things about Beaujolais wine, but there are a couple of others: first, the soil, which is basically granite or limestone and which gives decent Beaujolais a distinct mineral feel; second, the winemaking method, which is almost always carbonic maceration.

‘Carbonic maceration’ means the grapes are fermented whole (rather than their juice being extracted before fermentation happens, which is the usual method) under a layer of carbon dioxide gas. This carbon dioxide ‘seal’ inside the fermentation vat starves the grape cells of oxygen, so they switch from aerobic to anaerobic respiration. The result is wines that are light and fruity without much tannin. That’s not to say all bojo is light and fruity – some are rich with oak and concentrated fruit – but this is the typical style.

AOC Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages
When it comes to buying Beaujolais, you should be aware of the different names, or appellations, they’re sold under. On the labels you’re either going to see ‘AOC Beaujolais’, ‘Beaujolais Villages’ or one of the 10 Beaujolais ‘cru’. AOC Beaujolais is a big production region producing the cheapest and most basic bojos: light, refreshing, uncomplicated; ‘fun’ is the way a lot of wine people would describe it. Fine then: it’s fun. ‘Beaujolais Villages’ is a large but still carefully defined production area whose wines are generally more interesting than AOC Beaujolais, but which aren’t too fussy when it comes to winemaking regulation. So, for example, the grapes can be sourced from different vineyards and vinified in one big batch – meaning there’s generally not much of a ‘terroir‘ aspect to these wines.

The 10 crus
The crus are a different story, and one where Beaujolais starts to turn on the style. These wines may cost a bit more, but they will generally be worth paying for. The variety afforded by these 10 very small areas, all using the same grape, is a thing to marvel at. From the south heading north, the 10 Beaujolais crus run one after the other in an almost unbroken chain: Brouilly is followed by Côte de Brouilly, then there’s Régnié, Morgon, and Chiroubles, after which come Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent, Chénas, Juliénas and finally Saint-Amour. Saint-Amour marks the northern boundary of the Beaujolais region; then it’s on to the Mâconnais.

It’s said that there’s no hierarchy of Beaujolais crus, but there is one really. If you had a bottle of each of the crus lined up in front of you, it would be best to start by tasting the Chiroubles, Fleurie and Saint-Amour (those usually described as ‘light’ and ‘fruity’), then move on to the more full-bodied – Régnié, Juliénas, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly – before finally taking on the Chénas, Morgon and the Moulin-à-Vent. The last three are where Beaujolais becomes very classy indeed, with the sort of structure that makes them capable of ageing for years. They are a match for many Burgundy pinots and a source of almost boundless pleasure if you’re into your gamay.

Why the bad rep?
“Beaujolais? Bananas! Bubblegum! Horrible bilge!” This is the response you might get from some people if you ask them what they think about bojo. You should disregard such outbursts as the mouthfarts of morons. Bojo’s less-than-glittering reputation is down to two things:

1: the Beaujolais Nouveau phenomenon, which led many people to believe that all Beaujolais was kids’ stuff: light, bland, bubblegummy;

2: Beaujolais’ proximity to Burgundy, and the rather big shadow cast by its main grape, pinot noir (it’s telling that in wine circles, certain of the fuller-bodied Beaujolais crus are said to have ‘pinoted’ when they reach a certain level of complexity). Pinot is awkward to grow; gamay comparatively easy and high-yielding. So gamay lacks that recherché quality. Who cares, I say…

In a world full of wine wankery…
In a world full of wine wankery, there’s something levelling and democratic about Beaujolais. There’s nothing ‘precious’ about it. It doesn’t profess to be the nectar of the Gods or try to awe you with its mystique (though it is capable of provoking something like awe). It’s more universal in its appeal than that. It’s good, plentiful, relatively inexpensive wine with a lovely quaffable combination of fruit, acidity, floral aromas and a touch of tannin grip. To a Francophile like me, it’s at the very heart of that nebulous thing called ‘Frenchness – the ur-French wine on the ur-French kitchen table next to the ur-French bread board – which is why, along with Serge, François, the shrugging and the reeking cheese, Bojo will always give me my mojo.

Photo by Franck Lechenet ©