By: Jeff Thoreson
It turns out good advice can be like good wine – sometimes it shows up in the most unexpected of places, like a small cafe or an underground cave in the commune of Villie-Morgon, France.
We arrived in Morgon on a pleasant spring morning in search of a hearty breakfast, but all we could decipher from the Cafe de Beaujolais proprietor’s lack of English and our minimal French was that he didn’t serve breakfast. Or maybe he did serve breakfast but not on Tuesdays. Or maybe he just wasn’t open for breakfast yet.
The old man at the next table looked up from his newspaper and came to our rescue, dashing off a brief conversation with the proprietor who then “aaah-ed” and turned to the kitchen.
“He’ll whip you up something,” the old man said to us, and then applying his Inspector Clouseau reasoning, surmised that we weren’t locals and inquired as to our intentions.
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We told him we were fans of Beaujolais wine back home and were hoping to sample some at area vineyards. “Any recommendations?”
In Morgon, or anywhere in Beaujolais, that’s a question as broad as the ocean, but the old man fielded it with ease, rattling off a few vineyards within a mile or two of where we were smearing jelly on our croissants.
And then he dropped this knowledge bomb: “Of course, you know about the caveau, right?”
We did not. Newbs.
He explained that in the cellar of the 18th century Château de Fontcrenne, right around the corner from the cafe, we would be able to sample vintages from many of the more than 200 Morgon producers. And not only that, but we could find a caveau in each of the 10 Beaujolais crus – the small communes between Belleville and Macon where the best Beaujolais wine is produced.
Challenge accepted. Over the next two days we carve a path to all 10 – some, like in Morgon, we found ancient buildings, one in an abandoned church others in simple store fronts. The fun of negotiating the spiderweb of narrow roads that connects the tightly knit crus is seeing what’s next. Of course the fact that you can taste five or six wines at each caveau and rarely will be asked to pay makes the sometimes-harrowing roads a bit easier to take.
A quick introduction to Beaujolais
The region is south of Burgundy and sometimes considered part of Burgundy. Almost every square inch of the roughly 67 square miles under vine is planted with a red grape called Gamay Noir. Of the 120 million bottles produced each year by almost 2,600 Beaujolais producers, 98 percent is made with Gamay. But for all that production and its worldwide reputation for quality, Beaujolais suffers from a personality disorder.
Many think of Beaujolais as the unenthusiastic and wholly uninteresting Beaujolais Nouveau. Fermented and bottled immediately after the harvest each fall, a staggering 27.5 million bottles is in retail outlets around the world by Beaujolais Nouveau Day, the third Thursday of November. This wine has no more complexity or structure than the spiked punch at a high school prom, but as a marketing gimmick there is none better in the wine industry. Beaujolais Nouveau is billed as – and truly is – the first wine of the vintage.
About 40 percent of Beaujolais Nouveau is exported, most of that in bottles with such colorful labels they look like a third-grader’s art project. Plenty of it is bought by Americans who, because of its release date, think of it as a Thanksgiving wine. Truth be told, Nouveau’s light-bodied juiciness pairs nicely with turkey and cranberry sauce, but the rest of the world where Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated buys it up – and buys into the marketing gimmick – just as quickly. A fair portion of what remains in France is quaffed at 120 or so annual Beaujolais Nouveau Day festivals where the wine’s release at 12:01 a.m. that day is celebrated with fireworks, music and Mardi Gras-like partying.
But Beaujolais Nouveau is the region’s childish personality. Don’t count the region out based on one unsophisticated wine. Beaujolais wine made in areas just north of Lyon (the southern end of the Beaujolais region) is labeled simply as Beaujolais and is so fresh and easy-drinking it is often called the only white wine in the world that just happens to be red. Scattered around the region are 38 villages where a slightly richer style of the Gamay grape is labeled as Beaujolais Village. These wines have floral and fruit aromas, as wells as a bright acidity, and juicy tart red fruit flavors with hints of earth.
But the most dominant personality in Beaujolais belongs to the tightly clustered crus in the northern part of the region. This is where Beaujolais wine gets serious. It is intense, powerful and often built to age for a decade or more. If you’ve ever questioned the concept of terroir, spend a few days in Beaujolais. Each cru has distinct soil and growing conditions, meaning the wine you taste in Morgon will have a different personality from the wine you taste a few miles away in Chiroubles, which will be quite different than the wine a few miles away in Fleurie, and so on.
Let’s Crus Around Beaujolais
And so to discover the beauties of Beaujolais we left the cafe, went around the corner to the château and followed signs into a below-ground cave. Who knows what dark past this room might have had in the chateau’s history, but now it had a long wood bar, modern track lighting to set a mood and a lengthy tasting menu for the bargain-basement price of €3.
While sampling wines from some of the seven sub-regions of Morgon, a local winemaker took interest in our enjoyment and offered a quick dissertation on the difference between Beaujolais and neighboring Burgundy: “In Burgundy, they are snobs.” We found it hard to argue. When planning our 12-day French wine country trip we couldn’t arrange a single tasting in Burgundy and few vineyards even bothered to return emails. So far, Beaujolais could not have been more welcoming.
To be fair, there is some history between the two regions that abut at the city of Macon. An edict in 1395 from Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, extirpated the Gamay grape, calling it “injurious to the human creature” and ordered it destroyed and never to be grown again in Burgundy, where Pinot Noir is king.
The Bold’s haste turned out to be Beaujolais’ good fortune, we agreed, citing as proof our thorough enjoyment of the fleshy, dark fruit flavors and light spiciness of the Côte du Py (pronounced pee) we were tasting. Morgon’s manganese and iron-rich, schist soil gives its wines a boldness even Philip would have to admire.
In Chénas, it was a taste of Piron & Lameloise 2015 Quartz that drove home the fact that Beaujolais has a far greater complexity than the light-bodied red we frequently enjoy back home. Chénas may be the smallest cru but its wines are big. Quartz has a tannic structure missing from the lower levels of Beaujolais and a focused depth of dark fruit flavors and a striking minerality. Very little of Chénas wine is exported, so if you come across a bottle, don’t pass on the opportunity.
Like Morgon and Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent is everything most of the wine-drinking world doesn’t think Beaujolais is. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were, tasting in Moulin-à-Vent might be confusing. The wines here are the most powerfully structured of the crus and their deep ruby color and intensity might lead you to think California or, dare we suggest, the right bank of Bordeaux where we had just come from? Of course, the iconic Moulin-à-Vent windmill that sits at the cru’s highest point, is omnipresent and won’t let you forget where you are.
The northernmost cru of Saint-Amour produces the lightest of the cru wines, more similar to the style of Beaujolais and Beaujolais Village. While light bodied and extremely floral, Saint-Amour’s wines are nevertheless lively and refined. At the caveau we met a small group of retired gents who told us they come in almost every day before lunch to have a glass of wine. Wine is to Saint Amour as Guinness is to the Irish pub.
In Régnié local legend has it that in 1967 the wine growers asked a local priest if they could use the presbytery cellar as a wine-tasting cellar and more than half a century later folks are still stopping in. Régnié’s sandy granite soil produces light-bodied wines with fragrant fruit aromas and light but sophisticated tannins.
Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly contain 25 percent of all cru acreage. Consequently there are more bottles produced here and the fruit- and mineral-driven wines are among the easiest to find outside of France. The Brouilly cru offers a lighter style and the vineyards of Côte de Brouilly on Mont Brouilly being slighter heavier.
In Chiroubles vineyards rise to 1,500 feet above sea level. The warm days of the Saône River valley give way to cooler evenings and therefore a more medium-bodied wine both floral and earthy.
Fleurie is considered the queen of Beaujolais. Despite being a neighbor to Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent and Chenas, the appellation’s pink granite soil offers up wines that lack the big tannic structure of its neighbors in favor of lip-smacking fruitiness and an elegant silkiness with floral aromas and flavors of blueberries and bright red fruit.
In Juliénas, we found plenty of samples in the caveau and then walked to the center of town where an abandoned church serves as a barrel cellar and tasting room. While enjoying the robust structure and delicate juiciness of a 2017 Juliénas Heritage from the region’s granite and schist terrain we met a couple from Philadelphia who stay for a week each year in a relative’s vacation home in Beaujolais. “We’ve been coming for many years and we’re still trying to find all the great wine.” It’s not that it’s hard to find, it just that there’s so much of it.
Next time Beaujolais will require more than two days. Rushing through good wine is never proper, and there are plenty of good restaurants to try and the cities of Belleville and Macon to explore. It is clear that wine in Beaujolais is serious business, but the people here find no reason to be snobby about it.
A few to try that should be easy to find:
Des Maisons Neuves Chiroubles: Floral aromas and a bright fruitiness of cherries and strawberries give way to a Cabernet Frat-like spiciness that lingers through a lengthy finish.
Pardon & Fils Morgon Cote du Py: Full bodies and age-worthy but perfectly approachable now. Pardon & Fils is plentiful in North America. Few think Beaujolais when serving a nice steak or game meat, but this one holds up nicely.
Domaine Des Pins Les Pierres Saint Amour: Shockingly floral with flavors or raspberry, aromatic herbs and spice. Vibrant and exciting and even a little tannin from the lightest of the crus.
Thibault Liger-Belair Moulin-à-Vent: Heavy bodied but juicy and sharply focused with dark fruit flavors intermingling with violet pastille and a long, smooth finish.