Nouveau is nice, but cru Beaujolais has already arrived

The yearly arrival of Beaujolais nouveau will be marked Thursday with the new wines of the 2018 vintage. It’s an occasion that used to be hyped much more than it is today, with proclamations of “Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!”  This year’s more subdued reception is OK with me and, I suspect, with most of the Beaujolais vignerons.

Beaujolais nouveau, says Dominique Piron of the domaine of the same name, has been “good because the name of Beaujolais is all over the world,” but the downside is that much of the quality hasn’t been all that great. Even good Beaujolais nouveau is mostly a fruity, simple, easy-to-drink wine. Nothing wrong with that, but it can distract from the fact that Beaujolais has so much more to offer. That’s particularly true for the wines from the 10 top Beaujolais growing areas known as crus.

The Beaujolais area, north of the city of Lyon, encompasses just under 40,000 acres of vineyards. Ninety-eight percent of the production is red, made from the gamay noir grape; the rest is Beaujolais blanc, made from chardonnay, and rosé, also made from gamay. The southern part of the appellation is the source of basic Beaujolais.

Vineyards in the northern part of Beaujolais, where the soils are more granitic. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

Farther north, the soils turn more granitic, much of the terrain is steeper, and many of the grapes go into Beaujolais-Villages or one of the 10 crus. These wines are more complex and expensive than basic Beaujolais, but “expensive” is a relative term – there’s plenty of excellent cru Beaujolais to be had for $25 or less.

I won’t get into a detailed description of each of the crus. If you want to get to that level of geekiness, there is good information at the Inter Beaujolais website here. Brouilly and Régnié, in general, produce wines with charm, supple fruit and finesse. Chiroubles, the highest-altitude cru, adds crispness and purity. Chénas is generous yet structured. Saint-Amour – the northernmost cru – can be fairly big. Côte de Brouilly, from the volcanic slopes of the Mont Brouilly, is more intense than Brouilly, which surrounds it.

Probably the most full-boded wines come from Juliénas, Fleurie, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. Juliénas is spicy and structured. Fleurie is often described as feminine, but I think that’s an outmoded descriptor. (What is feminine, anyway?) A lot of Fleurie is rather concentrated and tannic, though there’s sometimes a floral note, as the name implies.

The windmill that gives the Moulin-à-Vent appellation its name. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

The big dogs from Beaujolais are Morgon, especially wines from the famed Côte du Py, and Moulin-à-Vent. Many of these wines are capable of considerable aging. During a visit last spring, I tasted a 1991 Domaine Piron Morgon that had lost some of its color, but on the palate it was quite fresh, with some nice sweetness to the fruit.

Again, these descriptions are really generalities. The northern part of Beaujolais has a complicated geology, so wines tend to be site-specific. A 10-year project to produce detailed maps of the 10 crus has only recently been completed, and that information should help vintners and consumers alike to better understand the area.

Although most producers of Beaujolais are on the small side, there is one large, well-known company: Georges Duboeuf, whose flower label bottles are familiar to anyone who has perused Beaujolais bottles in a store. Duboeuf produces more than 2 million cases a year (and is a major purveyor of Beaujolais nouveau). The company has its own vineyards but also buys both wines and grapes. It also owns some small estates in the crus, such as Château des Capitans in Juliénas, source of delicious, spicy wines with a lot of energy. (Duboeuf also has an impressive hospitality operation that’s well worth a visit.)

More typical are the smaller wineries, like the ones that have banded together into a marketing group called Terroirs Originels, which comprises 40 estates. I met with a few of the vintners during my spring visit. Although they all have slightly different approaches to their winemaking, they are focused largely on estate-grown fruit.

Many of the wines currently in the market are from the excellent 2016 vintage. More than a few vintners I spoke with called 2016 “très classique.” It followed the warm 2015 vintage, which yielded wines that were atypically big, ripe and rich. As winemaker Stéphane Aviron put it, the 2015s displayed more ripeness, while the 2016s show “more terroir.”

Mathieu Lapierre of Domaine Lapierre in the Morgon appellation says, only semi-joking, that “2015 was more ‘Beaujolais-du-Pape.’” His 2015 Morgon was a fine effort for the vintage, but the 2016 ($34) is a classic: floral, with pretty red fruit, lovely texture, great energy and fine tannins. (Lapierre also makes a fruity, quaffable wine from young vines called Raisins Gaulois; the 2017 is $18.)

What follows are some more recommended wines, most of them tasted during my trip.

Morgon

Domaine Piron produces everything from simple Beaujolais to cru wines (there’s even a very good white), but Morgon is the focus. The 2016 Domaine Piron Morgon Côte du Py ($24.50) is structured, with lively raspberry, spice, a slight leafy note, nice complexity and fine tannins.

Laurent Gauthier and Lucien Lardy are two of the Terroirs Originels producers, and both make fine Morgon. The 2016 Laurent Gauthier Morgon Grand Cras ($19) is fresh, fragrant and spicy, while the 2015 Morgon Côte du Py ($20) is big and concentrated, as the vintage dictated, while maintaining an essential Beaujolais-ness. The 2016 Lucien Lardy Morgon Côte du Py ($18) is spicy and structured with some nice sweetness to its red fruit.

The famed Côte du Py in the Morgon appellation. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

Stéphane Aviron owns vineyard land in several Beaujolais appellations and also buys grapes. His 2016 Morgon Côte du Py ($24) is spicy and structured, with good concentration and ample red fruit. Aviron calls Côte du Py “one of the best terroirs we have in Beaujolais.”

Moulin-à-Vent

The 2016 Lucien Lardy Moulin-à-Vent Les Thorins ($17) balances the full-bodied power of Moulin-à-Vent with nice freshness and a mineral note.

 Fleurie

I tend to gravitate toward the more elegant styles of Fleurie. One example is the 2016 Château de Poncié Fleurie Le Pré Roi ($20), which is very pure, with structured, juicy berry flavors, a slight leafy note and firm acidity. The 2016 Stéphane Aviron Fleurie ($24) is made in a pretty style, with red fruit, spice and medium tannins. The 2016 Yohan Lardy Fleurie Le Vivier ($25) is more structured, with spicy red fruit and a floral note.

Juliénas

The 2016 Château des Capitans Juliénas ($22), from an estate owned by Duboeuf (and mentioned above), is structured and lively, with spicy red fruit and good concentration. And from Pascal Aufranc, another Terroirs Originels producer, there’s the 2016 Juliénas Les Cerisiers ($19), which is fruitier and more generous

Côte de Brouilly, Brouilly

Château Thivin, on the slopes below the Mont Brouilly, is an outstanding producer of both Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly. The 2016 Château Thivin Brouilly Reverdon ($25) is classic, with spicy, lively red berry and cherry, a savory note and fine tannins, while the winery’s 2016 Côte de Brouilly ($27) is a bit more angular, with bright, juicy red fruit and a note of wet stone.

The 2016 Domaine du Riaz Côte de Brouilly ($20), from a family that works with Duboeuf, is very fresh, with bright berry and a slight leafy note. The 2016 Stéphane Aviron Côte de Brouilly ($19) is a little more modern, with lively, spicy fruit and supple texture.

The rest

In the Georges Duboeuf flower label lineup, one wine that’s particularly good is the 2016 Saint-Amour ($20), with its sweet red berry and firm but approachable structure. The 2016 Stéphane Aviron Saint-Amour ($24) also has pretty fruit.

The 2016 Pascal Aufranc Chénas “Vignes de 1939” ($18) is a great value: spicy and lively, with good tension and energy.

 

 

 

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