Is Beaujolais: 2020-2022 Releases
BY NEAL MARTIN | MAY 04, 2023
The future is Beaujolais.
Those contentious four words were not from my
lips. They were uttered by a respected and seasoned winemaker when discussing what
lies ahead for Beaujolais. Uttered without intent to inflame, nevertheless,
uttered as a statement of fact, with palpable conviction behind each syllable.
From where he stands, the gilded Domaines up in the Côte d’Or face a
predicament: few mortals can afford to think about the wines, let alone drink
them. Just down the autoroute, conveniently tucked between Mâconnais and Lyon,
nestles a region for whom expensive is a bottle selling for more than single figure
euros. I’m not being facetious.
On my first day, a vigneron tells how an importer
would only take their Beaujolais-Villages because their Village Crus are too
pricey. Glancing at their tariff list, I see that their Fleurie sells for the princely
sum of 12 Euros. I make a mental note to adjust my mindset to an entirely
different economic reality, one that foregrounds affordability. The conundrum is
being knowingly under-priced. How do you persuade consumers, many just
awakening to Beaujolais’s virtues, to accept rising prices without losing them?
Let’s park that discussion elsewhere for the moment - I will return to that
In the meantime, let’s examine what Beaujolais
has to offer in two contrasting consecutive growing seasons: 2020 and 2021
since they comprise a majority of tasting notes, augmented by dozens of
early-bottled 2022s that augur what is coming down the line.
The famous moulin of Moulin-à-Vent. For fellow
children of the 1970s, there was no sign of Windy Miller.
The Growing Seasons
Much of what I say here is similar to previous
reports apropos the Côte d’Or. Headlines? The 2021 vintage was challenging. Its
curveballs left winemakers reeling. In 2022, the difficulty was managing not
the heat per se but the energy-sapping drought. As a couple of winemakers put
it: 2021 was hard in the vines and easy in the winery, and 2022 vice versa.
2020 – The Early Vintage. This was the second earliest vintage on
record after 2003. Bud burst came soon, in late March, and the next couple of months were warm and
sunny. June was more inclement before the mercury rocketed at the end. As
expected, flowering began rapidly,
around 20 May, and finished just ten days later. July was warmer at the end of
the month and, more importantly, the third driest since 1964. August was more
variable, hot for the first three weeks and cool towards the end. Ripening was furcating
due to the terroir (altitude, orientation and age of vines) and the scattershot
pattern of rainfall across the region. Harvesting began in some places as early
as 20 August, with picking spun out over three or four weeks. That is not only
due to the heterogeneity of maturity but also because Beaujolais’ goblet-pruned
vines mandate picking by hand. Even though some 25,000 pickers descended upon
the region, it remains a time-consuming annual ritual.
2021 – The Complicated Vintage. Bud burst was normal, around 5 April,
already six days later than the previous year. Frosts arrived between 5 and 8 April,
and climes remained almost wintry. The 2.1° Celsius below average was the
coldest since 2001. However, Jean-Marc Burgaud told me that the frost was not
as severe in Beaujolais vis-à-vis other wine regions and that damage depended
upon location and elevation. Some vineyards were decimated, though about 20%
was lost from this episode on average. There was no relief: May was some 4.6°
Celsius below normal, the fourth coldest since 1959 and the wettest since 1983.
Consequently, flowering was delayed to around 9 June, a week later than average
and 20 days later than 2020. July was cool and rather overcast, rain persisting
with all that entails, the dampest since 1977. Growers had to conduct up to a
dozen copper and sulfur treatments in the vineyard. On 12 August, substantial
rain arrived, but apart from that, it remained dry, allowing workers to pile
into vineyards and clean up the vines to encourage berry maturity. The harvest
began on 13 September, the fourth latest since 1992, with lower alcohol levels than
in recent years, around 12.5%. Alas, quantities were depleted by around 30%.
2022 – The Solar Vintage. The first four months saw 23% more
sunshine than usual and a 30% deficit in precipitation, though it was quite
cool and, therefore, bud break was late, around 12 April. May was hot, some 3° Celsius
above normal and the second sunniest since 1991, bringing rapid flowering. The first
petals were spotted by Burgaud around 15 May and done and dusted by 28 May.
June was changeable, bringing spells of balmy, dry conditions with interludes
of heavy rain and localized storms. It was important to manage canopies and
maintain airflow to mitigate rot. July was hotter than normal, with 48% more
sunshine than average (390 hours). Worryingly, the rain was just 7.9mm compared
to a 33-year average of 68.1mm. August thankfully provided 31mm between 14 and
20 August and another 12mm on 26 August. Even with those showers, Beaujolais
still faced a shortfall of 109mm, equal to two months of rainfall. On the
upside, there was 20% more sunshine. Alcohol levels are higher than in 2021,
around 13.5% to 14%, occasionally intoxicatingly above those figures. Many
winemakers reduced the duration of maceration by one or two days.
Wines Were Tasted
It was a bittersweet return
to Beaujolais. Though I looked forward to returning to a region I have visited
for 26 years, it was tinged with sadness since I was filling in for my
hospitalized colleague, Josh Raynolds. Above all, I hoped to be a temporary
stand-in. He passed just a few days after I got back. So, this article is
dedicated to Josh. I will endeavor to continue coverage of Beaujolais to his impeccable
standard. Apart from a penchant for early 1990s Shoegaze, Beaujolais was a
My trip included
comprehensive tastings at the InterBeaujolais offices in Villefranche. These
are vital for casting the net wide and assessing the region en masse instead of
the restricted purview of la crème de la crème and/or the cool and trendy.
Every extensive tasting I have undertaken at their offices over many years,
professionally organized to the highest standard, unearths hidden gems I can
follow up on. Of course, visits are crucial and the most enjoyable aspect of
any assignment. I duly rang the doorbell of as many winemakers as time
permitted. Readers should note that I intend to add to these 500-odd notes in
Focusing upon three vintages,
2020, 2021 and 2022, you could summarize the trio as a warm growing season “sandwich”
with a cool and wet “filling”. During my tasting, I sometimes felt as if the
wines existed at two ends of the stylistic spectrum—an under-nourished 2021
immediately followed by a slightly over-ripe 2022. At that point, I hankered
for some kind of middle ground. In other words, a Beaujolais begat from a
“normal” season. Recent vintages tested the mettle of even the most talented
and well-pocketed winemakers, stretching them one way and then the other. In
Beaujolais, where margins and revenues are small compared to the Côte d’Or,
there is less leeway in terms of discarding any substandard batches or barrels.
As a result, you are often tasting what could be described as “unedited”
reflections of those vintages, for good and for bad.
The 2021 vintage is
inconsistent, a facet of that year I foresaw last autumn when tasting
Beaujolais wines made by Côte d’Or-based Domaines such as Louis Boillot,
Thibaut Liger-Belair and Frédéric Lafarge. Unsurprisingly, some Beaujolais
wines in this infamous vintage suffer a lack of ripeness, showing uncharacteristically
skinny expressions of Gamay, a grape that thrives in warm conditions. I gain
little pleasure in dishing out lower scores to producers that my predecessor and
I have applauded in other years. More often than not, that is not a mark of a lackadaisical
winemaker, simply a season that poleaxed many cuvées, sometimes at the season’s
starting line thanks to frost. Not inclined to pull any punches, there were
times when I wished a producer had made the tough decision not to release a
wine. On the other hand, critics too often forget that everyone has a living to
make and families to feed.
Mathieu Lapierre made some wonderful 2021s. Shades of singer Tom Waits in that hat?
But…but…but…to write off 2021
as being devoid of fine and worthy Beaujolais would be a gross injustice,
equating to an irretrievable loss of your drinking pleasure. Like Bordeaux and
the Côte d’Or, the 2021 vintage offered winemakers a chance to rediscover the
fresher, leaner, more transparent wines that global warming is busy extinguishing.
It is a “vignerons’ vintage” that showcases those truly dedicated to those baby
footsteps in the vineyard and contrasts them with others plowing on with
high-volume commercial Beaujolais. The former could conjure some marvelous
expressions from the vintage, a roll call that includes Château Thivin, Anthony
Thévenet, Mee Godard, Richard Rottiers, Thillardon, Julien Sunier, Jean-Paul
Brun, Mathieu and Camille Lapierre and Jean-Marc Burgaud, creating wines that
are a) delicious and b) a fraction of what you have to shell out in the Côte
d’Or. Their wines are testaments to the work applied in their vineyards, such
that the quality of their 2021s is scarcely believable if you reread the
traumatic events of that season.
As you might expect, the
warmer 2020 vintage overflows with quality, and stylistically it will appeal to
those seeking richer, more fruit-driven wines. A standout that I wish to
highlight is the stunning 2020 Régnié Mosaïque from Philippe Viet that
glistened brightly during a tasting at the InterBeaujolais offices. It is one
of the best I’ve ever tasted from that Village. Indicative of how problematic
the 2021 vintage could be, even Viet seemed to suffer with a rather lean 2021
Morgon Corcelette. In any case, Viet remains a winemaker that I must visit on
my next trip.
Meanwhile, the 2022s are
looking very promising, and several, perhaps predictably though not without foundation,
suggest that they are 2020-plus. My sample base is a little skewed since it
focused more on early-bottled/less serious Beaujolais. However, barrel samples
from Domaine de la Grand’Cour and Jean-Marc Burgaud, plus impressive showings
such as the Chiroubles l'Aurore des Côtes from Fabien Collonge and several from
Louis-Claude Desvignes, present manifold reasons to expect outstanding wines
from this vintage.
BBB: Bargain Breadbasket Beaujolais
As made clear in my introduction, Beaujolais is
surfeit with value for money. Now is the moment to be filling your cellar with
its finest. As experience shows, it’s not what you buy but when
you buy it. It can be a steal given the melioration in quality. No wonder more
and more on-trade restaurants and bars list Beaujolais, selling to contented
customers who return wanting more, galvanizing bonds between region and
wine-lover. It seems not long ago that Beaujolais’s reputation was handicapped
by the patina of silliness surrounding Beaujolais Nouveau. That is finally
being shaken off. Add to that its credentials as a crucible for organic
winemaking, non-sulfated cuvées, biodynamics and indeed, the birthplace of
Steiner’s tenets applied in the vineyard—it is unsurprisingly Beaujolais is sommelier
Therein lies the paradox. Unfortunately, the
measure of a producer or region’s pedigree is dictated by price. What is
considered value-for-money for one consumer connotes inferiority to label
hunters and wine snobs. How to break the association between Beaujolais and
cheapness? Ideally, you want a tiered pricing structure to avoid the fate of
much of the Côte d’Or, where the “rising tide” of prices means that even
generic Bourgogne Blanc/Rouge lies beyond oenophiles’ budgets. Hopefully,
Beaujolais will see incremental price increases and persuade importers,
distributors and consumers alike to accept them. Let’s not forget - we are not
talking about the swinging price hikes of Bordeaux or the Côte d’Or. It’s just
a few Euros.
At the beginning of my week in the region, I
casually remarked to a colleague how I expect one winemaker will throw down the
gauntlet and release a luxury cuvée commanding a three-figure price tag - take
it or leave it. Two days later, a serious winemaker confirmed that is exactly their
intention. You will have to wait two or three years…but it’s going to happen. I
suspect that given the quality that abounds, others will follow their lead,
even though this is not a region motivated by money. Higher prices sway
consumers’ opinion and ensure economic survival, avoiding a similar fate that
swathes of small Bordeaux producers currently face while allowing reinvestment
into vineyards and wineries. That is a prerequisite for any wine region
aspiring towards world-class wines.
This photo communicates the joie-de-vivre and camaraderie better than any words. L-R: David Beaupère, Antoine Sunier, Paul-Henri Thillardon, Julien Sunier trying to hoist “Raph” Saint-Cyr and Angel Quiblier from Obora.
Beaujolais or Biojolais?
Beaujolais most presciently began to eschew
chemicals and herbicides when others, including grandees in Bordeaux and
Burgundy, heaped them onto their vines, destroying biodiversity and
viticultural viability season-by-season. Beaujolais was ahead of the game
thanks to winemaker-cum-chemist Jules Chauvet and the “Gang of Four” (not the
English post-punk band, but rather Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton, Jean-Paul
Thévenet and Jean Foillard). Inevitably, as fashions steered around into their
way of thinking, consumers responded positively to their wines, and others
followed. To put figures on that, in 2020, over 150 Beaujolais estates are
either farmed organically or are under conversion, over 200 are HVE (High
Environmental Certified), and ten growers are Demeter certified.
Partly underlying this adoption is the salient
fact that, as already mentioned, goblet-pruned Gamay vines demand more TLC.
They require a one-on-one tactile relationship with winemakers compared to orderly
serried rows of Guyot-pruned vines that entice machine-harvesting. In recent
years, the likes of Lapierre and Foillard have become icons for biodynamics. The
next time a winemaker in Bordeaux or the Côte d’Or impresses upon you that
their astronomical price tag covers the costs of biodynamics, time-intensive,
laborious practices, remember what a Morgon Côte du Py costs by comparison,
then question that winemaker’s real motives.
I spent a noisy, raucous afternoon with an
unofficial group of winemakers informally known as the “Biojolais”. Meeting at
Paul-Henri Thillardon’s winery in Chénas, we were joined by the winemakers
pictured above. Their friendship was reminiscent of my first forays in
Swartland, South Africa, when the merry band of Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst et
al. collectively deviated from the norm. I am not suggesting that their
Beaujolais counterparts will have such a seismic effect. What they are
certainly creating is an alternative Beaujolais, a different style of Gamay
that is complementary and not implicitly superior to more orthodox iterations. It’s
not for everyone. Immediately afterward, I visit their great friend Richard
Rottier. When I tell him I have just tasted with the Biojolais gang, he smiles
and says that while he admires their approach, their technique is not for him.
Their tenets start in the
vineyard with intensive viticulture that eschews chemicals and often applies
Steiner’s principles, though they are not dogmatically followed. Perhaps the
biggest difference is in terms of alcoholic fermentation. A pre-ferment cold
maceration starts the process. They essentially sit and wait with fingers
crossed for the fermentation to naturally spark, with must temperatures not rising
to the same level as orthodox fermentation. They tend to apply minimal pigeage
or remontage, then élevage is in used oak and/or concrete vats
with no sulfur addition or a minimal dose just before bottling. This results in
wines that, as they admit themselves, can easily transmute into more rosé than
red. Banish the notion of all Beaujolais being limpid, purple-hued wines with
vivacious high-toned cherry fruit - these are conspicuously paler and redder in
hue, much more red rather than blue or black fruit, lighter, often more
tensile, tart and minerally.
Georges Descombes in his kitchen.
Pop ‘n Pour, Right?
Well, mostly wrong.
Beaujolais’s DNA dictates that approachability is sewn into nearly all its
wines. Youthful irresistibility deceives oenophiles into presuming there is scant
reward for cellaring even its elite wines. Their cellar is reserved for the highfalutin
Grand Crus. As my drinking windows imply, though I rarely advise laying
Beaujolais down, they can repay patience and curiosity, sometimes handsomely. Readers
should check my reviews for Château du Moulin-à-Vent. Proprietor Edouard
Parinet cracked open older bottles, and their 1989 was spectacular. Gamay can
occasionally wander towards Grenache territory with age, and I would love to
sneak it into a vertical of Château Rayas. In addition, peruse my notes for
Jean-Marc Burgaud for a couple of 2013s, a 2003 and a 40-year-old vintage made
by his father-in-law, Eric Jambon, due for a forthcoming Vinous Table.
While other regions, not
least Bordeaux, strive to reshape their wines in order to obviate cellaring, Beaujolais’
challenge is the inverse: persuading oenophiles to lay down the top wines. Beaujolais
Nouveau doesn’t exactly telegraph that message. All I advise is to save three
or four bottles of Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent or Côte de Brouilly—put them aside and
dive in every other year. You might be surprised. I am not suggesting that it
will give the returns of a perfectly aged Pinot Noir from an illustrious
vineyard – let’s be realistic here. Yet given Beaujolais’ affordability, what
have you got to lose?
Dorées: Little French Tuscany
The one frustrating aspect
of my trip was having to scrub a trip to southern Beaujolais due to my return
flight being canceled (merci EasyJet) and having to grab the last seat
on the TGV. While many flock to the picturesque and more famous villages in
north Beaujolais, the area around 40km directly south is less frequently
visited. That is a shame because potential is only just being realized here. Better
known for its whites, often used for sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne,
year-by-year, I find more promise in this category as its whites achieve ever
greater terroir expression. The problem is that it will struggle to be taken
seriously until there is more recognition for individual lieux-dits.
South Beaujolais is also
home to “Territoire des Pierres Dorées,” sometimes dubbed the “Little French
Tuscany” due to its similarity to the clayey limestone hills of Val d’Orcia. An
application has been made to the INAO to become a geographic denomination, even
though many labels already namecheck the area. If passed, it would comprise 1,500
to 2,000 hectares between 170 and 700 meters in altitude, and it will surely
enhance its reputation so that connoisseurs will take its wines more seriously.
There is a lot going on in
Beaujolais right now. I cannot deny that I felt relief conversing with winemakers
less obsessed with price and brand image or dealing with intra-familial
acrimony. Things just seem…simpler. There is a burgeoning collective spirit
that is infectious, a sense of a region moving on to a new chapter concurrent
with the growing understanding of their terroir’s quality and newfound pride.
Part of the reason is that Beaujolais is now recognized for something other
than the circus that occurs every third Thursday in November. I actually think
Beaujolais Nouveau is fun. But I would like to see it turned into a more local
celebration rather than a ritual that nowadays is on untenable financial and
ecological ground. Think how much it costs to fill a cargo plane with heavy
bottles costing one or two euros and fly it halfway around the world. It was
exorbitant when I organized such shipments in the Nineties, let alone now. Greta
Thunberg would not be amused.
Beaujolais’ most top-tier vineyards
are esteemed though not officially classified. Not yet, anyway. Wheels are in
motion promoting some Beaujolais vineyards to Premier Cru status, just like in
Pouilly-Fuissé, which saw some vineyards elevated to Premier Cru status from
the 2020 vintage, albeit after many years of campaigning. The authorities in Beaujolais
have already undertaken intensive soil profiles between 2009 and 2018.
Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie*, Juliénas and Moulin-à-Vent have all
entered the long process, and the INAO is assessing their lieux-dits to
ascertain those that are notionally superior.
Louis-Benoît and Claude-Emmanuelle Desvignes at Louis Claude Desvignes.
The one missing name in that
list is Morgon. Here, lieux-dits are already mentioned on labels, for example,
Côte du Py, Corcelette and La Javernières. That has the potential to complicate
matters down the line. A middling Fleurie La Madone 1er Cru would have higher
status than a stellar Morgon Côte du Py? Do I think Beaujolais’s finest
vineyards deserve Premier Cru status? Yes, I hope it eventually comes to pass,
but it is inevitably a protracted process.
In the meantime, I hope this
report encourages more people to open their horizons, particularly those whose
blinkers are trained on the Côte d’Or and not the bounty beyond. Pinot Noir
might have usurped Gamay in the Côte d’Or, but that doesn’t mean it cannot
thrive on Beaujolais’ totally different blue and pink granite and quartz soils.
Regrettably, its winemakers have been pummelled by recent wild swings in
weather. Nobody can deny that 2021 is an inconsistent season, and I don’t pull
any punches in that respect. Yet there are numerous examples of growers bucking
the trend and producing some quite remarkable expressions even in that vintage.
Now, it’s time to raise a
glass of Beaujolais to my departed comrade, put on some Slowdive or Black Rebel
Motorbike Club, and plan my next visit.
*Shortly before finishing
this article I received a statement officially detailing the proposed
prerequisites for Premier Cru classification in Fleurie. Seven Premier Crus
will be proposed to the INAO this spring: Les Moriers, Poncié, Les Garants, La
Madone, La Roilette, Grille Midi and La Chapelle des Bois, which together
represent 27% of the appellation.
© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
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