The Future Is Beaujolais: 2020-2022 Releases



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 later.

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.

2021The 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%.

2022The 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.

Beaujolais vines.

How the 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 shared passion.

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 the future.

The Wines

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 catnip.

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.

Tasting with Georges Descombes in his kitchen.

Beaujolais: 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? 

Pierres 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.   

Final Thoughts

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.

You Might Also Enjoy

Back For More Beaujolais, Neal Martin, August 2021

Changing Perspectives in Beaujolais, Josh Raynolds, August 2021