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Beaujolais revisited: “understanding of the terroir is driving better quality wines”

A recent masterclass has shone a light on the overlooked wines of Beaujolais, highlighting the versatility of the Gamay grape in the newly mapped terroir of the region’s lesser known Crus.

View of vineyards in Beaujolais 

The online tasting, which was organised by Inter Beaujolais and Sopexa and hosted by award-winning wine communicator Anne McHale MW, outlined the exciting developments that have been bubbling under the surface in the region in recent years as well as showcasing a selection of delicious and drinkable premium wines.

Stretching 34 miles of hills at the end of the Massif centrale, the Beaujolais region is nestled between Burgundy to the North and the Rhône to the South. It comprises 12 appellations, including Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages, and ten 10 Crus and its wines now are far removed from the heyday of Beaujolais Nouveau of the 1980s.

Varied terroir

Although the region’s entry level wines come primarily from the large fertile soils in the Beaujolais AOC, where the grapes ripen later due to the flatter terrain, it is further up the quality hierarchy where the biggest potential for the region’s fortunes can be found. Beaujolais Village, which comprises 38 municipalities, enjoys good recognition among consumers, who understand it is a tier above the basic appelation, even if they are not sure why. The areas has a wide range of soil types (from gneiss, band of blue stones, sandstone, shales, and granite),which are are less fertile than Beaujolais to the south. This restrains the natural vigour of the Gamay grapes and concentrates the fruit, while the larger amount of granite in the soil results in greater ripeness, structure and concentration in the wines.

However it is the ten Crus to the north where the finest wines come – Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Régnié, Morgon, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent, Chénas, Juliénas and Saint-Amour – and it is here where the biggest potential for the region lies.

Situated to the north among the hilly uplands, the vineyards in the ten Crus are planted up to 400m (420m in the case of Chiroubles, the highest cru), and the mainly South Eastern facing slopes give the wines great brightness. When the micro-orientations of each vineyard is combined with it particular variation in the soil, “you get real potential of diversity of soil which is solely coming from the land, the terroir,” McHale pointed out.

“Terroir is not really talked about widely across the world in the context of Beaujolais as much as it has about Burgundy,” she noted, “but one of the most exciting developments going on in the region is the mapping out of different soils, of different vineyards and terroirs across the region”.

This recent development will allows producers to take ownership of exactly which style they want from each plot of land. “Premiumisation is happening, and the understanding of the terroir by the winemakers is driving better quality wines,” she said.

Winemakers are also working together more and there is a lot of emphasis on sustainably – what the French called agro-ecology – which is linked to respect for the land, and protecting the vineyards for future generations.

Potential of the Crus

And it is the Crus that offer some of the best potential for the region, McHale added, although there is still work to be done to educate consumers about the individual appellations and deal with the “challenging legacy” of Beajolais Nouveau. However with a younger generation keen to explore lighter red styles, Beaujolais is not tarnished by the reputation of ‘Bojo Nouveau’ which became a victim of its own success leading to poorer quality and significantly declining exports.

“Fleurie has established itself as a recognisable ‘brand’ but most people who know it and buy it don’t know it’s from Beaujolais,” McHale pointed out, adding that this was true, although to a lesser extent, for Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent.

“The challenge of the lesser known crus face is that they neither have the association (whether good or bad) with the name ‘Beaujolais’, nor the recognisability of the better known Crus,” she points out. “If you can strengthen the link between famous crus like Moulin, Morgon, and Fleurie, which are well known in the UK market and make it clear to consumers that those are Beaujolais, that would help raise us the whole region and the rest of the lesser known Cru.”

“Cru Beaujolais combines lightness of Gamay with the richness of a denser grape variety,” McHale pointed out, adding that the individual appellations did have their own distinct characteristics. Brouilly for example, along with Régnié or Chiroubles are “charming” exuberant wines, “more designed for youthful drinking”, while at the opposite end of the scale, Crus such as Juliénas and Moulin-à-Vent, provide more tannic structure and ageability, along with violets, black fruits, liquorice, and spice.

McHale added that some winemakers in these Crus are experimenting with old wood barrels, which increased the body and texture of the wines, which means it can age for several years.

Being the most recently added Cru, Régnié is the least well-known, but its wines are characterised by early ripening grapes, with lots suppleness and fruit, from the granitic soils with alluvial Piedmont deposits. Saint-Amour, which is very well-known in France, and is often drunk on St Valentine’s Day, also has potential.

Positive reaction

The reaction to the wines at the tasting was very positive, and McHale noted that she hoped it would rejuvenate people’s love for the region.

“We’ve shown today how high the quality is, and just how much vibrancy and vitality there is in the region with the new generation of winemakers as well,” she said. “This is not a region that’s prepared to sit with the legacy of the less good wines of the past, it is moving forward and upwards – the value is there but the quality is there too.”

“To be able to communicate that diversity to the world is really exciting,” she added.

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