As I stood in the dimly lit cellars at Domaine Jean-Marc Burgaud, in the tiny French village of Morgon, I couldn’t have been more surprised by what was in my glass. Perhaps I should have known better; I had been exposed to some fantastic older wines from Beaujolais years earlier, but nothing like this. I knew the best wines from the famed villages, such as Moulin-au-Vent, could age for 15 or 20 years in a good vintage, but nothing prepared me for the haunting aromas that were radiating from my glass. This was challenging everything I thought I knew about wine. How could Beaujolais be this good?
When Jean-Marc first handed me the glass there was a twinkle in his eye as he sheepishly concealed the dusty bottle behind his back. I knew I was out of my element, and when pressed for a guess as to what he had poured me, I awkwardly admitted, “I don’t know, but it’s old and it’s great.” When the bottle was finally revealed to me I was astonished; it was a 1961 Fleurie Cotes-du-Py, the current vintage of which sells in Calgary for under $25. When I remarked that there must not be much left, Jean-Marc smiled and said: “My father made this wine. I used to have two bottles and now I have one.”
Visiting the Beaujolais is a highlight on any trip to France and generosity like the kind I experienced is not uncommon. The food ranks among the best in the country, featuring local cuisine that cannot be replicated elsewhere. The people are warm to an almost embarrassing extent, and the wines will change you in a way you could never expect. As a young adult, I knew Beaujolais as a light, fruity and almost candy-like wine that was sold once a year on the third Thursday of November. After the hype of that week was over, I wasn’t sure Beaujolais continued to exist at all. Sadly this is the case for many North Americans today. I call it “the curse of the Nouveau.”
Although Beaujolais has always made a vin de l'année to celebrate the end of the harvest, it was only for local consumption until the 1960s. The Beaujolais AOC was first established in 1937, and in 1951 the Union Interprofessionnelle des Vins du Beaujolais (UIVB) formally set November 15 as the release date for what would henceforth be known as Beaujolais Nouveau. A few members of the UIVB, notably the négociant Georges Duboeuf, saw the potential for marketing Beaujolais Nouveau. It was a way to move a lot of wine and make a quick buck by selling most of their production within a few weeks of the harvest. They were able to accomplish this by employing the technique of carbonic maceration, a method of fermenting grapes that was quicker and gave the resulting wine a perfumed aroma and intensely fruity flavour. The region became known internationally for this style of wine and Beaujolais enjoyed decades of brisk sales.
People eventually tired of Beaujolais, however, and the marketing seemed incredulous for what were viewed as overpriced and poorly made wines. It was not yet the new millennia and Beaujolais Nouveau was dead.
Despite the fact that many producers are creating traditional wines of real quality, the region has been painted with one broad stroke — a sad state for one of France’s great treasures.
Beaujolais has a rich history starting back in the early 19th century, when winemakers would float their barrels down the Saone River to the bistros of Lyon, where the wine was celebrated as the culmination of a successful harvest. But as is always the case when local traditions are translated into international marketing schemes, eventually they lose their charm.
Traditionally, Beaujolais was made in a similar fashion to its Burgundian neighbours to the north. Fermentations were conducted in a traditional manner, and the resulting wines had structure, personality and the ability to age for decades. Tasting wines from great villages like Morgon, Fleurie and Moulin-au-Vent, you can easily see how this region gained its fame in the first place.
Now seems a perfect time to rediscover Beaujolais. The wines are amazingly inexpensive for the quality, and we have many great examples in the Calgary market. There is no better wine for roasted chicken or baked salmon than a great Cru Beaujolais, and for those looking to put something in the wine cellar on the cheap, I can assure you these wines will age beautifully for many years to come.
• 2008 Burgaud Morgon, Cotes-du-Py, $25 — Fresh and delicious, great underlying complexity and wonderful purity.
• 2008 Pierre-Marie Chermette, Fleurie, $29 — Bigger, more structured wine with great spice and unexpected length.
• 2007 Clos de la Roilette, Fleurie, $25 — Gushing, ripe red fruit gives way to subtle spice and juicy finish.