Going back in time, after getting engaged in Paris on 11/11/11, we wandered through wine country and ended up one day at Domaine Des Grands Fers in Beaujolais. We fell in love with their earthy gamays but our mouths dropped open when we learned that prices were ~10 euros a bottle. Needless to say, we are still smitten with the light, low alcohol, slightly earthy charm of a good cru Beaujolais and have spent the last several years exploring wines from this region.
While in Arbois, we knew we had to make the two-hour trek over to this region. Nestled between Burgundy and the Rhone valley, the wines of Beaujolais are sometimes similar style to Burgundy but use gamay grapes instead of pinot noir and drop the outrageous price tags. If you think this region is just good for its Beaujolais Nouveau, we’re no longer on speaking terms. This NYTimes article points out just how great these wines can be at an affordable price. As you can tell from the picture above, Beaujolais is one of the few wine regions in France that is super simple and easy to understand. Just kidding! It actually has 96 villages (Beaujolais AOC), 39 communes (Beaujolais-Villages AOC) and 10 appellations (Cru Beaujolais). Wine from each area has “distinct characteristics” that are most likely indistinguishable unless you are a sommelier who specializes in French wine or spent your formative years sipping native wines from the region (lucky you). That being said, the wines tend to be less tannic because the gamay grapes have thin skins, and because the process of carbonic maceration produces a lighter, fresher wine. In our experience, characterizing Beaujolais wines as simply “fruity” is untrue; the best wines from the region are quite earthy and complex.
First stop was to visit a famous producer in the region, Jean Paul Brun (JPB) at his Domaine des Terres Dorees. We served his L’Ancien at our wedding, so-named for the old vines that are so critical in extacting minerality from the soil. When we arrived at his modest house, we called and he said to come in. We knocked and knocked but no one answered the door. We called again and he confirmed that we were at the right address. That being said, it would have been great if we knew that there were 3 roads in the same regions with the same name, and we happened to be at the wrong one. Two of them shared at least one house at the exact same address!
JPB helped us out by meeting us in the middle of town and then having us follow him home. We got the distinct impression that he was there sampling his own wine earlier that afternoon and was down for the company. He owns land in (at least) seven Cru Beaujolais regions and proceeded to open bottles for us from each of the regions. JPB, or as we would lovingly call him at the end of our massive tasting “Drunkle” (for his avuncular nature and passion for his product), has an encyclopedic knowledge of each terroir. When all was said and done he had opened 14 bottles, gave us one for free to take home and drove us up to his favorite lookout point in the region. Pretty generous for the owner of the most successful winery in the region. Think that Robert Mondavi would do the same?
Next stop was the eccentric an opinionated winemaker/retailer Cyril Alonso at Mason P-U-R. Tyrannical about natural wine making, Cyril told us about the importance of moon cycles and being sulfite-free in wine-making. “Natural wine is influenced by three things,” he said while chain smoking cigarettes, “weather, grapes and terroir. C’est tout.” He even suggested that aging wine in neutral oak shouldn’t be considered “natural” given the modest influence imparted by wood. The description of his wine as the “Production Unique Rebelle” is well deserved. He has gained popularity in France and US because of his big personality and outstanding wines and we fell in love with his 2011 Cote de Py from the Morgon region of Beaujolais. Made with carbonic maceration, it is low in alcohol, light, funky and delicious with hints of citrus on the nose and cherries and cinnamon on the palate.
By the end of our visit, his passion had convinced us that natural wine was the only wine worth drinking, so we had to take his recommendation to visit a small winery in Fleurie called Château des Bachelards. It turned out that the small town was hosting a bike race that day and this required us to weave through a byzantine series of closed roads and turnarounds. Once we made it, we met the nice young couple who had given up professional careers to make natural wines. They were unassuming, especially after the last two producers we’d visited, and we left satisfied but without many bottles. When we drank a bottle several days later, it sang to us with notes of black fruit, delicate aromas of wild flowers and nice structure from well formed tannins. Only then did we realize our mistake of not buying several cases of the Clos des Bachelards for the wine club. Fortunately, we got back in touch with the winemakers and were able to rectify the situation.
Beaujolais, with its cast of winemaking characters, is an underrated region that should not be missed by anyone who appreciates a lighter style of wine.