Released to great fanfare every November, shipped hurriedly and quaffed unceremoniously, the buzz around Beaujolais Nouveau kept the region just-about-afloat through troubled times. But it levied a different kind of debt, enshrining preconceptions of gimmicky kitsch and margin-over-quality winemaking.
The revival of Beaujolais' reputation has been more about its neighbour than its Nouveau, and that neighbour is of course Burgundy.
Wine writer Jon Bonné wrote that the 20th-century consensus was: 'if Burgundy was a love poem, Beaujolais was sex talk.' But the 21st century is proving a very exciting time and accompanying our buyer Tim Sykes on a whistlestop tour of suppliers (old, new and to-be-confirmed) affirmed my belief that the gamay grape of Beaujolais has a soulful poetry all its own.
With prices for top Burgundy already so far into the stratosphere that they were last seen beaming hi-resolution photos from the far side of the moon, and Beaujolais offering such quality and value, two interesting things have happened. Firstly, Beaujolais has started seducing many savvy pinot noir lovers by appealing to their palates as well as their wallets. Secondly, young wine lovers, priced out of top Burgundy from the start of their journeys, are flocking to Beaujolais and finding great wines. This has been a long journey for the region, but it's a privilege to be around for this stretch of it.
Talking terroir in Beaujolais is not a conversation limited to the die-hard wine geek anymore: this new generation of wine drinkers has seen to that. There is a renewed focus on respect for the land and of allowing smaller, special plots of vines to express their character unadulterated and unadorned.
And the differences between the ten 'cru' villages (check out our Guide to Beaujolais for a quick summary of each) are able to be explored, discussed and celebrated for a relative song.
Crucially, there's also a sense of fun and unpretentiousness here that is as refreshing as the wines. Great Burgundy is quixotic, and great Beaujolais certainly can be as well, but the latter must, arguably, always remain quaffable.
The region’s combination of stylistic diversity and damn good fun was demonstrated straight away at our first stop: Jean-Paul Brun’s Terres Dorées, down in the south of the region in the hilly village of Charnay (‘a bit like the Cotswolds of Beaujolais,’ Tim observed quite fairly as we meandered up the steep hills in our somewhat gravity-averse hire car).
Jean-Paul is a good man to talk to in order to get a long-term view on Beaujolais’ fortunes and the breadth of styles the region produces. He has been making wines here for a while, modestly putting his initial success in the 1980s down to luck when, schlepping his wines around Paris, he sold his first bottle to wine-trade legend Steven Spurrier for his Caves de la Madeleine wine shop.
All colours of wine are made here and he has a flair for experimentation, including plantings of roussanne (a white grape seldom seen in this part of France) and the gloriously gluggable off-dry sparkling pink ‘FRV-100’.
His non-Nouveau reds, however, are straight-as-a-die reflections of the Beaujolais region and its crus, and I can’t recommend getting to know them enough.
To my palate, there are few wines that offer a more delicious, any-occasion bottled encapsulation of red Beaujolais for the money as L’Ancien. It has been a personal favourite for a few years, and if the three unfinished elements of the forthcoming 2018 are anything to go by, it will take something very special to change that. Packed with soft, charming red-berry fruit, it’s juicy, poised, thirst-quenching and as thought-provoking as your palate is in the mood to be, ready for pretty much any food, occasion or company you’d care to throw its way.
Making a house Beaujolais this consistently good is a testament to Jean-Paul's buying savvy as well as his winemaking talent, drawing as he does from a number of vineyards acquired over the years. 'I began to buy vineyards 15 years ago and I'm glad about that,' he said with a smile. Prices have been going up (those pesky Burgundians have been starting to buy!). He works organically but isn't certified as such: he has seen what can happen when nature deals a bad hand.
The rest of the tasting could have been prepared as a 'cru crash course', giving a faithful, reliable and delicious style file of five of the ten areas' charms. His Saint-Amour, for instance, from vines high up on the plateau, played a sinewy, pinot-like tune, in keeping with this most northerly of the crus' geographical proximity to Burgundy. On the other hand, the Côte de Brouilly trod a line between grippy, lithe seriousness and a fresh, friendly finish; his Morgon had presence, structure and a certain intellect to its cordiality, and the Moulin-à-Vents we tried were solid, tannic and slightly wild in character.
Then came his Fleurie wines: appropriately floral, fresh, scented and silky, these were perhaps the highlight of the tasting for me.
As well as being a good early tuning fork for the palate, this visit was also my first taste of the 2018 vintage. For more on that, how it compares with 2017 and how the increasingly hotter vintages in the region are throwing up some interesting paradoxes, take a look at the next article.