Before setting off for Beaujolais, I tried a little exercise with the few non-wine-geek people in my life who still tolerate me talking to them about the stuff.
I asked them what styles and attributes they think of when they hear the word 'Beaujolais' or see it on a list.
More often than not, the word that came up first was 'light'.
The classic Beaujolais style, or at least how we perceive it, can seemingly be summed up with this word: light in body, light in alcohol, light in style.
But increasingly, a different kind of light is starting to play a spot of devil's advocate.
Solaire was a word that came up time and time again when Tim and I were tasting samples of the 2018 vintage. Like 2015 and, to a lesser extent, 2017, this is a warm year marked by high degrees of sunlight, degrees of heat and, potentially, degrees of alcohol.
Most of our visits involved trying the unfinished 2018s and the bottled 2017s. Generalising about vintages has its pitfalls but, on the whole, 2017 produced classically styled Beaujolais with delectable perfumes, albeit in a sunny kind of style. It was a warmer year than the super-fresh 2016 and in most cases you can taste this ripeness. However, the styles are nearly always faithful to where they come from – as Frédéric Burrier of Château de Beauregard put it, '2017 is a vintage where the terroir is naked in the glass.'
The embryonic '18s are more difficult to pin down, but many have a warmer character still (while not as full-on as the heatwave-honed 2015s, which needed particular care in vineyard and cellar to get right).
Charmes personified: Jean-Marc Burgaud
The visit I had been most looking forward to during this trip was probably to see Jean-Marc Burgaud, whose wines have been making an increasingly regular appearance in my home and keeping stash. Based in Morgon, he makes a range of wines that cover the light, the structured and the cerebral, and I was keen to find out what the man behind them was like.
Soon after being shown into his beautiful cellar, we were interrupted briefly by an alarm being set off.
'I apologise: my dog – he's 11 and a bit blind – has got out.'
'No problem! What's his name?'
(Martin Brown and Jean-Marc Burgaud)
Proof, if any were needed, that this was my kind of winemaker.
Jean-Marc shared the view that warm vintages could be a problem for typicity: 'Beaujolais should be a wine that when you open some with a friend, you should be able to finish the bottle,' he said with a twinkle in his eye. 'That's why I prefer the 2016s to the 2015s. But I like to think I have the same quality in my 2018s. For us it was a sunny vintage, but not too much. Purity was my obsession in this year – fruit, fine tannins. Not everyone's 2018s have this.'
How come? 'Picking date and quantity: the best wines weren't picked too late, and quantities needed to be controlled.' Jean-Marc also reduced his maceration time to produce fresher, more balanced wines. 'I have always the same philosophy in my job, but I have to adapt and change some small decisions as I go, depending on the year – it's a lot like cooking.'
Jean-Marc's 2018s are anything but overcooked. His Régnié Vallières (perhaps the lightest of his wines that we buy, and we've been proud to offer it exclusively for over ten years) was still on its fermentation lees when we tasted it, but somehow still a delight. This will, as usual, be bottled quite early to capture the freshness of this oft-overlooked cru.
His appropriately named Morgon Les Charmes, from a tiny plot planted in 1934, is delicate and perfumed. The 2018 is vivid, mineral and sprightly, but it was the 2017 vintage of this wine that stopped me in my tracks with its restrained, almost candied aroma and nimble, energetic red-fruited freshness. Only 5,000 bottles were made, but Tim got his hands on 1,200 of them.
Showing the other side of Morgon's style, his 2018 from the famed Côte du Py, a plateau on top of the hill, is an intricate masterclass in power and minerality. Jean-Marc is very pleased with it and while it is currently packed into a tannic envelope, we all agreed something delicious was in the post.
All the talk of Côte du Py's ageworthiness had left me desperate to try one with a few years on the clock. 'An easy year or a difficult year?' he asked.
'A difficult one,' said Tim, 'To show what you can do!'
We were served what turned out to be the 2007 blind. The aroma was absolutely exquisite: kaleidoscopic, tertiary but still fruity in the middle, qualities which continued on the palate. This was a wise old owl of a Morgon, but with beautiful freshness still, and a great advert for keeping these wines if you can resist them young.
What's more, Tim nailed the vintage!
Frédéric Burrier: flexing the crus' muscles
If there is one grower who has shown they can make a strength of a hot vintage's, well, strength, it's Frédéric Burrier of Château de Beauregard. His 2015s were extraordinary, taming the ardour of the vintage and somehow keeping the crus' classic characteristics, but with a sense of amplitude that I'd normally associate with wines from the Rhône.
I had been told by several people to prepare for a charismatic and passionate talk before meeting Frédéric. They were right. I haven't encountered many vignerons with such a combination of infectious enthusiasm and studied acumen: every wine in the de Beauregard line-up seemed to have a plan, a place and a pitch-perfect delivery.
I was keen to find out how he'd fared with 2018 and how he felt about the new vintage.
'I loved 2015 and I love 2018!' he exclaimed as we sat down to taste at his fantastic new Beaujolais winery. 'My '18s are very open, rich and dense, with good bitterness and acidity. They are of the earth. Our hands went black on the sorting table during this vintage – the fruit had such a deep colour and natural extraction.'
I wanted to try and understand better how these wines can offer such an unusual mixture of Beaujolais typicity and latent power. 'Dryness of fruit and density are the common thread for my wines,' he said. 'It is also difficult to find a style like this in Beaujolais because of the age of my vines.'
This is an impressive and important detail: his Moulin-à-Vent La Salomine, for example, comes from a plot planted over 100 years ago by his great-grandfather. These rare vines yield small berries and production is tiny (only eight casks were made in 2018). 'When I took over, my father was about to replant these vines, but I said no – let me try!'
I’m very glad he did. The 2018 is stunning, but concentrated and difficult to taste at this early stage, offering a spicy, perfumed and tannin-gripped quality that blurs reference points between the Rhône and Burgundy while remaining preternaturally and unmistakably Beaujolais.
Similarly, his 2018 Fleurie Colonies de Rochegrès could be described as Beaujolais for Châteauneuf-du-Pape fans in 2018: ageworthy and structured with sparkling mineral joy poking out around the edges before a rich, spicy finish, but that floral DNA of the cru always leading the dance. It is a serious and impressive effort from a part of Beaujolais that has been hit very hard by the elements in recent vintages.
Hail to thee, Fleurie
As we stood outside the door of Fleurie’s outstanding Clos de la Roilette, I wondered: why the long face?
While so many growers we talked to were overjoyed about the amount of fruit they’d been able to harvest in 2018, Fleurie was the exception. After being hit with some cruel hail damage in the 2017 vintage, 2018 saw it happen yet again.
The region is trying its best to insulate itself from the worst of it, some using conventional methods, others more drastic.
‘Was that mistranslated?’ I asked Tim.
‘Nope, missiles: acetone rockets, to be precise.’
I’m not quite sure this was the low-intervention artisanal viticulture I’d had in mind when I visited Beaujolais, dude… but initial trials in some vinous theatres of war around here have apparently shown a 50-60% success rate.
And if such techniques give us wines like Clos de la Roilette’s, and in greater quantity then, I suppose, ‘let ‘em have it’.
The 2018 Fleurie is a dream of a wine in the making, with each of its constituent tanks showing something special. The assemblage of these elements is always done blind, but Alain Coudert admits the percentages and terroirs always end up remarkably similar.
In fact, all of Alain’s wines are a beacon of consistency and charm, and the asking price is frankly derisory given the quality – even the burlier-proportioned Cuvée Tardive (made for drinking tardive or late, rather than any reference to when the grapes are harvested) has such a streak of energy and tension in both the finished 2017 and unfinished 2018 that the less-than-precise but heartfelt tasting term I noted down the most during this visit was ‘wow’.
To my palate, the growers with whom we work in the crus have all knocked 2018 out of the park. However, the story became a different one when we were trying some possible candidates for blending The Society’s Beaujolais-Villages and some other labels.
‘Rich pickings’ took on a different dimension here and selection needed to be strict: while some of the samples were superb (and rest assured that the resultant blends taste terrific), others tasted decidedly un-Beaujolais-like: heavy, robust and while often decent, one could argue they succumbed to meteorological light at the expense of stylistic lightness. Had some of these been served to me blind, I’d have said they hailed from the sun-soaked Côtes-du-Rhône. As temperatures continue to rise, this raises interesting questions.
What’s more, after a run of vintages where quantity was low, 2018’s abundance forced growers into something of a dilemma: go for quantity and the resultant financial benefit but risk quality or vice versa?
As a result of all this, 2018 is not a uniform vintage by any stretch, but there are some absolutely fantastic wines close to being released.
I can now confirm first hand that Tim is buying some glorious bottles to look out for next year, and we’ll be shouting about them as soon as we can. It was a privilege and a pleasure to try them. I hope you’ll feel the same.
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