Crunch time in Beaujolais: changes in viticulture

The bare economics of farming land to produce Beaujolais make stark reading, but growers are finding ways to rejuvenate vineyards to get things back on track

When I first took on buying Beaujolais from my colleague Marcel Orford-Williams, one of the first things that struck me on visiting the region was the plight of the vignerons. Sure, things are tough for many winemakers around the globe, but in Beaujolais things were reaching a bit of a crisis point, partly due to constraints enshrined in appellation law. Already changes are afoot though to turn this region into a more profitable one and it has been a fascinating transformation to witness as I have travelled through the region.

Straight Beaujolais, and even Beaujolais Villages, sells relatively cheaply considering the cost to the growers of working the vineyards. As a result, many growers of these appellations have been going out of business as it is just not possible to make a living.

Cutting down on vine density

Until recently, by law, all Beaujolais had to be made from high-density vineyards, 10,000 vines per hectare (compared to a common average elsewhere of about 3-6,000 vines per hectare). Much of this is planted on rolling hills, and using the gobelet (or bush) training system where mechanisation is very difficult.

Gobelet bush vine Gobelet bush vine
New and old - cordon on wires in foreground and free standing gobelet in the background New and old - cordon on wires in foreground and free standing gobelet in the background

There has now been a change in the law allowing density as low as 5,000 vines/ha, and for vines to be trained along wires using the cordon de royat pruning system. This will help the producers of basic Beaujolais enormously. Man hours for pruning will be halved, and many vineyard tasks such as spraying can now be mechanised. One hopes the wine will retain its personality.

(Read more about the significance of vine training in Caroline Gilby MW's article here.)

Changes there for all to see

Visually one can already see changes in the patterns of vineyards, from the uniform regularity of vines planted 1m x 1m, to different densities, with some vineyard owners pulling out one row in five to the new shape of the cordon de royat and its associated trellising.

Every sixth row taken out and left fallow to combat erosion and reduce pruning costs Every sixth row taken out and left fallow to combat erosion and reduce pruning costs

The effect on yields

Curiously, though, the yield for all Beaujolais is currently the same (52hl/ha). The appellation regulations were changed in about 2000 to try and increase quality, but effectively it just reduced margin for growers of Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages making them unprofitable.

In my opinion, there ought to be a return to the previous system, as below, although I would favour perhaps lowering yield limits for crus to about 55 hl/ha:

  • Beaujolais 66hl/ha
  • Beaujolais Villages 60 hl/ha
  • Crus 58 hl/ha

It's different for the Crus Beaujolais growers

Jean-Paul Brun Jean-Paul Brun against a wall of golden limestone which forms the soils in the southern part of Beaujolais called Les Pierres Dorées

Successful growers of the higher priced crus Beaujolais can make a reasonable living and existing vineyards will most likely be retained. When planting new vineyards many are trying the new system of training along wires, but planting at a density of between 7-8,000 vines/ha.

Some are using new laws to change the type of tractor being used. Jean-Paul Brun finds the current classic Bobard straddle tractor unreliable: 'You need two,' he says, 'one is always being repaired.' Smaller and lighter tractors, some with caterpillar tracks, imported from Switzerland, which are just one metre wide, can cope with steeper slopes and reduce soil compaction. Slightly increasing the distance between rows from the current one metre to 1.6m means the tractors can pass between the rows. Increasing the planting density in the rows from 1m to 0.8m keeps the density up to 7,800 plants/ha to maintain competition between plants.

Where to go next?

> Crus cuts: influencing the flavours of Beaujolais' crus

> Return to trip overview

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