Beaujolais 2009 Est Arrivée

December 17, 2010

Everybody is talking about 2009 Beaujolais. Producers are on record comparing the vintage to the all-time greats. My friends in retail tell me they are positively amazed by how fast the 2009s are selling and how many people are trying them for the first time, then stocking up (or stocking up without even trying them, such is the lure of hype). But from what I have tasted of the vintage so far, it really is something special, one of those years like 2001 in the Mosel or 2005 in the Côte d’Or that has the power to make converts by showcasing the wines’ usual assets with such focus and intensity that it trains the palate to recognize their virtues even in years where they are less obvious.

Whenever a vintage like this comes along, there is inevitably a contrarian or two sniffing that the wines are atypical and pining for the subtler charms of a more ordinary year. The lovely and habitually contrary Alice Feiring is the first I’ve seen to register this dissent on the 2009 Beaujolais, calling the year a “freak.” But the question of what is typical when it comes to Beaujolais may be more difficult to resolve than we might imagine.

Today, some of the most acclaimed Beaujolais are made by a quartet of producers imported by Kermit Lynch and called the Gang of Four (sometimes a Gang of Five) because they’re friends with each other and because they share the same inspiration for their winemaking, the late Jules Chauvet. Chauvet made a cameo appearance in Lynch’s classic book Adventures on the Wine Route. There, Lynch described a Chauvet wine as “pale in color, with a light, pretty perfume. There were reminders of flowers, grapes, and fruits like peach and apricot. It was all quite delicate from start to finish, but lively all the same, and the flavor was elusive; more than anything, it perfumed the palate.” Chauvet told Lynch the wine had 11 degrees alcohol and lamented that after the naturally rich 1945 and 1947 vintages, people came to assume Beaujolais should always measure thirteen to fourteen degrees. Chauvet also criticized modern consumers for insisting on their wines’ being clear in color and stripped of sediment and carbon dioxide:

“I don’t know how we got to this point, judging a wine by its limpidity. No one demands that fruit juice be clear. Why must wine be clear? I remember in 1930 with the great vintage of 1929, some Swiss clients bought some Fleurie in barrel, full of carbon dioxide gas, still on its lees. They rolled it into their restaurant in Switzerland, put it up on the counter, opened it up, stirred it up, turned the spigot, and served it like that. It was like red soup, but what a perfume! The Swiss were like that, they wanted the whole wine. Now you have to de-gas it, you know, take out the carbon dioxide, but when you do that, you also take out the wine’s perfume. I wish we could convince the consumer to accept a fizzy wine with all its perfume intact.”

Lynch joined Chauvet in excoriating the trend towards slick, modern Beaujolais chaptalized to an artificial richness. He pointed to some of the adjectives Robert Parker used to describe Beaujolais in his 1987 Wine Buyer’s Guide: “soft, lush, silky, full, fleshy, rich, supple, and so on,” noting, “Mr. Parker is correct. His adjectives perfectly describe today’s overchaptalized, overalcoholic Beaujolais.”

But if Chauvet’s typical Beaujolais was turbid, fizzy, around 11% alcohol, and lightly perfumed with aromatic yellow fruits like peach and apricot, it’s interesting that those terms don’t remotely describe any of the wines of the Gang of Four or those of the other producers inspired by Chauvet’s legacy. In 1993, when Lynch introduced the Gang of Four’s wines to his customers (the original offer is reprinted in his collection Inspiring Thirst), he praised the “explosive” scent of the Lapierre Morgan and wrote of Jean Foillard’s Morgon Cote de Py: “the color and aroma are much deeper and thicker [than Lapierre’s]. It is also a rounder, richer, more intense, more ‘serious wine.’” Of Thévenet’s Morgon: “Alcohol 13.2° without chaptalization! Deep robe…. Sappy, complex, long, chewy.” Explosive, deep, thick, round, rich, intense, serious, sappy, complex, long, and chewy: These adjectives are more in line with Parker’s than Chauvet’s.

Lynch was describing the 1991s, another historic vintage, like the 2009s, where the richness and intensity came naturally. So call them atypical, but at least they are atypical in a typical way. It’s true, however, that Beaujolais even in the leaner years―even the Gang of Four’s―does not much resemble Lynch’s description of Chauvet’s Beaujolais. But I don’t see this as any kind of a contradiction. For these vintners, following Chauvet’s philosophy was not about replicating any particular style of wine fashionable in some particular place in the ’20s and ’30s. Chauvet taught them such things as how to farm without pesticides and chemicals, how to ferment with the grapes’ indigenous yeasts, how to minimize the need for additives like sulfur in the winery. That still leaves room for quite a lot of differences in expression, based on terroir or personal style or whatever else.

Today’s Beaujolais tends to be intensely colored, a vibrant magenta in the glass and instantly identifiable among other red wines for its neon luminosity. They are of course fruity, but the fruits are the berry fruits one also finds in red Burgundy (though generally a bit more tart), not the peaches and apricots Lynch tasted in Chauvet’s wine. It’s in the structural aspects that they deviate most considerably from pinot noir. I often find myself calling them “screeching” due to their somewhat abrasive tannins and acute, high-pitched acidity, which provides the energetic lift and thirst-quenching power that the fizz may have been intended to impart in Chauvet’s era. But with age they are said to “pinoter,” as the local neologism has it, and take on the deeper, earthier personality of pinot.

And here is where I think the 2009 vintage really distinguishes itself. Even though most of them are still dominated by their primary fruit to an extent that obscures whatever underlying depths of flavor they may have, there are other respects in which they are showing a sophistication that is ordinarily the exclusive province of elite red Burgundies. And this is evident from the way they are presenting themselves right now, not merely something incipient teasing you with the hypothetical prospect of pleasure fifteen years down the line. The most compelling examples of this are Domaine du Vissoux’s Moulin-à-Vent Trois Roches and Fleurie Garants. Both wines have a satiny texture to them that almost seems to caress the palate and give the wines a buoyant presence in spite of the density of their material. This is something you expect to experience in a Romanée-St.-Vivant, not in a country wine. Even 2005, the last Beaujolais vintage of a quality extraordinary enough to attract attention outside the usual quarters, did not, in my experience, offer anything so finessed. The Jean Foillard Morgon Côte de Py has a similar suavity but more heft.

If there is any flaw to these wines it is that they are too rich and too serious to be thoughtlessly guzzled, a pleasure in which Beaujolais ordinarily excels. But there is plenty of guzzling pleasure to be had in Vissoux’s entry-level Beaujolais Vieilles Vignes Cuvée Traditionnelle, as well as in certain cru-level wines that show more detail than a basic appellation Beaujolais but retain a lighter footprint suitable for gulping. The Pavillon de Chavannes Côte de Brouilly Cuvée des Ambassades is a perennial favorite of mine in this category and is so crunchy and lightweight that it may resemble the “lively” and “elusive” Chauvet Beaujolais more than any of the other wines mentioned here. Two more of the most gulp-worthy 2009s are Daniel Bouland’s Morgon Corcelette and Côte de Brouilly Cuvée Mélanie. Both start out deceptively simple, and you keep drinking them because they are just viscerally delicious and have the juiciness to quench thirst. Somewhere about midway through the bottle comes an epiphany moment when you realize you’ve stopped paying attention to the people talking to you and are instead focused on something―it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what―in the wine. And you keep coming back for another sip, perhaps once for some serious introspection into the wine and the next time merely to wash down some french fries, and the wine is just as rewarding for the former purpose as the latter.

So I might respectfully disagree with Kermit Lynch when he says that “Beaujolais should not be a civilized society lady; it is the one-night stand of wines.” In a vintage like 2009, it can be both, even in alternate sips from the same bottle.

For further reading:

  • Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route on Amazon.com.  (A Search-Inside-the-Book for “Chauvet” will point you directly to the passages quoted here.) Also, Lynch’s Inspiring Thirst.
  • A Saveur magazine article on Beaujolais’s Gang of Four.
  • An essay by Philippe Pacalet on Jules Chauvet, courtesy of Chambers Street Wines.
  • Alice Feiring’s “freak” tweet.

The Man Who Knew Too Much

December 2, 2010

Matt Kramer has just released a compilation of his New York Sun and Wine Spectator columns, straightforwardly titled Matt Kramer on Wine. Right away in the preface Kramer apologizes if some of the contents seem dated. “After all,” he points out, “journalism is written for the moment and when that moment has passed, well, timing is everything.” But Kramer is one of the most thoughtful wine writers out there, and most of the pieces in the collection are timeless.

Of particular resonance today is his 1998 column, “Real Collecting vs. Phony Collecting,” inspired by the 1997 auction of the art collection of Victor and Sally Ganz. In Kramer’s account, the Ganzes were well-to-do, but not all that rich by the standards of the art-collecting world. Lacking the advantage of bottomless pockets, they built their collection on sheer connoisseurship. The Picasso painting Le Rêve—the one Steve Wynn infamously ripped with an errant swing of his elbow after agreeing to sell it for $139 million—came from the Ganz collection. Victor Ganz bought it for $7,000 in 1941.

But “when the price of Picassos rose beyond their means,” Kramer writes, “the Ganzes shifted their highly focused interest—and insights—elsewhere. Almost unerringly, it seems, whatever they bought proved over time to be enduring and enlightening.” For example, in the 1960s, Victor Ganz was at “a big-name gallery where the big-ticket work of a famous painter was being shown.” He was unimpressed and wandered around the corner to a more humble gallery, where he discovered the work of then-unknown sculptor Eva Hesse and, “after intense absorption,” bought three pieces.

What bottles would a wine collector as discerning as Victor Ganz buy today? Kramer poses the question, but doesn’t suggest any answers, except to point out that first-growth Bordeaux is not on the menu: “He knew too much.” I think I have some ideas, though:

Antoniolo Gattinara Osso San Grato, Travaglini Gattinara Riserva. — Barolo and Barbaresco are the blue-chip nebbiolo wines. Everybody knows that. But in another of his books, Making Sense of Italian Wine, Kramer points out that it was not ever thus—“there was a time, a half-century ago and more, when the district and wine called Gattinara was as prestigious and highly regarded as Barolo.” What’s more, Barolo itself is a fairly recent invention, at least compared to other blue chips like Bordeaux or Burgundy. According to the New York Times’s Frank Prial, “Once, Barolo was a sweet wine. In the 1840’s, the French wife of a local nobleman hired a French winemaker, Louis Oudinot, to transform Barolo into a dry wine in the French style. The new style soon became the only style.” Which is to say that very little in Piedmont is carved in stone, and it’s not too late for Gattinara (once again) to receive its due as a reference-standard nebbiolo.

It’s often said that the most compelling wines come from regions where the grapes ripen just barely, which certainly describes the mountain region of Gattinara relative to the sun-drenched Langhe where Barolo and Barbaresco are grown. The cooler climate renders nebbiolo with leaner, more feminine proportions reminiscent of pinot noir. The volcanic soils inflect the wines with a gravelly minerality as vivid as you’ll ever experience in a wine. Antoniolo’s Osso San Grato, from the producer’s top vineyard, is my favorite example. On release, it exhibits fine-grained tannins which make it far gentler on the palate and easier to drink than any Langhe nebbiolo of a similar age. With age, it turns sappy and savory and cranks the mineral expression up to eleven. Travaglini’s Riserva eventually showcases the same rockiness but isn’t as forgiving of being opened too early. On release, it’s a firmly structured wine capable of being mistaken for Barolo in every respect except for its surreal bottle shape (and its price tag).

Louis Jadot Moulin-à-Vent Château des Jacques Grands Clos, Coudert Fleurie Clos de la Roilette Cuvée Tardive. — Most articles about Beaujolais repeat two chestnuts. The first is that the majority of Beaujolais is junk, with the good stuff tarnished by association with the likes of Beaujolais Nouveau. The second is the story of how Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, ordered the gamay grape expelled from the Cote d’Or in the 14th century. The insinuation is that gamay makes a fundamentally less noble wine, justifying the contemporary prejudice of Beaujolais as rustic and simple. But it turns out that Philip the Bold’s gamay is not relevant to Beaujolais after all. In his Book of French Wines originally published in 1928, P. Morton Shand wrote that the gamay of Beaujolais in fact “has nothing in common” with the “infâme Gamet” that littered the Cote d’Or in Philip the Bold’s day. The latter yielded a “dark juice” presumably lacking in elegance, while the gamay strain planted in Beaujolais “is essentially a vin tendre, a wine that is above all fresh and refreshing, light, delicate and full of fruit: the antithesis of anything ‘big and booty.’”

Just as modern collectors have forgotten the esteem in which Gattinara was once held, few realize that the best vineyards in Beaujolais were once as prestigious as the grands crus of Burgundy, and sold for comparable prices when they changed hands. In fact, Shand’s book relates that 32 vineyards in Moulin-à-Vent were entitled to a Grand Cru appellation under a 1919 délimitation cadastrale, which seems to have gone down the memory hole as Beaujolais appellations today only cover the name of the village. Nevertheless, four of those original Grand Cru vineyards are today in the hands of Louis Jadot’s Château des Jacques estate and given their own vineyard-designated bottlings: Clos du Grand Carquelin, Clos des Rochegres, Clos de la Roche, and Clos des Champs de Cour. They are as sophisticated as Burgundy and structured for long aging. Coudert’s Clos de la Roilette is just as pedigreed. Shand reports that the Clos de la Roilette was nicknamed “‘le Clos-Vougeot du Beaujolais’”—after the single most esteemed Burgundy vineyard of that era—for “the manifold perfections its wine embodies.” The Cuvée Tardive comes from vines over 80 years old and has the quiet intensity that’s a hallmark of very old vines: concentrated, but somehow still slender in its silhouette.

Domaine Karydas Xinomavro, Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko. — It seems strange that a nation whose wine culture dates back to antiquity, just like Italy’s, should be so far off the radar of so many wine drinkers today. But there are no wine critics or famous importers evangelizing Greek wines, Greek cuisine doesn’t dot the landscape the way Italian restaurants do, and of course there is the inherent awkwardness of pronouncing the names of native grape varieties like “xinomavro” and “assyrtiko.” So most Americans are unlikely to encounter Greek wines without making a deliberate effort to try something eclectic. And yet even many who do make that effort often end up ignoring Greece. That’s a shame, because Greece has some priceless assets to offer. First, it’s a Mediterranean culture where wine is a fixture at the table, and the wines are therefore made to be consumed with a meal rather than to outpunch other wines in a mass side-by-side competition. Second, regions like Santorini, home of Sigalas’s thrilling assyrtiko, are among a precious few spots in Europe unaffected by the phylloxera epidemic that devastated Europe’s vineyards in the nineteenth century and where old vines still grow on their own roots. The result can be a clarity of expression that’s almost jarring to modern palates. Sigalas’s assyrtikos, with their rough, craggy texture reminiscent of some Austrian rieslings or gruner veltliners, feel like they are chiseled out of the volcanic rock on which they’re grown.

Karydas comes from the Macedonian appellation of Naoussa, whose signature red variety, xinomavro, has been compared to pinot noir and nebbiolo. In truth, it has the tough, muscular structure of the latter in its youth but shows its feminine side with bottle age. It also has the interesting distinction of being one of the few non-French varieties that can walk away from an encounter with new French oak without losing its soul, as Karydas demonstrates. The distinguishing characteristic of Karydas’s xinomavro is its veritable rock quarry of minerality. My notes on one recent vintage read: “There is oak here but the dominant flavors are so rocky the wood practically tastes petrified.” But I am especially fond of the note the wine writer Elliot Essman crafted on the same wine. Taste being a fundamentally difficult and subjective thing to put into words, one doesn’t often come across a wine tasting note that totally nails the experience of drinking a wine, but this one does, to the extent that if I’d missed the name of the wine I would have thought, “Sounds like Karydas.” He wrote: “In the mouth, the tannin speaks without timidity, though you want to enjoy it now for what it is rather than as a vector for some theoretic aging process. These are firm, drying tannins that you love for exactly what they are. . . . We know this wine has seen wood, with accents of cedar, cigar box, tobacco, cocoa, some leather, and dried mountain herb. An earthy minerality provides the bottom: gravel and crushed rock, the kind you would use to build a road you expected to last.” His verdict, in lieu of a point score: “A cultural statement.”

There are too many others to list, including some that admittedly aren’t cheap except in comparison to the offensively priced blue chips with which they can legitimately compete. For example, I have become much less depressed about Ch. Cheval-Blanc’s becoming a five-hundred-dollar wine since realizing that the cabernet franc in Clos Rougeard’s Saumur-Champigny Le Bourg can equal or exceed Cheval-Blanc’s in distinction; ditto for Pierre Peters’ Champagne Les Chetillons relative to the great Salon. In the Rhône it continues to surprise me that the trophy pricing that’s infected Chave Hermitage hasn’t yet spread to Jamet Côte-Rôtie and Allemand Cornas Reynard, which manage to epitomize their respective appellations, while at the same time towering over the rest of the wines there, in the same way that Chave does, or did. And Australian renditions of the grape that did not succumb to the Fruit Weight fashion, such as Mount Langi Ghiran’s Victoria Shiraz and Henschke’s Mount Edelstone, are as profound, individual, and ageable as their Rhône counterparts. Then there is riesling. Is there any wine collector more boring than the type who presumes that great riesling begins and ends with Trimbach’s Clos Ste. Hune? Even setting price aside and limiting myself to the dry genres, I’d sooner drink and cellar Alzinger Steinertal, Hirtzberger Singerriedel, Hirsch Heiligenstein and Gaisberg, various of the Mosels from A.J. Adam and Peter Lauer, Klaus-Peter Keller’s Grosse Gewächse, and Grosset Polish Hill.

Admittedly, it’s one thing to point to an underdog and declare that it can knock the champion off its pedestal, and it’s another thing actually to defend the claim. So, before mentioning anything here, I applied the Charles Murray “Seriously?” test. Murray wrote, in connection with his survey of the greatest human accomplishments in art and literature:

I think that the number of novels, songs, and paintings done since 1950 that anyone will still care about 200 years from now is somewhere in the vicinity of zero. Not exactly zero, but close. I find a good way to make this point is to ask anyone who disagrees with me to name a work that will survive—and then ask, “Seriously?” Very few works indeed can defend themselves against the “Seriously?” question.

The sale of the Ganz art collection yielded over $200 million. I doubt there are many wines one can buy today that will look like similarly brilliant investments from a financial perspective. But even if today’s undervalued wines never get discovered, it still pays to find room in the cellar for them. Because if they don’t escalate in price, then people who have mature bottles won’t bother to sell them, so the only way to experience them will be to cellar them yourself. And the experience just may turn out to be as profound as you can get from the fanciest Grand Cru money can buy. Seriously? Seriously.

For further reading:

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