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.
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.
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.