Wine Wednesdays With William: The Beaujolais Paradox

The red wines of the Beaujolais province in France are made from Gamay, a grape variety with a problematic past. On July 31, 1395, Philip, Duke of Burgundy, known as Philip the Bold, issued an edict that called for all Gamay vines to be cut down within 30 days, describing the Gamay vine as “a very bad and disloyal plant,” and setting a very high fine for any grower who refused. Wine books have unquestioningly praised Philip the Bold for encouraging Burgundy’s winemakers to replace poor-quality Gamay with high quality Pinot Noir, but Rosalind Kent Berlow, former professor of history at Touro College in New York, takes a different view: “The human cost of this policy is stunning. The class of men most directly involved were the political and economic leaders of the community, men who enjoyed considerable local power and respect.” She concludes that the destruction of these powerful men and their families was the real purpose of Philip’s decree, not, as the wine writers would have it, the intrinsically low quality of the Gamay grape.

Banished from Burgundy, Gamay found a home further south, in Beaujolais. There, in the second half of the 20th century, it had the great misfortune to become famous for Beaujolais Nouveau, released each year on the third Thursday of November, just weeks after harvest. To meet worldwide demand, winemaking became increasingly industrial, using unripe grapes to minimize disease, from vines boosted by chemical fertilizers, fermented by the most vigorous yeasts and smothered in sulfur to prevent spoilage. In time, Beaujolais became known as a region that produced bad wine to be consumed once a year.

The voice in the wilderness belonged to Jules Chauvet. At his farm in Beaujolais, near the village of Morgon, Chauvet continued with traditional winemaking. He grew vines without chemicals, picked grapes only when ripe, used ambient yeasts to ferment the juice and bottled the wine without filtration or added sulfur. In the 1980s he gathered around him a group of young producers, drawn to Beaujolais by cheap land and ancient vineyards, and committed to what would now be called natural winemaking. The best wines come from the ten named villages known as “Cru Beaujolais” and they are no longer cheap—although given the sheer deliciousness, they remain good value, particularly in comparison with their Pinot Noir neighbors in Burgundy.

Wine Challenge No.13:
Seek out Beaujolais that has the word “récoltant” (grower) on the label and compare it with wine from one of the big “négotiant” (merchant) winemakers, like Georges Duboeuf. Consider the fruitiness, relative sweetness and tannic structure of the wines.

Want more wine wisdom from William? Click here for last week’s column.

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