The Beaujolais France wine region is located between the Rhone Valley and Burgundy. The region has multiple Crus or wine-growing areas. Unfortunately, Beaujolais wines have suffered a bad reputation. Why? Many people associate Beaujolais with light, fruity, low-tannin reds made from Gamay Noir grapes. Or from its ultra-young Beaujolais Nouveau which is released within three months after its grapes are harvested. If you have ever tasted one of these, you understand.
Not all Beaujolais Wine is Beaujolais Nouveau
But don’t judge all of Beaujolais by these wines. In spite of its reputation, Beaujolais is producing some serious wines. For example, Beaujolais is a simple wine, while Beaujolais-Village is wine made in higher-ranked vineyards. Its wines have more complex flavors and structures.
And it also matters where in Beaujolais the grapes are grown as the regions have significant differences. The light and fruity Beaujolais (including Beaujolais Nouveau) are made in the south where the soil is primarily clay and the temperatures are warmer, Rhone-like temperatures.
On the other hand, wines from the northern Cru regions have schist-based soils rather than sandstone and have cooler temperatures that are more like southern Burgundy. These areas can produce more complex medium and even heavy-bodied wines. Some of the wines have the structure and tannin to permit, or even require aging for a few years. Among these are some of the wines ( but by no means all of them) from Brouilly (and especially Cote de Brouilly), Moulin-a-Vent, Julienas, and Morgon.
Even the traditional similarities of the past, such as the virtually exclusive use of the Gamay grape and especially the practice of using the same carbonic maceration technique (in which whole clusters are fermented in a carbon dioxide rather than an oxygen-based environment) have faded. Vintners, especially those in the northern reaches of Beaujolais are becoming much more pragmatic, selectively using more northern-style fermentation techniques and occasionally, even reaching beyond Gamay.
We made a quick visit to the region and focused on two crus Morgan and Juliénas. Both crus are known for some of the highest quality wines that are more similar to Pinot Noir-based Burgundies than they are to lighter Beaujolais.
Morgan Beaujolais Cru
Morgan is the second largest Beaujolais Cru. With mostly granite soils, a mild climate, and daily sun, it produces rich, powerful, full-bodied, earthy wines that can compare with some masculine Cotes de Nuit Burgundies. It also has a greater number of quality producers than other Beaujolais Crus.
We began our exploration of the Morgan Cru at the cellar of the 18th-century Chateau de Fontcrenne. This difficult-to-find cellar is in the center of town next to the Hotel de Ville.
Winemakers here judge wines from each of its six climates or sub-regions and select one to represent the style of each climate. We tasted a 2019 wine from each of the six Morgon climates (Les Charmes, Corcelette, Cote du Py, Douby, Grand Cras, and Les Micouds). The red fruit and minerality of the Douby wine and the darker fruit, earth, volcanic minerals, and nicely balanced Cote du Py wines were most to our tastes.
We visited Domaine de Colonat in Morgon. The winemaker gave us a master class in contemporary Beaujolais winemaking before we tasted the wines from several different Morgon climates.
Like a growing number of northern Beaujolais wineries, Colonat is leaning away from the light fruity wines for which the region was known toward fuller deeper-colored wines with more structure. It is increasing its use of yeast-based fermentation supplemented by a bit of carbonic (to accentuate the bright fruit). This allows the juice to ferment naturally within the unbroken skin rather than crushing the grapes and adding yeast (increasingly natural yeast that resides on the skin’s surface).
He explained that 2020 and 2022 were hotter, dryer years with smaller berries, sufficient tannin in the skin and seeds, and the most concentrated fruit. For these years, the winemaker destems the grapes before fermenting them. In other years when the berries are large and have a higher ratio of skin to juicy pulp and the winemaker retains some stems during the fermentation process to add more color and structure to the juice. He can further add color and structure by fermenting the grapes at lower temperatures. this gives the juice more time to absorb the color and tannins from the skin and seeds and allows them to be aged longer.
In another break from Beaujolais tradition, he also grows and produces wines from other grapes, especially Chardonnay and Viognier (which is grown primarily in Les Charmes), and regions such as Brouilly.
Colonat continues to age most of its wines in concrete which tends to produce lighter, fruitier wines. However, he does use neutral oak for 8-10 months in 20-50 percent of his wine, depending on the grapes and the style of wine he is trying to produce. He also ages one of his lighter-style cuvees in either oak or terracotta. He explained how he uses terracotta baked at different temperatures depending on how much oxygen he wants to introduce into the wine. The higher the temperature at which the terracotta is baked the less permeable it is to air. For example, when baked at 1,800 degrees no air can pass.
Nobody said winemaking was easy!
We tasted several Colonat wines that spoke to the care the winemaker puts into the process. We began with a 2000 Naturabilis light, fresh, and fruity terracotta-aged cuvee. Our tastes, however, gravitated to some of the bigger, more structured Burgundy-style wines and especially those with the minerality of those from grapes grown on volcanic soil (compared with Morgan’s typical schist and pebble soil). These included the 2020 Morgon Les Charmes and Morgon Grand-Terre (which are aged primarily in concrete), and especially the bigger, fuller-bodied, more complex oak-aged 2020 Les Charmes Seigneur du Beaujolais.
Beaujolais’ Juliénas cru enjoys excellent sunshine. It also has very diverse soils: schist, diorite, sandstone, and clay. Its wines are subtly spicy and can be stored for several years without losing quality.
Julienas, the best of whose wines can be spicy and earthy with good structure and pronounced tannins.
Juliénas Tasting Room
Juliénas has a similar type of regional tasting association to Morgon. However, the Juliénas tasting room is more formal and offers a greater selection of wines from not only from Juliénas but a couple of neighboring climates, including the Mâconnais. We began with a pleasant crisp 2021 Villa Cantrius Saint-Veran (from Mâconnais), followed by a couple of less interesting Pouilly Fuisses.
Then we moved to a series of Juliénas area wines. We found the 2021 Saint-Amour (the furthest north of the Beaujolais regions) and the 2021 La Montagne Chiroubles (from the far south of the region) interesting. One of our favorites was a spicy (from volcanic soil) 2020 Reserve Beauvernay. Unlike the other wines, it was made from a blend of wine from five producers, rather than from a single vintner. Another favorite was the deeply textured, black fruit and acid of the oaked 2020 Juliénas Expression Fut de Chene.
Exploring Juliénas Town
Armed with our limited understanding of Juliénas wines we wandered into town. The former church has been recycled into a local tasting room. It was closed during the harvest, but a sign guided us to a small bar across the street that offered one consensus representative white and one red. The bar was filled with a number of local vintners celebrating the end of a successful harvest. Joyce’s French was sufficient to talk about our regional wine travels and to learn more about their wines.
After tasting two rather uninspired wines, one of the winemakers offered to take us to the locked church/tasting room across the street. Decked with a full-sized mural of a wild Greek wine celebration that adorned the bottles of the regional wines we had just tasted, we saw that the room was lined with concrete fermentation tanks. The winemaker took us to the top of a tank. He opened one of the vats and offered us samples of some of the bubbling grape juice that was almost halfway through its two-week fermentation process.
We then discovered that the winemaker was Pascal Granger, one of the two whose wines we had most wanted to try. He took us to his tasting room where he treated us to some of his favorite 2021 wines.
We enjoyed a nice, fruity (especially strawberry) Clos des Poulettes and a red cherry-fruited Moulin-a-Vent Les Chassignols. However our favorite was a more concentrated, darker-fruited, lightly-spiced (from volcanic soil) 2020 Cuvee Speciale, of which half the juice was aged in oak. While all of his wines undergo partial carbonic maceration, the Speciale is the only one that sees wood (but only 50% in neutral oak).
When we asked what he expected of his forthcoming 2022 vintage, he spoke of its bigger black fruit, structure, higher sugar levels (which will result in higher alcohol than the 13% levels of his 2021 wines). He expects it to age for up to about 10 years.
We then drove about 20 minutes north to the heart of the Mâconnais. Mâconnais is located at the southernmost of Burgundy’s wine-growing areas around the city of Macon. Although it produces a small amount of Pinot Noir and Gamay reds, it almost exclusively focuses on Chardonnay, which accounts for 99 percent of its production. The style and quality of the wines vary greatly by region. Its Iron-rich, alkaline, clay-based soil is very different from the limestone of the Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuit regions to the north. Combined with its warmer temperatures, the region can produce a fresher, crisper, more mineral-tinged Chardonnay.
Pouilly-Fuissé is the largest and best-known of the Mâconnais villages. It produces some of its most distinctive wines with a somewhat nutty character with notes of spice. The unoaked wines tend to be crisp with yellow fruit and citrus. But many are oaked, which produces a smoother, more buttery wine and brings out spice and vanilla notes. While some of its wines approach the best Cote de Beaune Chardonnays in quality. However, Pouilly-Fuissé (not to speak of other lesser-known Mâconnais wines) are typically much less expensive.
We ended up with only one stop in Pouilly-Fuissé. It was a notable one.
Domaine de la Chapelle Winery
We met with Pascal Rollet, the founder and original winemaker (he has passed the reins onto his son) of the small, well-regarded Domaine de la Chapelle.
Rollet explained that the iron-rich, alkaline soil atop a layer of clay makes the Mâconnais wines (especially its famed, low-yielding Pouilly-Fuissé wines) so distinctive.
He generally attributes several challenges that we have heard several times before and since:
- The winters are becoming so warm that flowering occurs much earlier, increasing the risk of frost and hail.
- Harvests that used to occur between mid-September for whites and early October for reds have been pushed up by about a month due to earlier flowering. This forces growers to harvest in warmer weather than they prefer.
- The warmer the grapes, the sooner the fermentation begins and the shorter it lasts. This reduces skin contact, resulting in less color and less strict and less pronounced fruit taste.
Other challenges include years of bad rains and 2021’s hail storms which caused them to lose 65% of their harvest.
We began tasting their typically high-volume 2021 Saint Veran “Les Perriers”. Due to the hail storms, they were only able to produce only 22,000 bottles rather than 60,000 in a “typical” year). The wine, with its citrus fruit and soft finish, went through 100% malolactic fermentation at low temperatures. It spends up to 50% of its time in oak (the percentage varies from zero to 50% depending on vintage and style).
We then went on to several of his 2021 Pouilly-Fuissés. We began with the Vielle-Vigne (Old Vines) which has some nice spice from the region’s volcanic soil (over clay). it has a smooth finish (although with a bit of acid at the back of the palette) that is largely attributable to its having gone through 100% malolactic and an uncharacteristically large 80% of its juice spending time in mostly neutral oak.
Then onto some of our particular favorites from 2020. These included the richer taste of the more mature 2020 Vielle-Vigne and especially two of the winery’s premium wines. These included the sarcastically named Ax—B (Aux Bouthieres) which is grown immediately between other 1er Cru-designated plots. However it is not designated as a 1er Cru. He believes that the province refuses to certify the land as 1er Cru as he was not born in the region. This is despite his having farmed the plot under lease for 24 years before buying it in 2005.
This being said, he also does have a 1er Cru plot from which he produced a lovely 2020 Clos de Chappelle 1er Cru Pouilly-Fuissé whose fruit spends about 6 months in oak.
We spent one evening in Macon and only ate at one restaurant:
Macon Maison des Vin is where we had some of our first snails of the trip. Yum. The pile Quenelle was less interesting than the one we had in Lyon. We also had a very good salad of lamb’s lettuce, duck breast and gizzard, poached egg, grapefruit, pomegranate, and parmesan, and a moderately interesting Andouillette gratin. Our dessert was a vacherin (ice cream, merengue, Chantilly and raspberry coulis). We added a 2020 red Burgundy, a pleasant Domaine Meix Foulot “Les Veleys” Mercurey wine.