A region in eastern France that is famous for the three Gs: the Gamay grape variety, Granite soils and Gobelet vines.
In Downtown Los Angeles in the summer of 2019, we spotted a guy in the queue while grabbing coffee at the Nomad sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “BEAUJOLAIS”. We asked him whether he worked in the trade, expecting him to be a sommelier: usually wine geek T-shirts aren’t something you find out in the mainstream. He said,
“No… but I love Beaujolais. We pour it at our theatre’s bar.”
We got chatting, and it turned out that this young man is a composer, script writer, actor and co-founder of L.A. 's breakthrough immersive theatre, CAGES, which has had rave reviews by the likes of LA Times (we went, by the way, and it was the best show we've ever been to).
And he was wearing a Beaujolais T shirt.
…How did that happen?
A Rebel Region
If Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, found out that the cool kids are wearing Beaujolais T-shirts, he’d be rolling around in his grave, swearing.
One of the many children of Pinot Noir, the red Gamay grape was banished from Burgundy in 1395 by the Duke. He branded it “the most disloyal” grape.
So instead, the rebellious Gamay grape found its forever home in the Beaujolais region, which lies just south of Burgundy. Thankfully, it wasn’t banned there, rather the opposite: it thrives on the predominantly granitic soils of the region, whereas Burgundy’s clay-limestone soils are better suited to Pinot Noir.
Today, 98% of the vineyards of Beaujolais are planted to Gamay. 2% is planted to Chardonnay, mainly in the south where there’s more limestone.
Gamay thrives so much, that in the early 1900s, Beaujolais found itself rubbing shoulders with the celebrities of the wine region world at the time: the Burgundy grands crus, fine Mosel Rieslings, Hungary Tokaji... it was a good time to be a Beaujolais winemaker. Unfortunately, however, it didn’t last forever. Beaujolais Nouveau was almost the nail in the coffin for the region, until a group of growers such as Marcel Lapierre and Guy Breton, spearheaded by the biochemist Jules Chauvet, began to farm with ancestral methods: organically, with care for the land, eschewing chemicals. First and foremost, these growers were nature lovers.
“Beaujolais is a region of nature with its scents, its light, its infinite horizon, its evening rest and its morning enthusiasm.” - Chauvet
Today, there is a new generation on the scene, and what was once a small group has become an entire movement.
The ten Crus of Beaujolais are geographic areas in the heartland of the region. Perhaps the most well-known: Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie and Côte-de-Brouilly, are also joined by Juliénas, Chiroubles, Saint-Amour, Chénas, Régnié and Brouilly. As with everything in French wine labelling laws, the Cru designations mean that you will not see the word “Beaujolais” on the label. So, for example, if you drink a wine that reads Morgon, it will have come from the area of Morgon which sits in Beaujolais. All of these vine growing areas are known as AOCs, which stands for Appellation d’origine Contrôlée.
These areas are historical, and each area contains tens, if not hundreds, of what is known as lieu-dits, or climats. These are subsections of the greater Cru area. Usually they are not single vineyards, as they tend to be quite large areas, so many different growers may produce wines with the specific lieu-dits marked on the label.
As Beaujolais has gained such a reputation over the past couple of decades for producing serious fine wine, more and more producers are honing in on the notion of terroir, and hence there are more lieu-dits appearing on labels, such as St-Cyr's Moulin-à-Vent "La Bruyère" cuvée. This not just in the case of the Crus, but also the regular Beaujolais appellation, such as Pierre Cotton's Le Pré cuvée.
Each cru - and indeed each lieu-dit - has been identified historically due to the unique expression of wine that land produces. Perhaps due to different yeast populations living in different soils, a vineyard might produce a wine that tastes completely different to its neighbouring vineyard if produced using natural yeasts, as Guy Breton explains:
"By working with natural yeasts, your vineyards - even if they're just 500m away from each other - will create wines with totally different tastes."
The region is very hilly, and the elevation varies as a result. The highest Cru is Chiroubles, where the elevation can go as high as 500m.
Gobelet - The “Bush Vine”
The vineyards of Beaujolais are famous for their gobelet vines - an ancient way of pruning which particularly suits the Gamay variety. It’s also a very picturesque pruning method that results in vines that really do look more like tiny bushes than the typical vineyard you might picture in your mind - no wires are used. In winter, when the vines lose their leaves, they look almost statuesque.
Terroir: Beaujolais Rocks
A core and ingrained philosophy of expressing a certain lieu-dit lies in the wine world’s obsession with soil type, and Beaujolais is famous not just for its granite, but for being a melting pot of different rocks and soils. Just by looking at the ground beneath your feet, you will notice the difference between the yellow limestone of the south, the blue diorite of the Côte-de-Brouilly and the pink granite of Fleurie. Whether or not these soil types actually directly influence the flavours in the wine is a subject still undergoing intense debate, but one thing is for sure: Beaujolais has immensely varied soils and wine flavour profiles.
Every French wine region has a trade body: the one in Beaujolais is called Inter-Beaujolais. Every year, they carry out and budget for various different activities: research, marketing, you name it. In 2009, they embarked on a mammoth project with a geology company called Sigales: to truly discover the soil types of the different regions. It took almost ten years. They bored holes and trenches in over 18,000 hectares.
This led them to publish incredibly detailed documents and soil maps of each Cru and the larger Beaujolais/Beaujolais-Villages areas. They discovered that the soils of Beaujolais are in fact even more diverse than everybody had once thought:
The terrain is incredibly varied and soil type changes from vineyard to vineyard. 30% of the soils are limestone, marl, or limestone scree. 25% are granitic or volcanic, 20% are some form of clay chert, and 20% are ancient piedmont deposits.
The average inclines and altitudes are much greater than in the Beaujolais appellation. 52% of the vineyard area is granitic or volcanic, and 12% are seams of blue stone. There’s lots of rocky ancient piedmont deposits, and almost almost no limestone.
The largest Cru and the most complex. It stretches over sections of the six communes that surround Mont Brouilly, with almost all soil types: pink granite, clay, blue stones, flinty and volcanic schist, ancient alluvial stony soils and some limestone near Charentay.
NB: contrary to popular belief, Mont Brouilly is not (and was never) a volcano (even though it looks like it could have been). The blue stones this Cru is famous for are a mixture of very resistant micro-diorites and crumbly schist.
One of the most granitic Crus after Chiroubles and Fleurie. There is also sandstone and clay.
A wide Cru, second in size to Brouilly, and also very diverse. It has three main types of soil: granite, and some seams of blue stone are found on the summit and the eastern slopes of the famous Côte du Py, with piedmont soils and ancient alluvial deposits, and a “curious ‘path’ of clay blocks.”
The most granitic Cru. Almost all of the Cru’s soils are composed of pink granite with dark lamprophyres and quartz. It is also by far the highest cru in terms of elevation, with steep slopes.
The second most granitic Cru: over 90% of its soils emanate directly from pink granite, layered with veins of dark lamprophyre, micro-granite and quartz.
This Cru has some pink granite. There are also piedmont formation soils and ancient alluvial deposits. There are also several hectares of marl, the most calcareous in Beaujolais - unusual in the Crus.
The second smallest Cru, but one with contrasts: here the soils vary from the very steep granitic slopes, to the ancient alluvial deposits and small stones.
Less granite, more blue stone, schist and diorite. There is also Triassic sandstone at Mont Besset!
The smallest Cru, but one of the most varied! Ancient sedimentary clay and siliceous clay, but also granite, schist, diorites, Triassic sandstone and even some limestone rock!
It’s impossible to say that one of the above soil types definitely translates to a certain style of wine. However, there are noticeable nuances, particularly when winemakers who work with the different Crus use the same winemaking method across all wines.
In terms of vessels, almost all growers use the traditional concrete fermentation tanks and large old oak foudres of 1000L or above. Some also use smaller Burgundy barrels, although this is less common.
The most common form of winemaking in the Beaujolais region is carbonic maceration.
"True" Carbonic Maceration
This is technique that was propelled to fame in the 80s by Jules Chauvet, Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton & gang. It used to be fairly rare outside of Beaujolais but it’s become immensely popular recently and now you can find it across the world, with many different grape varieties. Whole bunches of grapes are used (stems and all), and to create a “true carbonic maceration,” the bunches are put into a cool, closed tank to sit for several days and carbon dioxide is used in the tank to displace any oxygen. The goal is to have almost no juice - and if any juice forms at the bottom of the tank from the weight of the bunches, this is sometimes siphoned out. By doing this, the berries start to ferment inside-out: this is called intracellular fermentation. The process produces specific esters, which naturally enhances the fruity aromas of the wine.
"Semi" Carbonic Maceration / Whole Bunch Fermentation
This is what is known as “traditional fermentation” amongst the growers in the region. It still uses whole bunches, or at least a portion of whole bunches, but the tank isn’t necessarily closed and usually no carbon dioxide is used. This is a common winemaking method, not just in Beaujolais but in other regions and varieties across the world, particularly for Pinot Noir and Syrah. When the grapes arrive at the winery, some or all of them are crushed - some winemakers even add “layers” of uncrushed whole bunches and crushed berries into the tank. This means lots of juice will form at the very start, but some of the whole bunches will encourage a partial carbonic maceration.
Some winemakers also make wine from destemmed grapes in the region, often nicknamed Burgundian winemaking (although this is actually very confusing as many winemakers in Burgundy also do semi-carbonic maceration!)
Arguably the wines that have grabbed the hearts of wine lovers worldwide, however, are those using some form of carbonic maceration. Gamay and this winemaking technique seems to be a marriage made in grape heaven, producing juicy, crunchy and quite simply delicious wines that are also immensely ageworthy. With sommeliers all over the world obsessed with the wines, giving rise to phrases like Go Gamay Go and Gamayzing trending on the ‘gram, these growers aren’t about to slow down... These are wines that have regained their rightful place on the fine wine lists of the world.