by Dave Falchek
The Beaujolais crus released in June were not carried by jet, elephant and balloon to all corners of the world. In fact, the finest that Beaujolais has to offer wasn’t given a fraction of the attention bestowed every November to the fun, fruity, and fizzy Beaujolais nouveau.
The crus are cursed by Beaujolais’ greatest success – the nouveau phenomenon, a stroke of marketing brilliance where the first Beaujolais are rushed to the bottle and whisked around the world. Many people view all Beaujolais as simple, fruity, and unserious or as a short-lived seasonal drink.
Beaujolais producers and importers are on the offensive. They feel they are on the cusp of bringing the category to a new level of acceptance and are working on up-selling nouveau drinkers to the crus and domaine bottlings. They picked a great time. By all accounts 2005 was a very good year for the yet to be released crus. The quality of the vintage, consumers’ desire for “authentic” Old World wines, and a growing market for chillable reds may offer the best opportunity in years to get the word out.
“Beaujolais producers failed to educate consumers,” said Kristin Zangrilli, public relations manager for Kobrand, importer for Louis Jadot. “Beaujolais is a struggling category and it shouldn’t be,” she said.
Crowing about Crus
Beaujolais is not France’s white zin. The 34-mile stretch from Mâcon to Lyon in the western part of Burgundy can produce elegant and concentrated wines. Most nouveau and the blended villages wines come from the region’s flatter southern half. Crus come from ten villages in the hilly north where soils drain and vines soak up the sun - places such as Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas and Moulin-À-Vent. Deeper and richer, these wines spend time in oak, have a tannic structure that allows aging for 5 years or more. The finished product can be balanced and elegant - serious wines that don’t take themselves too seriously.
Georges Dubouef leads in overall production. Louis Jadot leads in the villages category. Drouhin and Mommessin are significant followed by many independent low-volume producers. Some identify the most distinctive growers with domaine bottlings.
The last noteworthy vintage, 2003, was preceded by a frigid winter and late spring frost. Ripening was compressed to a six-week heat spell saving the vintage from mediocrity, but yielding wines that were big and brawny.
In 2005, summer days were sunny and the nights cool, allowing grapes to gradually and more completely mature. Clusters were completely ripe and rot free, a departure from typically years. The sun smiled on the critical hand-harvest.
Where 2003 came off as overly mature and rich with fruitiness, 2005 is more elegant and complex, better suited to gamay and reflective of the terroir, with smelling of damp soil and flower beds.
Beaujolais king Georges Dubouef declared 2005 one of the greatest vintages, as he does most every year. The more restrained Laurent Drouhin, head of U.S. operations for Joseph Drouhin, described last fall’s winnowing process where he and siblings select fermented juice to buy, age and bottle. They found themselves in a pleasant predicament.
“It’s usually easy for us to say ‘no,’ ” he said. “Last year, the quality was so exceptional we had trouble identifying the best. It is one of the best vintages ever.” For the first time Drouhin is pouring Beaujolais 2005 crus alongside Burgundies at events.
Great Wine - Now What?
Despite 2005’s quality, Beaujolais faces some challenges. It is made exclusively from the gamay grape, which is grown in few other places in the world. Beaujolais can’t be buoyed by the grape’s success elsewhere in the way that Burgundy benefits from pinot noir’s cache, or Pomerol by merlot.
Some hope to change perceptions by touting gamay’s genetic association with pinot noir. “Gamay is really like pinot noir’s little brother,” said Kobrand’s Zangrilli.
Young and precocious Beaujolais can be a bellwether for Burgundy vintages. Older crus, particularly Morgon, develop pinot-like characteristics. Nouveau is a double edge sword. During the nouveau season, sales of all types of Beaujolais surge. Yet some producers don’t use the “B” word on the front label. The Drouhin clan feels “Beaujolais” would repel some people. Their crus carry only the commune name on the front label.
The embarrassment some feel to “Beaujolais” irks producer groups like Inter Beaujolais who are trying to burnish the category’s reputation. A campaign targets urban trend-setters in their 20s and 30s with advertisements and a web site portraying Beaujolais in a lifestyle of ease and entertaining. Those discovering wine are looking for affordable, food-friendly reds versatile enough to be enjoyed as cocktails. Inter Beaujolais’ web site, www.licensedtochill.org, pitches the “chillable red.”
“Beaujolais is a great entry point to the world of wine,” said Pamela Wittmann of Inter Beaujolais-backed trade group, Millissime. “We want to use nouveau to tell people that it is just one wine, the first wine of the season.”
“Wine drinkers have tired of faddish varieties and regions and want authenticity and tradition,” said Ted Emerson of Dubeouf importer W. J. Deutsch & Sons. They are returning to the Old World – but on a budget.
Jacques Capsouto, owner of Capsouto Frères bistro in Manhattan says that while Beaujolais requires some hand selling, customers become converts. Villages goes well with grilled vegetables, fish, chicken and veal, he tells customers, and the crus with heavier meals such as herb rubbed pork tenderloin.
“For customers starting to drink wine and not really wanting to spend a lot of money, Beaujolais is a good wine for the value,” he said.
While Beaujolais crus have a lot to offer without being ponderous, it remains to be seen if their popularity will gain or decline on the shoulders of fleeting, frivolous nouveau.
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