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Beaujolais grows up

In 2001, wine from the French region of Beaujolais went unwanted. Now, its 2009 and 2010 wines are coveted.

November 24, 2011|By Patrick Comiskey | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Beaujolais is moving beyond its short and fast history of high-profile marketing.
Beaujolais is moving beyond its short and fast history of high-profile… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

As this country's wine tastes shift away from bombast toward more balanced efforts, let's imagine we could reduce that trend to a single wine from a single place. This wouldn't be a wine made to floor you, overpower you or incite some rapturous state. It wouldn't be a "great" wine, a high-scoring wine. On the contrary, it would be a wine that symbolizes the waning years of point-score piety, a wine for which profundity is an option but not an expectation, a wine whose sole purpose is to charm. And if you're going to be moved by it, it will be due not to the wine's depth or complexity but to its simplicity and clarity of expression.

To me right now that place, that wine is Beaujolais. The region's wines, made from Gamay Noir, have never been more lucid, more honest, more pure in intent than in these last two vintages, 2009 and 2010. When I open a lightly chilled bottle of, say, the organically grown 2009 Morgon from Georges Descombes, I know I will not have to grasp at anything or wait for the wine to come to me. Its luminous uncomplicated beauty will be immediately apparent, and I know that with each sip I will feel something that is altogether rare and fleeting in bottles of wine or, really, in life: I will feel joy.

No one could have predicted this kind of success for the region 10 years ago. In 2001, more than a million cases of unwanted wine, most of it Beaujolais Nouveau, were destroyed or distilled after languishing in the markets. Production far exceeded demand, and the careless winemaking had sullied the region's reputation and driven consumers away.

But as this was happening, a small but influential coterie of natural wine advocates, Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton and Jean-Paul Thévenet among them, were finding their voices in the region's best village wines or crus. Fed up with indolent vineyard work, gaudy marketing campaigns and aggressive cellar practices, these grower producers dedicated themselves to more sensitive vineyard management and deliberately unobtrusive winemaking, using indigenous yeasts, zero additions and little or no sulfur.

Their efforts paved the way for the global phenomenon we now know as the natural wine movement. As a result, the best Beaujolais aren't just emblematic of a place — they're models of anti-interventionist winemaking. And in two spectacular vintages, it's easy to see the fruits of this labor.

Additionally, their success with cru bottlings has inspired improvements in other regional efforts — even Beaujolais Nouveau.

There is nothing like a great vintage in France to show off a region's strengths — but most speak of 2009 in Beaujolais in terms usually reserved for depictions of heaven. Warm but not too warm, the vintage was sunny and mercifully storm-free, leading to extremely high quality fruit. Many believe that the 2010s, just now rolling into the market, may be even better.

Such conditions elevate all wines, but even the usually just-good wines have been just spectacular. In most years, Beaujolais wines reflect a tension between fruit and earth elements. Some years, you could say, the earthbound elements win out. In 2009 and 2010, they are exquisitely matched, with bright red berry fruits balanced against soil-like inflections with uncanny grace — so graceful, in fact, that for the moment the stubborn stigma of cheap, concocted Beaujolais Nouveau bottlings has been set aside.

Beaujolais Nouveau started out innocently enough. Négociant (winemaker and merchant) Georges Duboeuf saw an opportunity in the 1970s to expand the market for his fruity, just-finished wines from non-cru sites as France's first to market. They became popular in Lyon bistros, then Paris brasseries, then across the country. Duboeuf's great breakthrough was to globalize this provincial post-harvest event — as you read this, cases of Beaujolais Nouveau are being hurried to the world's largest cities: New York, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles and beyond. It has become a harbinger of the holiday season: case stacks of Beaujolais Nouveau are as synonymous with the holidays as Christmas lights.

But such a sales boon was not without cost: To ready wine for such global demand, Nouveau's rapid production begot many dubious cultural practices, including untenably high yields, corrected with chaptalization (the addition of sugar) and the use of a fast-acting yeast called 71B that frequently gave off an aroma of banana or bubble gum, or both.

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