Beaujolais is back at the vinous high table

The Gamay grape returns to the spotlight, with a new generation of winemakers creating classy beaujolais that captures the complexity and brio of the terroir. Alice Lascelles reports

Gamay vineyards in the famous Beaujolais cru, Fleurie
Gamay vineyards in the famous Beaujolais cru, Fleurie | Image: Alamy

I’m sitting at a wobbly picnic table, in a sun-baked vineyard, with Thibault Liger-Belair, ninth-generation vigneron from one of the grandest families in Burgundy. At one end of the table is a spread of pickles, cheese and charcuterie – “This is what we a call a mâchon, or everything that is good!” says Liger-Belair, attacking it with gusto – while, at the other, nine bottles of wine cluster under a flimsy parasol. All are delicious, but not one is from the Côte de Nuits. Because today we are in Beaujolais, visiting Liger-Belair’s other passion project, Domaine des Pierres Roses, in the heart of Moulin-à-Vent. 

You’d think a man who made wine just down the road from Domaine de La Romanée-Conti wouldn’t give the time of day to Beaujolais, a part of France that most people only know for strawberry-bubblegum beaujolais nouveau. But Liger-Belair is just one of a growing number of winemakers and sommeliers who are helping to create a groundswell of love for this underrated region at the southern tip of Burgundy. “When I was a student here, I never understood the difference between the beautiful view and the bad wine,” says Liger-Belair, passing me a bowl of miniature goat’s cheeses. “Then, one day, I had the chance to taste a beaujolais from the 1940s blind. I said it was Echezeaux [a burgundy grand cru], and in fact it was a Fleurie from 1947. I was astonished. And ever since then, it has been my ambition to create beaujolais with that same degree of sophistication and complexity, that age-worthiness.” 

Beaujolais isn’t made from Pinot Noir, like the red wines of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. It’s made from Gamay – a grape with a gentle tannin, bright acidity and red‑berry/floral perfume that can be suffocating or transcendental, depending on how you make it. Most is sold young, as cheap-and-cheerful plonk. But, as Liger-Belair discovered, in the right hands it can age very much like a Pinot Noir.

From left: Moulin-à-Vent Les Vignes Centenaires 2015, £95 for a magnum at Berry Bros & Rudd. Philippe Pacalet Moulin-à-Vent 2015, £57.80 at Tannico. Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly, Les Sept Vignes 2017, £20.50 at Berry Bros & Rudd. Julien Sunier Fleurie 2017, £27.50 at Berry Bros & Rudd. Château du Moulin-à-Vent and Xavier Rousset Les Huits Ouvrées 2015, £32 at Comptoir Café & Wine
From left: Moulin-à-Vent Les Vignes Centenaires 2015, £95 for a magnum at Berry Bros & Rudd. Philippe Pacalet Moulin-à-Vent 2015, £57.80 at Tannico. Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly, Les Sept Vignes 2017, £20.50 at Berry Bros & Rudd. Julien Sunier Fleurie 2017, £27.50 at Berry Bros & Rudd. Château du Moulin-à-Vent and Xavier Rousset Les Huits Ouvrées 2015, £32 at Comptoir Café & Wine

In fact, there was a time when beaujolais ranked alongside the best of burgundy and bordeaux. As recently as 1950, top crus such as Moulin-à-Vent and Fleurie were commanding prices on a par with Pommard or Gevrey-Chambertin. And when you taste Liger-Belair’s wines, it’s easy to see why. Walking the vineyards, he points out Champs de Cour – “my Chambolle-Musigny” – a plot with golden earth as silky as talc that produces soft and exotic wines, and La Roche, a rocky parcel up the slope whose fruit is more tart, with a nervy minerality. 

Liger-Belair’s top cuvée is Les Vignes Centenaires, which is made from a small plot of superannuated vines on one of the best sites in Moulin-à-Vent. Some of these vines are well over 100 years old, and they look exhausted: bowed, squat and gnarly. But the fruit they produce is full of life. Over lunch we taste Les Vignes Centenaires 2011 (£195 for six at Berry Bros & Rudd), a wine with a mouthwatering jumble of black and blue berries, and a whisper of smoky spice. It has the concentration and relative power that characterise wines from this cru, but it’s also, in a way that’s very Beaujolaise, sort of effortless too. Today, Liger-Belair only does this particular wine by the magnum to maximise its ageing potential: “Good for the wine and good for me!” he laughs, gesturing at his ample frame with a paw strengthened by regular bouts of arm-wrestling. Beaujolais is, as he says, beautiful – with its pink and blue granite, ancient woodlands, steep hills, windmills and donkeys, it has a rustic charm that you don’t find so much on the glossy Côte d’Or. It’s a place where you shake a lot of rough hands. And, for the time being, it’s still a smart buy, with plots in even the best crus still costing a fraction of those on the Côte d’Or, where grand cru prices now average around €6m per hectare (not that many people are selling). 

It’s perhaps no surprise to learn that more and more Burgundians, faced by spiralling land prices and growing demand for Pinot-style wines, are striking out into Beaujolais. One Burgundy heavyweight ramping up its operations in Beaujolais is the grower and négociant Maison Louis Latour. “I, like many Burgundians, have always been in love with beaujolais, because we were brought up drinking the crus. I think it is a great wine,” says company chairman Louis-Fabrice Latour. “And right now it is very much in line with what people are wanting to drink – wine that is lighter, fresher, lower-alcohol, more fruit-driven.”

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Despite owning the largest grand-cru property on the Côte d’Or, Maison Louis Latour has seen fit to make a number of acquisitions in Beaujolais over the past few years, including Château des Labourons, in Fleurie, and beaujolais producer Maison Henry Fessy. In 2012, the company also planted 20 hectares of Pinot Noir near Lyon to make a wine called Les Pierres Dorées (£18.99 at Tivoli Wines), which launched in 2015. “There is an ongoing debate in Burgundy about whether Beaujolais should be officially recognised as part of Burgundy,” says Latour, “I’m a great believer it should. I think the future of Beaujolais is to merge with Burgundy.” This will undoubtedly be a hot topic in September when the international wine trade descends on Beaujolais for Vinexpo Explorer, a spin-off from one of the world’s leading wine fairs, Vinexpo, which focuses on up-and-coming wine regions. 

In the meantime, Beaujolais’ more affordable land prices are also making it a fertile breeding ground for emerging wine talent. One of the most hotly tipped is Julien Sunier, a wiry, mischievous-looking surfer who makes wine in the more “natural” vein. “I arrived in 2003 in a camper van with zero money, but having no money forced me to create a style I liked,” he says. “It was only when I came here that that I got into natural and organic winemaking.” His methods may be low-intervention, but he doesn’t want to be seen as a poster boy for the natural movement. “We like natural wine, but not crappy wine with lots of yeast floating around and CO2,” he says (but with more expletives). “The fun is to follow the vintage and see how it goes.” 

At his winery in the hills of Avenas – a stone farmhouse called Noisetiers (“hazel trees”) that he restored himself – Sunier makes a number of cuvées from top crus including Fleurie, Morgon and Regnié. Sitting on the deck, surrounded by forests full of chattering birds, we taste Sunier’s Fleurie 2017 (£27.50 at Berry Bros & Rudd), which, with its notes of rose petals, anise and musk, captures beautifully the ethereal quality of this famous cru. It was the first vintage of this wine that gave Sunier his big break early on, with Berry Bros & Rudd. “It might not have been classic Berry Brothers, but I fell in love with it immediately,” recalls the author of Insideburgundy.com, Jasper Morris MW, who was BBR’s head buyer for Burgundy at the time. “What I love about Sunier’s wines is how expressive they are. From the very second you get that magical perfume, you just want to be there.” 

Noble Rot wine bar features beaujolais producers at its annual Fête du Beaujolais in November
Noble Rot wine bar features beaujolais producers at its annual Fête du Beaujolais in November

When he started making wine in Beaujolais, Sunier was an outsider. But many of his peers have Beaujolais in the blood. Quite a few are descendants of the influential “Gang of Four” – a pioneering quartet of winemakers including Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thévenant, Guy Breton and, latterly, George Descombes, who helped make Beaujolais a crucible for the natural wine movement in the 1980s. Lapierre’s nephew, micro-négociant Philippe Pacalet, makes most of his wines from parcels on the Côte d’Or, but he also dips into Beaujolais for his stunning Moulin-à-Vent (2015, £57.80 at Tannico) that can be found on wine lists from The Clove Club to The Ritz. Formerly winemaker for Domaine Prieuré-Roch, he was named Négociant of the Year at La Revue du Vin de France 2017. “Moulin-à-Vent, for me, is the Beaujolais cru that is the most ‘Pinot’ of all,” he says. “It’s an exceptional terroir with great personality: elegant fruit, finesse, structure and depth.”

Over a beautifully patinated Yvon Métras Fleurie 2016 (€130.80 for a magnum at Pleasure Wine), Francis Roberts, general manager/wine buyer at north London’s Westerns Laundry, tells me that Métras’ twentysomething son Jules is also doing great things. And so too is Georges Descombes’ son Kewin, or “Kéké”. Working six hectares of organic vines in Morgon, he produces wines with flair and vivacity (and some rather cool labels too). My favourite is his top cuvée K Descombes Morgon Vielles Vignes 2015 (a selection of his wines are available at Red Squirrel) – a soft, juicy red with earthy/liquorice tannin and what just might be a hint of fresh blood. It’s a gripping wine with many years still ahead of it. 

“The region as a whole has incredible potential, with lots of younger producers coming up making unbelievable wines and who have the freedom to be quite radical,” says Charlotte Wilde, the carmine-lipped co-founder of the award-winning Sager + Wilde wine bar/restaurants in east London. She namechecks Jean Foillard, Julien Sunier and micro-négociant Andrew Nielsen, whose company Le Grappin also pioneered the eco-friendly “bagnum” – good quality box-wine, in a bag, styled for the Apple generation. “He is a great example of someone who has used modern technology, science and design to create a new way to not just make wine, but transport and sell it too. He’s redefining the way people think about fine wine.” Wilde’s stylish new wine bar, Darling, opens in London later this summer. The list  will focus on “smaller and lesser-known producers”, says Wilde, which means we can almost certainly expect some good Gamay.

Winemaker Thibault Liger-Belair
Winemaker Thibault Liger-Belair

For beaujolais in a more formal setting, you could head to two-Michelin-starred The Ledbury, in west London, which has an excellent selection of top-end beaujolais from the likes of Thibault Liger-Belaire, Marcelle Lapierre and Château Thivin – including vintages with a bit more age. “They are some of the best-value wines in the world,” says head sommelier Seamus Williams-Sharkey. “You’ve got loads of old vine parcels planted on amazing sites, in the hands of some seriously talented winemakers, without the demand or prices of their neighbours to the north.” Contrary to what people might think, he adds, Beaujolais can be an excellent food wine. He waxes lyrical about the time he enjoyed a posh burger with Château de Grand Pré Fleurie Cuvée Spéciale 2016 (£21 at WoodWinters), which he likes to recommend with The Ledbury’s veal tartare: “One of my favourite food and wine matches we do.” 

Wine-trade favourite Noble Rot, on Lamb’s Conduit Street, has also done a lot to bang the drum for “bojo”. At its annual Fête du Beaujolais in November, it’s not unusual to find winemakers such as Jean-Louis Dutraive and Andrew Nielsen pouring the wines themselves. “While beaujolais cru is a ‘serious’ wine that expresses terroir and vintage variations, it has an accessibility and unpretentiousness that deserves celebrating,” says Noble Rot’s Dan Keeling. “It’s hedonistic yet intellectually engaging; moreish yet relatively moderate in alcohol; and, for now, it’s a fine wine that doesn’t cost a fortune.”

Last year, one of London’s top sommeleirs, Xavier Rousset, launched his own beaujolais cuvée, Les Huit Ouvrées, in collaboration with Château du Moulin-à-Vent. “I love the acidity, freshness and elegance of beaujolais. It makes you want two glasses not one!” grins the former head sommelier of Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and co-owner of Blandford Comptoir, Comptoir Café & Wine and Cabotte, wine-focused restaurants around London. Silky and earthy, with a beetrooty sweetness and fine spice, Les Huit Ouvrées 2015 is, as Rousset says, “pinoté – like a Pinot Noir”. Limited to 1,200 bottles, it’s on the list at Annabel’s and in Rousset’s own restaurants – or you can buy a bottle in the Comptoir shop for just £32. “I’ll always love burgundy,” he says, “but as prices go up, beaujolais is a wine I am buying and drinking more and more of at home. From a drinkability point of view, it is the future.”

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“I love beaujolais,” agrees Ruth Spivey, award-winning sommelier and founder of Wine Car Boot, a roving wine market that’s become something of a bellwether for vinous trends. “It’s easy to drink, fun to drink and seems to impart a sense of joy around the table.” And if that’s what wine drinking looks like in 2019, count me in.

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