Wine

Beaujolais Got Expensive. Now What?

November 19, 2020

Story: Megan Krigbaum

Photo: Aubrie Pick

Wine

Beaujolais Got Expensive. Now What?

November 19, 2020

Story: Megan Krigbaum

Art: Aubrie Pick

Once the quintessential bang-for-your-buck option on a wine list, Beaujolais has recently priced itself out of the $60 slot. Here’s what’s taken its place.

In 2016, Eduardo Porto Carreiro, then wine director at New York City’s Untitled, put together an autumn wine list that was centered around wines made from gamay. Most were from Beaujolais, spanning crus and vintages, with a set of wines that read as a mirror for the region as it stood right then. Represented were bottlings from three of the “Gang of Four” producers—Lapierre, Foillard and Jean-Paul Thévenet—and one of its next generation, Charly Thévenet, as well as emerging names, such as Julie Balagny and Séléné, and the old guard in Jean-Louis Dutraive who was on the rise. None of the bottles were over $100, save for a couple of magnums; a bottle of 2014 Fleurie VVV from Yann Bertrand, then and still now the region’s wunderkind, was listed for $66. 

For most of the last decade, cru Beaujolais has been synonymous with charming, vivid wines that dependably fall in the $60 to $70 range on wine lists. But in just a matter of years, prices for the wines—both the big names and the newbies—have made a noticeable leap, pushing sommeliers to either dig deeper into the upstarts of the region or look elsewhere for lighter, affable, go-getter-type reds. A list like Porto Carreiro’s from 2016 would be much harder, if not impossible, to assemble today. 

There are plenty of explanations for why the cost of Beaujolais has been on a steep rise. Many are quick to blame Burgundy. When Beaujolais started to build up steam in the United States, it was frequently described by sommeliers—and the press—as Burgundy at bargain prices. (Which, frankly, it isn’t; different grape, different soils, different vibe.) 

“I think the confluence of Burgundy becoming so unaffordable and natural winemaking becoming so popular that Beaujolais’ demand just skyrocketed,” says Eric Clemons of New York importer Coeur Wine Co., referring to its role as the birthplace of the natural wine movement. The problem, says Clemons, is that “the supply hasn’t really grown that much.” This is what drives allocations—that is, the way some wines are meted out to importers and thus sommeliers. 

That said, the number of upstarts in the region has been on the rise. “The region as a whole is still a big incubator of young talent because you can buy affordable land,” says Brent Braun, of Portland’s OK Omens. Braun lists Julien Duport, Guillaume Chanudet, Nicolas Chemarin and Richard Rottier as recent juggernauts whose bottles fall under $50 on his wine list, with top cuvées landing around $60. 

As soon as this cast starts to get a following, the cycle starts again: Popularity ensues, wines become allocated, prices increase. Jean Foillard’s wines were some of the first to go this way; over the last 10 years, his Côte du Py Morgon has gone from $34 retail to $50 (or around $65 to $120 on a wine list). Foillard’s rise, in particular, effectively made the ceiling much higher for wines from the region. 

Another contribution to this price increase is the tariffs imposed on French wines by Trump’s administration late last year. The tax is 25 percent of the wine’s ex-cellar value on wines that have less than 14 percent alcohol (on top of the regular customs taxes and duties that have always existed), which most wines from Beaujolais are, though global warming might be “helping.” Add the tough harvests back to back in 2016 and 2017, when hailstorms tore up vineyards and cut yield, and you have the perfect recipe for a price hike.

It’s clear that quality has climbed along with the prices. Porto Carreiro is quick to acknowledge that for people who love the wines, paying $40 or $45 for excellent cru Beaujolais in a wine shop, while a notable step up from $30, doesn’t come close to the prices that even villages-level Burgundy sees these days. But it’s not the tried-and-true Beaujolais drinker that he has top of mind. 

“This was a huge, almost grave, shift for the casual wine drinker,” says Porto Carreiro. “That’s the bummer. The casual drinker used to be able to pick up cru Beaujolais in the $20 to $30 price range [at retail] and it was always punching above its weight class.” 

The bright side is that the price increases on Beaujolais have forced sommeliers and casual drinkers alike to expand their field of view. In this way, Beaujolais helped pave the way for the lightweights of the red wine world to find their own cult following. It’s hard to imagine that wines from grapes like Piedmont’s pelaverga, Galicia’s mencía and Chile’s país would have found such an audience without Beaujolais creating greater demand for the style while potentially talking itself out of a job. 

“The consumer base has moved past the whole ‘Beaujolais is all nouveau and shitty’ phase, but they’ve also moved past the ‘Beaujolais is so cool’ phase,” says Braun. In this new phase of big hugs for anything light and juicy, the “chilled reds” realm has opened up all sorts of corners of the wine world that historically have been overlooked.

“When you’re able to introduce [drinkers] to something like this and see their eyes light up,” says Porto Carreiro, of the crop of wines that have moved in to fill the void, “that’s what Beaujolais has been for such a long time.”  

Beaujolais & Co.

Here, five sommeliers recommend both a Beaujolais bottling below $70 on their lists and a juicy, lively wine that they’ve taken to recommending as Beaujolais alternative. 

Brent Braun, wine director, OK Omens and Castagna | Portland, Oregon

Beaujolais to Know: Julien Duport Côte de Brouilly Lieu Dit Brouilly 2018
“2018 was a warm year, but [Duport] channeled all that heat into wines that are big and intense but full of energy and spice. And while there is a bit of a sappiness to the black fruit, it’s carried by a shocking freshness. Just insane stuff. [This] is a $45 list wine.”

Beaujolais Alternative: Division Wine Co. Lutte Gamay Noir 2019
“This is one of the new benchmarks for what we can do with gamay noir [in Oregon]. It doesn’t have the crunchy black fruit of so many of the current warm vintage Beaujolais—more red fruit, cracked black peppercorn, Indian spice—so it’s maybe more like Chiroubles or Fleurie… kinda like a prettier, less-wild Dutraive.”

Rebecca Flynn, wine director, Red Hook Tavern | Brooklyn

Beaujolais to Know: Jean-Claude Lapalu Vieilles Vignes Brouilly 2019
“I first encountered Lapalu’s wine in Paris, and it’s what we drank the day my husband and I got engaged. The wines are fresh and delicious, and they drink clean while still leading the way in the natural wine movement.”

Beaujolais Alternative: Gentle Folk Vin de Sofa 2019
“[From Australia’s Adelaide Hills], Gentle Folk Vin de Sofa (a play on vin de soif) is a blend of pinot noir and pinot gris, with a very pandemic-friendly moniker. It’s wonderful: bright red fruit, a little reductive, but gorgeous with a bit of air.”

Clara Klein, lead sommelier, Sunday Vinyl | Denver, Colorado

Beaujolais to Know: Domaine Les Gryphées Morgon 2018
“On our wine list for $53 for a bottle, this is made by the father-son team of Pierre and Guillaume Durdilly, harvested at high altitudes within Morgon from classic rose-colored granite, some clay and schist (slate). Pristine Beaujolais with notes of wild strawberry, rose and clove.”

Beaujolais Alternative: 4 Monos GR10 Garnacha Blend 2018
“This is one of my favorite [garnachas from the Sierra de Gredos mountain range in Spain]; it speaks to the magical combination of natural farming, granite influence and whole-cluster fermentation that gives Beaujolais its charm. 4 Monos, or Four Monkeys, was started by four wine-savvy friends who met while hiking within the Sierra de Gredos—a new “Gang of Four.” 

Rick Arline, owner, Fellow Traveler Wine Bar | Los Angeles

Beaujolais Alternative: Niepoort Poeirinho 2017
“My favorite wines in that $60 to $70 price range hail from Portugal. Niepoort’s Poeirinho, a biodynamic baga from Beiras, is made using carbonic maceration, which is also key in Beaujolais. It’s unfiltered, and has this super-interesting mix of red and purple flowers with light strawberries and Bing cherries on the palate and elegant tannins.” 

Eduardo Porto Carreiro, beverage director, Rocket Farm Restaurants | Atlanta, Georgia and beyond

Beaujolais to Know: Domaine Chapel Beaujolais Villages 2019
“The fundamental aspect of my attraction to this wine is just how pure it is; it’s fresh and elegant, unpretentious and still offers incredible value. It helps that there’s tremendous pedigree to the winemaking and the approach to farming, but frankly, when you just distill it to what is in the glass, it speaks for itself.”

Beaujolais Alternative: Cabeças do Reguengo Respiro Tinto Alentejo 2019
“This is so delicious: silken, pure and ethereal. It’s an old-vine field blend with an absurd number of different grape varieties, both white and red.”

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Tagged: Beaujolais, wine