Who Will Decide the Future of Beaujolais?

Beaujolais is at a crucial moment as it moves beyond its second-rate past and seeks to define a new legacy for itself. The question is: What is that legacy? Jon Bonné on terroir, identity and the next generation of winemakers who will shape the region's future.

I’m standing at the edge of the town of Villié-Morgon, in a place called Douby. It’s a perfect spot to take in the heart of the Beaujolais. To the north, it borders the well-known commune of Fleurie. To the south, on the other side of the village, is a dominating, green hill: the Côte du Py, source of Morgon’s most cherished wines. And about 200 meters away, I can make out the farm owned by the family of Marcel Lapierre, the region’s populist hero until his death in 2010.

Douby is an important place. It’s farmed by some of Beaujolais’ top winemakers: not just Lapierre but also Jean-Paul Thévenet—two of Kermit Lynch’s “Gang of Four,” the winemakers whose work starting in the 1980s proved that Beaujolais could be something meaningful and complex.

What’s odd about Douby is that, until a few days earlier, no one had ever bothered to mention it to me.

Was it because it’s slightly off-message for Morgon? The village is known for its durable, long-lived wines and for its roche pourrie—the schistous, manganese-veined “rotten rock” that helps give the Py wines their structure. Douby’s soils, by contrast, are deeper and more granitic, its wines more generous and pleasant.

More likely it’s because, until the past couple years, Beaujolais hasn’t spent much time dwelling on such specifics. There have always been a few hallowed spots (none more than Py), and many wine folk can quote chapter and verse on the macro-terroir: the grand granite hills, ordained home of the red grape gamay noir, used in nearly all the region’s wines, and the 10 Beaujolais crus, each with their unique attributes. Anything more seemed like an unnecessary dabbling in detail.

No longer. At last, Beaujolais is set to tell a new tale. Its wines are no longer just simple pleasures. Today the best are complex and meaningful, on a level with great wines found anywhere else in the world.

Thus the old narratives, of Beaujolais as a simple peasant wine, will have to be retired. And they will be, largely thanks to a new generation influenced by the Gang of Four’s work. These successors are determined to display Beaujolais in its full glory, and they have an audience ready for that message.

At the same time, amid such admirable goals, the new guard has not quite steered clear of the struggles that come with generational change. There is unmistakable dissent in their ranks, which has surfaced, in part, as a debate about how the particulars of how Beaujolais should be made and what it should taste like. But there’s a more poignant—and furtive—struggle taking place, too, over exactly who gets to set the region’s mandate for the future.

On the topic of terroir, hardcore fans have long idolized the wines that demonstrated the region’s great potential: bottles like Jean Foillard’s Cuvée 3.14 or Clos de la Roilette’s Cuvée Tardive. But with rare exceptions like Louis-Claude Desvignes’ Javernières, from an old planting just below Py, little attention has been paid to the lieux-dits. (At least not by outsiders; the Beaujolais always talked about such things amongst themselves.) Even the wines of Lapierre, that patron saint of respectability, were blended from numerous parcels—an omnibus snapshot of Morgon.

“We forgot to talk about, and work in, our climats,” says Louis-Clément David-Beaupère, invoking the Burgundian term for a specific parcel.

David-Beaupère, in the town of Juliénas, is a fine example of the emergent Beaujolais. He is part of that generation poised to take the scepter not only from the original Gang but also the negociants, namely Georges Duboeuf, who simultaneously elevated and exploited the region. Although David-Beaupère’s grandfather arrived in the town of Juliénas from Algeria in 1961, he sold fruit rather than making wine. In 2008, Louis-Clément diverted from a career in finance to take over the family property, which was part of the Bottière lieu-dit, planted on lime-rich colluvium.

Who will control the message of the new Beaujolais? This matter of succession is crucial, because the Gang of Four and their counterparts, like Yvon Métras, have functionally dominated the region’s recent history. They retain an enormous mythic power, in part because their work, and Chauvet’s, is essentially the core of the creation story of France’s natural wine movement. And yet, the energy that made Beaujolais a hotbed for naturalism has at least partially migrated—to the Loire, to the Auvergne. And myths can overwhelm reality.

But that wouldn’t be enough—not if he wanted to fully show off the diversity of Juliénas’ soils. He acquired a parcel on the far side of town, Vayolette, planted on blue volcanic rock, as well as a steep, shallow granite slope of vines planted in 1951 in Chassignol, at the edge of Moulin-à-Vent, which he farms with his friend Paul-Henri Thillardon, another upstart. Three distinct places, three distinct wines.

These acquisitions illustrate just how David-Beaupère and other members of the new guard are enjoying opportunities born out of what were dire times in Beaujolais. The negociant era left a vast majority of farmers virtually broke, and a combination of lean vintages and the economic crisis forced many into retirement. In turn, that allowed young vignerons like Thillardon, Rémi and Laurence Dufaitre, Julie Balagny, Mee Godard and many others to claim old parcels, and to make wine in the dilapidated old farms that the previous generation had to abandon. Serious farming and cellar work have replaced rustic pragmatism; the resulting wines coming from those cellars today are so impressive that it seems impossible they are often aged in the same old concrete tanks.

“The countryside,” Balagny predicts as one of her sheep, wandering through her courtyard, nuzzles my wrist, “is going to change a lot.”

The thing to remember is that Beaujolais has always endured change, usually attended by the reluctance that pervades rural France. It’s a region that has historically invested more in survival than glory, all the way back to the bedtime-story history of its native grape. Which goes like this: Philip the Bold banished “disloyal” gamay from northern Burgundy in 1395, mandating pinot noir as the Cote d’Or’s great grape. The side effect was for Beaujolais to become the great Burgundian underdog. (Functionally, it’s considered part of Burgundy, although administratively it is equally tied to the Rhône.)

For centuries after, Beaujolais fended off misplaced malcontent—like in 1620, when the Mâconnais accused their neighbors of endangering public health with their lowly gamay vines. (No, it doesn’t make any sense.) Yet the sheer charm of its wines proved irresistible, which is why at least four million gallons were being shipped to Paris by the early 18th century, not just on the local Sâone river but also west over the hills to the Loire.

But suddenly, there’s a sense that Beaujolais has found its moment to rise from second-class status. The previous generation’s bumblings have largely subsided—none more than Beaujolais Nouveau, a charming local tradition exploited as a weird global phenomenon, particularly by Duboeuf. Nouveau brought with it a sort of theme-park gaudiness, driven by industrial techniques like thermovinification and the yeast 71B, which became notorious for the bubblegum aromas it created. Beaujolais, the simple charmer, spent a generation as industrial pop wine.

Then, starting in the 1980s, the Gang of Four and their contemporaries fomented revolution. Their once-radical message—minimalist winemaking rather than industrial, organic farming rather than chemical—has taken hold throughout the wine world. (Although not in many corners of Beaujolais, where soils still look chemically devastated.) Thanks to them, we no longer talk of the region as Burgundy’s homely stepsister. We celebrate wines that are meaningful—and, crucially, affordable today in a way that Burgundy no longer is. As Jean-Louis Dutraive of Domaine de la Grand’Cour puts it: “We’re finally finding a bit of valor.”

Valor, it turns out, is a good term for what’s happening. Quality is surging, and yet the region hasn’t succumbed (yet) to fancier tendencies. Beaujolais still prides itself on ruggedness. Its beauty is stark, dramatic and hilly—the desolate Madone chapel crowning Fleurie, the deep watershed cuts running up into the hills behind Chénas. After an evening elbow-to-elbow with local kids chugging beer and Ricard at Villié-Morgon’s best wine bar, I watched from my balcony as lightning ravaged the Sâone plain, drenching an endless wave of vines. Nothing in Beaujolais is tender.

I drive back to Fleurie one day to locate Dutraive’s ramshackle old farm at the edge of town, purchased by his father in 1969. It isn’t quite in a Miss Havisham state, but it feels like Burgundy from a generation ago—low vaulted cellar, old casks, black mold on the walls.

But the wines. Perfumed and majestic, a firm knock back at those centuries of anti-gamay prejudice. His warmly spicy Terroir Champagne (a lieu-dit of decomposed granite on Fleurie’s southern edge that, naturally, put Champagne authorities in a tizzy) exudes the pinot noir-esque dignity that gamay, reputedly, could never have—or perhaps that it was never allowed to display.

Wines like Dutraive’s have proven that Beaujolais, at its best, is a sort of Burgundy for mere mortals.

Incidentally, the Burgundy comparison isn’t a metaphor. The Burgundians are quite literally descending upon the region, buying up whatever property they can—not just negociants who have always bottled Beaujolais, but small producers like Frédéric Lafarge of Volnay and Thibault Liger-Belair, Burgundy’s most visible striver. (They are also not alone: Alain Graillot, a stalwart in the northern Rhône, recently acquired vines, too.)

They have every reason to come. Their home turf faces a land rush. While vineyards in many Beaujolais communes can be had for around 30,000 euros per hectare, land in even a modest Burgundian spot like Savigny fetches nearly 10 times that. And it’s even cheaper in the southern Beaujolais, where granite gives way to golden limestone. The Burgundians are there, too, less because of gamay than to plant pinot noir and chardonnay. Also because the wines can be labeled “Bourgogne” or “Coteaux Bourguignons,” which is to say that the south Beaujolais stands to become for vineyard-starved Burgundy what Entre-Deux-Mers became for Bordeaux: a factory for cheap knockoffs.

Amid such changes, I begin to worry whether what could be an auspicious moment stands to undo the very things we love about Beaujolais. It has every right to be a more serious wine. But how serious is too serious? At some point, will the pendulum swing too far back from the clownish Nouveau years? Will we sacrifice the pleasure quotient that prompted Harry Yoxall, 50 years ago, to describe Beaujolais as “the only red wine that really quenches thirst”?

This tension is currently revealing itself by way of the battle over how Beaujolais is made. On one side are proponents of the partial carbonic maceration now completely associated with the region. On the other is what’s often called “Burgundian” winemaking, which is to say: making the wines as they would be anywhere else.

The truth is: This is really a proxy fight over what constitutes tradition in Beaujolais, and who has the right to define it. The popularity of the carbonic method—which can highlight gamay’s fruitier, gentler side—among top winemakers is largely a function of local legend Jules Chauvet, the Gang’s mentor and effectively the father of France’s natural-wine movement, plus Chauvet’s counterpart Jacques Néauport, and their acolytes.

Tradition is a more complicated question. The so-called Burgundian method has existed in Beaujolais for decades. Depending who you ask, it was arguably dominant prior to the Gang’s arrival and the popularization of Nouveau. So was the use of whole grape bunches—a controversial choice in Burgundy but a seemingly familiar one in Beaujolais.

And so, when a relative newcomer like Anne-Sophie Dubois, a Champenois who settled high in the hills above Fleurie, calls her Burgundy-style winemaking “traditional,” she’s not necessarily wrong. Respected producers like Château des Jacques and Jean-Paul Brun have made Beaujolais that way for decades. Still others, like David-Beaupère, are divining a middle ground—using a bit of carbon dioxide to bring out a milder infusion from the grapes, but then aging the wine for nearly a year in wood vessels. “It’s my form of Beaujolais,” he says.

Such quibbles have their place, on drunken evenings or in the dark corners of message boards, but I think they blur the region’s more significant dilemmas—and I’m not thinking of the arrival of the Burgundians. The new generation faces starker questions.

The biggest might be: Who will control the message of the new Beaujolais? The embrace of terroir, and the arrival of more purpose-driven wines, is all for the good. But that doesn’t mean the new guard is of one mind about where the region is headed, or who gets to lead it there.

This matter of succession is crucial, because the Gang of Four (in France, it’s really a “Gang of Five,” including Morgon’s Joseph Chamonard) and their counterparts, like Yvon Métras, have functionally dominated the region’s recent history. They retain an enormous mythic power, in part because their work, and Chauvet’s, is essentially the core of the creation story of France’s natural wine movement. And yet, the energy that made Beaujolais a hotbed for naturalism has at least partially migrated—to the Loire, to the Auvergne. And myths can overwhelm reality.

So who among the new generation will carry that legacy forward? Will it be their own children—like Charly Thénevet, who rather than working with his dad, took his own parcel in Régnié; or Jules Métras, slowly taking over his father Yvon’s work? Will it fall to emerging stars like Yann Bertrand and Rémi Dufaitre, who apprenticed with talents like Yvon Métras, and who seemed, at least to me, to be particularly keen to be viewed as the inheritors of the Gang’s mantle? (“There are a lot of imposters among the new ‘natural’ producers,” Dufaitre warned.)

Of course, if your family runs Beaujolais’ most famous estate, it’s less a question of succession than what you do with what you’ve inherited. So I went to see Mathieu and Camille Lapierre, Marcel’s children, who have the task of carrying forward that outsized legacy. Marcel was an extrovert, sometimes to an extreme, getting into fights with neighbors about sulfur and organic farming. Mathieu seems to have adopted all those traits.

But if I was expecting a Gang party line, I wasn’t going to find it here. Both siblings were quite clear-eyed about both natural wine (faulty ones are “no better” than industrial ones, Mathieu said) and the reverence for Chauvet and his work. (“Mythologized,” he added. “He was racist; he hated women.”) It’s not that they didn’t love the progress their father had helped to bring about. They just had no desire to romanticize it. Perhaps living inside the bubble of Gang life wears away the shine on those creation myths. And for sure, it can be awkward when the world constantly shows up at your door, treating your farm as a shrine to the greater glories of honest wine. Beaujolais isn’t a place that feels entirely comfortable with success.

Interestingly, one name barely came up in the course of a week: Duboeuf. I could find no better counterpoint for Beaujolais yesterday and today than in a converted cow shed in La Sambinerie, an old, narrow quarter of Romanèche-Thorins—an important local village where Duboeuf’s headquarters, and the Hameau Duboeuf theme park, are located.

There, just 600 meters from the back of Duboeuf’s enormous factory, Richard Rottiers, a ponytailed native of Chablis, has taken control of an old parcel of Moulin-à-Vent—which, in part because it’s the most expensive part of Beaujolais, is also the hardest spot for a newcomer to settle. The appellation has been a stronghold of sorts against the new guard. But Rottiers makes a pure, static-free rendition of Moulin-à-Vent: all the tea-like tannins and inimitable metallic tang, but with fruit that’s subtle and fresh, rather than confected.

After a bit of small talk and a parting taste of his Beaujolais blanc, I stepped out of Rottiers’ small cellar into the fading sunlight, and for a moment I forgot about all the fractiousness and the worry. The sad trappings of Beaujolais’ past were still close at hand, but I’d tasted a much happier future.

Ten Beaujolais That Offer a Taste of the Future:

In addition to these, it’s also worth locating wines from such producers as: Anne-Sophie Dubois; Domaine du Clos du Fief (now mostly made by Michel Tête’s son Sylvain); Yann Bertrand; Domaine Ruet; Antoine Sunier (brother of Julien), and of course the Gang’s wines (including Chamonard and their functional honorary member, Métras). The 2013 vintage was slightly more tannic and age-worthy than 2014; if you like aging Beaujolais, you’ll still find many bottles on shelves.

2014 Domaine de la Grand’Cour “Clos de la Grand’Cour” Fleurie | $30
Jean-Louis Dutraive is devout about organics, and his meticulously farmed home vineyard is not just a monopole but also, yes, a clos—with a wall right around. Full of spice from grape stems, earthiness and an undeniable fineness to the tannins. This is gamay in its most noble form.[BuyImporter: Polaner Selections 

2014 Richard Rottiers Moulin à Vent | $25
Using average 60-year-old vines, Rottiers shows this appellation—home to some of Beaujolais’ biggest interests—in its purest and unadulterated form. Sanguine and chewy with a distinct smokiness to the fruit. A powerhouse, in a good way. As of 2015, the vineyards are certified organic.[BuyImporter: Riahi Selections 

2013 Domaine Mee Godard “Côte du Py” Morgon | $31
Old terroir, new player. Godard trained at both Oregon State and Montpellier before settling in Morgon, and her winemaking blends carbonic and non-carbonic, for deeply structured wines. Warmly spiced, with subtle and lavish fruit, and the metallic Py austerity showing right up at the end.[BuyImporter: Grand Cru Selections

2014 David-Beaupère “La Croix de la Bottière” Juliénas | $32
Louis-Clément finds an ample, generous side of Juliénas from his organically-farmed home vineyard—made with less carbonic flourish and more subtle, fully-fleshed fruit, with caraway spice and candied violet. [BuyImporter: Sacred Thirst Selections

2014 Louis-Claude Desvignes “Javernières” Morgon | $32
Desvignes sometimes gets overlooked because this parcel sits just below the Py slope, with deeper soils rich in iron oxide. But it’s supple, classy and wildly fragrant—think aniseed and musk. [BuyImporter: Louis/Dressner Selections 

2014 Jean-Paul Thévenet “Vieilles Vignes” Morgon | $31
Among the Gang wines, Thévenet’s always seem less discussed, perhaps because of the relative rarity. In any case, the current bottlings, from vines up to 110 years old, are beautiful— and surprisingly firm-edged, given the use of Douby fruit. Dusty, with more florality than spice, and the stony mineral aspect that gives good Morgon its durability. [BuyImporter: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant 

2013 Charly Thévenet “Grain & Granit” Régnié | $28
Talent among both father and son. Thévenet fils is doing astonishing work with this biodynamic plot in often-forgotten Régnié, southwest of Morgon. Stony, tense and full of lively huckleberry flavors, and a crunchiness to the fruit. [BuyImporter: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant 

2014 Coudert Père & Fils Clos de la Roilette “Cuvée Tardive” Fleurie | $27
Alain Coudert has one of those transitional parcels between two communes, with granitic slopes at the edge of Moulin-à-Vent. That gives the Tardive, meant for aging, a particularly stoic side, although the plush ‘14 vintage has this tasting great already, with a bit more tannin and an olive-like savoriness. [BuyImporter: Louis/Dressner Selections 

2014 Julien Sunier Régnié | $26
Sunier transitioned from a career making commercial Beaujolais for Mommessin to organic farming and minimalist winemaking mostly in barrels (from Christophe Roumier) on his farm in the hills west of Beaujolais. His wines, for me, find a balance between the newer, stoic side of Beaujolais and its joyous fruit. The Régnié comes from two parcels with deeper granitic sand: the hill of Oeillet near Morgon, and Les Forchets, just north of the village of Régnié-Durette. It’s deeply floral, with a black-tea smokiness and the taste of freshly mashed red fruit. [BuyImporter: Polaner Selections 

2014 Domaine Thillardon “Réserve des Blemonts” Chénas | $29
Young Paul-Henri Thillardon is on a mission to highlight Chénas terroir, usually stuck in the shadow of neighboring Moulin-à-Vent, and this parcel of clay and manganese offers a coppery, salty side typical of Moulin, but also a brightness and fine, talc-like texture.[BuyImporter: Robert Panzer/Fruit of the Vines


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