Paul-Henri Thillardon is, at a very young age, a masterful winemaker. It's got to be a gift, he has touch and perfect pitch, and his wines sing. Chenas is not far from Moulin-a-Vent, and for that can show much of the same muscle. Paul-Henri brings you this concentration, but knows where the balance point is for elegance. We call this 'grown-up wine'.
Have you noticed it yet? There is a renaissance going on Beaujolais. It's a backlash to all the insanity of the Beaujolais Nouveau years. Seriously, what other wine region promotes itself with its basest product? Well, Beaujolais does; and it's still flogging it. But there is light on the horizon, and a new generation is fighting back. We bring you three bijou wines from three of the brightest stars in this new constellation of Beaujolais winemakers. These are hand-made Beaujolais crus from producers whose names you should note.
BURGUNDY 2017 VINTAGE
If 2016 tested the faith and resolve of wine makers in Burgundy, 2017 has to be seen as recompense, and as a miracle of sorts. While the rest of wine-growing Europe suffered crippling late-spring frosts in 2017, Burgundy for the most part (for once!) survived.
A mild winter and an accelerated spring left the Burgundy vineyards in a vulnerable position when, in the second half of April, temperatures across France barely rose above freezing for two weeks.
Three hard-frost nights pretty much did in Right Bank Chablis once again. But as the rest of Burgundy survived the first week, the growers found the will to fight back. And on the night of April 27th, a year and a day after the 2016 frost that took 80% of the 2016 harvest, a severe frost was forecast for the length of the Cote d’Or.
It’s now a part of local legend how, on the following morning, we awoke in a thick cloud of smoke. In the early hours, from north to south, the vignerons had mobilized to set alight dampened bales of hay, sending up a cloud cover to filter the first burning rays of dawn. And it worked.
The air was thick, and driving was tricky. A customer at the butcher shop in Meursault jokingly asked for a smoked chicken. And, of course, the authorities were up in arms over the pollution risks. But the crop was saved, and there has been ever since a spirit of cooperation and solidarity not often seen in farming communities.
After the freeze, May brought in an extended period of warm dry weather. No mildew or oidium to speak of, no thunderstorms or hail. Sunny periods, but no lack of rain. And the vines went in to flower at a very-normal first week of June. Pretty much ideal.
July had a couple of heat spikes, and a hailstorm hit the fancy vineyards in Morey St Denis on the 10th. But nothing worse. August was warm; the lead up to the harvest at the end of the month, hot and dry.
The first grapes were picked in the Cote de Beaune in the last few days of August. And most everyone was out picking in the first week of September.
There was (as there often is in Burgundy) serious disagreement in 2017 about when to pick. Do you pick early to preserve the acid-sugar balance and freshness? Or do you hang in there and wait for a little rain to kick-start a stalled photosynthesis, and thereby achieve the holy grail of phenolic maturity?
It’s hard to say who was right. There are very good wines coming from both camps. But there are iffy wines too. And that’s the key to understanding 2017.
Picked early, the best wines, both red and white, are fresh, fruit-driven and floral with long minerality. The iffy wines seem not have adjusted for the solid levels of tartaric acid which left them tart rather than bright, dry and tannic rather than juicy.
Picking late did not seem to have an effect on the balance between alcohol and acidity. But then, there was no ‘over maturity’ in 2017. The extra phenolic maturity seems to mean more density and riper tannins, with no sign of flabbiness.
The whites shine, particularly in hard-done Chablis (where there is better balance even than the marvelous 2014s). In the rest of Burgundy, the whites have the tension of 2014 but the open flattery of 2015.
The reds are juicy and crisp and open, and the regional appellations will be ready to drink soon. More serious appellations will be considered ‘typical’, in the best sense of the word: classic wines from a vintage that Burgundians will love. They are likely to be lost in the hub-bub that the 2018s will bring. But the yields were good in 2017, so you will be able to find them for a while. And you’ll do well to seek them out.
CRU DE BEAUJOLAIS
We have always thought of Beaujolais as part of Burgundy, and would never hesitate to include it in our Elden Selections as Burgundy. But many do not.
From an administrative viewpoint, Burgundy is made up of the four departments of the Côte d’Or, the Saône et Loire, the Yonne and the Nievre. And Beaujolais is on the outside, in the department of the Rhone.
Then geologically, Burgundy is limestone and clay while the cru of Beaujolais are grown on granite. And most damningly, Philippe le Hardi, one of the Dukes of Burgundy, declared in 1395 that only pinot noir could be used in red wines produced north of Macon. And that the ‘base and unfaithful gamay’ should be kept in the south.
Not to be confused with Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages, the 10 Cru de Beaujolais are the prime production zones in the heart of the region, similar to the climats in Burgundy proper.
Produced predominantly with the gamay grape, but 15% of other grapes (chardonnay, melon and aligote) are permitted. These wines are deeply colored and range from ruby to purple depending on the cru and the vintage. Notes of red fruit and flowers, with good acidity and low-tannin finesse, a distinctive granite minerality and ample body and density mark the best of these wines.
Gamay is not a very vigorous grape, often weakened in the periods of fertile growth. So it needs careful tending to prevent it from fading over the course of the season. As opposed to pinot noir, gamay likes granite-based, acid soils. It buds early, so Spring frosts are a concern, as is millerandage (the abortion of flowers that produces grape bunches of irregularly shaped grapes).
The Cru de Beaujolais
The most expansive of the Beaujolais cru, Brouilly covers 3200 acres, or about 20% of the Beaujolais region. It is situated at the base of Mont Brouilly to the west of Belleville and to the south of Morgon. Brouilly and Cote de Brouilly are two distinctive cru de Beaujolais, with Brouilly at the base of the hill and Cote de Brouilly higher up. And each produces a distinctive style of Beaujolais. Brouilly is fruit driven and perfumed, and a wine for early drinking.
The rarest of the Beaujolais cru because it is the smallest production, the appellation covers the communes of Chenas and La Chapelle de Guinchay at the northernmost part of the wine region.The wine smells distinctly of roses and has a voluptuous aspect and a power that many attribute to a streak of limestone in the soil. It’s a complex wine which has, like its cousins in Moulin-a-Vent and Morgon great aging potential.
Situated between Fleurie and Morgon is the commune of Chiroubles. These are the highest vineyards in the Beaujolais cru. Producing wines that are fine and fruity, many think this is the defining style of cru Beaujolais. Bright red and intensely floral, typically of violets and lily of the valley, Chiroubles is generally a wine for early drinking.
Côte de Brouilly
These are the vines on the upper slopes of Mont Brouilly, and they distinguish themselves from ‘normal’ Brouilly in that excellent exposition and a complex subsoil produce wines that are less earthy, and generally more deeply colored than those found down below. Côte de Brouilly is one of the tightest and most full-bodied of the Beaujolais cru. We look for Burgundian red fruit and black currant notes. The soils are granite and hard schist, and famous for their blue stone, reputed to give the wine its aging power.
No appellation is more aptly named than Fleurie. The un-politically-correct French describe Fleurie as feminine, and apparently what they mean is that it is soft and subtle. And as the name implies, floral. Because it is easy to pronounce, Fleurie has long been in demand on the export market, making it the most recognizable of the Beaujolais cru. It also means it can be among the most expensive. Add to this that it is one of the largest production zones in the Beaujolais cru, and it’s only natural that Fleurie is the star of the region.
Julienas has character. It is perhaps the least typical of the Beaujolais cru, deep , intense and exotic. Beyond floral, here we have cherry and strawberry, as with pinot noir, and then cinnamon and fleshy peach, all well-structured both with tannin and acidity. This is probably due to the rich diversity of the soils in Julienas, which run with veins of limestone in the eastern part of the zone, and the relatively high altitude of the plantation.
Along with Moulin-a-Vent, Morgon is the Beaujolais cru the most apt for aging. And like Moulin-a-Vent, as it ages it can easily be confused with a fine Burgundy. Deeply colored and rich, Morgon takes on a silky density with age, and opens onto spices, pinot-like red fruits and the Beaujolais peach and apricot fleshy fruit. The Cote de Py in the center of the production zone produces particularly powerful wines.
Moulin-a-Vent deserves to be considered among the great wines of Burgundy. It is Beaujolias cru at its most subtle, with rose petal and spice and ripe fruit; and it is Burgundy in its finesse and depth as it ages. Manganese in the soil naturally limits yields, so there is an intensity in Moulin-a-Vent that is only matched perhaps in neighboring Chénas.
Until 1988, Régnié was considered a Beaujolais-Village. The promotion to Beaujolais cru is very much a response to the quality of winemaking there in recent years. Régnié is very Beaujolais in style with a brilliant ruby robe, delicate fruit and flowers and the edge of granite minerality. But more, there are the tell-tale signs of a bigger wine, marked here in this region by Burgundian red fruits and black currant and the pulpiness of ripe peaches. Tannins are discreet in Beaujolais, but here they are present and soft, another sign of quality winemaking. Régnié is fleshy yet elegant, and appreciated in its youth.
Like Fleurie before it, Saint-Amour is naturally popular due to its name, a big hit on Valentine’s Day and a steady seller on the export market. But the wine is much more interesting than that. Saint-Amour is the natural bridge between the very distinctive limestone of Pouilly-Fuisse just to the north and the predominant granite of the Beaujolais. It’s a natural addition to the cru of Beaujolais in zones where granite subsoil gives it the structure and body necessary for aging. These wines show a potential for greatness. But beware, because some of what is bottled as Saint-Amour is more apt to be produced in the modern style of Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages.