A love letter to Beaujolais
"Beaujolais must be the most inspired invention in the history of wine." These are not my words. This is the first sentence of the chapter on Beaujolais in Kermit Lynch's book, Adventures on the Wine Trail. Yes, I know it’s the second time I’ve quoted it this week, but I’ve been reading it again the last few weeks and it’s as quotable as Withnail and I. Anyway, the rest of the chapter continues in this vain, reading like his love letter to Beaujolais. It is the most evocative pieces of wine prose I have read. I cannot hope to write anything as profound and poetic as Mr Lynch's masterpiece, but given today is the annual celebration of this "most inspired invention" I feel the need to say something.
The third Thursday in November is traditionally the day the new vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau is released. Having been harvested only a month or two previously nouveau is as young, fresh and vital as wine gets. But if I mention Beaujolais Nouveau to my parents they look at me in disgust, as they recall the insipid commercially produced Beaujolais of old. Unfortunately, the rush to get the grapes picked, the juice extracted, an alcohol beverage created, bottled and shipped to consumers in time for the celebration has in the past been driven by a desire to get cash in rather than put quality out. The Beaujolais Nouveau craze was a runaway commercial success in the 1970's and 1980's but by the 1990's the lack of quality and increasing options from other parts of the wine world led to a PR disaster for the region. Whether it was nouveau or not, anything with Beaujolais on the label was generally avoided. Categorised alongside Blue Nun as joke wines that the likes of Alan Partridge and Del Boy drank. Despite this baggage, my love affair with Beaujolais began in 2010. I can remember it well. I was dining in Hix's Oyster & Chop House in Clerkenwell. Having heard good things about the recently bottled 2009 Beaujolais vintage, we ordered a bottle of Alain Chatoux's Vielle Vignes Beaujolais. It blew me away. I can still feel the slight fizz of energy on the tongue and taste the delicious crunchy red fruit that filled my mouth with juicy goodness. The following morning I ordered a case of 12 from Berry Brothers & Rudd for just over £100. I drank whole case within a few months over the summer and it was gone. But the memory of that wine lingers on, fondly in my mind. Although it was less than £10 a bottle it is still one of the most memorable wines I have consumed. But despite the brilliant 2009 vintage, Beaujolais was still a bit unfashionable. The ghosts of Beaujolais Nouveau still haunted the producers who by this time were making wines, not just as nouveau, but in exactly the same way as up the road in Burgundy. A new wave of producers (alongside the old wave who refused to lower the quality in the first place) now focussed on producing quality, small batch, terroir driven wines. This meant that serious, often world class wines were available at prices so low that they belied their quality. Although the quality focus centres around the ten designated cru villages, the top producers were just as diligent with their generic Beaujolais and Beaujolais- Villages. And with many old vines used, even for generic Beaujolais, the quality across the board was rising. Love may be blind, but the winos ain't. Beaujolais is now de rigeur and prices are going up. Top crus produced by the likes of Julie Balagny and Yvon Metras are changing hands for more than £30 per bottle. Although this is cheap in Burgundy terms it is still a marked rise compared to even a couple of years ago. New wine makers have moved in and costs are rising. As Burgundy land prices continues to spiral out of control, people are looking south to Beaujolais as an alternative, from giant-negociants like Louis Jadot, to nano-negotiants like Andrew Nielsen of Le Grappin. Prices may have gone up in the six years since I demolished that £100 case of Alain Chatoux Vielle Vignes, but there are still wines that hit you between the taste buds and lodge a lasting memory in your brain for less than a decent Cru Bourgeois. I firmly believe that the quality in Beaujolais is so good, you don't have to break the bank. Particularly in great vintages like 2015. I have tasted some brilliant wines this year at the straight Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages level. Highlights include; Du Grappin's Beaujolais-Village 2015 (£15 from Le Grappin, the 2015 is now sold out but the 2016 will be available in early 2017 at the same price), Yvon Metras's straight Beaujolais (£22 ib from Blast Vintners) and Julie Balagny's Simone 2014 (£14 ib from Blast Vintners or Tutto, a Vin de France made from declassified Fleurie fruit). I think I get more joy out of the simpler wines which are ready to drink. I know that Julie Balagny's 2015 Moulin-Au-Vent will probably get better after a couple of years in the cellar but I want it now. The older I get the more impatient I get. And that is the attraction of Beaujolais. It can give me memorable, world-class wines I can drink now. And thankfully today I can do just that. London is embracing Beaujolais Nouveau this year, with young, fresh wine splashing out of the taps in wine bars across the capital. The recent "wine on tap" craze being led by merchants like OW Loeb and Robersons is made for Beaujolais Nouveau. I will be venturing out to drink 2016 Beaujolais tonight along with many other Beaujolais lovers. If you want to get involved, Du Grappin's 2016 Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau Sans Soufre (no sulphur) which is made from Côte-de-Brouilly grapes, is released today on tap at; Clipstone, Winemaker’s Club, Noble Rot, Galvin Bistro de Luxe, Bistro Union, 161 Kirkdale, Brunswick House, Grain Store, Temper, Galvin Hop and Ben’s House.