Vézelay, a small Chardonnay appellation in northern Burgundy, has a marginal climate that can give growers serious headaches. The spring of 2016 epitomized these challenges, as an unusually warm period led to early bud break, leaving vignerons in fear that another cold spell would bring frost. Sure enough, nighttime temperatures in late April dipped below freezing and severely affected the harvest to come: Valentin Montanet of La Sœur Cadette reported losses up to 80%—truly catastrophic for a small-scale producer. With Burgundy ravaged by frost, Valentin looked to the south to purchase grapes in order to supplement his production and make up some of the lost profit. This decision also gave him a chance to vinify Beaujolais, an idea he had long entertained. Sourced from an organically farmed vineyard on granite soil, this Juliénas is textbook cru Beaujolais: very aromatic with loads of fresh Gamay fruit, it flows over the palate with a juicy buoyancy that makes it hard to resist.
When Jean and Catherine Montanet planted their first vineyards in 1987, the fruit was destined for vinification in their very own cave coopérative, which saw its first vintage bottled in 1990. As general manager of the business, Jean quickly found his feet as a capable vigneron.
Unable to fully express themselves as vignerons at the coop and determined to continue working organically, the Montanets finally split off and founded their own label, Domaine de la Cadette, taking their vineyards with them. Their son Valentin joined them in 2010 and now manages the domaine, espousing his parents' philosophy of organic farming and natural vinification to craft refreshing, mineral-driven whites and reds.
After years of the region’s reputation being co-opted by mass-produced Beaujolais Nouveau and the prevalence of industrial farming, the fortunes of vignerons from the Beaujolais have been on the rise in the past couple of decades. Much of this change is due to Jules Chauvet, a prominent Beaujolais producer who Kermit worked with in the 1980s and arguably the father of the natural wine movement, who advocated not using herbicides or pesticides in vineyards, not chaptalizing, fermenting with ambient yeasts, and vinifying without SO2. Chief among Chauvet’s followers was Marcel Lapierre and his three friends, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton, and Jean-Paul Thévenet—a group of Morgon producers who Kermit dubbed “the Gang of Four.” The espousal of Chauvet’s methods led to a dramatic change in quality of wines from Beaujolais and with that an increased interest and appreciation for the AOC crus, Villages, and regular Beaujolais bottlings.
The crus of Beaujolais are interpreted through the Gamay grape and each illuminate the variety of great terroirs available in the region. Distinguishing itself from the clay and limestone of Burgundy, Beaujolais soils are predominantly decomposed granite, with pockets of blue volcanic rock. The primary vinification method is carbonic maceration, where grapes are not crushed, but instead whole clusters are placed in a tank, thus allowing fermentation to take place inside each grape berry.
Much like the easy-going and friendly nature of many Beaujolais vignerons, the wines too have a lively and easy-drinking spirit. They are versatile at table but make particularly good matches with the local pork sausages and charcuterie. Though often considered a wine that must be drunk young, many of the top crus offer great aging potential.
Let the brett nerds retire into protective bubbles, and whenever they thirst for wine it can be passed in to them through a sterile filter. Those of us on the outside can continue to enjoy complex, natural, living wines.
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