Almost thirty years ago, Kermit introduced U.S. wine drinkers to four disciples of Jules Chauvet, the Beaujolais vigneron who experimented in making “natural” wines with unparalleled success. One of these followers was Jean Foillard, a soft-spoken perfectionist who has arguably become the Beaujolais’s most talented vigneron working today. He crafts reds that range from silky to succulent from the cru of Morgon’s top sites. Their balance, finesse, and age-worthiness are unrivaled in the region. Now, Jean’s son Alex is fashioning his own reds from Gamay, and the apple certainly does not fall far from the tree. Alex has already joined the ranks of the region’s most gifted—and well-trained—producers. Where Alex has strayed is in the appellations he has chosen as a starting point. Working in Brouilly and the Côte de Brouilly, which represent Beaujolais’s two southernmost crus, just south of Morgon, Alex plays with the sometimes mind-bending and rule-defying nature of the special terroirs here. The general rule is that Brouilly is the Côte’s slightly softer, more sensuous sibling. This is perennially true with the two classic bottlings from Château Thivin, for example. With Alex’s parcels, however, that rule is reversed depending on the vintage. I opened a bottle for a family dinner recently, knowing that its versatility would play well to all of the dishes on the table and it wowed even those in my family who are not generally Gamay fans. If you have not tried this wine, I can’t think of a better time to become acquainted.
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.
I want you to realize once and for all: Even the winemaker does not know what aging is going to do to a new vintage; Robert Parker does not know; I do not know. We all make educated (hopefully) guesses about what the future will bring, but guesses they are. And one of the pleasures of a wine cellar is the opportunity it provides for you to witness the evolution of your various selections. Living wines have ups and downs just as people do, periods of glory and dog days, too. If wine did not remind me of real life, I would not care about it so much.
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