Juliénas is perhaps the most diverse of Beaujolais’s ten crus, making it difficult to generalize about the character of its wine. Soils range from granite to schist with pockets of clay, sand, and alluvial deposits, while a wealth of different exposures and elevations also contribute to its countless possible expressions of the Gamay grape. Site is therefore crucial, and the hill of Beauvernay is certainly among the top vineyards in the appellation. Cédric Chignard inherited this small plot of land from his mother, and the old vines here now produce a fine companion to the lovely Fleurie upon which Michel, Cédric’s father, built the domaine’s reputation. At high altitude on steep slopes of schist-like blue volcanic stone, Beauvernay yields bright fruit with racy acidity and an intense mineral backbone—a vin de terroir if there ever was one. An electric lightning bolt of Gamay, this Beaujolais can be enjoyed today or aged for several years.
Michel Chignard is a modest man, kind and courteous, but in every aspect of his winemaking one clearly sees a passionate perfectionist. In 2007 Michel turned the management of the family domaine over to his son Cédric, who is carrying on this philosophy with great pride and has already managed to prove himself in his first few vintages. The Chignard family is also blessed with vineyards in one of the best sites of the Fleurie appellation, Les Moriers which makes a light and playful wine, with deep, ripe fruit and finesse. They have also recently started making wine from another Beaujolais cru, Juliénas, which produces a beautiful, high-toned wine in keeping with the style of the domaine.
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.
Trust the great winemakers, trust the great vineyards. Your wine merchant might even be trustworthy. In the long run, that vintage strip may be the least important guide to quality on your bottle of wine.—Kermit Lynch
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