Birth in Roman times, blossoming out in 17th century
The occupation of France by the Romans contributed towards the advent of vine-growing, including in the Beaujolais region. Archaeological research has shown that from as early as 59 BC wine drinking was prevalent along the big roads that went through the area.
Well-positioned terroir, the proximity of the navigable Saône and Rhône Rivers and the growth of towns together lead to the Beaujolais region intensifying its vinegrowing and winemaking activity in 17th century.
The Beaujolais winemaking region’s jam-packed history can be followed through just after the warrings of the Sires de Beaujeu, the first of whom, Bérard, is known to us through a record of his viticultural transactions dated 957 AD(!) through evolution and innovation in the field that include agricultural companies, schools, mechanical and chemical solutions, the arrival of the railway followed by good roads. From as early as the 15th century the vines that were planted be-tween the indispensable pasture fields drew the Lyon bourgeoisie. Because they enjoyed a right to sell their wines with no added taxes the worthies of the time increased their standing with the Paris smart set with their “clairet” light coloured honest country wine. The French Revolution brought premises of classi-fication that were concretised with the first AOCs in 1936.
A vineyard made up of slopes
Extending along 55 Km from south to north, the Beaujolais region is enclosed between Lyon and Mâcon. Leaning up against the last foothills of the Massif Central to the west, the region seems to slide eastwards down to the Saône River plain. In our vineyard, vines closely carpet the slopes that change colour with the seasons. Clinging to the gentle to not so gentle gradients of our hills, the vines are never planted on the plain so that nothing of the excellent sunshine and luminosity we have here is lost. While the soils they send their roots down into also contribute their many qualities.
Generally northeast to southwest fac-ing, the rows of vines coat the Beaujolais hills at an average height above sea level of 300 m under peaks that go up as far as 1000m. Influenced by this topog-raphy, where water abounds, Beaujolais vinegrowing fits itself to the singular geological characteristics here including shallow limestone-clay and sandstone soils in the south, crystalline soils that are light and acidic on the heights and granitic terrain in the north.
Passion and hard work
Rebellious? Really? The truth behind a Beaujolais winemaker’s personality is a considerate soul and a keen heart, especially when he is communing with his vines. The planting density is one of the highest in the world with from 7 000 to 13 000 vine per hectare. This may be reduced to 6 000 if it is thought that quality will be improved – a concern that is ever the deciding factor in a vine-grower’s choices. Tending is regular through all four seasons. From spur or cane pruning depending on the appellation in winter, to the tilling and hoeing round each vine to remove any weeds that announce spring, the vinegrower trains his plants to give of their best.
This labour comes to its climax at harvest time. Close on 40 000 grape pickers come the area to lend a hand to the vinegrowers to gather in the bunches of grapes, because rare is the use of the harvesting machine in the Beaujolais region. They all have bent backs and tired hands but, for them, nothing can compare to sharing a good meal, learning about wine and the friendships made during their short time spent here. Sorted manually in the vines and or when they arrive that the cellar, only the very best bunches are put into the vat to start fermentation. And, though the harvest bans are no longer give rise to the tithes and taxes of 13th century, they are still the launch for every vintage today.
A climate under influences
Though it’s not exceptional for their to be sudden changes in the weather here and with winters that are sometimes harsh, the Beaujolais region makes the most of a temperate climate that falls under three separate sets of influence. In winter, continental currents are a contributing factor in causing the frosts that can sometimes spread to spring. It’s better to cover up and wait for the light winds from the ocean that, between seasons, stir up the regulating role of the River Saône and soften the temperature differences.
With the return of the summer come winds from the Mediterranean. This is when the Haut Beaujolais moun-tain chain is particularly good for protecting the vines and encourages the foehn wind that comes from the west which is heated and dried in summer as it passes over the peaks of the Beaujolais hills to go down to the Beaujolais plains.
Exposed to light rains, the vineyard can be subject to very high tem-peratures that will probably raise further with global warming. Although these long summer droughts are definitely favourable to the quality of the wine they can also be behind some quite devastating storms.
Winemaker, a profession and a craft that is passion
The fruit of patiently matured know-how, the Beaujolais vinegrowing method bears witness to vinegrowing expertise that has taken on a patina over time.
Generation after generation draw on the knowledge of their forefathers, men and women for whom it was and is important to hand their profession down.
Mainly in their forties, the winemakers of today are preparing for their succession as a family.
The 3 000 Beaujolais wine estates are very often quite modest in size, covering from 4 to 10 ha.
Work on a human scale. Throughout the seasons the vinegrower winemakers tend the ranks of vines in their care and their product from the plants themselves and the soil to the cellar and the bottle.
Co-operatives: stronger together
Joining forces to overcome the collapse in prices in the second half of 20th century, Beaujolais vinegrowers fond in the creation of co-operatives the means to sell their wines better. Leaving their position as plain suppliers, these professionals brought the production of their vines and their capital together, allowing the smallest of estates the opportunity to vinify their grapes in better conditions. Just like the estates that make their own wine, the co-operatives focus on the quality of the wines they produce.
Through its 18 co-operatives and three successive generations, winemaking Beaujolais tells its history. Between 1929 and 1934, Chiroubles, Liergues and Chénas opened the way, joined in the 50s by Létra, Bully and Theizé. In 1960, four new cellars joined the ranks to federate the Cru and Beaujolais-Villages appellation areas: Juliénas, Saint-Étienne des Oullières, Le Perréon and Lachassagne. And it was in 1988 that the wine co-operative of Saint-Julien embodied the latest generation of cellars. Three generations but one point in common: the taste for service and quality, making up the sales of around 30% of the production of our winemaking area.
Broker Negociant, an essential part of the chain
The link between wine and the market, the broker négociant holds a valuable role in the Beaujolais winemaking region. In yesteryear accompanied by his faithful “taste-vin”, a specially embossed drinking cup, that has today been replaced by a glass, he selects the cuvées that suit his needs, assembles and sells them. Dynamic and competent, these wine houses have furthered the promotion of Beaujolais wines both at home and outside France.
Today there are around a hundred of them. Famed for his “nose” the talent of the broker négociant lies in the original combinations he brings out, drawing on the specific characteristics of Beaujolais terroirs and a demand for quality from the winemakers who supply him. This exceptional know-how is more and more frequently leading the broker négociant to produce his own wines.
Professional Organisations: “210 en Beaujolais”
Gathered together at their headquarters at n° 210 du boulevard Victor Vermorel, in Villefranche, baptised “210 en Beaujolais”, the wine organisations work together for the improvement of the product of the vineyard. Here you will find the union organisations for vinegrowers, brokers and vine-owners, the wine co-operative federation, all the contributors in the Beaujolais profession working together for the renown of our 12 appellations, upholding their quality and their image.
At the 210 you will find the “Inter Beaujolais”, the Beaujolais wine inter-professional organisation that looks after communication, the Comité permanent du Beaujolais, that used to be called the Union Viticole du Beaujolais, that brings together the organisations for the defence and management of Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and the Beaujolais Crus.
Also at the “210” is the Comité de Développement du Beaujolais, under the umbrella of the Chamber of Agriculture that works for the technical side of vines and vinegrowing. By their side is the winemaking research centre called SICAREX Beaujolais. This was founded in 1970 by the local organisations and the Technical vine institute, working on applied R&D, its experimental estate in Liergues works for the future of the winemaking area and shapes it for the 3rd millennium!
The fraternities, a source of wine-centred revelry
How can you live wine without generating happy gatherings? Born with the work of the vine, Beaujolais fraternities cultivate convivial festivities. Around a dozen different Bacchic organisations relive local , cultural or gastronomic customs every year. The best well-known, “Les Compagnons du Beaujolais”, invites each appellation in turn to its three annual sessions at their “Cuvage” or old vatroom, in Lacenas. These customs and rites are also respected by the “Confrérie des Maîtres Vignerons de Chénas et Moulin-à-Vent” whose motto is “à tassée pleine, joie s’enchaîne” (a full taste-vin can bring nothing but joy).
Each appellation has its own ambassadors: the “Grappilleurs des Pierres Dorées”, the “Groupement des Organisations Sociales Intellectuelles Educatives Récréatives Sportives et Culturelles”, aka the GOSIERSEC (ever thirsty), the “Amis de Brouilly” not forgetting the following fraternities or ‘confréries’ “du Premier Pressoir du Cru morgon”, “Saint-Juliénas des prés” and “du Chant de la Vigne”. Don’t let the name fraternity mislead you, there are women’s groups to defend their appellations too, including the “Damoiselles de Chiroubles” and “La Grappe Fleurie” folk group.
Beaujolais faces and personalities
Beaujolais soil has been the cradle to a few celebrated scholars, politicians and scientists. The man who discovered the glycogenic function of the liver, doctor Claude Bernard was born in 1813 in Saint-Julien-sous-Montmelas to where he like to return to write his “Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale” (introduction to the study of experimental medicine) (1865). Bathed in the fumes of Chiroubles where he saw the day in 1827, Victor Pulliat got interested in botany very early on. His research contributed to the reconstitution of the phylloxera destroyed vineyards by grafting the vinestock on to ‘American’ rootstock, this saviour of the vines of France earned him a monument in his home village and a sound reputation with vine and wine specialists. In the same vein as his father, the inventive craftsman, Victor Vermorel set up a Beaujolais vinegrowing research station in the family agricultural machinery workshop in Villefranche. Here, he worked on both his vine nursery and his inventions, including an injector and a sprayer to fight phylloxera of the mid-19th century. While Gabriel and Charles Voisin didn’t look after Beaujolais vines, they flew over them. The two brothers were the first people to build aeroplanes industrially and to inaugurate a flight in Europe with a motor driven aircraft. Beaujolais seen from the sky and Beaujolais from the paintbrush of the painter Maurice Utrillo who was inspired by his summer stays at Château de Saint-Bernard. Among those with great destinies, young Antoine de Saint-Exupéry drew quite a bit of attention to himself in the time he spent at Mongré school in Villefranche. In another time, Beaujolais was “Papa Bréchard’s” country and home, he was a vinegrower born and bred whose heart was ‘Beaujolais’ through and through. Born in Chamelet, Louis Bréchard was a Member of Parliament and confirmed vine unionist. The writer Raymond Dumay also loved this region of which he said in his first wine guide published in 1960 “without Beaujolais, France wouldn’t quite be France”. A pleasure in gastronomy and words that Colette told when she wrote about the grape harvest at Château Thivin, on the flanks of Mont Brouilly. Finally, between two vines, it wasn’t rare to meet Maurice Baquet. The actor and musician who refreshed himself in Villefranche and who enjoyed the Fête des Crus where, he said, “you can approach the human soul”.
Terra Vitis, taste with your eyes closed
Created in the Beaujolais region in 1998 by vinegrower winemakers who were determined to highlight their vinegrowing techniques, their experience and their commitment to respect for the environment, Terra Vitis has become the national emblem of eco-friendly viticultural production. The initiative that was started up in the Beaujolais region was given shape in November 2001 with the creation of the National Terra Vitis Federation. Today it has 410 member estates covering a total of over 13000 hectares and a production in 2007 of more than 420000 hectolitres of wine.
Backed by the “Comité de Développement du Beaujolais” for logistics, Terra Vitis is upheld in Beaujolais by l’Association de Conduite Raisonnée Rhône-Alpes, and sets out a very strict set of requirements to be a member. Terra Vitis, is vinegrowing that respects the environment, based on the well-thought-out use of plant health products and full “tracability” of the resulting wine. So you can savour the wines with your eyes closed!
Beaujolais winemakers remind us that “It takes a generation for a new appellation to truly exist in its own right“.
An appellation – awarded by the l’Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO) (national institute for origin and quality) – that is all the more accepted by the winemakers because it is proof of their will to establish an identity for and controlled quality for their products. The AOC adventure is relatively recent and the Beaujolais Crus were among the first to come under an AOC decree in September 1936.
At that time it was for Chiroubles, Fleurie, Chénas, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent, the oldest. The approach, that indexes all the conditions for production: from the plot to the cellar, from vinification to bottling, was next applied in September 1937 to the regional appellation of Beaujolais, shared between the cantons of Villefranche, Anse and Le Bois d’Oingt, and on several villages in the cantons of L’Arbresle and Tarare. On the same day the official decree for White Beaujolais was signed, this limited production is well worth a try.
Then came the appellations of Juliénas in March 1938, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly in October 1938. Saint-Amour was gathered into the Cru family fold in February 1946, before Régnié was consecrated in December 1988.
One Grape Variety: the Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc
The characteristic and exception of Beaujolais wines is that only one grape variety is used to make them all: Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc. Growing in the Beaujolais region since the beginning of 17th century, this variety has accompanied our region in the evolution of the vineyard and collective vinegrowing tradition. And it is, of course, on Beaujolais’ limestone-clay and granitic soils that this plant has found its true home. Nearly 70% of the 36 000 hectares of land planted with Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc throughout the world is in Beaujolais.
In days gone by it was nicknamed petit Gamay, Gamay rond or Bourguignon noir.This hardy and productive variety requires constant tending to curb its vigour and control its yield. To give of their best the vines need to be planted close together, with from 6000 to 13000 vines per hectare. In the Beaujolais-Villages and Cru appellation areas they are spur pruned (using the goblet, fan, charmet or cordon style), while in appellation Beaujolais the vinegrowers are also allowed to use cane pruning methods. There are never more than 3 to 5 spurs on each vine for a maximum of 10 buds (eyes).
Know-how for every season
Whether the wine is a Nouveau, a full-bodied Cru or a wine to cellar, Beaujolais can only be given life by the hands of the winemaker. Different jobs come and go with the seasons: winter is for pruning, next comes budding in the spring, then tying up, trimming and, depending on the year, thinning that starts in July.
From after the harvest, that is generally manual, the winemaker uses a vinification method called “Beaujolais”, during which the bunches of grapes are vatted whole.
The characteristic feature of this type of vinification is then down to a combination of complex fermentative phenomena (semi-carbonic fermentation, intra-cellular fermentation) and jobs carried out by the winemaker (pressing, pumping the run-off juice over the cap, assembly). Each of these stages contributes to the signature of each winemaker on his wine. It’s the same thing for the length of time the grapes are vatted. When vatting is short, at from 4 to 5 days for Nouveau wines, it gives fresh, easy-to-drink, flavourful wine. But beware! Racking must be carried out at exactly the right time. If it’s too early the wine is over light in body and lacks colour. If it’s too late the tannins are too hard and astringent.
The wines to lay down are just as exacting, with vatting lasting for from 8 to 12 days. Some cuvées then spend a few months in oak barrels, the resulting wines are more complex, retaining the fruitiness of the Gamay grape without giving way to overly oaky flavours.
Beaujolais, Villages and Crus, a whole world to discover
The single Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc grape variety feeds the creation of 12 appellations: “Beaujolais” and “Beaujolais Villages“, sold for a large part as Beaujolais Nouveau and Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau, and 10 Crus indexed by their terroirs.
Both “tender”: Chiroubles, Fleurie and Saint-Amour, and “robust”: Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Juliénas, Régnié, Chénas,Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent they are characterised by their red fruit aromas and flavours of red currant and spice, intense length in the mouth that is unveiled once the wines have “done their Easter duty” and have made the most of a few months maturing before bottling.
The vintages, a pointer
The vintage is the year when the grapes for the wine were harvested. From acceptable to exceptional, the vintage is an important marker to estimate the quality of a given wine. Though it tells of the weather con-ditions of the year, the vintage won’t tell the whole story for the thousands of cuvees made in the Beaujolais region. The nuances of each terroir, the specific know-how of each winemaker or broker are also criteria that need to be taken in to account.