Posted on | October 5, 2012
Written by | Roger Morris
The news out of Beaujolais these days is mostly good. The 2009 vintage is going down as one of the best on record. Export sales are beginning to grow again. The types of wines favored by a younger generation of wine drinkers meshes with that of Gamay-based wines. And the emergence of a new generation of Beaujolais winegrowers—innovative and eco-friendly in their outlook—is pumping enthusiasm into this lovely hill country north of Lyon.
“Beaujolais sales here at Sherry-Lehmann continue to be pretty robust,” reports CEO Chris Adams. “Part of what’s happening is that these food-friendly wines are gaining more and more appreciation among wine lovers. It helps that they aren’t big, over-the-top, high-alcohol beasts.”
“The 2009 vintage has renewed interest in cru Beaujolais,” agrees Phil Bernstein, Beaujolais buyer for MacArthur Beverages in Washington, DC, “especially those of the small growers brought in by importers such as Kermit Lynch. I’ve heard that this is the first time he’s had to make allocations for a Beaujolais!”
Master Sommelier and wine consultant Fred Dexheimer says the same thing is happening on-premise. “Beaujolais, especially cru Beaujolais, is finding a groove within certain pockets of the sommelier community”—notably in locavore and farm-to-table establishments, he says, although he sees less interest among “mainstream” restaurants. “I think a large part of it has to do with importers such as Kermit Lynch and Louis/Dressner carrying these wines along with other producers in the natural wine movement.”
Of course, the international wine economy and the constant fight to keep a network of worldwide distributors remain ongoing worries for Beaujolais winegrowers. Beaujolais sales to the U.S. fell from over 7.4 million liters of wine in 2007 to just over 5.3 million in 2009—a huge drop of 30%. But they have climbed back up to around 6 million liters in 2010 and 2011, and the long-range outlook is optimistic. Moreover, a lot of things are going on these days to keep the Beaujolais brand refreshed.
• The region is regaining its reputation for making superior tables wines that can age, and not just as the source of that perpetual teenager of fall wines, Beaujolais Nouveau. Its top designations, those labeled with the names of one of the 10 cru villages, account for 40% of sales, Beaujolais-Villages for 30% and everyday Beaujolais for the remaining third.
• There is increased interest in identifying specific vineyards as single-site crus, going beyond village-based crus. Côte du Py, a handsome hillside and hilltop vineyard in Morgon farmed by more than one grower, has already unofficially achieved this status. Nearby, “Grand Cras” has a similar reputation for consistent top quality. Many top growers are now adding these vineyard names to their labels.
• There is increasing diversity of styles—and even grapes. While partial carbonic maceration is still very much in vogue, some winemakers are treating Gamay in the winery as though it were Pinot Noir in order to get more depth and aging capability. Other wineries are using, or experimenting with, organic and biodynamic growing methods. Some are even growing grapes other than Gamay in Beaujolais, although these have to be called “Vin de France.”
• Agri-tourism is increasing consumer interest in the wines. Many of the small wineries also have B&Bs or rooms to rent, and most of the dozens of small towns have at least one good restaurant. “I tell customers it’s one of the greatest wine areas to visit,” says MacArthur’s Bernstein.
• The region is coming to terms with its Burgundy heritage. “I think that it’s important to remind people that Beaujolais is part of Greater Burgundy,” says Cyrielle Jacquet of the prestigious Terroirs Originels group, which this year set up its own American sales office in Oregon.
• There is a major infusion of young winemakers, many of whom have done additional training in other regions to broaden their education.
Still, there are some dark clouds. Beaujolais Nouveau sales have declined in recent years, perhaps reflecting efforts to raise the Beaujolais image for producing serious, but affordable table wines. That is generally good news, except that Nouveau has served as an excellent cash cow.
Additionally, many small producers are having trouble selling their Beaujolais-Villages. In the rush to embrace the top wines, they say, retailers and consumers alike have leapfrogged over this category that represents arguably the greatest value for everyday Beaujolais table wines.
And the U.S. sales of top Beaujolais are far from uniform from retailer to retailer. “Beaujolais is a dead category here,” declares Theresa Rogers of Horseneck Wines and Liquors in Greenwich, CT, explaining that an older generation of French wine lovers on the East Coast have either passed on or found new interests. “Beaujolais needs a category leader to promote the brand,” she says. “Château & Estates once did that with its Château de la Chaize [a Brouilly], which you could find in any store. No one is doing that now.”
There is also strong competition from other wine regions. Rogers cites Grenache-based wines of southern France as being alternatives. Adams and Bernstein see Loire Valley and New Zealand reds as competition.
“But Beaujolais has a unique opportunity to promote its larger heritage, aside from Nouveau, which still has its attractions, but isn’t what it was,” Adams argues. Dexheimer sees a sweet spot in restaurants: “Cru Beaujolais’s drinkability and price point makes it an easy wine to support on wine lists where $40-$60 wines are top sellers.”
“I think that Beaujolais is a lot like German Riesling,” Bernstein concludes. “Where else can you drink cru wines at under $30?”