A Perspective on Cru Beaujolais illustrated by Château des Jacques

I jumped at a recent opportunity to taste some current and back vintages of one of the premier producers of Beaujolais, Château des Jacques. The intimate tasting was hosted by Sheila Flaherty and Thomas Simons of Halpern Enterprises, who brought head winemaker Cyril Chirouze to lead us through 13 current and back vintages of Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon, all under the Château des Jacques label.

Chateau des Jacques Cyril Chirouze_S
Winemaker Cyril Chirouze

Cyril wanted to illustrate two main themes: first, that Gamay is a very good interpreter of differences in terroir, and second, that Beaujolais can age very well. And given the emphasis of the session, I would also add a third underlying theme, the importance of vintage in Beaujolais. The wines that were used to illustrate these ideas included: a barrel sample from 2015 to give a preview of the new vintage, five wines from 2013 to explore differences across terroirs, and seven back vintages to explore ageability and vintage variation — wines from 2009, 2008, 2006, 2004, 2003, 2000 and 1996.

The issue of what is the most appropriate terroir for Gamay goes back a long way. Most people who have read even a little history of Burgundy know this story. In 1395, Philip the Bold (the first Valois Duke of Burgundy) decreed that “vile” Gamay should be uprooted from vineyards to be replaced by Pinot Noir, in order to improve the quality of Burgundy wine. There actually was a good rationale behind this, because Gamay grew with too much vigour and fertility on the limestone subsoils of the Côte d’Or, leading to higher yields and less concentrated wines than those made from the better-suited Pinot Noir.

But the story is always told from the perspective of Pinot Noir and its success in Burgundy, and so Gamay gets easily dismissed as the lesser grape. But if you turn things around and consider the situation from the point of view of Beaujolais and Gamay, you can see this in a more positive light. While Gamay was pulled from the iconic vineyards of the Côte d’Or, it was allowed to prosper in the less generous volcanic-granite soils of Beaujolais, where its vigour and fertility were more naturally controlled. This isn’t to say that Beaujolais has not allowed a great deal of high-yielding and lower-quality grape-growing and mass-produced wines over the years. But the match of Gamay to the granite soils of Beaujolais allows the potential for quality terroir-driven wines, which is the aim of Château des Jacques, and is also the focus of many other Cru Beaujolais producers.

BEAUJOLAIS-WINE-REGION
The highest level of classification in Beaujolais is Cru Beaujolais, that includes ten delimited areas around villages such as Morgon and Fleurie, and other delimited areas such as Moulin-à-Vent, all in the north of the region. The middle classifications is Beaujolais-Villages AOC (without village names), while generic Beaujolais AOC lies at the bottom of the pyramid, accounting for about 50% of Beaujolais production.

Originally an estate based in the appellation of Moulin-à-Vent, Château des Jacques was purchased by Louis Jadot in 1996. In 2001, important vineyards were acquired in Morgon, later supplemented by several properties in other parts of Beaujolais. Subsequently these have been subsumed under the Château des Jacques banner, with the flagship vineyards and wines being those in Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon.

Cyril elaborated at some length on their efforts to improve and sustain quality in their management of the vineyards and the winery. Vineyard management is “sustainable”, borrowing from organic and biodynamic practices, although without formal certification. Commercial fertilizers are not used, chemical spraying is minimized, and grapes are harvested by hand.

He described their winemaking as “Burgundian”, distancing his approach from explicit carbonic maceration and the short fermentations so often used in Beaujolais for Nouveau and lower level wines. Grapes are destemmed but kept whole, a practice widely adopted throughout Burgundy, so while no formal carbonic maceration is undertaken, some intra-cellular fermentation will occur before the grapes are naturally crushed during the fermentation process. Natural yeasts are used, and fermentations are long and slow, lasting as long as one month. Both pump-overs and punch downs are used during fermentation, with their use dependent on the need to extract colour and tannins.

The largest volumes of the Château’s Cru Beaujolais production are bottlings of wine from the two appellations of Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon, in each case blends of the Chateau’s multiple vineyards within each Cru area. A typical Moulin-à-Vent or Morgon would age for a year prior to bottling, in 1/3 new oak, 1/3 old oak, and 1/3 tank. These generic Cru wines are complemented by a series of single vineyard-designated bottlings within the larger Crus, and would typically be aged fully in oak, with varying levels of new oak depending on the vintage and the specific vineyard.

But traditionally, not even the Cru Beaujolais producers have focused on individual vineyard production, and there are currently no superior classifications of vineyards as Premier Crus or Grand Crus in Beaujolais. Château des Jacques has been working to change this, and has begun the difficult, lengthy and technically challenging process to officially introduce such classifications. In the meanwhile, they produce premium bottlings from single vineyards as a demonstration of the uniqueness of the wines that come from individually exceptional terroirs.

Chateau des Jacques - 2013 wines_S
Crus Beaujolais and single vineyard Crus Beaujolais from 2013

Cyril used five wines from the 2013 vintage to get at the idea of Gamay and terroir. As with Cru Beaujolais generally, both Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon are based on granite soils of volcanic origin, but with some interesting differences. The Château’s Moulin-à-Vent vineyards have rather shallow soils of granular pink granite and quartz, with manganese in some places that actually harms root growth, but helps to naturally control vigour and fertility. The underlying granite soils of Morgon and its famous Cȏte du Py vineyard also contain diorite, schist and some marine sediments. Cyril’s general characterization of the wines from these Crus was that Moulin-à-Vent tends to be more elegant, usually with red rather than black fruit, and with elevated but fine tannins. Morgon tends to be more muscular, generating darker fruit, and still with elevated but somewhat larger and firmer tannins.

The five 2013s were:

  • Moulin-à-Vent 2013: sourced from multiple vineyards in Moulin-à-Vent;
  • Morgon 2013: sourced from multiple vineyards in Morgon;
  • Moulin-à-Vent Clos du Grand Carquelin 2013: the vineyard is situated just below the windmill, with shallow (just 40 cm) granite soil over bedrock;
  • Moulin-à-Vent Clos de Rochegrès 2013: higher up the slope, with deeper soils of granite and quartz;
  • Morgon Côte du Py 2013: darker blue-tinged granite-like diorite and schist soils.

With just one set of wines it is pretty difficult to make generalizations about the character of individual Crus, and even harder, to determine the character of individual vineyards within them.  But for the first two “generic” Cru wines, my tasting notes do in fact suggest slightly higher acidity and finer-grained tannins for the Moulin-à-Vent relative to the Morgon. In all three wines from the single vineyards, my notes suggest a small incremental level of refinement: more precise fruit character, finer-etched tannins, and more pronounced minerality.

As the seminar turned to look at the question of aging Cru Beajolais, the topic of vintage and vintage variation also came to the fore. Cyril characterized the 2013 vintage as “classic”, which in European wine terms usually implies a cooler year with a later harvest. In fact 2013 was one of the latest harvests on record, with picking beginning on Oct 1, significantly later than the average starting point around the middle of September. So the bright acidity and fresh fruit of the 2013 wines was representative of that vintage.

By contrast, 2015, for which we had a tank sample of the Moulin-à-Vent Clos de Rochegrès, was one of the earliest vintages on record, with harvest in the last week in August. Cyril also thinks that it will be one of the greatest vintages in the last 40 or 50 years. It was almost perfect, with lots of sun and much less rain than normal, but with only half of the normal levels of production, yeilding small berries that produced concentrated wines.

Our barrel sample was an extremely youthful ruby-purple, showing a violet rim. Bright, but very ripe raspberry and blackberry aromas dominated the nose, while ripe berry fruit filled the palate. Acidity was still slightly elevated, though not to the extent of the 2013 wines, while tannins were youthful and angular. Of course tannins will soften to some extent with the additional three to four months time in barrel that the wine will undergo, but the point was that the combination of slightly lower acidity and concentrated and riper fruit reflect the vintage.

This huge variability in the harvest dates between 2013 and 2015 reflects the impact of global warming. Harvest took place in August only twice in the 20th century, in 1976 and 1947. Since 2000, harvest has occurred four times in August. Moreover, in the past 30 years the average harvest date has moved earlier by 8 to 10 days to about September 15. So weather is changing, and winegrowers have to learn how to handle the earlier, warmer vintages such as 2015, 2009 and 2003.

When we turned to the historical tasting, there was a fairly clear split between the wines from later, “classic” vintages 2008, 2006 and 2004 that tended towards the characteristics of 2013, and the earlier, often warmer vintages such as 2009 and 2003 that had more of the character of 2015.

Selected back vintages ranging from 2009 to 1996
Selected back vintages ranging from 2009 to 1996

Certainly this tasting made it rather easy to answer the questions as to whether Cru Beaujolais can be aged — it is a resounding “yes”.  For example, the 2000 Moulin-à-Vent, 16 years into its life and from a classic vintage, still has youthful acidity and dark fruit, while complexity is multiplying with bottle age, showing spicy, forest floor and light balsamic notes. This is enticing now, but still years to go. And the 1996, 20 years on and from an earlier and warmer vintage, is perhaps at its peak — open and generous, with ripe and drying fruit, but still full of life.

The other back-vintages sampled were:

  • Moulin-à-Vent Champ de Cour 2009: a warmer year, slightly early with harvest around September 10, shows balanced acidity and ripeness. This is very young still, and the heavy oak (an astounding 70% new) is integrating, but the effect is still rich and less elegant than 2013. Cyril suggested that this has 30 or more years of life, but my question would be whether or not the acidity can support that.
  • Moulin-à-Vent Clos de Rochegrès 2008: a later vintage similar to 2013, with harvest starting on the 28th of September. Bright acidity, ripe and vibrant fruit, very pure. Lots of potential to age here, as this still seems youthful.
  • Morgon Côte du Py 2006: harvest mid-September. Spicy and floral, already showing leathery and balsamic notes with ripe and some drying fruit. This is showing some effects of age for sure, but still has some life.
  • Moulin-à-Vent Clos de Thorins 2004: a fresher year with harvest September 20 — poor in Burgundy but fine in Beaujolais. After 12 years it is complex and open, with smoky, spicy notes and forest floor. Still lots of fruit, but that’s no longer the focus, as evolution is taking hold. Good acidity that keeps some underlying freshness.
  • Morgon 2003: as one of the hot and early vintages (picking on August 22), this is reflected by lower acids, higher alcohol, leather, spice, olives and balsamic, with rich, ripe and drying fruit. After 13 years this is getting close to its peak.

I came away from this tasting thinking that Cyril had made a convincing case for his two points. First, Gamay can express differences in terroir. And second, while I certainly don’t want to give up the pleasure of drinking more youthful Gamay, it is clear that with the right winemaking and grape material, Gamay can age quite beautifully. This was a very impressive tasting on both counts.

Santé

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