Beaujolais can quite fairly lay claim to being the most well-known French wine across the world, currently being sold in over 120 countries. This popularity stems primarily from the enormous media frenzy each year that trumpets the arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday of the month of November. For a few days, this simple, fruity Gamay wine enjoys what Andy Warhol might have described as its ‘Fifteen Minutes of Fame’. Enthusiasts rush to uncork bottles in Paris and New York, Bangkok and Beijing, Rio and Mexico City, desperately searching their lexicons for increasingly exotic fruity descriptions for the new vintage. And while wine lovers across the globe, experts and amateurs alike, pontificate on the merits of the year’s harvest, what is remembered the next day is more likely to be a hangover. But do these people actually know a great deal about the complex world of the Beaujolais wine grower? Before going down to this beautiful area, just north of Lyons, I was interested to see what that respected arbiter of knowledge, The Oxford Companion to Wine, had to say.
This ultimate reference book excellently explains how the southern part of the region produces the great majority of Beaujolais Nouveau, while the northern sector, boasts the more respected crus – Fleurie, Moulin-a-Vent, Saint Amour – and then comments rather pejoratively that, ‘North Beaujolais is a region where tradition and the best of peasant culture survive, looking down, perhaps with wry amusement, at the frenetic production of Nouveau in the Bas Beaujolais’. But this ultimate reference book rather changes its opinion when describing George Duboeuf, the so-called King of Beaujolais, whose company produces a quite incredible 4.5 million bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau each year, as, ‘the most cosmopolitan and most important Beaujolais specialist by far’, and complimenting the man who inspired the Beaujolais Nouveau boom, for, ‘having many Michelin-starred establishments among his best clients’. I remember drinking Monsieur Duboeuf’s Beaujolais Nouveau 20 years ago in a humid French restaurant in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and was very grateful at the time, but today I didn’t want to visit a wine maker whose company in total produces 35 million bottles a year. He is a man who must be heartily congratulated for his efforts both at creating fine wines and economic prosperity for his region, but rather than looking at wine production as Big Business, I wanted to go more to the grassroots of Beaujolais Nouveau, and talk to two viticulteurs in particular, Pierre Carron and Jean-Paul Brun, whose livelihood to a great extent depends on the fickle enthusiasm for the arrival of each year’s Beaujolais Nouveau.
Though seemingly very similar at first, it soon became evident that these two excellent wine makers have very different opinions about Beaujolais Nouveau. Both cultivate vineyards in the most picturesque part of the Beaujolais, Le Pays des Pierres Dorees – the Land of the Golden Stones – Monsieur Carron having ten hectares around the village of Bagnols, while Monsieur Brun has twenty hectares about five kilometres away in Charnay.
Both work within the same tight framework, because the area producing Beaujolais Nouveau is extremely regulated, with the most important rules setting a maximum production of 64 hectoliters of which 45 hectoliters – 70% of the wine maker’s harvest – can be sold on the third Thursday of November as Beaujolais Nouveau, while the little known Beaujolais Blanc – a chardonnay – cannot exceed 10% of total production, and all harvesting must be done by hand. And both Pierre Carron and Jean-Paul Brun are successful, not only in the high quality of their wines, but also in the way they sell their Beaujolais. Yet start talking to them at the end of the day while tasting their various vintages, and you quickly realize that one is happily optimistic about the future of Beaujolais, while the other, if not exactly pessimistic, then is at least seriously troubled.
John Brunton is a free-lance journalist and photographer who contributes to magazines in the UK and Italy