Past present and future of arguably the best known French wine in the world
Pierre Carron is a respected Beaujolais producer, who is in the enviable position of both selling all his Nouveau wine himself – without having to seek aid from powerful negociants – and having a fine reputation for what he calls his vin de garde, the rest of his Beaujolais which is aged in ancient wooden barrels in the tiny cellar beneath his house. ‘My family has been making wine here in the Beaujolais region since Roman times, it is in our blood. You’ll see the name Carron all over the village of Bagnols as everyone in my family – brothers, sisters, cousins – are all viticulteurs, and fortunately my son is already tending his own vines and will take over from me when I decide to retire. For us, the Beaujolais Nouveau system works perfectly because it means that we take in payment immediately for most of the year’s harvest, and for people working the land that is vitally important for your economic survival. People tell me there is a problem with the Beaujolais Nouveau, that it is a trend, a marketing gimmick – well I certainly have no problem. I produce a good wine – the absolute most important element – I sell it at a good price and my clients are happy and come back every year. And when there is no more Nouveau to sell, then they discover my vin de garde. Most people don’t realise that it is actually very complex to produce a high quality Nouveau wine. If I had the choice, then I can categorically say that I would be delighted to be able to sell a bigger proportion of the recolte as a Nouveau wine, and I’m equally open that we should at least try out machine harvesting, which would save a great deal of money.’
Just across the valley, in the cave of the equally accomplished viticulteur, Jean-Paul Brun, the discussion takes a rather different direction. Jean-Paul comes from what he calls a ‘polyculture’ family, where his father raised sheep and cows, grew cereals and fruit, and tended a small vineyard. He left the farm to his father, and has extended his original four hectares to 20, recently adding three hectares of Moulin-a-Vent in a new adventure, because Jean-Paul Brun is as much an adventurer as a winemaker, running against the traditions of Beaujolais.
To begin with, he only sells 50% of his production as Beaujolais Nouveau, almost unheard of among other wine makers here. He has concentrated on developing an outstanding barrel-aged Chardonnay, proudly calls his aged Beaujolais ‘Terres Dorees’, insisting on producing a ‘Cuvee Ancienne’ of vieilles Vignes, and has come close to committing local heresy by planting an hectare of Pinot Noir.
‘I am trying to evolve as a wine maker, ‘ he tells me. ‘The sale of the Beaujolais Nouveau is still important economically for me – you can’t just ignore that, because if you have a good reputation for your wine then it sells quickly, but I’m trying to concentrate more on all-the-year-round production. I feel that the image of Beaujolais Nouveau today is not good because of what I believe is sheer snobbism. The very people who pushed Beaujolais Nouveau 20 years ago, who turned it into a media event, are the ones today turning against us. For sure, there can be problems with the wine, for example the big negociants bottling the Nouveau in Rheims, Bordeaux, Switzerland, not the best idea if the wine is not properly “stable”, and of course, not every viticulteur makes a good wine. I can’t stress enough that it is actually very difficult to make a good Nouveau – a thousand times harder than producing a lousy Bordeaux – but I don’t think the consumers out on the street realize this. In fact, I believe this part of the Beaujolais – they call us the Bas Beaujolais or even the Beaujolais Batard – is seriously under-estimated, and that is my prime motivation for trying to create quality wines here. With the soil we have, particularly in the Pierres Dorees, Golden Stones, we have the capability to produce a Chardonnay of the same level as the great white wines of Burgundy, and that was the same reason that led me to plant Pinot Noir vines as well, to prove a point ,if you like, that we are in the same league.’ Jean-Paul Brun is a winemaker always open to new ideas, experiments or suggestions, and when he recently tasted an Italian Amarone, he immediately asked the question – why couldn’t he follow the same vinification with his Gamay grapes? He’s determined to try a passerillage this year, and in typical audacious style, he said he might call it ‘Gamarone’ if it were a success!
It is clear, that despite their different opinions, both Jean-Paul Brun and Pierre Carron have realized that the key for the small producer in the future is to always concentrate everything on producing a great wine, so avoiding the dangers of the November arrivee becoming another passing trend, or their annual recolte being manipulated by international wine merchants. Already, roughly 80% of Beaujolais Nouveau sales come in the first three days after it is commercialized, whereas before, it sold strongly through Christmas and even to Spring. And now there is competition not just from other nouveau wines in France – from the Rhone valley, Touraine and Ardeche – but increasingly from Italy too. But maybe some competition will be a good thing, keeping not just the winemakers but also the mega-negociants on their guard not to let standards slip, because, let’s face facts, selling over 60 million bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau, half of which is exported out of France, is a serious big business these days.
John Brunton is a free-lance journalist and photographer who contributes to magazines in the UK and Italy