13 March 2010

Beaujolais 101: En-Route to Rasteau and the Roots of Vintegrity

What a spectacular trip down to Rasteau. Skies clear as glass, valleys full of smoky haze, wind whipping loose the dusty topsoil.  You couldn't ask for more perfect driving conditions, nor a more perfect introduction to the mystifying, undulating waves of Beaujolais terroir.  The drive from St. Amour through the winding narrow paths of Julienas southbound toward Morgon is about as intoxicating as scenery gets for junkies like us.  While it wasn't exactly easy to find our way to Domaine de Thulon, who graciously responded to our request for tasting, it wasn't hard to pinpoint it when we found ourselves in the general area of Lantigne.  Thulon's opposing turrets are formidable, if even a bit intimidating--sentinels standing watch over a treasured landscape rich with the memories of harvests and generations.  Carine Jambon, a sprightly and knowledgeable host, greeted us in the courtyard with smiles and laughter.  This was going to be fun; I could see the dark and brooding Opale in a decanter, dangling precariously from Carine's fingertip.  She's done this before.

We began the tasting with a delicious, linear Beaujolais Blanc (100% Chardonnay).  It was certainly refreshing, its acidity muddled only slightly by the extreme stagnant cold of the barrel room in which we were tasting.  If there were one thing I would have changed about this experience, it would have been tasting in a room indoors.  But that's not me complaining; that's me dreaming.  This was real life, and it's hard not to make due when after Beaujolais Blanc comes a rapid succession of traditionally vinified Cru Beaujolais.  This stuff was great, and showed particularly well in the cold.  My assessment based on this tasting is that Beaujolais really is better slightly chilled.  Moreover, Beaujolais is better when it's Beaujolais, not Gamay with Revlon barrique.

What am I talking about here?  Have I gone mad?  Beaujolais and new oak?  Yes, I am serious.  New oak.  And no, I've not gone mad.  This is for real.  Thulon is producing three different wines that despite certain slights of tongue and hand are emphatically oak influenced, two of which benefit greatly--yes, I said it--from this regimen (one of which is not affected in any way by its new oak treatment).  The names are not important; those who care know these wines already.  My origin of discord here is where tradition and its inherently singular identities collide with the modern world and the irreversible course it's set for itself as it yields to the ubiquitous and uniform tastes of contemporary wine criticism.  I respect that Thulon continues to make exceptional and honest Cru Beaujolais--their Regnie Vieilles Vignes was more revelatory today than it's every been, as was their Morgon--but the question I had no heart to ask was, "Why doctor Gamay?"  Is there a blazing hot need to buy new barrels every year to produce these wines that contextually have nothing to do with the region?  Are there customers knocking at the cellar door demanding this style of anti-Gamay?  It doesn't sound very plausible.  From a Body und Soil perspective, it's downright sacrilege!

But a moment of clarion honesty is due.  If these wines have nothing to Beaujolais, they certainly have everything to do with flavor.  But are the two not inextricably linked?  Be honest: Is Beaujolais really about granite, or is it about tasting the Gamay rainbow?  If Thulon had eschewed all production of traditional Cru Beaujolais and opted instead for this uncharacteristic saturation of color and density of extract, I would have bone upon bone to pick.  I'd have their skeleton at my feet in heartbeats.  As it stands, this is far from the case, as I've detailed above.  The '1947' and the 'Opale', I have to believe (convincing only myself here), are strictly about flavor density, and I harbor zero doubt that customers do in fact come banging on the cellar door demanding wine that tastes great, who care little about what's 'traditional' for Gamay and even less about how much new oak was used during elevage or how much longer the individual berries sat in maceration than the traditional Crus.  These are not questions that sit at the forefront of most consumers' minds, and for that very reason the intelligent and passionate winemaker will occasionally--invariably?--take a stab at making something that's just downright crazy, experimental, even ludicrous, just to see what happens.  It isn't about integrity at that point; it's just a man, his grapes, and his passion for flavor.  And fun.   

Alright, I think I used the word flavor 96 times.  I'm spent.  But I'd be lying if I told you this trip was going to be about anything else.  Tomorrow's a day off, a day to sleep in for an hour or two, and then knock out some hill runs at the feet of the Dentelles de Montmirail.  Then off to the market at Roaix, Avignon, and a particularly famous bridge.  And Monday?  Well, then the tastings begin, so stay tuned for more from the south of France, the Land of Flav--...sorry, couldn't do it.


  1. Jeff,

    I was planning on going to the Cleebourg wine fair this Friday (the 19th). You gonna be back by then.


  2. Jim,
    Would have loved to join you, but Mandy and I are departing for the States on Thursday. Off to see the folks! Take good notes, and let's get together to discuss your purchases and impressions...and drink them in, so to speak. Tell Robin I said Hello! See you soon--

  3. So I went to Cleebourg yesterday. First, if you haven't been there, it's a remarkable way to spend a sunny day. The drive through the Pfalzerwald over Johanniskreuz and Annweiler followed by the Sudiche Weinstrasse is why BMW builds cars like the M3. Once at the Cave de Cleebourg,I noticed that there is a 5km Wanderweg through the vineyards. It was sunny and nearly 70F, so after the crap winter we've had, I decided to take a walk first. Uncharacteristically for the French, the path was actually clearly marked. Must be the German influence in the Alsace. After the walk, I went inside and started trying the Cleebourg wines. They have 20-25 at the no cost tasting bar. I'm not the biggest fan of Alsatian wines - they're usually overpriced compaed to their German neighbors - but I'll try anything. Especially for free! Most of the wines were OK, a couple sucked. I bought some riesling and muscat. I could describe them, but it's pobably best if we just drink 'em when you get back. Still, I couldn't quite understand: What's up with the supposed wine fair? Thinking it was a fancy description to show off the coop's wines, I headed back to the car when I saw a sign that indicated the wine fair was in the winery's warehouse. I went around back to find that there were tasting tables set up from 8 other coops. Musta been 50 or more wines to try. A worthy seletion from all over France. Rather than boring with details, there were tables from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Champagne, Languedoc, Provence, S. Rhone, and a cheese vendor. I don't really need much wine, but I loved the unpasteurized milk cheese vendor and brought back 4 different ones. Because the producers are all coops, prices were reasonable on pretty much everything and quality wasn't bad either. If you haven't been to their wine fair, I'd say it's worth a trip to next year's. I bought H. Blin Champagne blanc de blanc and Montpeyroux rouge reserve. Robin and I both love south of France wines and it was nice that the producers actually let me take glasses of the Cote de Rhone and Montpeyroux and walk back and forth between the tables and compare them directly. Definitely worth the trip for next year. Hope you're having fun in the States. Regards to Mandy.


  4. Cleebourg sounds like a blast, and a positive introduction to the wines of Alsace, a region with which I am grossly unfamiliar. Never much cared for their wines, so I cast them aside. A shame, I know, but for the money and style, I've found German Riesling and Pinot Blanc/Gris/Noirto be much more interesting. But let's do it; let's check this place out again. Looking forward to soaking up some wines with your two once we get back. Warmest regards to Robin. Talk soon--JEFF