Motley Cru: Beaujolais Winemakers Are Crazy

10/28/2009 4:00 AM |

It’s understandable that the winemakers would be worried about the American interpretation of older Beaujolais. For anyone used to the flavor of Beaujolais Nouveau, tasting a traditional cru Beaujolais for the first time can be a shock. The flavor is more tart than many other wines, and it cannot be chugged the way that Beaujolais Nouveau (or Franzia) can. It tastes almost like unsweetened cranberry juice. I was hot and hungover at the tasting, and found myself longing for a burrito. But many of the other guests at the tasting were loving the complexities of the wine. They were also all speaking French.

Each vintner greeted tasters with a hearty “Bonjour!” And, every time, they looked crestfallen when I responded, “Hi.” Throughout the hall, even the other American tasters had adopted a nasal, “Oh-hoh-hoh-hoh,” instead of normal laughter. People were screaming things like, “enchante!” and “fromage.” It was madness.

There was one winemaker, however, who was happy to speak in any language. During a long lesson in the virtues of Beaujolais, Gillaume de Castelnau of Chateau des Jacques winery explained, “Wine is like music. You have one composer, one interpreter. Everyone tastes differently, just as everyone hears music differently.” Mr. Castelnau has been working with wine since 1994 and is hopeful about the future of Beaujolais. “Beaujolais nouveau was a marketing gimmick that’s almost run its course,” he told me. “But traditional Beaujolais winemakers are coming back with more serious wines.” Castelnau believes that the time has come for Cru Beaujolais.

From the turnout at the tasting, that certainly seemed to be true. Everywhere I turned, there were bespectacled scholars and flax-swaddled earth children spewing crimson fountains into steel spittoons. It will become clear in November whether or not Cru Beaujolais is ready for a comeback. Last year, sales of Beaujolais Nouveau fell 21 percent from 2007, and they are expected to keep falling.

Really, Cru Beaujolais and Beaujolais Nouveau should be able to coexist. In actuality, the siblings are more like second cousins. The Expressions d’Origine wines are all produced by hand—they use no chemical pesticides, add no sulfites, and each vineyard only produces 5,000-10,000 cases of wine per year. Castelnau also explained the importance of aging the wines in Oak barrels. “New oak barrels hold a proportion of tannins,” he said, and went on to tell me that 30 percent of the tannins in Beaujolais wines come from a year of maturation in oak. Beaujolais Nouveau is ready to be drunk less than two months after its harvest, so it doesn’t ever develop the complexity of an older vintage. Jabbing at “lifeless” nouveau wines, Castelnau also made it clear that, “the barrel gives life to the wine.” Apparently, everyone’s tastes should be respected, unless they enjoy drinking Beaujolais Nouveau.