Here endeth the lesson (Beaujolais, France)

Fourteen and some months after I left Australia I arrived at my last day visiting wineries, and it certainly has been quite a journey. As it turns out I am very glad to be finishing in Burgundy, partly because I generally love the wines and they are amongst my favourite in Europe, but also as Burgundy is such a diverse and often complicated region that I was glad to have had all the previous experience before visiting. Having already visited the Chablis and the Cote d’Or on my previous trip in 2010 there was very little that surprised me in these regions and it was more a question of familiarising myself further. South of the Cote de Beaune on the other hand was a different story, as not only did I know very little about these appelations but I had had almost no tasting experience with them. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to secure any appointments either in the Cote Challonaise or the Cote Maconnaise and had to be content with driving through parts of the area to see the type of landscape it is. One of the more famous appelations in the Cote Maconnaise is the village of Chardonnay, not because of the quality of the wines but because it is supposedly the birthplace of possibly my favourite white grape variety. Technically still part of Macon but a different appelation to the south is the famous Beaujolais which totally took me by surprise, and I was pretty happy to finish somewhere that did. The king of varieties here is gamay, and there are no other parts of the world that grow it in the quantity or quality they do here. There is a separate appelation for Beaujolais Blanc wines which are 100% chardonnay, but really it’s the gamay that makes this region what it is.

A cold day in Beaujolais

The first winery I visited came at the recommendation of Europvin courtesy of Rod Hull. It came as no surprise that as a small artisan producer in Beaujolais my host didn’t really speak English and so I managed to struggle through with my broken French. My host was Jacky Janodet who runs the estate with his wife and until recently his son, who has now established his own estate in Saint-Amour to the north. Jacky owns about 17 hectares of vineyards in a combination of the Beaujolais Village, Moulin-a-Vent and Chenas appelations, making mostly red wine with a tiny amount of white. One of the most important things to surprise me about Beaujolais was the system of pruning, which is basically bush-vine training with no trellis. The vines are generally a lot older than most other parts of Burgundy which goes a long way to explaining the reason for this system, as they were planted before more modern viticultural techniques had arrived in the area. I’m also assuming that Gamay is a slightly more fragile variety in the ground and doesn’t respond well to big changes in pruning systems.

Domaine des Fines Graves

Jacky has a separate facility where he vinifies all of the wines before bringing them to the cellars that adjoin his house. The reds are vinified very traditionally, a fermentation and maceration in cement vats before transfer to old 5,000 litre foudre barrels for the malo-lactic fermentation and elevage for a minimum of six months. The assemblage and racking before bottling is conducted in separate cement vats located at the cellars. This very simple and hands-off approach to the winemaking allows the wines to retain a lot of freshness and express the minerality of the appelations, not to mention harvesting with higher acidity giving the red fruits more brightness. Jacky only produces four wines; a white and a red Beaujolais Village, a Moulin-a-Vent and a Chenas. Jacky also opened a bottle of his son Jerome’s Saint-Amour from the 2010 vintage. It is great to see that even here with the style of wines they are producing the 2010 vintage was no less intense and structured as many other regions in Europe. Click here to read my notes on the tasting. Not having seen any vineyards with Jacky and only seeing his cellar, the visit took all of one hour, giving me some additional time before lunch. Unfortunately Georges Dubeouf don’t have a policy of offering wine professionals even a discount to visit their wine museum or taste the wines, asking for 19 Euro, so I decided to drive around the area to look at some of the nuances of the geography.

A great way to keep your glasses

My second appointment was with Eric Janin of Domaine Paul Janin & fils located in the same village of Romaneche-Thorin, who after we communicated via email only in French I assumed didn’t speak any English, but once he realised my French was very basic he began using more English. Eric owns eight hectares of vineyards all in Moulin-a-Vent and some in Beaujolais Village, and again has a tiny amount planted to chardonnay for white wine. Eric was only the second host in Burgundy who actually invited me to look at some vineyards, the other coincidentally occurring on the very first day in Burgundy. The first parcel we saw was only purchased a year ago and is the first in the Chenas part of the Moulin-a-Vent appelation which has slightly different soils. Higher elevation and different exposition to the south. He uses predominantly organic principles without the need to get certification, and as such quite a bit of work was needed to bring the old vines in this half hectare plot to some health. A total of two hectolitres was taken from this one plot in this its first vintage, but as they regain some health and attention Eric hopes to increase this. The other plot we looked at was deep within the Moulin-a-Vent appelation closer to Romaneche where there is a much higher density of red clay soils. With different growers owning lots surrounding this one you can very easily see the different approaches to viticulture and the benefits of farming organically in terms of soil health.

The difference between organic and conventional farming

Back in the winery Eric has a very small production thanks to the low yields he achieves in his older vines. Only four wines are produced and they have slightly different but cohesive approaches in the cellar. The Beaujolais Village is 70% de-stemmed, entirely fermented in cement vats and then is transferred to stainless steel tanks for aging up to six months. The cru wines that generally are more concentrated coming from older vines are completely fermented with stems and once the fermentation and maceration is complete are transferred to old foudres for elevage up to twelve months. The chardonnay is pressed and fermented mostly in 600 litre demi-muids and afterwards transferred to tanks. There is a structure and intensity to Eric’s wines that sets them apart from Jacky’s, but he still manages to keep them fresh, bright, mineralic and exploding with fruit. The use of stems adds to the spicy brambly quality of the wines which works perfectly with the gamay, whereas I feel its rarely good with pinot noir. I guess I had forgotten but I was surprised and delighted yet again to discover that Eric sells a little wine to Australia through Bibendum and thus they are in excellent hands. Click here to read my notes from the tasting.

Only foudres and bottles

The first two appointments for the day were in the best known and most densely planted part of Beaujolais with all of the classified crus. My third appointment for the day and final in France was in the southern-most extremities of the region in Saint Verand. This is where I found the Chermette family who own Domaine de Vissoux, who actually own vineyards not only here in the Beaujolais designated are but in Village and cru appelations as well. Although the family has been in the hamlet of Vissoux since the 17th century but Pierre-Marie took over the estate in 1982, apparently a great year for beginnings. From this point on everything changed as he decided to sell his wine in bottles whereas before it was sold in bulk. In a period when Beaujolais was exploding in popularity around the world Pierre-Marie took the risky step of making a serious wine, using old vine fruit without chaptalizing or inoculating the juice with specially designed yeast strains. This is why when you see a bottle of their Les Griottes in a wine bar you know it is from the recent vintage but it isn’t in the same vein as the candy-aroma style light-bodied fruit driven reds that are almost rose in style. Now there are many producers who are making serious red wine from gamay grown in Beaujolais, and they owe a lot to Pierre-Marie.

Charming cellars at Domaine du Vissoux

I met with Pierre-Marie himself, who is one of the most gentle and humble hosts I have experienced and a wonderful person to finish with. I wasn’t entirely sure how much English he had, as he only sometimes broke it out, but I was able to cope pretty well in French. By the time I arrived it was pretty dark and so the visit was kept to the cellars and the tasting, but this didn’t stop the visit lasting about two hours as there was plenty of good conversation to be had. A little after I arrived Pierre’s son Jean-Etienne dropped in, and explained that early in January he would be heading to Australia as he is working the vintage for Kooyong Estate, one of the top producers in my favourite region in Australia, the Mornington Peninsula. I was able to give him some (hopefully) helpful information about his time in Australia and answer some questions about Melbourne, and I hope that I can be of further help to him when I get home next February. Pierre-Marie makes quite a few wines from a number of appelations and with tasting of a number of vintages, plus their liqueurs I was kept very well occupied. Very unfortunately during the visit Pierre received word that his father had just passed away and so I was preparing to politely excuse myself he returned to continue the visit. He was quite philosophical as his father was only a few years away from turning 100 and had enjoyed a long and happy life, so he didn’t seem overcome with grief and feel the need to depart without very graciously finishing my visit. I felt a little awkward at first but Pierre was so warm and genuine that my guilt was soon assuaged. I did however get knocked over by his very enthusiastic dog. Click here to read my notes from the tasting.

Art is very important to the Chermette family

Click here to see more photos from my final day in Burgundy.

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