50 shades of Gamay
Meeting a new generation of winemaker, promising new appellations in the Beaujolais.
The Beaujolais is sometimes seen as the poor cousin of neighbouring Burgundy, certainly since its dominant grape variety, gamay, was pooh-poohed by the Duke of Burgundy and banned from the region in the 14th Century. But in recent years it has upped its quality, and its image, and allowed some of its gems to shine through.
Gamay really is the grape of the Beaujolais. Some 98% of the world’s production is found in the region, and it is the sole red grape variety authorized under the appellation. Yet the wines are remarkably diverse for a one grape town.
A bit of history
The Beaujolais is also a cheeky example of some pretty clever marketing, with their ‘Beaujolais nouveau’. It all began in 1951 when the authorities announced that winemakers were not allowed to sell their wine before the 15th December following the harvest a few months earlier. Now gamay is the type of grape that lends itself to a brief winemaking process, so this upset the winemakers of the Beaujolais who demanded to be allowed to sell earlier. Finally in 1985 the third Thursday in November was set as the earliest date for Beaujolais, giving rise to the ‘Beaujolais nouveau’ (new Beaujolais) being a festive event all around the world to celebrate the first wines of the year. Sales and notoriety inevetibaly soared.
Over time, however, the image of Beaujolais went in the other direction, with some of the wine makers cutting a few corners to take advantage of the gold rush and the result being too many sore heads the next day. Things have changed somewhat now, as more and more people are discovering there is so much more to the Beaujolais than their ‘nouveau’ (so much more!) and that their ‘nouveau’ can be surprisingly good.
New generation of winemakers
What’s more, an increasing number are turning to organic or even biodynamic wine growing methods, recognizing and demonstrating that if you work in harmony with nature, everyone wins.
This is certainly the approach of young, ambitious winemaker Frederic Berne.
His 14-hectare domain is set against a stunning backdrop of Beaujolais landscape, with rolling hills covered in vineyards as far as the eye can see. Like all biodynamic wineries, his carefully tended ‘living’ soil is void of pesticides and rich in natural minerals and biodiversity. His philosophy is about creating wines to enjoy that don’t compromise our environment, and the future of our children.
Passionate not just about the Beaujolais but about Lantignié, the ‘terroir’ where he is based, he has even created his own (unofficial) appellation, to promote its very own qualities and flavours.
I chose the longer version of his winery visits, which was really a two-hour fascinating talk, set both amongst the vines and in the cellar, where he shared his passion, knowledge and wine making philosophies, followed by a tasting. His wines are comprised of appellations such as Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages and some of the 10 ‘crus’ of the Beaujolais, such as Regnié. He has also some labelled Lantignié, which isn’t (yet) one of them, but the fervour with which Fréderic spoke of his association of nearby winemakers and his ambitious plans for the region make me think it is one worth watching. The selection we tasted was an interesting example of how the same grape variety and winemaking methods can produce completely different wines depending on the patch of soil in which the vines are grown.
Where to stay:
I stayed in a clean and modern studio apartment on Domaine des Coteaux de Romarand for around 55euros a night. Not organic, but using eco-friendly practices and a friendly welcome, it is owned by the very down to earth Claudette and Patrick who will gladly present you with the fruits of their work. It’s nicely located off the beaten track in a tiny hamlet called Romarand, with great walks amongst the vineyards all around. Their wine is simple and cheerful, and cheap!
Book through Airbnb here.
What to do:
I booked my tour of Frederic Berne’s domain with www.ruedesvignerons.com, where you can find other winery visits in the area.
If you are looking for a way to top off the day, head to the nearby Mount Chiroubles for a panoramic view of the vineyard valley below.
Frederic Berne Beaujolais Lantigné Harmonie 2019: A blend of various parcelles, this 100% gamay is his best, in my opinion, being smooth and round, while still retaining its fruit. One to keep, will surely be better in about 10 years.
Frederic Berne Regnié ‘aux Bruyeres’ 2019: Fresh and fruity, with clear notes of the rose granite soil in which it is grown, with nice structure. Another one to hold on to for a few years.