Beaujolais is a region of contradictions. For generations, we have understood the area as a southern exiled cousin of Burgundy. With his famous 1395 edict, Duke Philip the Bold (Duc de Bourgogne) outlawed the planting of the gamay grape in Burgundy pointing out the wine’s “very great and terrible bitterness,” calling it “injurious to the human creature” and “an evil and disloyal plant.” The growers of the Côte d’Or ripped out their gamay vines and soon the vast majority of the region was planted to pinot noir.
However, on the granitic slopes of Beaujolais, the Gobelet-trained gamay vines faired supremely well and their hardy weather resistance and relatively large yields promised hopeful business and fiscal nourishment to the paysan growers of the region. As a result, they refused to follow the word of Duke Philip and continued to work their gamay vines as they always had. This was a true act of defiance and the first step in declaring viticultural independence.
The wines of Beaujolais have been sold by the famous négociants of Beaune for generations and the region is normally lumped in as a footnote for discussions of Burgundy in modern wine text books. However, other than proximity to the Maconnais, Beaujolais has very little in common with its aristocratic neighbor to the north. Even the postal code for Beaujolais places the region, in the eyes of the modern French government, in the Rhône Valley as opposed to Burgundy. With its extremely steep vineyards, granitic soils, and gorgeous rolling landscape, Beaujolais shares many commonalities with its southern syrah-centric neighbors of Cornas and Côte-Rôtie. Fortunately, the region has managed to escape the extreme international economic inflation that Burgundy has experienced over the last decade. Where Beaune is laden with chic restaurants, fancy cars and international tourists abound, Viliié-Morgon or Fleurie is peppered with only a handful of casual and convivial brasseries.
With the rise to prominence of the “Gang of Four” in the early 2000’s, many Americans were introduced to the wines of Morgon and Fleurie and to the idea of Cru Beaujolais itself. Beyond this, there are countless individual parcels that are waiting to be discovered as a single vineyard wines. Many people know the “Côte de Py” or “Corcellete,” but how many people, wine professionals included, are thinking about Morgon “Javernierres,” “Douby,” “Charmes,” or “Les Grands Cras?” In Fleurie alone, for example, there are 10 lieux-dits begging to be explored in more depth.
We believe that the best wines of Beaujolais offer real presence, mineral character and vibrant terroir expression that possess the potential to rival their compelling (and age-worthy) Burgundian counterparts. A collection of Beaujolais growers are now working to capture the multitude of diverse, single parcels within the 10 Crus and move beyond simpe village-level bottlings. Some vignerons adopt the vinification methods of Burgundy while others hold true to the traditions of semi-carbonic and carbonic maceration, or “Vinification Beaujolaise,” to capture wines that are at the same time noteworthy and gulpable. Regardless of the technique chosen to express the wide array of terroirs, Beaujolais is a region that encompasses incredible diversity and unique history that deserves the utmost level of recognition and study.
When we first tasted the wines that Sylvain Chanudet produces at his family’s estate, Domaine de Prion, we were immediately inspired by the sheer exuberance, and juxtaposition, of both fruit and earth. Upon arrival at the winery, we found the whole Chanudet clan busying themselves with the careful work of Selection Massale grafting. As one of the very few traditional grafting operations in the region, the Chanudet family is guarding the viticultural heritage of the region, selecting only the best wood from the oldest and best vines. Growers throughout Beaujolais use this rootstock when replanting to ensure the genetic lines of the region continue to flourish.
The wines that Sylvain crafts are the embodiment of what we love about the Beaujolais region. Farming a perfectly exposed, steep, granitic slope of ancient vines in the Fleurie lieux-dit of “La Madone,” Sylvain is dedicated to natural viticulture and to guarding the health and vitality of his parcels. Winemaking here is gentle and focused; the hand-harvested fruit is processed with traditional semi-carbonic maceration by way of whole-cluster fermentation. The cuvaison is long—often up to 25 days—and is followed by long aging in cement tanks and occasionally, when the wine demands, large, neutral oak casks. Sylvain makes two Fleurie bottlings; the “basic” cuvée comes from vines averaging 60 years of age, is more juicy and expeditiously quaffable and evokes the classic elegance and depth of Fleurie. The “Vieilles Vignes” bottling ranges from 70 to 100 year-old vines, resonates with electric fruit flavors, firmer tannins and promises years of graceful evolution. Both wines are truly alive, revealing harmonic layers of fruit, earth and minerality.