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Beauty in Beaujolais: the 2015 Vintage
By Michael Apstein
Jul 19, 2016
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When I was in Côte d’Or and Beaujolais last November, all the producers with whom I spoke were absolutely raving about the 2015 vintage. The exuberance in Beaujolais--perhaps because the wines were closer to being finished than in the Côte d’Or--was even more palpable and universal.  Pierre Savoye, a top grower based in Morgon, was effusive in his praise for the vintage.  Showing a broad smile, he could barely contain himself while saying, “This year, the weather made the grapes and the grapes made the wine. The winemaker did nothing.”

Romain Teyteau, the U.S. export director for Georges Dubœuf, the region’s largest and most prominent producer, recounted how the 83-year old Georges Dubœuf, who has seen more than 50 harvests, declared 2015 to be “the greatest vintage he’s ever had” and added, “it is magnum vintage” because the wines have the potential to age and evolve beautifully.

Cyril Chirouze, the winemaker at Château des Jacques, a leading producer in Moulin-à-Vent, was equally effusive about the 2015 vintage.  He noted that the hot summer guaranteed ripe grapes.  The only potential downside was that the summer was too hot, the weather too perfect, and that some growers elected to wait--and wait--to harvest, resulting in super-ripe grapes that translated into wines that could turn out to be over the top.  Addressing the potential for over ripeness, Romain Teyteau of Dubœuf revealed that he was aware of some cuvees (not theirs, he was quick to add) that came it at 17 percent alcohol.  He did note, however, that Dubœuf needed to reprint some labels to reflect the higher alcohols.  So, though Savoye asserts that the winemaker “did nothing” in this vintage, it was in fact winemakers who needed to make the most critical decision--when to harvest.
Savoye explained that the vineyards have adapted to what he euphemistically calls, “The new weather pattern,” which he thinks helps explain why the warmth of 2015 did not affect the vines the way the heat of 2003 did.  In 2003, the Gamay berries were small with thick skins and the resulting wines were unbalanced.  Not so in 2015.  Chirouze agrees that the 2015s are fresher than the 2003s ever were, because 2015 never saw the heat spikes that wreaked havoc with the 2003 vintage and because the harvest occurred under cooler conditions.  Importantly, the natural high acidity of the Gamay grape is an insurance policy that the wines from Beaujolais retain verve and energy despite extra ripeness.

Underscoring the potential of the 2015s was the surprising stature of a sampling of the Beaujolais Nouveau, a category that usually deserves little attention. Château du Basty, an excellent producer, turned out a 2015 Beaujolais Lantignié Nouveau that had structure to support its ripe, juicy fruit.  (If all of the grapes come from a single commune, such as Lantignié, its name can appear along with Beaujolais on the label.  By contrast, the ten crus of Beaujolais label the wines with solely by the name of the village.)

Similarly, Domaine des Nugues, another top grower, made a 2015 Beaujolais Villages Nouveau with just enough tannin to balance the lush dark fruit notes characteristic of the vintage.  It was real wine, not some candied drink.
Teyteau was in Boston recently to show a stunning array of single estate Beaujolais cru that Dubœuf markets on behalf of growers.  He explained that Dubœuf has two major parts to its wine business.  The wines bottled under the iconic “Flower Label” are wines that Dubœuf made from wines or grapes purchased from a number of sources.  He bottles hundreds of thousands of cases of these wines.  Although we tasted a few Flower Label wines in Boston, the focus of the tasting was to showcase wines from the crus--the ten villages in the northern part of the region whose wines are distinctive enough that they can be labeled solely with the name of the village--such as Fleurie, St. Amour or Morgon, to name just three.  The growers themselves, not Dubœuf, make these wines.  Dubœuf buys either a portion--as little as a few hundred cases--or all of their production and markets them, each with a unique label highlighting the name of the domaine.  Dubœuf’s name appears only in small print at the bottom.

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The grandeur of the 2015 vintage is apparent even in a Beaujolais-Villages from one of Dubœuf’s growers.   The wine from the Domaine des Côtes du Berchoux, previously incorporated into Dubœuf ‘s Flower label Beaujolais-Villages, showed such distinctiveness that the Dubœuf team felt confident to release it under the domaine name.  Less overt fruitiness makes it more serious and puts it a cut above the typical Beaujolais-Villages.  Its fine tannins should make it a good choice for drinking this fall. (88 Points, $20). 

With a lean minerality, you can almost taste the granitic soil of the 2015 Domaine Pontheux, located in Chiroubles. Though its engaging floral aspect suggests it’s great for immediate enjoyment, its tannic structure means a year or so in the cellar is more appropriate. (88, $21).

Two wines from Beaujolais’ southern-most and largest cru, Brouilly, demonstrate the diversity and difficulty generalizing about the character of the individual wines from these individual villages.  The 2015 Château de Nervers, ripe, round and fleshy, has firm tannins more associated with the wines from the Côte de Brouilly (91, $23).  In contrast, the 2015 Domaine de Combiaty is far more approachable--fruitier rather than firm.  Fresh and lively, it is the quintessential “bistro” wine (90, $23).

Speaking of the Côte de Brouilly, the 2015 Domaine du Riaz was one of the stars of the tasting.  Filled with fleshy dark fruit, it has substantial structure, yet is not hard or unyielding. The minerality expected from a wine from the Côte de Brouilly comes through because there are no overripe flavors to hide it.  Freshness in the finish amplifies the enjoyment.  A couple of years in the cellar would be a good idea. (93, $23).

For those looking for a ready-to-drink 2015 Beaujolais cru, reach for the Château de Saint Amour.  The 2015 from this estate is the first vintage of it that Dubœuf opted to bottle separately.  Softer, rounder and less tannic, it’s far “friendlier” than the Côte de Brouilly at this stage.  A hint of spice adds to its immediate appeal. (90, $25).

Dubœuf purchased the entirety of the production of Fleurie’s Clos des Quatre Vents, certainly a wise decision in 2015.  Both floral and firm, the wine expands in the glass.  There’s far more than dark berry-like flavors going on in this remarkably stylish Fleurie.  Refined earthiness appears in the unexpectedly long finish. (93, $25).  Though hard to resist now, more complexity will emerge with a couple of years in the cellar.

One of the first growers with whom Dubœuf worked was Jean-Ernest Descombes in Morgon. The wine has always been one of my favorites from the Dubœuf portfolio. Dubœuf's 2015 Jean Descombes Morgon is stunning.  Weighing in at a modest 13 percent stated alcohol, it is firm--more mineral in character--and decidedly less floral than the Clos des Quatre Vents Fleurie.  Structured and elegant simultaneously, this balanced treasure needs a few years in the cellar to reveal its charms. (93, $25).

The Côte du Py, arguably the most famous site in Morgon, is a hill of schist that produces sturdy wines.  The 2015 Morgon Côte du Py from Domaine Javernière is a textbook example, showing power, firmness and elegance while delivering black cherry-like fruitiness.  Even with its density, an invigorating acidity keeps it fresh and lively. There are only 400 cases so you may need to search for it.  It will be worth it. (93, $23).

What’s exciting about of all of these wines is their fabulous concentration and balance.  All are fresh and lively.  None are cooked, raisin-y or over ripe.  The highest praise I can give them is that many are going into my cellar--maybe even some magnums.

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July 20, 2016

Email me your thoughts about Beaujolais at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein