In his book I’ll Drink to That, the story of Beaujolais and the man who made it the “world’s most popular wine,” Rudolph Chelminski describes Georges Duboeuf as “one of those rare persons inhabited by a mysterious kind of driving force that sets certain individuals apart from the rest, causing them to achieve what others don’t even think about venturing.”
That’s pretty lofty stuff. And I was curious to see (and taste) for myself if one man deserved all that praise. So a couple of months ago, looking forward to the prospect of good summer red wines, I met with Duboeuf, chatted about Beaujolais and tasted two special Pays d’Oc wines and Duboeuf’s line of 2009 Beaujolais, which he describes as “The Vintage of a Lifetime.” Considering how many times we’ve all heard winemakers extol a certain year as the “vintage of the century,” or similar glowing words, that’s a pretty heady claim.
Duboeuf’s passionate support for Vintage 2009 in Beaujolais is especially noteworthy as this tall angular man with the quiet voice and penetrating stare is not usually demonstrative, nor does he tend to exaggerate. But when he recalled conditions of the 2009 growing season, his features softened and his voice quickened. “There was good flowering in May and a steady warming through August. The amazing weather in 2009 means the Beaujolais wines are incredibly elegant and delicious. In the 60 years I have been making Beaujolais, 2009 is the best vintage of my lifetime.”
With attention in the wine market focused on Pinot Noir, the Gamay-based wines of Beaujolais sometimes get pushed aside, except for the third Thursday in November when the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau is celebrated. I asked Duboeuf if the mixed reputation of Nouveau ever threatened to downgrade the reputation of Beaujolais Villages and the Cru wines. “The truth is there is a lot of business behind Nouveau and we find there is a more negative reaction to Nouveau wines in France and Germany than in the United States,” he said. Duboeuf has won acclaim among consumers and peers alike for his efforts to popularize Beaujolais Nouveau.
For as long as I have been drinking Beaujolais, I’ve enjoyed ordinary Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages and the ten Beaujolais Crus, especially from great years like 2009. Occasionally I’d come across a bottle of Beaujolais Superieur, but lately the Superieur wines seem to have disappeared from the market. “Beaujolais Superieur is still legal but no one is using it,” Duboeuf said, smiling faintly. “The requirement is that Beaujolais Superieur must have one degree more alcohol than Beaujolais, but today there is no room for Beaujolais Superieur.”
Like the Superieur designation, Beaujolais has long been associated with a technique known as carbonic maceration. Instead of yeast-fermenting the juice of crushed grapes, whole clusters are placed in a tank with carbon dioxide gas, causing a partial fermentation within the individual berries. Because the weight of the clusters crushes the grapes at the bottom of the tank, allowing the free-run juice to then ferment in the traditional manner, a 100% carbonic fermentation is rare. The juicy grapey flavors derived from carbonic maceration are usually associated with Beaujolais Nouveau, but what of the other styles of Beaujolais? “The use of carbonic maceration is 100% in Beaujolais,” claims Duboeuf. “Sometimes there is some stem removalm so then it’s not true carbonic maceration, but some percentage of carbonic maceration is used in all Beaujolais including the cru wines.”
In 1988, Regnie was the first village to be elevated to cru status since the original nine villages were designated. I asked Duboeuf if there were plans to add an eleventh village to cru status. “No. It’s a question of terroir,” he said, emphasizing the ever-present concern in France of having the right terroir within an appellation to justify vineyard expansion. Although Duboeuf recognizes Regnie as a cru wine, which he describes as having characteristics similar to Brouilly, he doesn’t think it is much higher in quality than a Beaujolais Village.
Duboeuf’s favorite Cru Beaujolais is Julienas, the most northerly appellation, along with Saint Amour, in Beaujolais. “Julienas is the best of the best you can find from Gamay,” Duboeuf says, describing the backbone and density of flavors that distinguish Julienas wines and set it apart from the other crus. Duboeuf bottles two Julienas wines, the standard Flower Label and Chateau des Capitans, the latter a substantial Beaujolais with lovely floral aromas and dense juicy blackberry flavors accented with hints of licorice and black pepper. Duboeuf notes that 2009 produced wines with dark fruit flavors and good balancing acidity.
From north to south, the ten Cru Beaujolais are Saint Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Brouilly and Cote de Brouilly. Although there is no definitive ranking of the crus by body and structure and style, the following are my personal impressions: Saint Amour, youthful, fruity with a lot of finesse; Julienas, depth, structure and layered fruit; Chenas, later maturing than Julienas but lacking the depth of Moulin-a-Vent; Moulin-a-Vent, powerful, full fruit, long-lived; Fleurie, finesse with plenty of fruit; Chiroubles, forward fruit coupled with body and texture; Morgon, dense and long-lived; Regnie, aromatic and light; Cote de Brouilly and Brouilly, fresh, soft and fruity with Cote de Brouilly wines a bit more pronounced. Sometimes the differences in Cru Beaujolais are subtle, although an excellent vintage like 2009 provides the taster with more clues about the differences.
In general, if you’re looking for the up-front grapy flavors of Gamay with the structure of a Cote de Beaune Pinot Noir, try Moulin-a-Vent, Chenas, Morgon and Julienas. The Crus are a few dollars more per bottle, but you usually get more bang for your buck than Beaujolais Village and all of these wines, ranging from $11 to $18 are very good values. Duboeuf says that Saint-Amour (especially on Valentine’s Day) and Brouilly are the best selling Beaujolais Crus in the United States. For reviews of the 2009 Duboeuf Beaujolais, go to Wine Reviews.
Georges Duboeuf earned his title as “King of Beaujolais” for his tireless work in rescuing the reputation of Beaujolais spurred on by the Nouveau craze that reached its peak in the 1990s. Today, the name Duboeuf is virtually synonymous with Beaujolais Nouveau, evidenced by the fact that Duboeuf sells more than 4 million bottles of Nouveau a year. But Duboeuf is also recognized as a producer of white Maconnais, such as Macon-Villages, Saint-Veran and Pouilly-Fuisse.
He has also ventured further south into the Pays d’Oc appellation with Terradria, two wines that speak to Duboeuf’s passion of associating wine with its local terroir. Terradria is made only from select vintages. The 2007 Terradria White, $18, is bright and floral Chardonnay with hints of citrus and honey. The 2007 Red, $18, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah is smooth and fruit-forward with herbal-berry flavors combined with earthy notes.
Duboeuf Beaujolais is a tasting experience, a way to discover for yourself if the man is a mysterious driving force that sets himself and his wines apart from the competition.