In 2009, many winemakers in Europe got the great vintage they wanted; winemakers in Beaujolais got the great vintage they needed. This picturesque region, sandwiched between Burgundy and the Rhône Valley, has been one of the areas hit hardest by the economic crisis roiling France's wine industry. Persistently weak sales yielded a glut of unsold wines and left many vintners struggling to survive; at one point, it was estimated that 30 to 50 percent of them were in danger of going bust. One brilliant harvest can't change everything, but in the same way that an acclaimed 2001 vintage sparked renewed interest in German wines, it is possible that the '09s might encourage consumers to give Beaujolais another look. How good are the '09s? I can't keep my hands off of them, and I'm reasonably certain you won't be able to, either.
While Beaujolais has never had the cachet of Bordeaux or Burgundy, its wines, made from the gamay grape, were once fairly prestigious. When I interviewed him in 2007, legendary Beaujolais vintner Georges Duboeuf recalled that in the 1950s, the region's premier wines commanded the same prices at top restaurants that second- and third-growth Bordeaux did. So why did Beaujolais suffer such a calamitous decline? A lot of people think that Duboeuf himself bears most of the blame, since he was the impresario behind the Beaujolais nouveau fad of the 1970s and '80s. Beaujolais nouveau is the barely fermented wine bottled just weeks after the harvest, and Duboeuf, known as the King of Beaujolais, turned its annual release into a global rite of autumn. Every third Thursday in November, cases of his nouveau would hit restaurants, wine bars, and wine shops around the world. They would be shipped by train, helicopter, hot air balloon, even the Concorde; and parties would be held to celebrate their arrival.
It was all good fun, but it had an unintended consequence: many consumers came to think of Beaujolais as the frivolous wine with the brightly colored label that you drank only between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Much of the wine-drinking public seemed completely unaware that there was another, more serious side to Beaujolais, represented by the 10 crus, sub-districts within the hilly region that birthed wines of real substance and character. But I am not sure that the nouveau craze was wholly or even primarily responsible for Beaujolais' downfall. Although it ultimately backfired, it was a brilliant marketing campaign that gave Beaujolais universal name recognition that it surely never would have had otherwise. I think a bigger problem was that Duboeuf and many of his colleagues produced a lot of really insipid wines (which is ironic in the case of Duboeuf, because he is renowned for the acuity of his palate). At the same time that the nouveau phenomenon was sweeping the planet, industrial winemaking was becoming the norm in Beaujolais. Vineyards were carpet-bombed with chemical treatments; crop yields were too high and grapes were often harvested too early; commercial yeasts were used for fermentation (notably the notorious 71B strain, which imparted a banana aroma to the wines); and sulfur was employed indiscriminately. Quality plummeted, and so did sales.
By the early 2000s, the region was sitting on a huge inventory of unsold juice. In 2002, some 13 million bottles, or seven percent of the previous year's total production, had to be destroyed. The human cost was even more profound: Many winemakers saw their businesses collapse.
The severity of la crise viticole was brought home to me during my interview with Duboeuf. We met at a restaurant in the village of Fleurie, just up the road from his office. We were discussing the region's plight, and Duboeuf asked if I'd noticed how full the parking lot at the train station was. He said that 10 or 15 years ago, there might have been two or three cars there at midday; now, it was packed. These were commuters, he explained—people with jobs in the nearby city of Lyon who had taken advantage of falling land prices and moved to the countryside. Vineyards were being uprooted and replaced with houses, and Beaujolais was slowly being transformed into a suburb, a change that understandably distressed Duboeuf.
But even as the region's overall reputation sank, there were some people who continued to fashion excellent wines, notably the so-called Gang of Four, a quartet of vintners based in the Morgon appellation. Led by the recently deceased Marcel Lapierre and taking their inspiration from the insights of Jules Chauvet,considered the godfather of France's natural-wine movement,these winemakers farmed with fanatical rigor, harvested healthy, fully ripe fruit, used only indigenous yeasts for fermentation, and kept the sulfur to a minimum. They were regarded with bemused contempt by many of their corner-cutting neighbors, but their wines were stunning, and especially compared with the rotgut that the rest of Beaujolais was pumping out. Over time, the acclaim and success that Lapierre & co. enjoyed encouraged other winemakers to embrace their methods. Quality producers remain a distinct minority, but their ranks have at least grown.
Of late, there has been another promising development: An influx of Burgundy producers into Beaujolais. Two of Burgundy's biggest houses, Louis Jadot and Joseph Drouhin, have long had a presence in the region, and in the past few years, other Burgundians have joined the land rush. Among the recent arrivals: The Henriot family (owners of Bouchard Père et Fils as well as an eponymous Champagne firm); Nicolas Potel, Louis Latour, Vincent Girardin, and Thibault Liger-Belair. These are all credible players, and while they've expanded into Beaujolais not to make a statement but to make money, their investments are a much-needed sign of confidence in the region's viticultural future.
And then there's the 2009 vintage. It was a year with idyllic growing conditions throughout much of Europe, and Beaujolais was no exception. Warm, dry weather in the summer produced outstanding fruit and a bumper crop of fabulous wines. In fact, Duboeuf has declared 2009 the best vintage of his lifetime, no small praise coming from a septuagenarian who has been involved in the wine trade since he was a kid. 2009 has been likened to such celebrated years as 1929 and 1949 (it's also more proof that nine really is the wine world's lucky number—years ending in nine have spawned an inordinate share of great vintages). Many of the wines are unusually opulent for Beaujolais, which normally tends to be lean and crisp : Some congenital contrarians have suggested that they are excessively rich and too atypical. A few that I tasted for this article were a little zaftig, but the better ones—and the list is long—combined exuberant fruit with the brisk acidity and mineral edge that makes good Beaujolais a singularly lip-smacking wine. And the reality is that they are so delicious right now that cellaring is not going to be a concern for most of us.
The '09 hype has caused a run on some of the wines, but with a few taps of the keyboard, even the most touted ones can still be found. I would suggest checking with Wine-Searcher.com. And despite all the buzz about the vintage, prices remain very attractive: The majority of the wines recommended here are between $20-$28. Most of them come from two importers, Kermit Lynch and Louis/Dressner. In my view, these are the real kings of Beaujolais. Lynch represents the Gang of Four, as well as several other estimable producers. Louis/Dressner has an equally impressive Beaujolais lineup. If you see either importer's sticker on a bottle of Beaujolais, grab it, regardless of the vintage.
Marcel Lapierre's Morgon is maybe my favorite wine in the world. His death last fall has added a bittersweet note to what is a consistently enthralling cru Beaujolais, and his '09 is especially fetching—a wonderful parting gift from the master. Jean-Paul Thévenet, another member of the Gang of Four, also crafted a superb Morgon in '09, with bright cherry and floral notes, a good citric tang, and a nice thwack of minerality. I tasted two Morgons from Jean Foillard, the Cuvée Corcelette and the Côte du Py (along with Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon produces what are considered the most age-worthy Beaujolais; the Côte du Py is a hillside rich in granite and schist that yields particularly muscular and long-lived wines). Foillard's Côte du Py was slightly brooding but delectable. However, I was completely smitten with the Corcelette, an earthy, sensuous Morgon that I could not stop drinking—and didn't (the bottle was drained in about an hour).
From the Louis/Dressner portfolio, I loved the Michel Tête Juliénas for its sappy, succulent fruit and strong mineral backbone. Coudert produced two knockouts in 2009, its Fleurie Clos de la Roilette and its Fleurie Clos de la Roilette Cuvée Tardive. Another estate represented by Louis/Dressner, Jean-Paul Brun/Domaine des Terres Dorées, turned out a bevy of outstanding wines. With their sinewy fruit and ample structure, Brun's Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent were more classically proportioned than some other '09s. I slightly preferred the Morgon, but you can't go wrong with either. Brun's basic, non-cru Beaujolais, called L'Ancien, is also superb and a terrific value. I tasted two cru Beaujolais from Louis Jadot, the Château des Jacques Moulin-à-Vent and the Château des Jacques Moulin- à-Vent Clos de Rochegrès, and both were sensational as well.
And what about Duboeuf? I did try one of his '09s, the Jean Descombes Morgon. It was a little candied for my taste but wasn't a bad Beaujolais, and for $15, it is attractively priced. But you can do a lot better for not much more money.