The Value of Beaujolais Nouveau, the Character of Cru Beaujolais
Beaujolais winemaker/négociant Georges Duboeuf has established a worldwide reputation. His wines are sold in more than 120 countries. He popularized, even if he did not create, the category of wine called Beaujolais nouveau, complete with a celebration around it. (Often disparaged by serious wine-lovers, Beaujolais nouveau is fresh, intensely fruity wine made shortly after harvest by a process called carbonic maceration and sold late the same year.) He sells one quarter of the Beaujolais region’s annual wine production, and far from having assumed the reins of a centuries-old family firm, Duboeuf started his company only in 1964.
Recently, Duboeuf’s winemaker, Emeric Gaucher, came through Dallas, and we met over dinner at Dallas Chop House to taste some of his wines and discuss his approach to Beaujolais. Gaucher was born in Champagne to a vine-growing family. He attended the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne, where he studied oenology and viticulture. Post college, he worked in the Beaujolais town of Fleurie before returning to Champagne to work for Moët et Chandon and another Champagne house. However, Beaujolais had smitten him and he returned there.
In 2004, Gaucher met Duboeuf, who hired him “without a specific job,” Gaucher says. “But we had a good connection.” He describes one of his first tasks: Nicole Descombes, owner of Domaine Descombes had some health issues and was unable to work. Duboeuf sent him to the domaine to help her out. Gaucher cleaned some tanks and made some wine, among other things. At the end, Descombes told him to go to the kitchen where there was some cheese, meat, bread, and an unlabeled bottle of wine on the table for him. He tasted it, and it was ethereal. She asked him what he thought it was, but he was not certain. Then she revealed that it was 28-year-old Château Margaux. He remembers acts of kindness like that fondly.
Gaucher rose to his current position as both chief winemaker and the man in charge of handling relations with Duboeuf’s growers and winemakers — a total of around 400 growers and 20 cooperatives in all.
Duboeuf started out buying finished wine and marketing it. In 2002, he also started buying grapes and making wine himself, in addition to buying estates. Gaucher’s responsibilities included supervising the cellar staffs at these estates.
I press him on what I regard as an important issue for Beaujolais: the negative effect of Beaujolais nouveau on the reputation of the region. I start with the view that cru Beaujolais — the highest category, made in 10 designated villages in the region — is unique. If you take the Beaujolais grape, gamay, and plant it elsewhere, it does not produce a wine that tastes remotely similar (or, usually, as good). The reason is the effect of terroir (soil, especially the granite component, and climate) on the wine. This site-specificity is in sharp contrast to that of the “international” varieties like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay that seem to thrive, with often just nuanced differences, wherever they are planted.
I ask Gaucher whether the flavor profile of the mass market nouveau does not deter people from spending twice as much on a cru. They may buy a bottle, I say, but then discover the lack of the in-your-face simple fruit that nouveau offers. They interpret this as a flaw, and migrate to fruity non-Beaujolais wines instead.
Gaucher doesn’t see it that way. He sees nouveau as projecting the Beaujolais name around the world. As a result, he sees cru Beaujolais as a progression from nouveau. He also considers nouveau to be good wine in its own right. It is versatile in pairing and invites conversation. It is also approachable. “Pour a glass for everyone,” he says, “and half an hour later the rest of the bottle is consumed.”
Since Duboeuf markets wines from other domaines than those he now owns, I switch topics to the question of how much he tries to influence their style, as some négociants are known to actively “coach” their winemakers on their perceptions of what sells in America. “Not at all,” Gaucher says. Duboeuf is closely involved in maintaining quality, but he wants each domaine to exhibit its own expression of gamay. Gaucher uses two of the wines we taste as examples: the 2014 Jean Ernest Descombes is typical of the Morgon AOC that it comes from. It is filled with raspberry fruit, opulent in its expression, and silky in texture. The 2015 Côte du Py (also Morgon), by contrast, comes from volcanic soil. It shows more minerality.
Onto something that I have always seen as an enigma: Wine courses always teach that Beaujolais is part of Burgundy — and indeed cru Beaujolais may be labeled “Burgundy.” It is politically, but wine appellations have never been a respecter of governmental boundaries when they contradicted viticultural facts on the ground. Does Gaucher think that Beaujolais would be better off establishing its wine identity separate from Burgundy? He replies that he thinks marketing reasons account for the continued connection and doesn’t see this changing.
We move on to taste the 2014 Château des Capitans Juliénas. To my palate, it typifies cru Beaujolais at its most wonderful — complex, balanced, evolving in the glass. There are fruits (raspberry, blackcurrant), spices (cinnamon), and herbs (thyme) all wrapped up in the nose and earthy forest floor characteristics in the mouth. At $22, it is a true bargain.
Wines of this quality and value should be on every decent wine list around town. Les Vins Georges Duboeuf recently changed their U.S. Importer in an effort to make that happen. Here’s hoping that they have success.