Green rolling hills, row upon row of vines, tractors trundling their way past market stands are filled with every summer fruit imaginable – shiny red cherries, plump strawberries, and juicy apricots, peaches and nectarines. The sun shines warm upon your face, and a gentle breeze makes the tall grass sway. Welcome to June in the Beaujolais.
The region is sometimes referred to as the French Tuscany. But the Beaujolais has a vibe all of its own. The roads are narrower, for one thing. At one point we have to reverse up a hill back to the main road about 300 feet to let another car pass. But no one is in a hurry. There is no sense of urgency here. Life is simpler. The focus is on the land. And wine. And food.
Case in point: we arrive at our first stop around lunchtime, where the Depardons are setting the table for lunch. Despite our saying we will return later that afternoon, they insist on doing a tasting first. In the Beaujolais, there is always time for visitors, even if it is 12:15 and everyone is sitting down to lunch.
We are met by Ghislaine, wife of Olivier Depardon, owner, winegrower and wine producer of Domaine de la Bêche. Wine is a family tradition here and the Depardons have been making wines since 1848, with Olivier being the 7th generation. The 8th generation is already heavily involved in the family business. Their son Alexis works the vines with his father (everything is done by hand here), and their daughter Caroline studied business and has now returned to handle operations.
We begin tasting. First up, a Beaujolais blanc, made of chardonnay. Not many people have heard of Beaujolais blanc (even in France!), as it only makes up about 1% of production in the region. But don’t let small production numbers fool you. This white wine is excellent. It is lovely and refreshing, with citrus, minerality, tropical fruit and just a hint of oak.
We then taste a wonderfully charming, easy-drinking, dry rosé made of gamay rouge à jus blanc, the only red grape used in Beaujolais AOC wines. It is also deliciously refreshing, with great acidity, notes of red currant and a delicate hint of spice.
Of course, Beaujolais is most well-known for Beaujolais Nouveau, the young gamay wines released with great fanfare every year in the third week of November. But up in the northern part of the Beaujolais you’ll find the more “serious” wines, the crus. There are 10 cru appellations: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié, and Saint-Amour.
We spent most of the day in Morgon, the second-largest cru in area after Brouilly. Even within Morgon, there are subdivisions, based on the soil and exposure of the site: Les Charmes, Côte du Py, les Micouds, les Grands Cras, Corcelette and Douby. It’s a lot to get your head around, but each wine is so distinct that sometimes it’s hard to believe that it’s all the same grape. I had no idea that gamay could be so versatile. That’s the power of terroir.
We continued tasting and learned about the different sites and how each wine is produced. The basic Morgon Vieilles Vignes is grown in schiste (a layered, sheet-like rock), then the jus from the various sites is blended and aged in foudres–large, older barrels that hold 4,000-6,000 litres and allow the wine to breathe while adding flavours of vanilla to the intense black fruit notes.
The Morgon Côte du Py is a more elegant style, aged in foudres for 7 months. This subarea sits at altitudes of up to 350 m, its subsoil is of volcanic origin and topped with broken granite bits, all of which gives these wines kirsh and spice aromas.
The Morgon Charmes, with its higher tannins, floral aromas and notes of delicious dried fruit, is aged for 11 months in smaller fûts, the standard sized barrel (215 L).
The Régnié, my new favourite, grows in sandy soil with a southeast exposure, has fabulous acidity with lots of weight and body behind it. The ripe, black fruit, spices and raisin-y notes on the palate make this the perfect wine for any occasion, especially if there is a charcuterie plate involved. And because of their acidity, all these Morgon reds can be aged for upwards of ten years.
After lunch, Ghislaine generously offered to take us to the Domaine, where she and Olivier showed us the vines and the winemaking facilities. She then took us up Mont du Py, for an amazing panoramic view.
But the day wasn’t over yet! Stay tuned for more stories from the Beaujolais.