Georges himself would have had no trouble with our itinerary. After all, this is a man who arrives in the office at 6am, tastes 200 wines a day and oversees the production of 20% of the 130 million bottles of Beaujolais produced annually. Every day for the last 35 years. Did I mention he’s 78 already? I, on the other hand, found our 7am flight from Gatwick rather more challenging. Caffeine consumption was pronounced. As our plane turned south and headed for Lyon, I found myself contemplating the wines and the region we were about to experience. Sure, I knew what Beaujolais was, where to find it on a map, and what the wines would taste like – simple, straightforward and fruit-driven, indelibly marked with the perfume of Carbonic Maceration (more of this later). A glugging wine, if you will – good for the days where an uncomplicated red is all that is required. Was I being overly harsh and dismissive of an entire region, ignoring the lifetime of work that has made Georges Duboeuf synonymous with Beaujolais since the 1960s?
As we arrived at Duboeuf’s headquarters, we were given an extensive tour of the winery itself. Starting with the hoppers where each of the 400 growers who work with Duboeuf deposit their grapes, we moved past the sorting tables where anything less than impeccable fruit is removed by hand, and walked among the rows of stainless steel fermentation tanks where the famous process of carbonic maceration takes place. For those of you who don’t speak wine geek, carbonic maceration is a process of vinifying grapes which is regarded as the hallmark of modern Beaujolais – a process introduced to the region by Duboeuf. Rather than crushing the grapes and adding cultured yeasts to the juice, the fruit is covered with a blanket of Carbon Dioxide under which it is allowed to ferment naturally. As they ferment, the grapes naturally burst open releasing the juice. Very little tannin is extracted from the skins and stalks in the process; the resulting wine is very soft and supple, and displays distinctive kirsch and bubblegum aromas.
With the Sun barely over the yardarm, it was already time for some recreational tasting with a spot of lunch. Sitting in the early April sunshine, with a plat of charcuterie, some delightfully gooey local cheese and a glass of Duboeuf’s Beaujolais Villages, I thought I’d got to grips with Beaujolais. Rather than demanding to be the centre of attention (like the Cabernets I often opt for, with their huge look-at-me flavour profile and massively grippy tannins), the wines of Beaujolais are intended to allow you enjoy the occasion. Accompaniments, rather than the main course. A pleasing combination of fruit on the nose, a hint of supple tannins and refreshing acidity produce a wine that makes an ideal lunch companion if ever there was one.
“Juicy black cherry and raspberry fruit combine with a hint to kirsch in this quintessential Beaujolais. A perfect summer wine.”
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Yet as we moved from the Village level wine to the Cru-level 2009 Fleurie, a difference in flavour intensity and elegance quickly became apparent. Unsurprising perhaps, given that the 10 Crus sit at the top of the hierarchy in terms of quality, but no less welcome because of that.
“Instantly recognisable, this is possibly the most well-known Beaujolais produced. Soft strawberry fruit and characteristic floral notes on the nose lead into a refined palate that offers great flavour concentration and excellent length.“
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After rounding off lunch with yet another coffee, we headed out into the vineyards in the Cru region of Moulin-à-Vent. Gamay, the only black grape permitted in Beaujolais, has a particular and well-documented affinity for granite based soils. Whilst the soil in the region is predominately granite, there are local differences. The vineyards in Moulin-à-Vent are based on pink granite, which has high concentrations of manganese. Our guide, the extremely knowledgeable Bernard, explained that the high proportion of this mineral in the soil results in reduced yields, giving the appellation’s wines greater concentration and richness. Of course, the best way for us to appreciate this was to taste the wines themselves, and so we headed off to meet winemaker Gerard Charvet.
Whilst Gerard does supply grapes to the Duboeuf winery, he also produces his own award-winning domaine-bottled wines. The Réserve d’Amélie Moulin-à-Vent is simply stunning; rich layers of fruit and spice combine to give great complexity on both nose and palate. Whilst the vast majority of Beaujolais is made for early consumption, the Crus of Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent are more than capable of extended bottle-ageing. As before, the proof was in the tasting as Gerard opened up a magnum of 2003 Réserve d’Amélie for us. We were astounded – the fruit was still present, but the wine had developed the savoury, earthy aromas one typically associates with the far more prestigious pinot noirs of Northern Burgundy. If you decide to invest in a case of the current vintage, I’d recommend popping a few into the cellar. Your patience will certainly be rewarded. The days final tasting, held in cellars owned by another of Duboeuf growers offered an unrivalled opportunity – the chance to taste a magnum of 1987 Fleurie. Tawny in colour, with a delicate nose of raisined fruit and dried citrus peel followed by a savoury palate and long finish, it was astounding. It had simply never occurred to any of us that Beaujolais was capable of ageing in such a way. At the end of an exhaustive day of tasting, a terribly difficult job I can assure you, we decamped to our hotel to prepare for what promised to be an intriguing second day. More importantly, we would finally get to meet Georges Duboeuf, Mr Beaujolais himself.
The next morning was rather more leisurely; croissants and coffee are infinitely preferable to Gatwick airport first thing in the morning. The agenda consisted of more tasting, with Bernard eager show us the full range of wines produced under the Duboeuf label. First though, we got to meet the man himself. It’s remarkable to hear that the entire business was started by Georges’ attempt to source quality wines for the local restaurants. From speaking to him, you can sense that the desire to produce the best wines possible is unabated – he has a remarkably high level of motivation that has served him well over the past 37 years. Afterwards, we were shown to the private tasting room he uses to taste every wine produced by his company. Starting with the Village level wine as a baseline for comparison, we tried several of the Cru wines. The 2010 Brouilly offered soft red fruits and rose petals, in marked contrast to the 2009 Julienas which was noticeably closed with grippy tannins – definitely one to cellar for a year or two.
Sadly, our whirlwind tour was winding to close – only the flight home remained. As the plane took off and France disappeared behind us, I realised how surprised I’d been to discover the many faces of region. Yes, Beaujolais is often a great quaffing wine, but when the occasion demands, its also capable of so much more.