Thu, Oct 04, 2007 - Page 13 News List

What's new in Beaujolais is not nouveau

Georges Duboeuf bucked tradition by mass-marketing Beaujolais Nouveau, giving it a reputation for mediocrity. Other winemakers are trying to rescue the wine's name

By ERIC ASIMOV  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , VILLIE MORGON, FRANCE

Customers check stocks of Beaujolais Nouveau wine at a Tokyo hotel.

PHOTO: AFP

In the small courtyard cellar of the Morgon producer Marcel Lapierre, the barrels are talking. It's the gentle but insistent murmur of the juice of gamay grapes fermenting into Beaujolais wine, the yeast transforming sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, which, with no role to play in the finished product, can only hiss its protest at being left behind.

It is not the only hissing here in the Beaujolais, a region long venerated for its bistro wines and now apparently withering on the vine. From the Terres des Pierres Dorees in the south, where the rocks seem to glow a soft gold, to the granite hills of Julienas, Fleurie and the other crus to the north, the talk is of crisis: of rising costs and diminishing returns, of a public that has turned its back on a gentle wine it once embraced, and of a reputation damaged by decades of mediocrity and symbolized by the yawning response to the annual November announcement, "Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrive."

But a different, equally insistent message is also emerging from Beaujolais, and it is a sign of hope for a region that has borne more than its share of condescension and scorn. It comes from the best, most serious producers in Beaujolais, who are making superb wines that bear as much resemblance to mass-market Beaujolais nouveau as a fine, dry-aged steak does to a fast-food burger. In a region known for jolly little knock-back wines to be drunk and forgotten, these are memorable wines of depth and class, thoughtful wines that nonetheless retain the joyous nature imbued in Beaujolais.

Few wines can induce joy the way Beaujolais does, and I would argue that that is an undervalued quality. When you add in the perfume and the nuance of the best Beaujolais wines, and combine them with a little bit of structure, you have a wine that deserves far more credit than it gets.

"People think, 'Oh, Beaujolais, it's light, it's fruity,'" said Jacques Lardiere, technical director of Maison Louis Jadot. "But in Moulin-a-Vent you can produce a great wine, a great, great wine."

The idea that Beaujolais can produce great wine is antithetical not only to the image of Beaujolais but also to the notion of what constitutes great wine. Greatness among red wines is generally equated with power, profundity and aging ability.

Although Beaujolais can sometimes age well - I recently had a delicious 1929 Moulin-a-Vent - it is best enjoyed fairly young. It will never be profound the way Burgundy, Barolo or Bordeaux can be, and notwithstanding young Morgons, which can be tough on tender mouths, Beaujolais tends more toward elegance than power.

Just consider, for example, the purity of those whispering Lapierre Morgons, surprisingly light-bodied and elegant, or the density and balance of a Fleurie from Clos de la Roilette. To taste the fresh yet complex Moulin-a-Vent and Fleurie of Domaine du Vissoux, the pretty, floral Cote de Brouilly of Jean-Paul Brun or the powerful, structured Morgons of Louis-Claude Desvignes is to realize that there is a world of Beaujolais beyond the fatiguingly sappy, candied wines that by comparison taste like tutti-frutti gamay juice.

Great Beaujolais comes in many shapes and sizes. Domaine Cheysson in Chiroubles makes pretty, seductive wines, enticing for their lithe, floral grace. A Julienas from Michel Tete is completely different, spicy, structured and laden with mineral and raspberry flavors. And then there are the dynamic, finely detailed Moulin-a-Vents of Louis Jadot's Chateau des Jacques, like La Roche 2005, smelling of violets and dark fruit, a wine of clarity and finesse.

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