Nicknamed ‘The Lord of Beaujolais’ for its aristocratic bouquet and noble structure, Moulin-à-Vent is to the ten crus of Beaujolais what Moulin Rouge is to Parisian cabarets: First among equals. Of course, that equality is a matter of taste—some consumers prefer floral Fleurie and charming Chiroubles to the full-bodied, tannic-structured Moulin-à-Vent and it’s no secret Georges Dubœuf sells a hundred thousand cases of Beaujolais Nouveau each year.
Forgetting the forgettable and concentrating on the myriad styles of Cru Beaujolais, nowhere is the evidence of terroir—the site-specific contributions of geology, sun-exposure and rainfall—more obvious than in Moulin-à-Vent. Although each appellation works with a single grape variety, Gamay, the results range from light, glorified rosé to densely layered, richly concentrated reds that rival their Pinot Noir cousins from Burgundy’s most storied estates.
Moulin-à-Vent is unusual for a number of reasons, and among them is the fact that there is no commune or village from which it takes its name. Like the Moulin Rouge, the appellation is named for the ‘moulin’—windmill—that sits atop the hill that overlooks the south and southeast-facing vineyards. The most peculiar reality of the Cru, however, is that the wine owes its structure and quality to poison: Manganese, which runs in veins throughout the pink granite subsoil, is toxic to grapevines and results in sickly vines that struggle to leaf out and produce small clusters of tiny grapes. It is the concentration of the juice in these grapes that gives Moulin-à-Vent a characteristic intensity unknown in the other crus of Beaujolais, where manganese is not present. It also gives the wine the foundation of phenolic compounds required for age-worthiness; Moulin-à-Vent is among a very select few of Beaujolais wines that can improve for ten, and even twenty years in the bottle ending up with a magnificent cherry-red color – a color that demonstrates the ability of this cru to “pinoter” with age. That French term simply means that they slowly develop a bouquet similar to Pinot Noir, known for its intense ripe fruit notes.
As it was everywhere else, Covid was the biggest 2020 story in France, and it affected the fanfare that usually defines Beaujolais’ cherished wine traditions. Like the girl from Ipanema, the weather remained aloof, immune and gorgeous. The season began with a mild, frost-free spring, which developed into a hot summer with few disturbances like hail or disease. Drought nipped at younger vines, but by harvest-time, the majority of grapes were in fine health with rich, ripe flavors resulting in slightly higher in alcohol levels than usual.
After damaging frosts in the early spring, 2019 offered Beaujolais one of the sunniest seasons on record, but along with the blue skies came the sort of oppressive heat generally linked to climate change. With temperatures exceeding 100°F throughout the region, drought set in and it was not until some welcome rain fell in August that the vintage found hope. Accompanying the rain were a few violent hailstorms, further reducing yields and necessitating vigorous sorting at the winery. Estates that were up to the task produced richly concentrated wines with balanced acidity which drink beautifully now, but may stand up to additional time in the cellar.
As in much of Burgundy, 2018 was glorious throughout Beaujolais; the best harvest since 2015—bountiful and balanced. Both the winter and spring were extremely wet, but far from affecting the harvest, they topped-up water reserves in the soils to ensure the vines didn’t succumb entirely to drought when the hot summer struck. As is the case in prolonged dry conditions, older and more established vines fared better. In general, 2018 Beaujolais is rich, spicy and concentrated with great texture and bracing acidity. The majority of the wines are ready to drink, but the top estates might benefit from an additional year or two of aging.
Says Éric Janin: “I represent the fourth generation of a domain established in the county of Saône-et-Loire at Romanèche-Thorins. Romanèche-Thorins soil is comprised of manganese, a type of rock once called ‘glassmaker’s soap’ because it served to whiten glass used by pottery makers. Within the word ‘domain’, we find ‘main’, meaning ‘hand’ in French. The hand symbolizes work, dexterity and identity. It also gives care, contact and sharing, accompanied by a mind constantly in motion. Jean-Claude, Marcel, Paul and myself: Craftsmen from the outset. Our hands are the raw material of our winegrowing profession, just as grapes are the raw material of wine. At our domain, these two materials have been in contact unceasingly; they remind us of the past, anchor us to the reality of the present and launch us towards the future.”
The family of Paul Janin, originally coopers, has tended Gamay vines since 1917. Paul’s grandfather wanted a closer connection between the vine and consumers, and in 1952, he began to bottle his own wine. In 1967, Paul’s father bought a plot of grapes in the lieu-dit Les Greneriers; today, those vines are a hundred years old. Paul took over in 2008, and while his youngest daughter Perrine completes her studies in viticulture and oenology, his son Eric, a fourth-generation grower, now oversees the fruit from its inception in the vineyard to its final resting place in the bottle. The grapes are farmed using lutte raisonnée methods, and the flaky, pink granite soil produces structured, powerful wines that gain even more character as they age.
Domaine Paul Janin & Fils ‘Vignes du Tremblay’, 2019 Moulin-à-Vent ($29)
Modern-day Le Tremblay is a blend from several lieux-dits; Les Greneriers, Les Burdelines, Les Pérelles, Champs de Cour, Les Brussellions and Aux Caves. The vines, between 40 and 70 years old, are pruned traditionally in the low-trained Gobelet style. Wine from each plot is matured in separate vats for a period of 18 months on fine lees, allowing for micro-oxygenation and then blended just prior to bottling.
Domaine Paul Janin & Fils ‘Piémonts’, 2020 Beaujolais-Villages ($24)
‘Piémonts’ is a blend of wines from old vines in two named plots, Les Jumeaux and Les Peloux. Vines are 30 to 60 years old grown in Piedmont soils and ancient alluvium. The bouquet shows hints of blueberry, mulberry and plum; tannins are firm, the balance between richness and acidity on point and the finish long.
Château du Moulin-à-Vent has a history as unique and fascinating as the wine. In the late 1700s, Philiberte Pommier discovered that certain plots on her estate yielded better wines than others, and set out to understand the geology that underscored a self-evident truth. She began to tailor her winemaking to individual lieux-dits in her property (then called Château des Thorins), and in 1862, Pommier’s wines were deemed the best in the Mâcon region at the Universal Exhibition of London. At the time, Philiberte Pommier was 99 years old.
Today, the estate encompasses nearly a hundred acres and covers some of the appellation’s finest climats—Les Vérillats, Le Champ de Cour, La Rochelle—with an average vine age of over forty years. The pink granite soil is rich in iron oxide, copper and manganese, and since 2009, under the new ownership of the Parinet family, investment in the winemaking facilities and the vineyards has resulted in plot-specific signature wines.
Château du Moulin-à-Vent, 2018 Moulin-à-Vent ($39)
Three unique terroirs on the estate are blended to create this luscious flagship wine: ‘Les Thorins’ is an iconic south-facing plot, ‘Le Moulin-à-Vent’ looks eastward and ‘Aux Cave’ is rich in silica with 80-year-old vines. The wine is deep red color with purple tints and lovely aromas of wild berries, hints of cardamom and flowers; notably rose, peony and violates with spice reasserting itself on the finish.
Château du Moulin-à-Vent, 2018 Moulin-à-Vent ‘Les Vérillats’ ($49)
Les Vérillats is one of the earliest delineated terroirs of Moulin-à-Vent. Located above the windmill, the ten acres of 65-year-old vines enjoy an easterly exposure with a panoramic view of the vineyards. The granite soil is exceptionally sandy (atypical for a great terroir of this appellation), nearly two feet deep and well-drained. It is layered over pink granite bedrock rich in iron oxide, copper and manganese; the vineyard lies in the corridor of drying winds that exert a profoundly positive effect on the maturation and concentration of the grapes. The wine is spice-accented with dark berry notes complex with suggestions of musky earth, mocha and violet. Expansive on the palate, it finishes long and chewy with a slow-build of dusty tannins.
Château du Moulin-à-Vent, 2018 Moulin-à-Vent ‘Champ de Cour’ ($53)
‘Champ de Cour’ is an 8-acre lieu-dit found on a slight slope between the windmill and Fleurie, with an eastern exposure that shelters it from the wind. Granitic surface rocks force the roots to dig deeply and, in the process, benefit from five distinct minerals that give the wine a unique character. The top soil is deep and heavier than in the rest of the appellation, retaining more water. The wine shows an explosive nose with roasted and spicy (pepper and saffron) notes. A full-bodied wine of considerable elegance, lively tannins and superb length with a distinctly mineral finish.
With five generations working the same hillside, a certain metaphysical pas de deux takes place between terroir and wine grower. Add a third party (Bruno Copéret’s wife Valérie) and Domaine de Roche-Guillon is ready for the challenges of marketing and climate change that lie ahead. The Copéret vineyards spread over 22 rolling acres of granite-based soil; they enjoy a south facing exposure, which—combined with altitude of over 1100 feet—ensure the vines yield grapes with considerable ripeness.
Domaine de Roche-Guillon, 2020 Moulin-à-Vent ($22)
The plots to elaborate this wine are located between the Vauxrenard commune and Émeringes, expressing the granitic soils of Vauxrenard and the sandy-clay of Émeringes. Half the selected grapes were fermented in whole bunches and half were destemmed before spending twelve days macerating at 84° F. With a floral potpourri on the nose and maraschino cherry and wild blackberry on the palate, the wine demonstrates typical muscularity of Moulin-à-Vent with gripping tannins, concentration and energy.
Winemaking has been the legacy of Liger-Belair family for a quarter of a millennium. Prior to establishing his own domain, Thibault Liger-Belair studied oenology, worked for a communications firm in Paris and started an internet company to discover and sell high quality wines. Still, the vines beckoned, and in 2001, at the age of 26, he returned to them. The following year saw his first harvest of Nuits-Saint-Georges, and in 2003, he expanded into Richebourg Grand Cru, Clos Vougeot Grand Cru and Vosne-Romanée Premier Cru Petits Monts. In 2009, he ranged farther afield, into Beaujolais, and now produces Beaujolais-Villages and several Moulin-à-Vent wines.
The soil in his Moulin-à-Vent property is shallow (less than 20 inches deep) and composed primarily of granitic sand and quartz, and about half the vines of the 35 acres were planted between 1910 and 1955. His signature wine, for this reason, is ‘Les Vieilles Vignes’—the ‘old vines.’
Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair ‘Vieilles Vignes’, 2019 Moulin-à-Vent ($48)
A cuvée blending nine old vine parcels of old vines located in a belt around the Moulin-à-Vent hill. The wine offers exotic aromas of spiced candied cherries with a rustic undertow of damp earth; bright, acidic with a firm tannic structure and long, sweet finish.
Albert Bichot owns six domains in the heart of five great vinicultural regions; each estate cultivates its own land using sustainable practices and employs a dedicated winemaking team devoted to that domain alone. Bichot’s 13 acres within the 1631-acre Moulin-à-Vent appellation are located at the heart of one of the 18 recognized single vineyards, Rochegrès, meaning ‘grey rock’ As the name suggests, the granitic parent rock is visible at the surface of the soil in the vineyards. These vines benefit from mainly south-eastern exposure and thrive in very pure, lean pink granitic soil, forcing them to plunge their roots deep in search of the nutrients they need.
Domaine de Rochegrès, 2019 Moulin-à-Vent ($27)
A beautifully concentrated wine with an expressive mineral base; the nose evokes cherry compote and tart plums, then evolves into floral and spicy notes, finishing with a touch of oak.
Domaine Diochon is so close to the iconic windmill that the leaves of the vines are stirred by the breeze it creates. Nearly as famous as the mill is the heavy, curling Teddy-Roosevelt-mustache of the proprietor, Bernard Diochon, who took over the estate from his father in 1967. In waxing philosophically about his terroir, he references ‘crumbly granite soil that allows the vines to plunge easily towards gore subsoil, which feeds the vines, while adding a pronounced mineral component to the wine.’ For the geologically challenged, ‘gore’ is an accumulated mass of sand and thin clay deposits with weathered feldspars, mica, and quartz.
Creating wine from vines between forty and a hundred years old, Diochon is a fan of the specific qualities of the tannins in wines from Moulin-à-Vent, which are unique to the appellation. “I like tannic wines without heaviness; with fruit and floral aromas. I don’t like weighty wines with hard tannins. My favorite wines are St Émilion from Bordeaux, and Chambolle-Musigny and Nuits-St-Georges from Burgundy. Every vigneron naturally chooses to make wines in the style they prefer.”
In this, he is as good as his word, having established the benchmarks of his house style: Harvesting only when the grapes are perfectly mature, using (of course) traditional whole cluster fermentation, aging in large old oak foudres and bottling unfiltered in the springtime.
Domaine Diochon ‘Vieilles Vignes’, 2019 Moulin-à-Vent ($26)
Domaine Diochon is an outlier in Beaujolais; it produces only one bottling each year: Old-vine Moulin-à-Vent. Crafted from vines planted in 1920, 1950 and the 1960s, it remains a benchmark of the Diochon style, defined by well-integrated tannins without heaviness and lifted by fragrant fruit and floral aromas. Soulful and savory with notes of cherries, iron and smoke.