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The Enduring Beauty Of Beaujolais Great As Well As Joyous Wines. Distinctive Enough To Bear More Specific Appellations And Individual Parcels. Domaine de Vernus, A New Face, In Five Crus. 7-Bottle Pack For $264

Memorial Day is a time to reflect on mortality as well as to celebrate the rebirth of warmth and leisure time. No wine captures the complexity emotions better than Beaujolais, which can be light and lyrical as well as profound and nuanced. These are ideal wines with which to celebrate Memorial Day, the gateway to summer and the joy of transcendence.


In literature, a character study is a critical examination of a single character to understand not only their significance to a given narrative, but as a way of better understanding the work as a whole. This week, we will undertake a similar focus on a lone, but phenomenal Beaujolais winemaker (Guillaume Rouget of Domaine de Vernus) in order to see how a single talented vigneron can exemplify the moods, the changes, the whims of a region where a diverse terroir remains committed to a single grape variety, Gamay.

Rouget certainly comes with a proper pedigree: The grand-nephew of Henri Jayer (the Burgundian innovator known for making some of the most critically acclaimed and expensive Pinot Noirs in the world), he was trained to the vine from childhood, first by his father Emmanuel Rouget and then at the École des Vins de Bourgogne in Beaune. When he decided to join forces with Domaine de Vernus owner Frédéric Jametton in Régnié-Durette, it was to pursue a shared goal: Producing elegant, racy wines that display the intense fruitiness of Gamay along with age-worthy structure that can develop complexity over time alongside the best Burgundies. Guillaume is in charge of the entire production chain, from cultivation through all phases of vinification, ultimately taking part in the marketing of the estate’s wines. A true renaissance man in Beaujolais, his handling of various top Crus may not be ‘Beaujolais Nouveau,’ but it is very much the new Beaujolais.

Guillaume Rouget with father Emmanuel Rouget, Domaine Emmanuel Rouget in Vosne-Romanée and Flagey-Echézeaux

The Beaujolais Vineyard: Diversity Of Soils, Rocks and Minerals

The biggest error a Beaujolais neophyte makes is an expectation one-dimensional predictability. To be fair, the mistake easy to make based on the region’s reliance on Gamay, a grape that elsewhere may produce simple and often mediocre wine. In Beaujolais’ terroir, however, it thrives.

In fact, this terroir is so complex that it nearly defies description. But Inter-Beaujolais certainly tried: Between 2009 and 2018, they commissioned a colossal field study to establish a detailed cartography of the vineyards and to create a geological snapshot of the exceptional richness found throughout Beaujolais’s 12 appellations.

Beaujolais may not be geographically extensive, but geologically, it’s a different story. The region bears witness to 500 million years of complex interaction between the eastern edge of the Massif Central and the Alpine phenomenon of the Tertiary period, leaving one of the richest and most complex geologies in France. Over 300 distinct soil types have been identified. Fortunately, Gamay—the mainstay grape, accounting for 97% of plantings—flourishes throughout these myriad terroirs. In the south, the soil may be laden with clay, and sometimes chalk; the landscape is characterized by rolling hills. The north hosts sandy soils that are often granitic in origin. This is the starting point wherein each appellation, and indeed, each lieu-dit draws its individual character. There are ten crus, the top red wine regions of Beaujolais, all of them located in the hillier areas to the north, which offer freer-draining soils and better exposure, thereby helping the grapes to mature more fully.

A Palette Of Ten Crus

Beaujolais is a painter’s dream, a patchwork of undulating hills and bucolic villages. It is also unique in that relatively inexpensive land has allowed a number of dynamic new wine producers to enter the business. In the flatter south, easy-drinking wines are generally made using technique known as carbonic maceration, an anaerobic form of closed-tank fermentation that imparts specific, recognizable flavors (notably, bubblegum and Concord grape). Often sold under the Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages appellations, such wines tend to be simple, high in acid and low in tannin, and are ideal for the local bistro fare. Beaujolais’ suppler wines generally come from the north, where the granite hills are filled with rich clay and limestone. These wines are age-worthy, and show much more complexity and depth. The top of Beaujolais’ classification pyramid is found in the north, especially in the appellations known as ‘Cru Beaujolais’: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié and Saint-Amour.

Each are distinct wines with definable characteristics and individual histories; what they have in common beyond Beaujolais real estate is that they are the pinnacle of Gamay’s glory in the world of wine.

2020 Vintage: Rhône Scents. Bathed in Sunshine.

If you can invent a way to leave Covid out of the equation, 2020 was a wonderful vintage throughout Beaujolais. The growing season was warm, beginning with a mild and frost-free spring, which developed into a hot and sunny summer without hail or disease. Drought—a persistent worry in the region—was not as severe as it might have been, and by harvest-time the majority of grapes were in fine health with rich, ripe, almost Rhône-like flavors—raspberries, sour cherry and even garrigue; the local scrub comprised of bay, lavender, rosemary and juniper.

2020 yields were low due to the dry conditions, leading to concentrated juice and wines able to benefit from time in the cellar.

But, of course, you can’t leave Covid out of the equation: Normally the release of Beaujolais Nouveau occurs on the third Thursday of every November, but in pandemic-dominated 2020 the normal celebrations could not take place and producers instead chose to release the wines a week earlier than usual in order to allow for international shipping times.


 

Domaine de Vernus

After thirty years in the prosaic world of insurance brokerage, Frédéric Jametton decided to do a rakehell turn on his career trajectory. Having been born in Dijon and lived in Burgundy for most of his life, he had become an enlightened wine lover. Not only that, but his former profession brought him in contact with numerous members of the wine community. At the end of 2017, he realized that the time had come to invest in a winery.

Winemaker Guillaume Rouget, left, with Frédéric Jametton, Domaine de Vernus

Initially looking in the south, he became convinced that the heat spikes brought on by climate change made it unsuitable for the long haul, and after discussions with his friend Guillaume Rouget of Flagey-Echézeaux (who agreed to come on board as a consultant) Jametton settled on Beaujolais, piecing together 30 acres of vineyards acquired from 12 different proprietors, and is gradually restructuring parcels with a view to more sustainable farming.

Thanks in part to Rouget’s influence, vinification is conducted along Burgundian lines, with around 70% of the grapes destemmed and fermented in stainless steel with élevage in recently-used, high-quality Burgundy barrels for some 10–11 months. Jametton’s ultimate goal, echoed by Rouget, is to offer a range of wines that brings out the best of the different terroirs while respecting the character and personality of each Cru and each plot.

With Rouget in charge of the vineyards and winemaking process, Frédéric remains at the management helm and spearheads marketing.


Beaujolais-Villages: Gamay in Full Bloom

Of the three Beaujolais classifications, Villages occupies the middle spot in terms of quality. To qualify, the wine generally hails from more esteemed terroirs in the northern half of Beaujolais, from one of 38 villages that have not been named ‘cru’ appellations. They are expressive wines with more structure and complexity than generic Beaujolais, though not as exclusive as those from the ten crus. Accounting for about a quarter of all Beaujolais production, Villages wines are most often produced by négociants and vinified using stricter rules as to yields and technique.

1  Domaine de Vernus, 2020 Beaujolais-Villages ($27)
80% whole cluster fermentation from vines around 35 years old; the grapes are subject to alternate grape-treading, pump over, and ‘delestage’—a two-step ‘rack-and-return’ process in which fermenting red wine juice is separated daily from the grape solids by racking and then returned to the fermenting vat to re-soak the solids. Fermentation on wild yeast for two weeks. A fruit-forward, juicy wine  with expressive aromas of strawberry and spicy black cherry.

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Régnié: The Gateway to Beaujolais

Many Beaujolais wines are best consumed in their youth, and this is a quality emphasized with gusto by Régnié, the youngest of the Beaujolais crus. In fact, it wasn’t until 1988 that a group of 120 wine growers lobbied to get the appellation officially recognized, pointing out the newcomer in the family has plenty to offer: Its favorable geographical location between its two brothers, Brouilly and Morgon, allows the production of wines of a unique fruitiness.

Often called the ‘Prince of the Crus’, Régnié’s terroir is distinguished by the pink granite soils found high in the Beaujolais hills. Here, at some of the highest altitudes in the region, vines are planted on coarse, sandy soils that are highly permeable and drain freely, an environment which is well suited to the Gamay grape variety.

Further down the slopes, higher proportions of clay with better water storage capabilities lead to a slightly more structured style of wine. The variation within the vineyard area allows growers to produce everything from fresh, light wines to heavier, more age-worthy examples of Régnié.

2  Domaine de Vernus, 2020 Régnié ($30)
From vines with an average age of 42 years. 100% destemmed with three weeks of fermentation time on native yeasts followed by ten months maturation, half in oak barrels and half in stainless steel tanks. The wine has a lively acidity behind notes of sour cherry kirsch with hints of agave and pepper.

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Domaine de Vernus, 2019 Régnié ($72) 1.5 Liter
Same wine, in 2019, in magnum, allowing for a slower maturation process in the cellar.

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Chiroubles: A Terroir in Altitude

Granite is notorious for its strong erosion effects on soils and Chiroubles finds a perfect balance with light, sandy soils that remain moist throughout the summer; the climate tends to be oceanic, though with a Mediterranean and Continental touch.

Chiroubles is relatively tiny, with fewer than a thousand acres under vine, but it is a mouse that roars. This is due mostly to elevation: Chiroubles vineyards are the highest in Beaujolais, with some planted 1500 feet above the Saône River valley. Taking advantage of extreme diurnal shifts between the warm days and cold nights, the same soils that produce Fleurie to its immediate north here build wines that are lighter and fresher, often with pronounced floral characteristics.

 3  Domaine de Vernus, 2020 Chiroubles ($27)
From the highest-altitude vines in Beaujolais with an average age of 63 years  in the Verbomet lieu-dit and 36 years in Châtenay, both featuring terroir built on shallow granitic soil. The back-breaking work required to harvest on the steep slopes of Chiroubles produces an airy, intensely perfumed wine with silky notes of black cherry, plum and raspberry with a pronounced minerality and electric acidity.

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Fleurie: Home to Fragrant Wines

Each of the Beaujolais crus wears its own face; where Morgon is bold and handsome and Saint-Amour is a fairyland of delicate beauty, Fleurie—covering an unbroken area of three square miles—represents Beaujolais’ elegance. The terroir is built around pinkish granite that is unique to this part of Beaujolais, with the higher elevations accounting for thinner, acidic soils that produce graceful and aromatic wines. Below the main village, the wines are grown in deeper, richer, clay-heavy soils and the wines themselves are richer and deeper and appropriate for the cellar. The technique known as gridding, which involves extracting more color and tannin from the skins of the grapes, is proprietary to Fleurie.

 4  Domaine de Vernus, 2020 Fleurie ($34)
From vines with an average age of 63 years. 80% destemmed with three weeks of fermentation on native yeasts followed by ten months maturation in oak barrels, 6% new. The wine shows soft-bodied fragrance with concentrated notes of strawberry and rose petal above a vivacious acidity.

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Morgon: Power, Reveals Itself in a Few Years

Morgon, on the western side of the Saône, may only appear on the label of a Gamay-based red wine; even so, the appellation allows the addition of up to 15% white wine grapes: Chardonnay, Aligoté or Melon de Bourgogne. Nevertheless, the wines of Morgon wind up being among the most full-bodied in Beaujolais, with the potential to improve in the cellar so consistently that the French describe wines from other AOPs that display this quality by saying, “It Morgons…”

The largest of the Beaujolais crus, the terroir is largely built around ‘rotten rock’ made up of decomposed shale, giving the appellation’s wines aromas of sour cherries with notes of violet and kirsch with delicate tannins that  promise optimal ageing.

5  Domaine de Vernus, 2020 Morgon ($36)
From vines with an average age of 67 years. 80% destemmed with three weeks of fermentation on native yeasts followed by ten months maturation in 80% oak barrels and 20% in stainless steel tanks. This structured Morgon is a benchmark showing cherries and plums abound along with licorice, mineral and taut acidity.

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Domaine de Vernus, 2020 Morgon ($86) 1.5 Liter
Same wine in magnum, allowing for a slower maturation process in the cellar.

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 6  Domaine de Vernus, 2020 Morgon ‘Grands Cras’ ($47)
Grand Cras, ideally situated at the foot of the Côte du Py, ranks among the appellation’s most famous climats. The deep soil is made up of granitic alluvium that allows grapes to maintain Burgundy-level tannins while retaining the fruitiness typical of Beaujolais. With an average vine age of 71 years, the fruit is hand-harvested and 80% destemmed, following which the wine spends ten months in oak. A rich, cherry-driven profile with hints of kirsch, fresh tobacco and menthol.

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Moulin-à-Vent: Power and 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 Duboeuf sells a hundred thousand cases of Beaujolais Nouveau a 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 concentrate reds that rival Burgundian Pinot Noir cousins from the 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 outrageous 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.

7  Domaine de Vernus, 2020 Moulin-à-Vent ‘Les Vérillats’ ($63)
‘Les Vérillats’ stand at the very top of an old granitic mount at around 900 feet elevation where the topsoil is so thin that trellis stakes cannot always be fully anchored. Terroir is very specific here, known locally as ‘gorrhe’—a thin, acidic soil lacking in nitrogen but containing high concentrations of potassium, phosphorous and magnesium. The wine, from 70-year-old vines, shows atypical black fruits—blackberries and currant, along with supple minerality and bracing acids.

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Domaine de Vernus, 2020 Moulin-à-Vent ‘Les Vérillats’ ($162) 1.5 Liter
Same wine in magnum, allowing for a slower maturation process in the cellar.

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Posted on 2024.05.23 in Chirouble, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Beaujolais-Villages, Regnie, Chenas, France, Beaujolais, Wine-Aid Packages

 

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