After many years of pushing plonk, the Beaujolais region of Eastern France is now making some of the most fun and easy-drinking yet serious wines available. Quality-oriented producers are showing what the Gamay grape can do in the right hands.
We at Vinotas Selections are proud to say we have found a few that will really open your eyes to the wonders of the region.
Céline & Nicolas Hirsch
At one time the wines coming from the Beaujolais region were considered “vins de merde” (shit wines). But thanks to the efforts of pioneers like Foillard, Lapierre and Métras, this view of the region has changed to one of admiration for the quality the Gamay grape can produce in the right hands. Now, I am proud to say you can add Céline and Nicolas Hirsh to the list of producers focusing on high quality.
Born in Alsace, Céline and Nicolas quickly fell in love with wine and with each other. They headed South to the Beaujolais region, where they also fell for the gnarly old Gamay vines of an estate in Chénas. They now farm 4 hectares (9.88 acres) of old-vine, densely planted Gamay growing on steep granitic, sandy soils in the towns of Chénas, Juliénas, and Moulin à Vent.
The age of the vines varies from 35 to 90 years of age, all extremely densely planted (12000 plants/hectare) on very steep slopes. The soils here are granitic sand, sometimes up to 3 meters deep. While they’re not certified Organic or Biodynamic, they use many of the similar methods to treat the vines, being careful not to use too many chemicals. At harvest, everything is hand-picked to focus on quality, and the wines undergo fermentation via wild yeasts in cement tanks. Some cuvees see oak, but the key here is transparency of terroir. At bottling, there’s only a light filtering, and no fining.
Needless to say, these are gorgeous and easy drinking yet serious wines, meant to be enjoyed on their own or with food year-round.
Their Beaujolais Villages is a real quaffer, despite being made in a serious manner. Hand-picked from 35 to 60 year old vines, it’s fermented with indigenous yeasts in cement then spends 6 months in stainless steel before being lightly filtered at bottling. It offers bright crisp red berries and minerals on a serious structure.
The Hirsch Chénas is a tour de force, offering soft dark red fruit, chalky minerality, spices, black pepper, all on a medium fat structure that ends in a nice finish. It’s from densely-planted vines aged 40-90 years of age, on steep and high-altitude hills (250 meters). The grapes are not destemmed, and fermentation is done via wild yeasts in cement tanks, then it spends 6 months in stainless. At bottling, there’s a light filtering but no fining.
- Moulin à Vent
- Chénas 'les Brureaux'
Domaine Victor Sornin
Just after discovering Céline Hirsch’s gorgeous wines, I stumbled upon another new and upcoming domaine in the Beaujolais. Named for the winemaker’s son Victor, it’s a special project from an already-established Organic winery based in Régnié-Durette that is run by Frédéric Sornin. The focus here is to make wines that are as natural as possible using the best grapes available.
As such, they have access to very old Gamay vines (40+ years), densely planted (10,000 vines/hectare) to sandy granitic soils. The fields are tended by sheep, and their droppings are the only fertilizer these vineyards will ever see. Everything is hand-harvested, as befits an Organic winery, and Nature is allowed to run its course with indigenous yeasts doing their work in stainless tanks. The wine then stays in tank until Spring, at which time it’s bottled unfined and with just a light filtering.
Victor, who at the time of this writing (2015) is just 12, participates with Frédéric in all aspects of winemaking. He is a true apprentice, learning at the side of his Papa so he too can one day make great wines on his own. It’s a real treat to watch this young boy grow into his own, and it will be interesting to follow him as he gains experience. But for now, we can enjoy this crisp bright Beaujolais Villages.
Victor’s Beaujolais Villages had me coming back for more over and over. What I thought would be a simple Beaujolais Villages turned out to be more complex than anticipated. So much so that I couldn’t stop, enjoying its enticing dance of bright, crunchy red fruit and lovely minerality all balanced by mouth-cleansing acidity.
Château Bel Avenir
Florian Looze and Cyril Alonso began their careers in wine by starting a négociant focusing on natural but high-quality wines, a company called Production Unique et Rebelle (P-U-R). Living up to its name, they have become synonymous with great wines made without any additives or chemicals. So when the opportunity presented itself, they quickly purchased a domaine in their favorite wine-growing area, Beaujolais.
Now, they own 12 hectares (29.65 acres) but farm half of that in a completely natural manner. By creating an ecological balance in the field (with beehives, friendly flowers and plants, and insect hotels to attract beneficial bugs), they are encouraging life in the vineyard. The vines range in age from 8 to 70 years old, and are densely planted (7000 vines/ha for the Chardonnay, 10 000 vines/ha for the Gamay) to silty, fossil-rich soils that are over 400 million years old. Everything is hand-harvested and wild yeast fermented, with just a light filtering at bottling to maintain the purity of the wines and the expression of their terroir.
The Château Bel Avenir Beaujolais Villages Vieilles Vignes comes from vines that are 70+ years old, grown in a fantastic spot in La Chapelle-de-Guinchay, in the northern part of Beaujolais. Hand-harvested, it is semi-carbonically macerated in cement, wild yeast fermented, aged 7 months on its lees in stainless, then bottled unfined, lightly filtered, and with no SO2. The result is a bright, lovely easy drinking cherry and mineral-filled wine that is complex and shows what Gamay in the right hands can do.
The Château Bel Avenir Beaujolais Coteaux Bourguignon is made from vines that are between 30 and 50 years old, hand-harvested, semi-carbonically macerated in cement, wild yeast fermented, then aged 4 months on its lees in stainless. The wine is then bottled unfined, lightly filtered and without any additives. It offers bright dark cherry notes, with a dense yet elegant mouthfeel backed up by minerals, red licorice and a long finish with a great grip.