Beaujolais: nouveau niche

The beleaguered winemakers of Beaujolais are celebrating after 2018 delivered the sort of vintage that can save many from biting the dust. Hail ravaged the region in 2016 and 2017 and some producers feared for their livelihoods as they headed into this year. But Mother Nature smiled on the area to the north of Lyon this year and superb conditions led to a large crop set to yield high-quality juice.

“One more year like 2016 or 2017 would have finished me,” says Richard Rottiers, a producer in Moulin-a-Vent. “But 2018 has been a great year, so we are very happy.” 

Many in the region echo his views. Jean Bourjade, the charismatic director general at Inter Beaujolais, says: “We had quality harvests for a number of years, but some places had hailstones and some producers thought they would be dead if they had one more bad year, even winemakers in the crus. 

“My president is in his 50th year and he said he has never seen a harvest [like 2018] without a single rotten grape before. Everything was good, so we are very happy with that.”

Yet that is not to say Beaujolais does not face manifold challenges as it bids to boost exports and improve its status in the world of fine wine. The biggest stumbling block appears to be the behemoth that is – or was – Beaujolais Nouveau. This popular vin de primeur, fermented for just a few weeks before being released for sale on the third Thursday of November, put the region on the map. But as its popularity skyrocketed, production grew somewhat industrial and the quality went south, meaning many consumers and buyers still associate Beaujolais with cheap plonk. The region is on a collective mission to improve that perception, and everyone has an opinion about Beaujolais Nouveau. 

“Some people hate it because it affects the quality perception of the region,” says Romain Seve of Château de la Terrière. “But it helped us to get known all over the world. Nobody ever expected it to become so big, and we had to produce so much and it wasn’t good. Now we are promoting Beaujolais Cru and Beaujolais Nouveau is decreasing each year because people are changing their expectations about wine. They want to taste something better. Beaujolais is becoming a more dynamic region. It will be much different in five years and it has great potential.”

Image battle

Michelle Chapel gave up a career as a sommelier in New York to start up Domaine Chapel with husband David, and she admits they have to “battle against the image of Beaujolais Nouveau” in export markets. “The spirit of Beaujolais Nouveau is great, but how it has been marketed hasn’t helped the image of Beaujolais,” she says. Domaine Chapel is a great example of a young, dynamic producer that creates quality wines to export to the UK. 

Mathieu Mélinand of Domaine des Marrans says: “We have lots of young producers and we all want to do something different to what was done in the past. We want to come back to natural viticulture and focus on quality.” His wife, Pauline Passot, makes wine down the road at her own domaine. She started in 2016, but is only just able to make her first wine now as her previous two harvests were wiped out. “There’s a good dynamic in our generation,” she says. “We all talk and help each other.”

Beaujolais is still dominated by heavyweight suppliers such as Georges Duboeuf, and their agility has helped the region enjoy sales growth in the UK for the past two years. In 2017 the UK imported roughly 450,000 cases of Beaujolais.comprising 100,000 Beaujolais, 100,000 Beaujolais Villages, 200,000 crus and 50,000 Beaujolais Nouveau. A big chunk of that is in the off-trade.

“For the moment we are still the market leader in the UK,” says Adrien Duboeuf, export director at Georges Duboeuf, which is imported by Berkmann and sold in Waitrose, Majestic, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s, with Fleurie the dominant cru. “In recent years we have seen a nice bump in export volume. For two years Beaujolais wines have been increasing. Buyers are more interested as the business climate is going for more affordable and good value for money wines. Buyers see Beaujolais as producing good, affordable wines that are getting back on trend.”

He points out that Beaujolais Nouveau is good for cash flow. “Everything in Beaujolais is done by hand and it costs a lot. People can sell Beaujolais Nouveau to get some quick cash,” he says.

Price increases

Another large supplier, Compagne de Bourgogne, has enjoyed strong success in exporting to the UK. It represents 8% of the Burgundy and Beaujolais region with a turnover of €100 million, and it says Beaujolais has benefited from price increases in Burgundy. “The wines really respond to what the British consumer wants: fresh and fruity, without too much alcohol,” says account manager Pierre-Jérôme Beretti. “Six years ago Tesco took a gamble by putting Beaujolais back on UK shelves. The first year we reached 100,000 bottles and now in Tesco we sell 1.5 million bottles. For the first time we will be in Morrisons with Beaujolais Nouveau this year. Beaujolais Nouveau is not exactly what we want to push, but it helped us have a new vision for our vineyards. We want to push high-quality Beaujolais that can age. We sell 400,000 bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau, but it’s not a major part of our business.”

Before Beaujolais Nouveau took off, the size of Beaujolais was 15,000ha. It enjoyed 20 golden years of Beaujolais Nouveau and the region grew to 24,000ha, but its popularity continues to wane and the region has gone back down to having around 16,000ha under vine. “With the Beaujolais Nouveau we planted, planted, planted,” says Bourjade at Inter Beaujolais. “Then the craze waned and supply exceeded demand and that led into an economic crisis and we uprooted, uprooted, uprooted.

“The reality is that what we lost in Beaujolais Nouveau were shite wines. We lost all those entry-level wines that were mostly of poor quality. The price was below the production cost, so our winegrowers were losing money. It’s a good thing they disappeared. The future of Beaujolais Nouveau is the small, confidential cuvées. 

“Beaujolais Nouveau now is produced in smaller batches, some has oak, some is natural, some is unfiltered. All have a story and a specific philosophy. It moves away from the massive volumes that flood the entire world at the same time. The wines we are producing now are very different to the wines we were renowned for 20-30 years ago. 

“They are still quite inexpensive. We need to improve the value of the whole range. Soon supply and demand will be equal and that’s when it’s easier to put prices up. Everything goes in cycles and we are almost reaching the bottom, when demand will be greater than supply.”

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