Beaujolais: First Steps
Although Mâcon is in Burgundy, the villages in the region around the city blend seamlessly into Beaujolais. Most of the wines here are red, and the Gamay grape is the only one used. After my sojourn around the firmly closed wine villages of the southern Mâconnais, the car drifted off in the direction of Chasselas, and I found myself crossing the border from Burgundy into Beaujolais.
The roadside sign marking the end of the Burgundy region and the start of the Beaujolais Route des Vins seemed insufficient to mark this important transition. I hadn’t expected to have to present my passport, but I thought the border would be marked rather more formally.
Chasselas is one of the 10 Beaujolais villages that have Cru status: the others are Juliénas, Fleurie, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Saint Amour, Chiroubles, Brouilly, Côtes de Brouilly, Chénas, and Régnié.
Although Beaujolais was still rather sleepy, the feel of the place seemed quite different from the Mâconnais just to north. There was a distinct feeling that people were ready and willing to do business. Whereas in Pouilly-Fuissé I had been brushed off with a brusque pulling down of the shutters, the villages here had much clearer signposting of the Domaines, and now all I had to do was find someone available in working hours.
Chasselas is a gorgeous village. I looked down on it from a belvedere just above the town, and the village church with its square tower and narrow apse, and the chateau with black tiled roof and three towers with black-tiled turrets.
I drove into the village and, although everything was shut, the Mairie had a busy feel, its noticeboard littered with paper, and perhaps even the glimpse of someone working inside.
My next stop-over was at Saint Amour. A busload of children were shouting in the playground just next to the Mairie, a pretty building with light blue shutters and a red-tiled roof, in front of which were signs advertising the village’s reputation for celebrating love. The Route de la Saint-Valentin is in the middle of the village. The signs around the village church were on the same lines, and the church itself is beautiful. I don’t know enough about architecture to describe the design but it’s like there is a narrow tall nave, and then aisles either side, each of which is roofed. The tower is topped with the usual conical black-tiled spire.
For some reason, I became quite moved by the statue here dedicated to the victims of the world wars. “A nos amis morts pour La France” (for our friends who died for France). The white statue of the soldier with rifle stands impassively in the Place de la Paix, looking out towards the church, and I suddenly felt the horror of so many thousands of young men being sent away from their families to face off against an unseen enemy. I felt really moved when I thought about this, particularly in a small village that is so closely identified with love.
Again, everything was shut, so I went on to Juliénas. This has a curious iron fabrication by the artist Serge Bachler which purports to represent Les Quatre Saisons de la Vigne (The Four Seasons of the Vine). The installation hangs on the side of what I recall as the Mairie, and the four rectangular iron panels are clearly meant to reflect the narrative in the work’s title, but I really couldn’t fathom what was depicted in each panel. Inside the town’s stunning church, I found the trunk of a vine had been installed like a bonsai tree, and was decorated with various bits of paper. I felt that I was at least getting a bit warmer in my pursuit. Sadly, the Cellier de la Vielle Eglise which promised Degustation Vente du Cru Juliénas also turned out to be shut, as was the shop which was designated as an alternative outlet.
But Juliénas definitely has a more focussed an commercial feel to it, and I was encouraged to see the statue of brick-red wine amphora decorating the roundabout that I crossed when getting out of my car.
I went on to Fleurie with high hopes, and I was not disappointed. As usual, I parked up and went down to the Caveau Chateau de Fleurie, which looked to be the most promising venue. Stoically, I experienced the usual disappointment as I pushed on the door of the tasting room to find it was locked. But then from a side room, Le Patron emerged from nowhere and unlocked the door. He welcomed me in. At last, I had arrived!
We spoke in French, and he described how the Chateau sold its own Fleurie wine but also marketed those from Moulin a Vent. He corrected me politely when I talked about Beujolais’ 11 cru vineyards, noting that it only had 10, and we then went into some tasting. The first bottle, a 2015 from the chateau, didn’t seem right, so I tried to say something diplomatic when he asked what I thought of it. He seemed puzzled that I hadn’t seemed to like it, tasted it himself, and realised that the bottle for tasting hadn’t been properly stoppered and had been around for too long. I felt I had established a little bit of credibility with him, so we went on to the next bottle, which was much better.
We had talked quite a bit about the region, and he seemed genuinely interested in wine-making. I explained to him my dilemma about the car being en panne, and not knowing how many bottles I would be able to bring back to the UK. I ended up buying three bottles, two from Fleurie and one from Moulin A Vent, with the idea of building up a small collection of Beaujolais wines for a tasting back in England.
We settled up the bill and he then asked if I would like to see the cellar. I said I would be delighted. We went down the steps and he opened the door to reveal a room lined with stainless steel tanks that were used by the Chateau to ferment the wine. There were also two large oak barrel tanks that were used by Moulin a Vent. He seemed to particularly like the “degrappeur” machine, which I understood to remove the grapes from the branches and stalks, and he showed me the inner lining of coarse material that separates the grapes from the other parts of the plant.
We then went on to the wine storage area, where oak barrels of various sizes were in use. These included the standard barrique size barrels that my grandfather used to make, but also the bigger barrels of 2000 liters, which he also made, and then a huge 6000 liter barrel which was bigger than the ones I remember him working on (although it’s entirely possible he made these as well!)
I need to do more research on the barrel sizes and terminology: from that I remember, the barrique was 228 liters, as in Burgundy, although it’s possible the size was 225 liters used in Bordeaux. The larger barrels are known as tonneaux, and the largest sizes as foudres, although there seem to be subtle regional variations in the terminology used.
Many thanks to the Caveau Chateau de Fleurie for this wonderful experience. It was a great end to the day, after the frustration of visiting so many wine villages and finding almost all of them shut.