Posted: 2nd February 2017
One of the economist Bernard Maris’s favourite sayings was ‘nul chagrin ne résiste à un morgon de chez Marcel Lapierre’ (‘there is no anxiety that cannot be banished by the bottle of Marcel Lapierre’s Morgon’). Maris claimed to be quoting the revolutionary, Guy Debord, but he made the line very much his own. It seemed to sum up the better side of French, even Western life, but as cruel destiny would have it, Maris was gunned down in the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015. His killers, the Kouachi Brothers, stood in fierce opposition to everything the highly educated, liberal, secular, republican, hedonistic Frenchman represented.
It seems no accident that Maris was such an ‘amateur’ of Beaujolais. Beaujolais could make a fair claim to being the wine of French satire. From the 1930s, that other, more ponderous anti-establishment weekly, Le Canard enchainé served Juliénas at its editorial conferences. Beaujolais even sums up a certain side of French life: claret might be more classical, burgundy more hedonistic, the Rhone headier, champagne more frivolous; but Beaujolais stakes a strong claim to being the accompaniment to the ‘douceur de la vie’ that has always been the best of France.
Beaujolais is an unashamedly a French wine, until half a century ago it was unknown outside France itself. It was the favourite tipple of the city of Lyon, a little bit to the south of the granite massif with its steep rolling hills where the grapes are grown. It is without question one of the most attractive regions in the centre of France and the hills and granite subsoil are important clues to the quality of its wines.
The top wines come from those granite slopes, while the bulk of the fresh, fruity Beaujolais beloved of gastronomes the world over comes from designated villages that fall either side. From the flatter land comes the simple ‘Beaujolais’. A Beaujolais Villages wine, made by a master such as Chermette can be a revelation and Beaujolais connoisseurs are able to find wines there that can rival or even trounce the more expensive cru wines in blind tastings.
Back in Lyon, a 46-centilitre ‘pot’ of simple Beaujolais was considered a starter ration in the ‘bouchons,’ as the little family-owned restaurants of Lyon are called. There it accompanied the charcuterie, pike quenelles, offal, boiling sausages, bowls of fromage blanc and cheeses that made the city famous as the ‘gastronomic capital of France’. Beaujolais also plays its part in creating that food: with most of the land turned over to the vine, pigs are reared in the remaining spaces, and their flesh is used above all to make sausages and other items of charcuterie, as well as some excellent goats’ and ewes’ milk cheeses, all of which are perfect foils for the wines.
That proximity to Lyon has ensured fame for the wine and food of Beaujolais – the Lyonnais make no bones about the sort of wine they like to drink. When I lunched with Paul Bocuse a decade and a half ago, I was brought half a dozen dishes that had ensured his fame as France’s most famous chef, but when the sommelier arrived to take his order, he disdained more sonorous wines on his fat list to accompany them and filled my glass from a bottle of cru Beaujolais instead.
He might well have chosen a highfaluting Burgundy, which is not very far from Lyon either, or one of the better wines from the northern Rhone. Beaujolais is the southernmost incarnation of Burgundy, and yet stylistically it is not Burgundy any more than it is in the Rhone. Before metalled roads were laid out, Beaujolais was in a perfect position to furnish wines for the tables in the bouchons: wines were easily despatched to Lyon by boats laded on the River Saone. It was not until the twentieth century that Paris discovered Beaujolais. Getting the wine to the capital was a laborious process until the railway age.
Beaujolais is made from the happy-go-lucky, high-yielding Gamay grape, which was despised so much in both Champagne and Burgundy that local rulers issued orders to have it grubbed up. When no one was looking, both regions made use of Gamay and even Beaujolais wine well into the twentieth century, particularly on the Côte d’Or where it could provide colour and alcoholic support in thin years. Beaujolais received its AOC in 1937 and became increasingly recognised as an excellent wine in its own right. This was just three years after the Lyonnais Gabriel Chevalier set his most famous novel, Clochemerle, in the Beaujolais. Chevalier presented a satire of corrupt political life in the ‘sale époque’ with left-wing republicans fighting for control of the wine-sodden village against the Church and nobility, but much of the charm of the novel is the bucolic immorality of the village folk: Bacchus lurks behind every haystack.
In 1951, Beaujolais-producers received the green light to market their fresh young wine, made by fermenting whole bunches of grapes, as ‘Beaujolais-nouveau’ – a festive foretaste of the new vintage. Lyon was the natural first stop, but very soon little barrels of ‘nouveau’ were making their way to Paris. In the sixties, Beaujolais-nouveau conquered London and the world. At its height races were organised to bring the first bottle to the capital after its November release-date. Everyone, it seemed, loved the heady young wine and more and more Beaujolais was vinified as nouveau, to the neglect of the region’s real treasure: the nine crus of Juliénas, Saint-Amour, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly (a tenth cru, Régnié, was recognised in 1988). These ‘crus’ are the more serious side of the region’s wines. Each has its own distinct character, ranging from the lyrical wines of Chiroubles and Fleurie to the almost ponderous Moulin-à-vent. Moulin-à-vent is the one Beaujolais wine that is meant to be well-cellared before drinking, and can improve for up to a decade. As such it provides a ‘hyphen’ to the wines of Burgundy to the north. Good Moulin-à-vent is said to ‘pinoter’ – ie, with time it will taste of Pinot Noir.
In recent years, however, some of the other crus have challenged the supremacy of Moulin-à-vent and produced wines that are masterpieces in their own right. The first wines to break the mould were those of the Côte de Brouilly, but in recent years the impetus has come from Morgon – the Côte de Py and Jean Foillard in particular.
The Beaujolais-nouveau bubble began to deflate in the nineties, however, when more and more people tired of the fruity wine with its short shelf-life and shorter finish. When Beaujolais-nouveau crashed, it threatened to take the rest of the appellation down with it.
It was still an excellent money-spinner for the wine trade, however, when I made my first proper trip to the Beaujolais region in the second week of November 1983. I travelled with Steven Spurrier to taste the new wines in Pierre Ferraud’s cellars and observed while Steven made up his blend for the Caves de la Madeleine in Paris. Ferraud took me to the market and bought me an enormous cardoon which took me the best part of a week to eat. That year I wrote his first ever article on Beaujolais with my friend Tim Johnston. Whenever we went on subsequent occasions we used to eat (and I think stay) at the Cep in Fleurie which then boasted two Michelin rosettes. For a generation it was the first port of call for any gastronome visiting the Beaujolais. Alas, the Cep is no more, but there are plenty of good places left, mind you – and some of France’s top restaurants lie within striking distance, such as the wonderful Georges Blanc at Vonnas.
By the time the bubble burst, however, a new school of producers was growing up, men who were turning their backs on the bottlers who sold the bulk of the nouveau wine and were discovering the excellence of new sub-regions such as the Côte de Py in Morgon, where the late Marcel Lapierre made the wine that had proved such balm to Bernard Maris.