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Classification May Prove Savior For Beaujolais

A view of the vineyards around Juliénas in Beaujolais
© AFP | A view of the vineyards around Juliénas in Beaujolais
The push to improve the image of Beaujolais wines.

Getting 2,500 French people to agree on anything is a challenge. But that's the task Jean Bourjade is taking on in his quest to develop a classification system for Beaujolais.

Ironically, it may have been better if the Nazi occupiers of WWII had done it.

The goal of the classification is to upgrade the image of a region best known for its Nouveau wine. The idea is that if Beaujolais offers premier cru wines like Burgundy, people will look anew at not just the top wines of the region, but all the wines.

Beaujolais needs the boost: total sales were down 4.6 percent in 2012 over the previous year, and 15.2 percent from 2008. And that long-term drop mostly involves higher-priced cru Beaujolais. Nouveau sales in 2012 were almost the same as they were in 2008, but cru Beaujolais dropped by 16.7 percent.

For Beaujolais to survive into the future, the region's 2,500 farmers have to get more value for their grapes – and that means vintage wines, not Nouveau.

"I was employed with the task of changing things in Beaujolais," says Bourjade, who was hired in 2007. "The first thing I've done is to say, Beaujolais is not Beaujolais Nouveau. We need to put forward the cru."

Hence the proposed classification, which would work like Burgundy's, putting some villages forward as premier cru – and even possibly as grand cru. As in Burgundy, while the line that divides premier cru vineyards from their neighbors might be imaginary, the difference in the prices they can charge for their wines will be very real.

This is why classifications, with the power to make fortunes, are politically tricky. For example, Bordeaux has never been able to revise its classification of 1855; the late Alexis Lichine spent 30 years trying and failing to do it. St.-Émilion does its own classification, in part because it was left out in 1855, but has faced lawsuits from vintners unhappy with the results.

Just a few kilometers north of Beaujolais, Pouilly-Fuissé in Burgundy is undergoing the same classification process. There are no 1er crus in Pouilly-Fuissé because, like Beaujolais, it was supervised by the Vichy French government during the German occupation, while most of Burgundy was directly occupied by German troops. The Nazi-led government passed a law in 1942 recognizing 1er cru vineyards in Burgundy – primarily to raise additional tax revenues. Wine growers in Pouilly-Fuissé and Beaujolais were happy not to to have to cough up the additional taxes during the war, but they're paying the price for it now.

L-R: Producer Frank Duboeuf at Beaujolais Nouveau celebrations in NYC; launching a new release in Beaujeu
© AFP | L-R: Producer Frank Duboeuf at Beaujolais Nouveau celebrations in NYC; launching a new release in Beaujeu

Beaujolais does have several advantages over other regions in France in getting a classification approved. Foremost is motivation: Beaujolais believes it can prove that the  need is there, while no one argues that St.-Émilion, for example, requires any help in getting more respect for its wines.

Another big advantage is that extensive mapping of "climats" – small areas with distinct terroirs – has already been done, because unbeknownst to many wine lovers, Beaujolais is actually part of Burgundy.

Monks created extremely detailed maps of the vineyards of Burgundy, including Beaujolais, recognizing more than 100 different regions and climats within the regions. In the 1930's, the INAO officially recognized the climats of northern Burgundy but not those of Beaujolais.

"For some reason, the Beaujolais ones were not rubber-stamped because they were forgotten in a drawer," Bourjade says. "What we're going to do is we're going to be sure all those climas in Beaujolais are recognized. We have hundreds of small areas, which could be a few hectares. They have names. Sometimes it's not the name of the village, it's a small area."

Bourjade is also commissioning a study of where the Romans planted grapes, an idea which has turned out to yield forgotten sites of great potential in the northern Rhône Valley.

The Beaujolais classification won't just depend on history, though. A company called Sigales is 3½ years into a 5-year study of the soils of the region. And, "we are studying all of the climate conditions," Bourjade says. "The exposure of the vines. How much rain they have, the temperatures, everything. We are going decades behind us to have a precise forecast."

Guillaume de Castelnau, owner/winemaker of Château des Jacques in Moulin à Vent, had already done some of that work before the study.

"Moulin à Vent is the most Burgundian cru Beaujolais," he says. "It is normal to be the first classified. Of course, if several of our parcels are 1er cru, we will be happy. The other growers begin to be open to this classification idea. The farmer is individualist and the collective interest is always long to arrive."

Growers outside the premier cru areas aren't the only possible opposition. Those in districts designated premier cru would have to agree to yield limits and possibly other restrictions they don't face now. And their neighbors might still be envious.

"I don't think there will be any losers," Bourjade says. "Let's take Morgon, let's assume I'm a winegrower in Morgon. Let's assume the study demonstrates that a site in Morgon has all the qualities to assume first-growth status. Let's assume my vineyards are outside that area. But you don't necessarily lose because if it raises the perception that the consumer would have of Morgon – it's a good Beaujolais cru, and there are some premier cru. I would win as well."

The grape harvest at Domaine de Grand Pré à Fleurie in Beaujolais
© AFP | The grape harvest at Domaine de Grand Pré à Fleurie in Beaujolais

Bourjade hopes those selling prices could push cru Beaujolais away from its current status as the red by-the-glass default choice in Parisian bistros.

"Going back 50 years ago, most of the 10 Beaujolais cru were selling at identical prices as Châteauneuf-du-Pape or the top appellations in Burgundy," he says. "The aim – not immediately but within a bit of time – is the first growths should reach similar prices to the first growths of Burgundy."

One U.S. retailer loves the classification idea, but is skeptical about how much consumers – even those who like Beaujolais – will pay.

"Folks are already spending upwards of $40 on Beaujolais here," says Frank Pagliaro, owner of Frank's Wine in Wilmington, Delaware. "Most of the folks purchasing Beaujolais are those who come in asking for a 'lighter red.' It would be great to turn our Burgundy buyers on to 1er cru Beaujolais, but I can't really see going above a $50 price point."

The final vote is still nearly two years away. Bourjade says that big négociants, notably Georges DuBoeuf, will not be consulted for the final decision: it's up to the growers. Contacted repeatedly for this article, DuBoeuf chose not to comment.

When the studies are done, the arguing begins in earnest. "In Beaujolais, it's always difficult when you have to decide on a strategy which is collective," Bourjade says.

"It's very difficult to get most people to agree. Don't forget we are French. The French love arguing. All kinds of debating."

Bourjade adds: "If we don't achieve premier cru for any reason, if the winegrowers don't agree, it won't be a catastrophe for Beaujolais. But for us, this would be a great communication tool to demonstrate what we have been saying for years now. Beaujolais wines are serious wines. They are as good as wines from Burgundy. I'm not afraid to say that."

Related stories:

Beaujolais Winemakers in No Mood to Party

Beaujolais Seeks Young Growers

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