Feature Coverage

Beyond Carbonic: A New Era for Beaujolais

“The general manager of the movie theater where I worked as a teenager loved XTC, particularly the album Skylarking. A year of sweeping up popcorn and tearing tickets was scored by the rich, sonic swells and definably new wave vibe of the album. I loved it, bought my own copy, wore it out. It remained in my mixes until one day I realized I couldn’t stand it. Now I can’t hear ‘Ballet for a Rainy Day’ without twinges of fake-butter nausea rippling through my psyche.

“As unlikely as the correlation may seem—and as much as I regret it—I can’t help but recall my Pavlovian XTC-induced wincing every time I open a bottle of Beaujolais. For years Beaujolais has satisfied my jones for a graceful, medium-bodied red with a fruity perfume and an earthy substrate. I thought there could never be too much of a good thing. But nowadays I find myself alarmingly conscious of that selfsame, ebullient fruitiness, that intoxicating mist of ripe strawberries, raspberries and cherries. It’s a scent I now pick up on automatically when it shows up in non-Beaujolais wines, too—in pinot noir from Burgundy (say, Pacalet); in some Northern Rhône syrah (Allemand and Souhaut); and in many New World wines like Broc Cellars’ carignan or Kathleen Inman’s ‘Whole Buncha Love’ pinot noir. Within the wine world, this scent is known simply as ‘carbonic,’ which references the style of fermentation that has become synonymous with Beaujolais over the last four decades.

“In the sense that it’s so brazenly obvious—and smells identical in every occurrence—the fruity carbonic scent can have the same effect on me as another particularly aggressive aroma that speaks to influences beyond the vineyard: toasty new oak (which I care for not at all). These assertively uniform scents call so much attention to themselves that they often distract from the experience of the wine beneath them. With regard to Beaujolais, I began to question what, under all of the carbonic, was the true character of the wine? Without the candied fruit, is it a wine that merits the same attention and adoration? Or, even in its more serious and impactful expressions, is it a wine eternally stigmatized by those carbonic overtones?

“As it turns out, I’m not the only one asking these questions. A small but growing cadre of producers is making Beaujolais in an entirely unconventional style—without carbonic maceration. But the non-carbonic movement is also asking a question of us, the drinkers: What do we expect and desire of Beaujolais in the first place? And how much of what we love about it has to do with that intoxicating scent and ebullient fruitiness?

“The seductive smell of carbonic maceration or semi-carbonic maceration is the result of intracellular fermentations within the grapes. This method allows the production of light, fruity wines without much tannin—famous (or infamous, depending on your position) in Beaujolais Nouveau. Popularized in the middle of the last century, full carbonic is a modern process in Beaujolais in which whole clusters of grapes (on the stems) are carefully put in tanks dosed with carbon dioxide and sealed up. Over days or even up to four to five weeks, an anaerobic fermentation takes place inside each individual grape. Semi-carbonic maceration—in which the CO2 is not pumped into the fermenter but is supplied by the alcoholic fermentation of crushed grapes at the bottom of the tank—is even more widely practiced, and is considered by some to be the traditional method of the region.

“Many believe that modern carbonic evolved out of the investigations into semi-carbonic by Jules Chauvet, Beaujolais winemaker, chemist and the ‘father of natural wine.’ Eventually, this method of light extraction that produces a gentle wine with distinctively high-toned fruit character was more widely adopted in the region, probably thanks to the success of Beaujolais Nouveau, whose unbelievable global success (it rose from 5 percent to 52 percent of all Beaujolais wine sold between 1960 and 1984) rebranded Beaujolais internationally as cheap, fruity, frivolous ‘Bojo’—the quintessential glug glug. In fact, the campaign was so successful, and the region’s producers so wholeheartedly on board with it, that eventually the world lost sight of the other Beaujolais—most notably, the wines from the 10 crus, or sub-regions (Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, etc.) designated as Beaujolais’s top wine-producing zones.

“In the last decade, however, Bojo’s been regaining its mojo, as it were, rebuilding itself from the ashes of Nouveau flame out. Producers have rededicated themselves to the vineyard and to producing wines that can be taken more seriously. Propelled by the success of the 2005, 2006 and 2009 vintages, wine drinkers today are flocking back to Beaujolais’ crus as table wine, rejoicing in its affable fruity carbonic-ness, as well as that underlying seriousness and ageability that has commanded the attention of many buyers once convinced it wasn’t much more than a friendly weeknight wine. Prices have risen along with the rise in demand, catapulting many producers—like Metras and Foillard—to highly allocated cult status.

“It’s not surprising, then, that as Beaujolais is being considered a more desirable (and pricier) wine that some are reconsidering the very practice that has endeared the wines to a new generation (the fruitiness, the charm, the sheer congeniality), and instead asking how their wines can be more complex, more expressive of terroir, and age better—the qualities by which serious wines of other regions are judged.

“Which brings us back to that growing cadre of producers—more than a half-dozen strong at the time of writing, including the likes of Jean-Paul Brun and Château de Moulin-a-Vent—who have eschewed carbonic maceration, practicing what they see as the traditional winemaking of the region before the advent of the carbonic craze in 1960s and ‘70s. Grapes are being de-stemmed, crushed and extracted in what some call the traditional, or Burgundian way. The wines are less fruity, more structured, tannic, dark, dense, savory, meant to age. It’s the serious side of Beaujolais—the vin de garde respone to the region’s vin de soif image.

“Ironically, this is happening as shop shelves and restaurant wine lists are stocking up on easy-drinking, joyful reds, and as the United States is becoming far more adept at producing its own answers to France’s vin de soif wines. But for Beaujolais, the ‘light and fruity’ tag has dogged the region for generations—individual producers and their terroirs almost never reaping the reverence accorded to the Côte d’Or, that legendary Burgundian region just a couple hours up the road. With the new wave of popularity of Beaujolais, with the recent global ascendance of Burgundy, it’s only natural that the new generation is not only wondering what the wines have the potential to become, but what constitutes ‘tradition’ in the region.

“I personally have been tussling with this question for quite some time, and even when put to local winemakers, clarity on the matter is elusive.

“’The semi-carbonic maceration has only been a standard method in Beaujolais since the beginning of the 20th century, and vine culture in Beaujolais has existed since Roman times at least,’ Guillaume de Castelnau, director of Château des Jacques, wrote in an email. A long-term non-carbonic producer, de Castelnau sees carbonic as a fixture of modernism. ‘The change was made possible by the industrial revolution,’ he notes. ‘Before: No tractor (but cows or horses) … no electricity, manual and collective presses. At that time it was impossible that a maceration be less than 3 weeks. The wines were tannic and remained in barrels for several years.’

“The rustic and awkward wine he describes may have been the most faithful expression of gamay, a grape that hadn’t received much love since before Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, banished it from the Côte d’Or in 1395, calling it ‘an evil and disloyal plant.’ At that time, Philip was probably angry that farmers were turning away from the fickle pinot noir to plant the heavy-cropping, easier-to-manage gamay—a large, thin-skinned grape that easily yields thin, acidic wine or rough, tannic wine in longer extractions. Ostensibly, gamay found a better home in the granite-strewn soils of Beaujolais. If you asked Philip the Bold whether gamay could ever make great wine, he would have said no. But he couldn’t have foreseen the profound impact that 20th century technology would have on the wine.

“The fragility of gamay pushed producers to use new technologies to shorten the time of maceration,’ says de Castelnau referring to the advent of carbonic after the industrial revolution. ‘The result is a less extracted wine that stays on the fruit. The soil (terroir) is much less present. Beaujolais Nouveau is an illustration of this method.’

“The creation of carbonic was buoyed by, among other things, tanks that could easily contain and hold carbon dioxide. Yet it’s de-stemming, another technological innovation, that’s driving the non-carbonic movement, allowing producers to start alcoholic fermentation without producing the tell-tale fruity, carbonic esters. This method also produces wines that express more tannin, something that many producers—notably Anne-Sophie Dubois, a young producer of Fleurie, who cites Burgundy’s Henri Jayer as an inspiration—believe is the primary key to expressing the different crus of Beaujolais.

“’With the traditional maceration as [practiced by] Jayer,’ she says, referring to de-stemming, ‘the wines obtained are richer in polyphenols because of greater extraction.’

“Increased terroir expression, tannic structure, greater ageability—all are compelling reasons to propel a different fermentation method. But, of course, the ultimate question is: How are the wines? Without carbonic, the expressions are earthier, less opulently fruity. They require time to open up, many of them being more expressive the next day. But when they do open up, I find the wines to be exquisite—complex, earthy and mineral. Fruit, the foundation of most Beaujolais, only emerges eventually, but then in a wonderfully pure, crystalline expression of dark berries. The only wine with some age I tried—a 2010 Moulin-a-Vent from Château de Moulin-a-Vent, was vibrant and open and beginning to show the wonderful umami notes of bottle age—could easily be confused with high-quality Burgundy.

“But is this the future of Beaujolais? Part of it, certainly. The real power of the non-carbonic movement is that it raises the ceiling for Beaujolais. It embodies the dreams of producers who want more for their wines—more individuality, more exacting expression of terroir, more bottle age and more money. These are all good things for a region that is still fighting to break out of old stereotypes and be taken seriously. And, given that just a few years ago I had the opportunity to taste a 1929 Moulin-a-Vent that was indistinguishable from a Grand Cru Burgundy, I believe all this is possible for the region (or at least its greatest crus). Ultimately, stylistic divergences and debates are the sign of a healthy region energized by ambition and hope, a far cry from the complacent Beaujolais of the 1970s and ‘80s.

“I will still guzzle a friendly, fruity Beaujolais and enjoy it, even if the carbonic signature is an inescapable and upfront reminder of treacly songs and that summer of fake butter. Those won’t, and shouldn’t, go away—but they are now a choice, not an imperative.”

Jordan Mackay, July 7, 2015
Beyond Carbonic: A New Era for Beaujolais