Moulin-a-Vent, Beaujolais

With yesterday being Bastille Day, I thought it pertinent to speak today about one of the most iconic and uniquely French regions, Beaujolais, and most specifically Moulin-a-Vent, the region that translates to ‘Windmill’, with its picturesque namesake on its famous hill. Of the nearly 100 communes and 10 “Crus” of Beaujolais, Moulin-a-Vent is often considered the highest quality producer of the entire appellation, as well as its prettiest. About half of the production of the region is blended with juice from other communes and sold off as less expensive, run of the mill Beaujolais, however on the slopes running down from the hill, where the windmill sits atop, wines can be made into their most complex, concentrated and long-lived versions. No coincidence then that it is also usually the most expensive wine sold from the whole region!

Beaujolais is one of the few French styles of wine that is not imitated across the world. Think about it; Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and Northern Rhone wine styles have been imitated all across the globe for decades, if not centuries. And in more recent years, even the lesser-known regions such as the Loire Valley have had flattery in its highest form from New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc from South Africa, and in recent years there has been a surge in Grenache and Mourvedre-heavy wines from Australia’s warmer regions, very much akin to the wines of the Southern Rhone. Even a region such as Madiran (South-West of Bordeaux near the Pyrenees mountains), which most people know very little about, has an imitator in an even lesser know wine-growing country; It is the national grape variety of Uruguay! Gamay however, the one and only variety allowed in Beaujolais (full name Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc), is hardly grown anywhere outside of the Beaujolais region. Beaujolais is a wine primarily meant for immediate enjoyment- usually as an aperitif before a meal to get the gastric juices flowing. This is not only due to the bracing acid of the wine, but its unique lack of tannins (more of that later…), meaning the wine can be drunk slightly chilled and without food. For many serious winemakers and wine drinkers however, Beaujolais and therefore Gamay was plonk, and not worth their time. Today, Beaujolais is a popular drink-now wine, and the annual ‘Beaujolais Nouveau’ campaign, where the wines are shipped as fast as possible after release to be consumed immediately across the planet is a big seller every year (hugely popular in Japan). Regions such as Moulin-a-Vent are slowly changing this view, as they take a Burgundian slant on winemaking to coax more concentration and longevity from Gamay, however for now, light and fresh is best for the region.
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Click to EnlargeThe region, and more specifically the Gamay variety, has had a tough upbringing. In the late 14th century Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in a royal decree took a swipe at the variety, calling it “tres mauvais et tres desloyaus plant nomme gamay”, translated as, “the very evil and very disloyal plant called gamay”. Philip forbade future cultivation of Gamay in his duchy of Burgundy and banished it from his Kingdom. Growers of Gamay therefore setup on the southern-most border of the duchy, where it still sits today. This turned out to be a change of fortune for the grape, as the incredibly unique soil type found in this area, which was terrible for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, has turned out to be absolutely perfect for Gamay. The soils in Moulin-a-Vent are pink granite, shot through with veins of Manganese. This mineral is toxic to grapevines and retards growth of both leafy vegetation and grape bunches, which would usually be a problem, however one of the reasons our mate Philip banned the variety from Burgundy was because it was too vigorous and bunches were too big, creating watery, boring wine. The soil naturally balances this vigour, and also adds a mineral note that increases freshness.

The final piece of the puzzle as to what makes Beaujolais so unique is in how it is produced. As mentioned earlier, the wines have no noticeable tannin, despite being a bright purple colour. This is due to a winemaking process used very infrequently across most of the world, but almost exclusively throughout Beaujolais; Carbonic Maceration. Whole grape bunches are sealed in a large airtight container which is flushed with carbon dioxide, with bunches on the very bottom crushed by the weight of those on top. Natural fermentation begins in this small pool of juice, and more CO2 is produced, building pressure. Without oxygen in the tank, CO2 is aspirated into whole berries, which begin to break down, exaggerating primary aromas (especially cherry and strawberry in Gamay) and stripping colour compounds from the skin but not tannins. After about 8 days, the berries are quickly crushed off skins, and the no-tannin, brightly coloured, high-sugar juice is fermented in the usual method, just like a white or rose wine. Wine is not aged in oak, so is crunchy, fresh, and ready for drinking!

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager