The Real Beaujolais
Did you have your glass of Beaujolais Nouveau this weekend? I know, it’s about as much fun as a flu shot. I have been in four different fine dining Toronto restaurants—plus one in Belleville and one in Prince Edward County—since Beaujolais Nouveau release day last Thursday, and I can only report the virtual silence about Nouveau this year. Very few displays, posters, chat, or bottles on tables. I tried it at the LCBO Thursday morning and the diagnosis was thin, simple and sour,” so I would not recommend spending $13 to $15. I then moved on later in the day to Jamie Kennedy Restaurant and Wine Bar where there was fine, dawdling, conversational mid-afternoon Beaujolais tasting underway with the terrific gamays from Pascal Granger of Julienas.
I know it sounds snobbish to berate Nouveau, whose sole purpose is to spill merriment across the land. But Nouveau is also a cash cow; the lowest quality grapes being processed pronto, then flown around the world for release every November 15 at inflated prices. Its heyday was the early ’80s. I was in Paris one year thereabouts when every bar and bistro pronounced that “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé.” I was flown to France by the jolly, cash-flush vignerons of Beaujolais to spread the love. We taxied from bistro to bistro and drank and drank. I remember being deposited in a bar somewhere near my hotel in the company of some Australians, but I have no idea how I actually got back to my bed. The revelry had nothing, however, to do with the quality of what I was drinking.
I have also been to Beaujolais itself, a land more interesting and majestic than Nouveau could ever convey. It’s populated with hundreds of tiny family growers in dozens of villages nestled among the vales of the Massif Central, 10 of which produce wines distinctive enough to have earned their own appellations.
Pascal Granger is a leading vigneron in the village of Julienas, an enclave of about 600 vineyard hectares in the north of Beaujolais where gamay is turned into a fairly sturdy, mineral wine. Seven Granger bottlings were presented to a small gathering of sommeliers by importer Patrick O’Neill of Lexcellent Wines—and what a stunning difference in quality and temperament from the Nouveau tasted earlier.
We began with Granger 2004 Julienas Cuvee Speciale ***1/2 ($22.45, www.lexwines.com), a slender, tidy nicely complex gamay from a vintage considered “typical” or “classic”—which is vigneron-speak for a cooler, perhaps slightly more difficult vintage than they would really like, especially framed by recent memory of the big 2003s. I was beguiled by the gentle fragrance here, the seamless integration of fruit, herbs, earth. From there we moved on to six wines from Europe’s hot 2003 vintage. They were wines of considerable stature; still maintaining youth berry-cherry charm and the low tannin suppleness of this grape, but deeply coloured, rich and, in some cases, powerful. There was an unusual aromatic ripeness that reminded me of California zinfandel, but the wines remained well this side of being pruny or overripe and too high in alcohol, and they were very precisely made. Four from Julienas progressively showed the quality range possible within one small village, based on vineyard location and vine age.
The piece de resistance was Granger 2003 Unique ****, a barrel-aged sample of incredible blackberry ripeness, poise and richness, which M. Granger said was a once-only wine “from the vintage of a lifetime.”
I hate to tease but none of the 2003s are available, with limited quantities blowing quickly through restaurant lists, eagerly hand-sold by sommeliers. But in a Nouveau world it’s important to know that such wines exist. Restaurants that carry other Granger Beaujolais include Oyster Boy, Riviera, Bistro Bakery Thuet, Lee, The Rosebud, Dooney’s and Le Select. Pastis and Kultura will likely have the above-mentioned Juliénas Cuvée Spéciale 2004 sometime this week. For good Beaujolais more readily available at the Vintages, I highly recommend the delicious, ripe Jadot 2005 Aux Combes Beaujolais-Village ***1/2 ($15.95, Vintages Essential)—juicy, ebullient and quite finely put together. Chill lightly.