Can Beaujolais be a serious, ageworthy wine?

For so long considered Burgundy’s lighter, poorer relation, the wines of Beaujolais – particularly its crus – are finding increasing favour among the cognoscenti. Jamie Goode runs the rule over the last decade at Château du Moulin-à-Vent to illustrate this evolution

Words by Jamie Goode

Château Moulin-à-Vent
The famous windmill that sits at the heart of the Moulin-à-Vent appellation

Beaujolais wines are famously described by veteran American importer Kermit Lynch as ‘the one-night stand of wines’ in his book Adventures on the Wine Route. His point? We should value the light, fruity, fun Beaujolais wines for what they are, and not expect them to be something more meaningful.

Lynch’s point is valid, but why can’t Gamay be serious too? Why shouldn’t examples from some of the top Beaujolais crus be considered fine wines? And while Gamay has a propensity for yielding lighter, breezily consumed wines, is there a reason it can’t turn its hand to something more profound and long-lasting, given the right terroir?

This was one of the questions posed at a recent tasting examining ten years of Château du Moulin-à-Vent. One of the ten crus of Beaujolais wines, clustered in the north of the region, Moulin-à-Vent is closely associated with the famous windmill that sits at the heart of the 620 hectares of the appellation’s vineyards, in the village of Romanèche-Thorins. Just below it is the impressive Château du Moulin-à-Vent, which has been renovated extensively since it was acquired by Jean-Jacques Parinet in 2009. Parinet hails from Beaujolais but made his money in the IT business; for the last few years he’s been assisted by Brice Laffond, who oversees both the winery and the 30 hectares of vines the domaine owns, while his son Edouard is heavily involved in the business as co-proprietor.

brice laffond and edouard parinet
Edouard Parinet (right) and Brice Laffond, the faces behind Château du Moulin-à-Vent

Edouard Parinet was in London with Laffond to present a vertical tasting spanning 2010 to 2019. ‘This decade of wines is interesting to us because it’s pretty much the start of our family’s involvement,’ said Parinet. ‘As a region, Beaujolais has experienced a nice progression during this decade, too.’

The property make seven different cuvées, including five single-vineyard wines, but it was their main production wine, labelled simply Château du Moulin-à-Vent, and a blend of four lieu-dits that they chose to show. ‘Moulin-à-Vent has always had the reputation as a grand cru,’ said Parinet. He explained that in the early 19th century, before the phylloxera crisis, British journalist Cyrus Redding devised a classification rating France’s wine areas from first to fifth class, and considered Les Thorins, Moulin-à-Vent and Chénas to be worthy of the top rank. Indeed, before the AOC system was created in France in 1936, there was an AO system, and the first AO was Moulin-à-Vent in 1924. As recently as 1973, the labels of the château had Grand Cru Classé written on them.

Château Moulin-à-Vent
Château du Moulin-a-Vent has undergone significant transformation over the last decade (Photo by Jamie Goode)

‘The reality of this soil is that it makes ageable fine wines,’ said Parinet, ‘and in the more “solar” vintages it can make dense wines which aren’t easy to drink young but are interesting to age.’ An example of this is the 1976 Château du Moulin-à-Vent, drunk from magnum, which showed a beautiful fruit purity and elegance even as is approaches its half-century.

While Beaujolais, said Parinet, ‘really suffered’ from the 1980s until 2000 – ‘both economically and in terms of viticulture; it was a dramatic period’ – of late there’s been increasing interest in the region – especially at the top end, and the crus. Part of this has come from the way that the natural wine movement, strongly represented in Beaujolais, has driven the revival of the region in the international gaze. Suddenly Cru Beaujolais is sought after and aspirational, and above all, cool. But the story of the ten crus isn’t a simple one. The extensive soil-type maps that the region commissioned show that very few of the crus are uniform. Instead, there are many terroir differences within each cru (perhaps with the exception of Chiroubles, which is 100% pink granite), which are better reflected in the long-established lieu-dits.

The style has shifted a little over time more to approachability, but not at the expense of ageworthiness, with some of the more recent vintages showing early charm as well as structure

‘Out of the 1500 acres of Moulin-à-Vent we have 69 lieu-dits,’ explained Parinet, ‘which have existed for 150 years. Out of these, probably there should be 15 or 20 terroirs that have a real identity. This interests us.’ Teasing apart the different terroirs is going to be a complicated but intriguing journey as improvements in farming (less use of herbicides and artificial fertilizers) and more sensitive winemaking, coupled with improved economic returns for the best growers, drive Beaujolais wines towards being taken more seriously as fine wine. Beaujolais wines typically haven’t been seen in this category, but the Parinets are clearly trying to make ageworthy fine wines from Moulin-à-Vent, one of the crus best known for yielding serious expressions of Gamay.

château du moulin beaujolais tasting
Parinet presenting a vertical tasting in London, spanning 2010 to 2019

Laffond has been the winemaker since 2012, and over time the approach has changed a little. ‘At the beginning, we were destemming everything; 2010, 2011 and 2012 were all destemmed,’ says Laffond. ‘Now it depends on the stems, but on average it is around 50:50.’ But there is no recipe, Laffond added. Instead, it varies by season – so if, for example, they have hail, they prefer to destem (the damage of the hail can create problems if whole bunches are used). After fermentation, it used to be that everything was aged in oak, in 500 litre barrels. Now they are aging one-third in small oak barrels and two-thirds in stainless steel tanks, the idea being that small oak doesn’t have to contribute obvious oak character if it is made from oak staves that have been properly prepared (the recent trend in the region has been to use ever-larger barrels to diminish oak impact, but this isn’t the only way to go).

‘When we arrived in 2009, we inherited barrels from the former owner that weren’t to our tastes,’ says Parinet. ‘So we had to renew all our barrels.’ As a result, for 2010, the barrels were quite new, while the average age now is four years. The Beaujolais wines made with new oak have ended up being quite taut and structured: wines for long ageing, but without an immediate fleshiness and drinkability.

chateau du molin beaujolais
The ten vintages tasted showed a noticeably structured and age-worthy quality, with the 2017 a highlight

The ten vintage Beaujolais wines shown were full of interest, and these appear to be structured, ageworthy wines; a particular highlight was the hail-affected 2017. The style has shifted a little over time more to approachability, but not at the expense of ageworthiness, with some of the more recent vintages showing early charm as well as structure. With other producers, such as Thibault Liger-Belair in Moulin-à-Vent, Mee Godard in Morgon, and Jules Desjourneys in Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent and Chénas all making structured vins de gardes, we may well be seeing the emergence of cru Beaujolais as fine wine.

‘I don’t think there is a reason why Beaujolais should be different from other wine regions,’ said Parinet. ‘In Oregon, the Rhône, Burgundy, Alsace – all these regions produce wines that can be for early drinking vins de joies or grand cru wines that can last a longer time. Moulin-à-Vent is a special place in Beaujolais where the match of Gamay and the soils makes something a little bit different.’