Bonjour and happy March to everyone! March is a capricious month weather wise (especially in Montana) ranging from warm and sunny to cold and snowing… so since its difficult to get dialed into one outdoor activity, its perfect for reading about and exploring (and yes of course drinking) wine!!
I hope that everyone is doing well and that at least a few of you were able to source some select and savory Sangiovese from Montalcino! I personally had a Rosso di Montalcino that was fabulous and honestly better than many Brunellos I’ve had in the past. It was from Podere Salicutti (which of course was on my recommended list to you all) and was simply delightful. Black cherry, mint, fresh flowers, leather, fennel, sandalwood, fresh turned earth, and black raspberry just exploded out of the glass. The palate was rich and flavorful, yet maintained a lovely elegance and finesse that resulted in impeccable balance. If you didn’t try one, maybe this reminiscence will be enough to tempt you!
Otherwise it was kind of a slow month here in Bozeman. I was not booked for any trips (guided outdoor adventures or wine adventures) which was a little disappointing. So I used the downtime to make some significant additions to the Newman Cellar. Since we are finally out of the really cold season here I have been able to actually ship and acquire these additions and organizing and cataloguing them have certainly been fun (my financial manager would argue that this is my favorite pastime). A few highlights of the new additions include JL Chave Hermitage rouge 1994 and 1996; Bruno Clavelier Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru La Combe d’Orveau 2009; Jean and Jean-Louis Trapet Latricieres Chambertin 2000; Georges Noellat Vosne Romanee 1er Cru Let Petits Monts 2012; Domaine Pegau Chateauneuf du Pape 1995… I’ll stop there, but suffice it to say that it has been a banner month for the cellar log. Unfortunately my lovely and thoughtful financial manager (yes she is still around and has not quit yet) has informed me that I may be living a lifestyle that my wallet cannot sustain (and that hers refuses to contribute to) so I am officially on wine buying restriction… such is life.
I have been able to get out on the bike a little bit and things are looking good so far. Based on early season form there is a solid chance that I will get scooped up by Peter Sagan’s Bora squad to become his new lead out man and peloton shepherd. Fingers crossed! Between his gorgeous flowing locks and my complete lack of any locks we would be quite the duo!
I am thankfully engaged for an exciting trip coming up here shortly. A couple longtime list members have booked me for a John Wesley Powell style adventure down the Green River and through Desolation Canyon. We will be running rapids by day and having gourmet wine dinners by night. For historical accuracy we have elected to use similar unwieldy oaken crafts to carry us down river. A challenge indeed, but that is certainly what we are looking for! If anyone has a satellite phone that we could borrow that would be helpful just in case our water reading skills are not quite up to par. As the name implies, Desolation Canyon is fairly remote… That being said it should be a great time and hopefully it won’t snow on us.
Again, I am available for trips, but my summer is filling rapidly, so get your reservations in (along with of course the 50% down payment, cash only) and I will get some more trips on the books! If business continues to boom I may soon be able to add some employees on also, so early applications are now being accepted. Applicants must be skilled at making espresso for me, willing to drink wine at 8:00am if certain tasting opportunities arise, and must be able to pass the Newman Wine Exam which includes a blind tasting (4/6 required to pass).
Ok, enough babbling on about half-truths, lets move forward to some wine! This month I am going to introduce you to a region that I think many of you will be fans of. I realize looking back at the list of topics we have visited that many of the regions we’ve discussed are not cheap or easy to acquire. Therefore this month I am going to introduce you to what I consider this to be one of the best value wine regions in the world. In addition, these wines are delicious without significant age so there is a minimal requirement to cellar. And finally, they are incredibly flexible with different foods making them easy to pair with whatever cuisine you tend to enjoy!
I am speaking of course of Beaujolais! Beaujolais has been referred to (slightly unfairly) as poor mans Burgundy. There are certainly many similarities between Burgundy and Beaujolais, but I definitely think the growers in Beaujolais have their own style of wines. Beaujolais is at the southern end of Burgundy, just before you hit the Rhone Valley (see map). It is technically considered to be part of Burgundy and you may see Red Burgundy Wine on some of the labels at the bottom, however I personally consider it to be an entirely separate region. The main reason for this is that they use an entirely different grape! The grape of Beaujolais is Gamay Noir (to be referred to only as Gamay in the future). Wait, you say, there is some Gamay grown in the Cote d’Or! Yes that is technically correct, however Gamay is only allowed to be included in one wine in Burgundy, which is the Bourgogne Passetoutgrains (literally means all the grapes), which is a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay. In Beaujolais the wines are 100% Gamay and certainly have some different characteristics. Gamay was once planted more extensively throughout all of Burgundy, but eventually was pushed out by Pinot Noir. Now Gamay is mostly a relic in Burgundy, but has its home in Beaujolais.
Gamay certainly has some similar characteristics to Pinot Noir in its flavor profile. It is generally a light garnet hue with lots of red berry fruits, floral notes, occasionally citrus (orange, blood orange, etc), and lovely minerality in some areas. It is a low tannin, moderate acidity grape that drinks well often right on release. It has generally low alcohol (12.5-13.5%). Gamay requires a very conscientious grower to make good wine. The vine is very robust and generally has high yields (which result in unripe or diluted flavors) unless it is very carefully managed. In the right hands it produces lovely fruit forward wines that are often not overly complicated and simply pleasurable (though that is a generalization as I have had beautiful, age-worthy, and complex wines from Beaujolais as well).
Now, lets look a little more in depth into the actual region. Unfortunately, Beaujolais is one of best places to find great values, because much of the wine produced there is pure plonk that is not really worth your time… So navigating this minefield requires a bit of background knowledge. There are 4 levels of wine in Beaujolais (sound familiar? Yes there are 4 levels of wine in Burgundy also!). The first is called Beaujolais Nouveau. This is a wine that I would recommend trying once or twice, but in general I find them to be uninteresting. This category was essentially created to allow quick cash flow for producers. It is the only wine that is released essentially immediately after the grapes are harvested. Grapes are picked (generally in September), they are fermented (generally about 2-4 weeks), and then put in bottle and sold on the 3rd Thursday of November immediately after the harvest. So literally it is available for sale about 2 months after the harvest! It can be fun to taste a very fresh Nouveau for the pure fruits, but they are generally simple quaffers. If you haven’t drank it within a few months of release it is already on the downhill side of its life.
The next level is simply called Beaujolais. This is a regional wine that can come from anywhere within the bounds of Beaujolais. There are some decent wines in this category, but more often these are again simple, fruit forward wines without much to make them intriguing.
The 3rd level begins to provide a bit more interest. This is called Beaujolais-Villages. This level implies that the grapes were grown in one of the 39 villages that have been recognized over the years for a higher degree of excellence. These wines from good producers can be very tasty and are better balanced than the lower levels. They are also generally quite affordable ($15-20). This is usually where I start to purchase Beaujolais.
The final level however is where the real gems are. This is the “cru” Beaujolais level. There are 10 crus in Beaujolais and essentially these are the 10 villages that have shown over many years that they produce significantly higher quality wine. These can be a little more difficult to sort out because here you will only see the name of the village on the label rather than the word Beaujolais. So memorize a few of these 10 and keep your eyes peeled for them. The 10 crus are: Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Brouilly, Cotes de Brouilly, Chenas, Regnie, Julienas, Saint-Amour, and Chiroubles. My favorites of these (and often the most common to see in the market place) are Morgon, Fleurie, and Moulin-a-Vent. I also enjoy Julienas and Regnie. These wines are all slightly different. Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent probably produce the most age-worthy and complex wines of the bunch. Fleurie and Julienas are known more for finesse and elegance. Most of the others are somewhere in between. The cru level wines are a bit more pricey than the lower levels, however in the scheme of fine wine they are still a steal as you can often find them for $25 or so and I have never paid over $50 for one. I have had cru Beaujolais that drinks better or equivalent to wines that are 3-5 times its price! See below for an example of a label to help you find these wines.
The cru level wines can be exceptional and often contain quite a bit of what the French refer to as “pinote” meaning that the wines exhibit some characteristics of pinot noir from just north of Beaujolais. While they certainly have some similar characteristics, they are clearly different wines. I find that the cru level wines also just have another dimension in concentration and depth compared to the lower levels. These wines are also the only ones that really have much track record for cellaring. I have had 7-10 year old bottles that are stellar and certainly have evolved positively. That being said, they are often so delicious young it’s difficult to cellar them….
Ok, now that you know the basics of Beaujolais (I’ll spare you more in depth discussion of the crus for now) we can move into pairing and producers. As I mentioned above, these wines are similar to pinot noir in their weight and tannins and therefore are very adaptable at the table. They excel with fowl and light game (rabbit, probably squirrel although I’ve never tried it) and can be delicious with general grill fare during the summer. They are stellar with risotto of all different types (a recent pairing for me was a butternut squash and pancetta risotto which was stellar when paired with a Morgon). Vegetarian fare can even be thrown into the mix. A nice tofu dish would be delicious (well, not really, but the wine would pair well anyway). Asian fare with ginger/soy base and not a lot of spice also makes a nice accompaniment. I find that some fish can throw off the flavor of the wines however; mild, meaty fishes like tuna, halibut, opah, etc can be quite nice. So really what I’m saying is you have lots of options which is great because I know that many of my readers are health conscious and do not always want to be drinking wines that require big, hearty, meaty meals. Buy a case of Beaujolais and go to town!
Lets now move on to the meat of the email, which is what most people skip to every month… specific wines to be on the lookout for. As I mentioned, there is a lot of swill produced in Beaujolais so it’s a place to pick your producer wisely. That being said, I think over the last 5-6 years there has been more positive development with young and excellent wine makers coming into the area and reviving a once fading region. The original producers that rekindled the love for traditional Beaujolais were discovered by Kermit Lynch (a famous importer for those of you not familiar with him) and termed “The gang of four”. These four producers eschewed the current practices in the area at the time (which were largely based on high production) and went back to a more natural style of winemaking with the primary focus really going back to developing quality fruit in the vineyard. These are the originals and classics and I buy them almost every time I see one. Jean Foillard, Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton, and Jean-Paul Thevenet. These four moved away from commercial style wine making with selected yeasts and lots of chemicals in the vineyards and followed the principals laid out by Jules Chauvet who was an atypical although excellent vigneron at the time. The wines from these 4 are to me the essence of Beaujolais and I highly recommend them. Foillard makes wines from Morgon (a couple different sites and cuvees) along with Fleurie (which is fantastic). Lapierre make primarily Morgon along with a small amount of Julienas. Breton makes a fabulous Morgon and also makes Regnie, Beaujolais Villages, and Cote de Brouilly. Jean Paul Thevenet makes only Morgon.
In addition, there are numerous other producers that are making excellent wine in Beaujolais. Domaine Diochon produces powerful and cellar worthy Moulin-a-Vent. Charly Thevenet (Jean Paul’s son) makes a lovely Regnie. Chateau Thivin makes very good Cote de Brouilly. Louis Boillot (of Burgundy fame) makes excellent Moulin-a-Vent. Thibault Liger-Belair also makes excellent Moulin-a-Vent. Another of my personal favorites, Yvon Metras makes Fleurie and Moulin-a-Vent that are incredibly expressive and delicious. Alain Coudert also makes several Fleurie cuvees under the Clos de la Roilette label and the 2 I have had are delightful. Louis Latour and Potel-Aviron also make nice examples from multiple areas and levels. Joseph Drouhin makes a tasty Beaujolais-Villages that is often available for around $12-14. There are certainly many other up and coming producers in Beaujolais, unfortunately I have not had the time to try them all yet… Here is a list of other producers that I have read good things about, but have not personally tasted: Nicole Chanrion, Domaine de la Chapelle, Domaine Chignard, Domaine Lafarge-Vial, Laurent Perrachon, and Julien Sunier.
Well I suspect that will give most of you more than enough to digest and attempt to read without falling asleep for another month. I do hope that with spring around the corner and grilling season nearing or already in full swing that you will all pick up some Beaujolais and try it. It is a lovely and delicious wine and I suspect if you give it a chance you will be rewarded with years of drinking pleasure (for very reasonable prices!). I will sign off here and touch base again after a flawless run of Desolation Canyon next month. Otherwise all of us at the Newman Wine Letter wish you well and hope to drink some good wine with many or all of you soon.
J. “Nouveau” Newman, CSW