Occasionally an opportunity comes along that's just far too good to pass up. Last autumn, I was visited a producer in Beaujolais and helped with their vendage (harvest). Over the course of a week I picked grapes, cleaned out vats and generally got in the way of the professionals.
I stayed at Château de Pizay, who are a fairly large yet very highly respected producer of Beaujolais and in particular Morgon. They also support smaller producers by helping out with equipment and lending a hand whenever is necessary, which is where I came in.
I had a fantastic time with Pascal, and learned an awful lot about the differences in styles of Beaujolais, for example the reason they grow Gamay just south of the Mâconnais rather than Chardonnay or Pinot Noir is that the soils change significantly. In northern Burgundy (Chablis, Côtes d'Or, Côtes Chalonaise) and the Mâconnais the soils range from clay to limestone, perfect for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Further south in Beaujolais however, the soils change to granite and sand. These soils are not well suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This is where Gamay makes it's name.
Gamay is an interesting grape and whilst it is not rare, it has, like Beaujolais, fallen out of favour with the UK wine drinking public. Probably due to those Beaujolais Nouveau parties held in the 1980's. That however is not the sort of Beaujolais I am talking about. Beaujolais Nouveau and Beaujolais AOC are the lowest level of appellations. The Gamay grapes come from poorer soils and poorer sites (often from the very far south, almost in the Rhone valley). The grapes are macerated for a shorter period of time to bring out the fruit but not the tannins. You end up with a wine tasting of candied fruit and lost hope.
What I get excited about is proper Beaujolais Village or Cru Beaujolais. There are ten villages which are thought to produce better Gamay than any of the others, they are allowed to put their village name on the bottle (the most famous probably being Fleurie.) These wines come from the better soils and better sites, and winemakers give the grape bunches a longer carbonic maceration, giving the finished wine more structure and complexity. The richest, longest lived and most complex Beaujolais come from the Cru vineyards which have this amazing, volcanic, blue-green granite soil/rock. It is in these soils the Gamay grapes have the most complexity. Moulin-à-Vent and Côtes de Brouilly would be the 2 appellations to hunt out.
The Beaujolais I had a (tiny) hand in making is a Brouilly (Côtes de Brouilly is an ancient Volcanic hill surrounded by the vineyards of Brouilly), and it comes from a village on the southeastern edge of Côtes de Brouilly called Saint-Lager. As such, it too has this fantastic blue-green granitic soil and you get a wine with great fruit, structure, complexity and length.
Ok, so we bought some, but I can assure you we didn't so it out of some misplaced sentimentality. This is a super wine, filled with crunchy red berries and black fruit as well as an earth complexity and great structure. It also has more longevity than you would think, with the ability to develop for up to 5 years if cellared properly.
Potentially Cru Beaujolais is also the best food match to a Barbecue: light enough to drink whilst cooking, yet with enough structure and complexity to stand up to the grilled meats and rich sauces.