INTRODUCTION- I have enjoyed wine for most of my 69 years having sampled my first wine I was but three years of age (mixed with water). I have met Kings and Queens, Presidents and Prime Ministers, but nothing was as thrilling to me as my recent visit to Beaujolais, the Rhone, tasting with Georges and Franck Duboeuf and their counterpart in the Rhone Marcel and Philippe Guigal. I first met the senior Duboeuf about 15 years ago when he journeyed to New York to present his Nouveau in the fall and his Cru Beaujolais selections in the spring; a few years ago his son Franck joined him during these trips. Philippe Guigal is almost 30 years old and the last time I saw him he was 10 and my brother and I took father, mother (Bernadette) and son to dinner at Sparks Steak House in New York City. But I was coming to their country and it was to see them, taste their wines and visit their wineries. A bonus for me was a short visit and tasting at Beaucastel, the greatest producer of Chateauneuf du Pape, and a vineyard tour with the Prince of the Rhone- J.Vidal-Fleury. But we are getting ahead of ourselves; let’s return to the point of origin; New York City.
The 11PM Air France flight to Paris is a favorite for several reasons. One, there is very little traffic going to the airport late on a Saturday night. Two, the Air France terminal is almost empty and I was able to be upgraded to business class which made the 7 hour flight much more pleasant. A short 1 ½ hour layover gave me enough time to get to the other terminal and board another Air France flight to Lyon. My other option was the TGV fast train right from Charles de Gaulle airport that took about two hours. But that would have meant waiting for my luggage and moving it to the train station so I opted for the easy 1 hour flight. This is a wine rather than a travel story but I am adding certain sources and suggestions to help you with your trip planning. A taxi from the Lyon airport would have been about $60 so I hopped on the waiting bus to the train station and then a short taxi ride to the 4 Star Sofitel Bellecour Hotel in the center of the city (total cost about $20). A few hours were spent walking the city core and I was ready for bed as my adventure began early the next day. The Duboeuf’ operations are in Romaneche- Thorin, less than an hours drive.
More Information- www.lyon-france.com
BEAUJOLAIS AND GEORGES DUBOEUF- In the 1950’s Georges Duboeuf began selling wine from his home in the Macon area and delivering his wares by bicycle .In 1957 he met the late Alexis Lichine who encouraged him in his vinous pursuits and purchased wine from him. Georges calls Alexis “one of my heroes”. Editors Note- In 1964 I was an apprentice at the Lichine owned Chateau Lascombes and learned much of what I know about the marketing of wine from Alexis. In 1964 Duboeuf started the company that bears his name selling mainly Pouilly Fuisse. Since he needed a red wine for his portfolio he traveled to Beaujolais and discovered his nirvana. Remember, this is a story about vision, pleasure, eye-appeal and love of the grape. At present over 500 vignerons and 40 cooperatives in Beaujolais sell their wares to Duboeuf, most with only a handshake for an agreement. Presently Duboeuf sells a million cases in the US (3 million worldwide) through his importers Yale Sager of Winesellers Ltd. and Bill Deutsch of W.J.Deutsch & Sons Ltd. who began representing his wines in 1980. W.J.Deutsch & Sons cover the east coast and Winesellers the balance of the country.
History- Beaujolais owes its name to the Sires of Beaujeu, who reigned over this region during the 9th to 11th centuries. Historians believe that wines were first planted here in the Gallo Roman era, dating back to the 4th and 5th century.
Geography- Beaujolais occupies an area 30 miles long and 8 miles wide in the southernmost part of burgundy with Macon to the north and the Rhone to the south. Lyon, the third largest city in France after Paris and Marseilles, is a half hour south. Beaujolais is very hilly with granite mountainsides and its latitude is similar to that of Portland, Oregon.
Vineyards, soils and grape variety- 1/3 of the area (55,000 acres) are covered by vineyards with the granite soil in the northern vineyards giving aromas of ripe fruit and faded roses and the clay soil in the south reminding many of red fruits. 98% of the vineyards are planted in Gamay with 2% in Chardonnay, which is used in the small production of Beaujolais Blanc. There are over 4,000 grape growers and 15 million cases of all type of Beaujolais sold worldwide and the US imports about 15% of the total. This area has the highest density of grapevines in the world; over 4,000 vines per acre.
Winemaking- Grape picking is done manually since machine harvesting is not allowed and the fermentation is accomplished by a unique method known as semi-carbonic maceration where bunches of grapes are placed in vats (wood, stainless steel or concrete). The weight of the top grapes makes those at the bottom burst and begins to ferment and this warms the vat, causing fermentation to begin inside the skins of the whole grapes. The result is great fruit extraction and red wines that benefit from being served slightly chilled.
Appellation- Beaujolais- Comes mainly from the southern area of the region with a fragrance of red fruit and berries and are mostly consumed within France and Europe (7 million cases). Beaujolais Villages- The best seller in the US, mostly from the central and northern part of Beaujolais (37 communes). These wines are soft, velvety and fruity (almost 4 million cases). Crus- the 10 Crus are wines named after 10 northern villages. The cru name will appear on the label, often without the word Beaujolais. Here they are alphabetically: Brouilly- Largest and most southern, grown just below Cote de Brouilly; Chenas- Smallest cru that ages well; Chiroubles- Highest altitude and most feminine; Cote de Brouilly- Steep slopes on Mont Brouilly; Fleurie- The queen of Beaujolais; Julienas- The name comes from Julies Caesar; Morgan- Improves with age after 1 to 2 years in the bottle; Moulin-A-Vent- Biggest and longest lived, oak aged, named after the windmill, not the village; Regnie- Newest Cru- 1988; Saint-Amour- Most northerly cru. Noveau- This fresh, fruity wine (raspberry and red current) is bottled in November and released in the US on the 3rd Thursday of November (4 million cases) and is best consumed within 4 months of bottling. Nouveau was first exported in the 1960”s and today is 18% of Duboeuf’s business.
Georges Duboeuf started in the Maconnais, just north of Beaujolais, and today sells Macon-Villages, Saint-Veran and his first wine- Pouilly Fuisse. From the Cotes du Rhone (northern Rhone just south of Lyon to the southern Rhone near Avignon) come Cotes du Rhone red and white, Cote Rotie, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Gigondas, Saint Joseph, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cotes du Ventoux, Cotes du Luberon and Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. His grape varietals including Merlot, Syrah, Viognier, Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc that come from the Vin de Pays D’Oc in south- central France, on the Mediterranean, the largest wine region in the world. His Loire wines come from Vin De Pay Du Jardin De La France and finally there are the Georges Duboeuf Cuvee red and white table wines.
Georges has organized his wines into several categories, including the flower Label which is blended from coops and growers including Beaujolais, the Crus, Macon and the classic varietals. The Prestige Label is from the oldest vineyards, the best of plant exposure and limited yield wines including: Julienas, Brouilly, Morgan, Fleurie, Moulin-A-Vent, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pouilly Fuisse. The recently launched New Generation Reserves come in very colorful packaging and include Beaujolais , Chardonnay, Merlot, and Shiraz and some are kept for up to three years in barrel. His top of the line wines are the individual domaine producer Beaujolais with the names of each grower on the label. I visited two such growers; Domaine des Rosiers produces 10,000 cases of Moulin-A-Vent plus a small amount of Chenas. He began selling to Georges in 1976 and today proprietor Gerard Charvet sells him 80% of his 10,000 case production. Jean Ernest Descombes has 7,000 cases of Morgan that his daughter Nicole Descombes Savoye insists be bottled on her property. She started selling to Georges in 1968 who today takes 95% of her production.
Duboeuf in Romaneche- Thorin: There are two new building; each with a storage capacity of 1 million cases that were built between 1995 and 2000. Yet they still need more room since there are 5 million bottles stored without labels awaiting orders. There are bottling lines with a capacity of 4,000, 6,000, 8,000, 10,000 and one that can even handle 15,000 bottles per hour. Remember Duboeuf has between 100 and 130 different labels available in the US. In 2002 they built their newest building, the Jardin Georges Duboeuf, with winemaking facilities for grapes from the over 80 winegrowers and a capacity of 120,000 cases. The building is open year round to the public and includes a museum and audiovisual center. Outside is the Jardin des Vignes with 6 small-scale theme gardens and a rose garden. To insure top quality George and Frank taste two hours every day and five hours per day after the harvest. My guide for most of my visit was Christian de Brises, the export manager who also travels to the US.
Plaisirs en Beaujolais- This name encompasses the Garden, Museum and Railroad Station. Georges has built the first museum relating to the vine and wine in France (The Hamlet of Wine) with a two hour tour either self-guided with audio visual available in English or a guided tour. At the end of the tour there is a wine tasting and the ever present gift shop. I had a quick tour of the museum that included a 3D film, winemaking techniques, cellar cooperage and vinification, glass, cork and capsules along with an art gallery, an animation theatre and a viticulture section. The museum is open 9AM- 6PM from April to August and 10AM-5PM the rest of the year. But the museum is just part of the Hamlet which also includes La Gare reflecting Georges and Frank’s fascination with trains. On the ground floor is the Imperial carriage of Napoleon III dating from 1855. The original railroad station was constructed in 1954 and the first floor now contains a collection of miniature trains and a model railroad setup. There is also a private collection of railroad memorabilia and the basement has video and film rooms. The hours of La Gare are 10AM-7PM May through October and 10AM-6PM the rest of the year. The complete visit costs $25 and it is $13 for only the garden tour.
More Information- www.beaujolais.com
PART 2- A DAY IN THE RHONE WITH GUIGAL- In addition to my stay at Lyon’s Sofitel Bellecour, I spent two nights at the Minotel Hotel de La Loire directly across the street from the main railroad station. Ampuis is less than an hour’s drive north and I was surprised than Philippe Guigal drove into Lyon to pick me up. A lot has changed since I last met him some 20 years ago. Robert Parker: “From this firms Cotes du Rhone to excellent Chateauneuf-du-Pape, exquisite Condrieu and mind-boggling Cote Rotie, there is no winemaker on planet Earth who has produced so many compelling wines irrespective of the vintage conditions as Marcel Guigal”. And a superstar was born.
Back in 1924 Marcel’s father Etienne began working at J.Vidal-Fleury when he was 14 and became the general manager in the 1930’s before leaving in 1946 to start E. Guigal. His son Marcel joined the firm in 1961 and his son Philippe in 1997 with a degree in viticulture and oenology. In 1984 Marcel bought the firm J.Vidal-Fleury and today both companies operate completely separately. There is a similarity with the Duboeuf family since there is always a family member at the winery. When Philippe picked me up at my hotel in Lyon his dad was in Paris on business and his mother was incapacitated at home (attached to the winery) after an operation on her foot, yet she still managed to oversee everything.
In the Guigal cellars there is a Roman stone dating to 1216 and Philippe told me he was due to move into Chateau D’Ampuis (the town of Ampuis was founded over 2,400 years ago) in the late spring. By comparison, J Vidal-Fleury is a youngster, having started in 1781. Guigal’s oldest cellar, which is a natural 55 degrees with 95% humidity, used to be owned by J. Vidal-Fleury; the two newest cellars were built 10 and 4 years ago to accommodate their 1 ½ million bottle storage capacity. Guigal has made its reputation with Cote Rotie, especially the three single vineyards that are aged 42 months in cask. There is La Mouline (5,000 bottles), La Turque (4,800 bottles) that once was part of the Fleury portfolio and now gives Guigal a vineyard in the Cote Brune and La Landonne (10,000 bottles) which was planted the year Philippe was born. Philippe believes that St. Joseph will be their next breakthrough wine and they have released two white and three red St. Joseph’s including a single vineyard for each color. I have been a fan of the Cotes du Rhone and at under $12 it is a terrific value. My other favorite is the Cote Rotie Chateau D’Ampuis which was started in 1995 and uses grapes from 6 different vineyards, aged for three years and priced between the Cote Rotie and the three single vineyards. Gaining in reputation is their Condrieu sourced from purchased grapes and the two acres of vineyards they own which produces their single vineyard La Doriane.
Philippe and I discussed a major problem for small to medium size French companies; the French law that now restricts workers to a 35 hour work week (they get paid for 39 hours) and no overtime. For that reason they close Friday afternoon and all weekend. This presents a problem during the harvest and in the winemaking process. Since everything is hand picked with no mechanical harvesting and with 6 million bottles produced (half of that is of their Cotes du Rhone) all are being supervised by the three Guigal’s. There are only 15 other people in the whole company, but not counting vineyard workers. The US is their best market with over 100,000 cases sold through Fred Ek and his Ex Cellar company who has never been a written contract, only a handshake.
Both of these family owned companies are true examples of hands-on operations and of a caring, loving relationship with the product, their workers and their importer partners in the US. Big may be better but quality in both wine and people is very obvious. I was a fan before arriving at Duboeuf & Guigal and am now the official unpaid cheerleader for both companies.
More Information- www.sofitel.com
PART 3- SHORT VISITS WITH J.VIDAL-FLEURY AND BEAUCASTEL- The firm was founded in 1781(the oldest firm in the Rhone Valley) by Joseph Andre Vidal who in 1787 greeted Thomas Jefferson in Ampuis and plied him with Vin d’Ampuis (later to be called Cote Rotie) and Condrieu. His great grandson married a Fleury and when his son Joseph Vidal-Fleury died in 1979 none of the children were involved with the company and the firm floundered. In 1985 Etienne Guigal (who had worked for Joseph Vidal) and his son Marcel acquired the operation and placed it under the watchful eye of Jean-Pierre Rochias assisted by Jacques Regnier-Vigouroux, the export manager, who was my tour guide. Today they still run the company completely separately from E. Guigal, except they share a vineyard manager. In 2005 they will begin construction of a new winery.
J. Vidal-Fleury’s style differs from Guigal in the use of less oak and immediate drink- ability. There are 25 acres planted in vines in Cote Rotie with two of those being their single vineyard- La Chatillonne (4,000 bottles). The total production of the company is about 83,000 cases with but five people running the operation. Forty percent of their wine is sold in France and the US is their biggest export market. All their red wines, including Cotes du Rhone, spend at least 4 months in oak.
In a bit over an hour I traveled from Lyon to Avignon by TGV fast train and was picked up for my tour and tasting by Francois Langlois, the sommelier for Chateau Beaucastel. In 2002 they did not produce a red Beaucastel as 60% of the harvest was lost due to heavy rains. They produce between 180,000- 200,000 bottles of Beaucastel and single vineyards and 100,000 bottles of Coudoulet Cotes du Rhone from vines that are an average age of 50 years. 70% of their production is exported with 30% of that coming to their number one market, the US. Francois prepared a very interesting tasting for me showing examples of all 14 grape authorized for inclusion in Chateauneuf-du-Pape (we were taught there were 13 varieties; the 14th is white Grenache) each vinified separately and tasted before the blending process. They include: Mouvedre, both white & red Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Picpoul, Rousanne etc. In 1909 the Perrin family acquired Beaucastel and today Jean-Pierre & Francois Perrin along with the fifth generation of Marc, Pierre & Thomas Perrin operate the firm
The low rainfall and Mistral winds dry and clear the air, and combine with long sunshine hours and high temperatures to give Beaucastel its distinct terroir. The limestone soil is stony and porous, allowing a deep root system. The estate is about 320 acres, of which 250 are planted with vines, seventy within Chateauneuf-du-Pape (Chateau de Beaucastel), 30 within the Cotes du Rhone (Coudoulet de Beaucastel). No chemical fertilizers, pesticides or insecticides are used since Beaucastel has farmed organically since 1964.
The walled city of Avignon was home to the Papacy during the 14th Century and they built the Palace of The Popes during the period 1334-1362. The Clarion Hotel Cloitre St.Louis was my home and is a perfect starting point for visits to the southern Rhone & Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
More Information- www.choicehotelseurope.com