Gillaume de Castelnau looks cheerful for a man conveying disastrous news. As he gazes around a room full of stainless-steel fermenting tanks, he says: "Usually we produce 20 tanks. This year we have five." First there was the frost in April, which took away 20 per cent of potential production. In May came a fierce storm, which accounted for another 30 per cent. Finally, kindly nature sent a hailstorm in July. It took 60 per cent of the fruit off the vines in Moulin-à-Vent, and left pockmarks in every piece of vineyard wood still standing. But De Castelnau can still smile.
De Castelnau is lord and master of two outstanding properties in Beaujolais: Château des Jacques and Château de Bellevue (soon to be renamed Château des Lumière, after the cinematic pioneers who once lived there). Both are owned by Maison Louis Jadot, the top-notch negociant making wine in the adjoining regions of Beaujolais and Burgundy. At a certain point, Beaujolais blends fairly seamlessly into the southern reaches of the Macon - and wines labelled under one region could sometimes just as easily be labelled under the other.
Formerly fashionable, Beaujolais now ranks in the top three on anyone's list of tarnished wine brands. The primary reason will become clear in November, when certain sectors of the wine trade persist in drawing attention to Nouveau Beaujolais. This marketing triumph, though it has shifted a fair acreage of bottles over the years, has done huge damage to the region's standing. "The reputation of Gamay [the black grape used in Beaujolais] has been ruined by Nouveau Beaujolais," says Patrick McGrath of Hatch Mansfield, Jadot's UK distributor. De Castelnau calls Nouveau Beaujolais "Gamay juice", made with a method (carbonic maceration) that extracts only the simplest fruit flavours. "It's like having a big strong horse which can go very fast, but always making it walk."
This frustrated horse, the vast bulk of the area's production, never gets very expensive. Even the top wines rarely rise above £15. So while winemakers all over the New World long to make Pinot Noir as good as Burgundy's, Cabernet Sauvignon as good as Bordeaux's, and so forth, no one strives to make a Gamay as good as the best Beaujolais crus (wines from the area's 10 village-denominated appellations), even though these wines can achieve extraordinary heights. After a good spell of bottle-ageing, which the best wines invariably demand, they can come to resemble Burgundian Pinot Noir. And they represent good value, especially at the higher price levels. Essentially, you won't begin to see the point under around £6 a bottle.
If you want to get serious about Beaujolais, there are a few specialist merchants selling excellent ranges from some of the area's smaller producers. Two top names: Roger Harris (01603 880 171, www.beaujolaisonline.co.uk) and Nick Dobson (0800 8493 078, www.nickdobson wines.co.uk). If you want to start out with Jadot, its Moulin-à-Vent, Grand Clos de Rochegrès 1999 (£15, www.everywine.co. uk and independents) is the one to find: big, deeply scented and complex. My second choice, curiously, is its Beaujolais Villages Blanc 2001 (£8.99, same stockist), a white Burgundy in all but name, like a good-quality Macon in style and at a very reasonable price. Its basic Beaujolais Villages 2001 (£5.99, widely available), however, is the most reliable wine of this name under general distribution.
And with so little wine to make, what will De Castelnau be doing? "Oh, things we don't usually have time for. Repairs, fixing roofs..." Necessary work, but not nearly as interesting as making wine. *
Lo Tengo Malbec 2002, Bodegas Norton £4.99, Sainsbury's, Co-Op, Morrisons Satisfying rendition of Argentina's great grape, with a notably groovy label. Mid-week partner for a burger or pasta.
Finca Las Moras Viognier 2003 £4.99, Majestic, £7.98 for two until 2 November All the peach/apricot flavours you expect from Viognier, well balanced by fresh acidity. Good apéritif wine.
Elementos Shiraz Malbec 2002 £4.99, Sainsbury's, Londis A good and unusual blend, with nice spice, very soft tannins and a decent slug of oak. Partner for any meaty dish.
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