Growers bank on climate change to halt slide in sales of Beaujolais

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The Independent Online

The gravel drive at the Château de Talancé in the Beaujolais hills is silent and empty. No sports cars or Rolls-Royces will drive from London this November to dash home stuffed with crates of wine and announce: " Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé".

"One November we had six Ferraris with British number plates parked outside the chateau," Denis Chilliet remembers ruefully. "They turned around and went straight back to London loaded to the roof with 'Nouveau'. Why they came all that way in Ferraris baffled me. Ferraris don't even have a boot. That's just how it used to be. Crazy."

M. Chilliet, president of the Appellation Beaujolais wine-producers, calls it the "time of euphoria": the time when first France, then Britain, then much of the rest of the world decided to throw a big party on the third Thursday in November to drink a "fast wine" which had still been hanging on the vine only two months earlier.

The euphoria – in Britain and France – ended some time in the late 1990s. Poor quality wine in some years, and from some producers, diluted the enthusiasm for Beaujolais Nouveau and for all forms of Beaujolais.

"Nouveau" remains a national obsession in Japan. Last autumn, the Japanese drank 12 million bottles – one bottle for every 10 men, women and children.

Elsewhere, especially in Britain, but also in France and Germany, sales have collapsed over the past half dozen years, creating something which would have been unheard of in the 1980s: a Beaujolais wine lake.

Despite the tearing out of hundreds of acres of surplus vines, despite the best efforts of the Japanese, Beaujolais Nouveau prices are rock bottom once again this year: reaching only just over one euro a litre. Many growers have been forced out of business; scores of others are facing the prospect of selling, or grubbing up, vineyards which have been in the same family for a dozen generations.

The Beaujolais Nouveau 2007 vintage will be sold from two minutes past midnight tonight, causing mild interest in France, national excitement in Japan, but nothing like the old fervour in Britain.

Beaujolais, however, is starting to fight back. For the first time this year a substantial amount of a Beaujolais Nouveau rosé will be sold. There is also a significant drive to improve quality.

"We were carried away with the euphoria," said Dominique Piron, a wine producer and trader at Morgon, in the northern part of the beautiful Beaujolais hills, just north west of Lyons. "The more mass-produced forms of Beaujolais Nouveau were sometimes, frankly, bad and damaged the image not only of Nouveau but of all types of Beaujolais.

"Worse than that, the fad for Nouveau meant that even the better forms of Beaujolais, the ten 'crus' such as Morgon, Fleurie, Chiroubles, were made in the light, 'nouveau' style, without the richness and subtlety that good Beaujolais should always have.

"We have to turn that around and make the quality of our best wines an advertisement for Nouveau. Some people are already doing that but this is a very conservative, wine-growing area with hundreds of small producers, who know nothing about marketing."

Improvement of the quality of all Beaujolais, including "Nouveau", is being achieved by reducing the weight of grapes generated from each hectare of vineyard.

Producers, like M. Chilliet, are also turning to modern – but also more natural – cultivation methods, such as reducing the use of herbicides and allowing the grass to grow between the rows of vines.

Something else is helping them: global warning. Meteorologists say that in climate terms, the Beaujolais region has been in effect transported 100 kilometres (60 miles) to the south in the past 20 years. The Gamay grapes used for Beaujolais were harvested this year from 25 August, compared to the traditional date of 15 September.

"Gamay is not a simple grape to grow whatever the conditions," M. Chilliet said. "This was not an easy summer, especially with all the rain in August. But the season is definitely growing longer with the global change in the climate. If you are trying to produce a same-year wine, that is absolutely crucial. It gives us another two to three weeks for the wine to mature in the bottles, at a time when every day can be precious."

M. Chilliet says that this year's Beaujolais Nouveau should be a classic, "a real Beaujolais, light and refreshing, without the heavy fruitiness given by the hot summers of recent years."

Judging by The Independent's brief preview of M. Chilliet's 2007 Nouveau, it is not bad at all, more like a real, light wine and not so much like the alcoholic rasberryade churned out by some of the less scrupulous, or careful, Beaujolais producers in previous years. Perhaps one day a squadron of Ferraris will once again disturb the peace of the Château du Grand Talancé.