The Revival of Beaujolais

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A FRESH DROP: Can winemakers give Beaujolais a better rep?

After decades of good times, the Beaujolais winemaking region has been suffering a killer hangover. In the '80s and '90s, Beaujolais Nouveau was a global phenomenon, but abuses in overproduction and dubious vinification practices by some growers sullied the brand. These days Beaujolais is often seen as a mediocre, industrial product, rushed to bottle for release every November.

But a new generation of artisan winemakers is intent on fixing Beaujolais' bruised reputation. Three years ago, Marie-Elodie Zighera invested everything in her old family vineyard, Clos de Mez in Fleurie, determined "to change the image of the wines of Beaujolais." Her belief in the region's fare stems from a "sumptuous" 1911 Beaujolais Cru Morgon she once sampled. "I've tasted what they could do back then, and that's the style I'm searching for," she says. Zighera patiently vinifies in tiny volumes with the Gamay grapes' natural yeasts to create her elegant, structured Fleurie La Dot. (See where top romance movies were filmed.)

Driven by more humble if no less admirable ambitions, Karim Vionnet launched his Villié-Morgon vineyard to "make a wine that was simple and natural." That meant rejecting the common thermovinification technique (which he says homogenizes wines) in favor of a cold carbonic maceration that preserves freshness without added sulfites. His Beaujolais-Villages, with their ample red fruit flavors and light, tickling tannins, epitomize the French word for silky gulpability — gouleyant.

Vionnet credits his techniques to a group of Villié-Morgon-based winemakers dubbed the Morgon Gang of Four. In the '80s, Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton and Jean-Paul Thévenet gathered in opposition to "industrial wine" to make pesticide-free, nonsulfured, nonfiltered wines. Marcel's son Mathieu is heartened by the new crop of feisty purists. "The trend with many of the young winemakers today is to practice vinification and agriculture respectful of the region's identity," he says. The results are far more exciting than the cookie-cutter Beaujolais Nouveau of old. "We have different styles," says Zighera. "But we're all trying to make beautiful wines." Reason enough to give Beaujolais another try. (See reviews of 50 American wines.)

Wine Country: A Day in Beaujolais
With its medieval villages, rolling hills and lanes of lush Gamay vines, Beaujolais — which wine writer Rudolph Chelminski likens to a "Hollywood set for an ideal vineyard region" — is well worth the two-hour train ride from Paris. Visit Domaine Lapierre and the vineyards of the other members of the Morgon Gang of Four in Villié-Morgon, where you can sip and sleep at Domaine Jean Foillard's bed and breakfast, tel: (33) 4 74 04 24 97, overlooking the vine-covered Côte de Py hills.

Nearby in Fleurie, minutes from Zighera's vineyard, eat at the legendary Michelin-starred restaurant Le Cep, tel: (33) 4 74 04 24 97, where owner Chantal Chagny serves herb-crusted frogs' legs and other traditional country dishes with the best wines of the Beaujolais.

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