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Beaujolais: Discovering The Quiet Side Of France

“ON A CLEAR DAY” WINEMAKER JULIEN SUNIER tells me in the kitchen of his farmhouse cottage, “you can see Mont Blanc from our porch.” I’m finding this hard to imagine. We are in Beaujolais, a region of gentle hills and tidy villages tucked between the Loire and Rhone Rivers, hundreds of kilometres from the austere Alps. Also, it’s February, and the sky is leaden white. The precipitation in the air is palpable. I can barely see my rental car, parked in the mist shrouding Sunier’s driveway. But let it snow. The house, which doubles as Sunier’s winery, is snug. Jazz music emanates from somewhere, and Sunier’s wife, Sylvie, has constructed a midday meal of roast pork and Brussels sprouts with mustard and salsify (one of my favourite root vegetables).

Over a pear tart, Sunier says that Beaujolais has been overlooked for years but now is beginning to draw tourists and permanent transplants, such as the two of them, from Burgundy, just up the autoroute. At 37, Julien Sunier is at the forefront of a new generation of Beaujolais producers that has turned the area’s reputation for modest, unmemorable wines—including the insidious Beaujolais nouveau—on its head. His three bottlings, each from grapes grown in a different tillage, are as refreshing as crisp apples, softly fruity, and with alcohol contents low enough that you can enjoy some at lunch and not be addled in the afternoon. The appeal of these wines cannot be expressed in ratings points or auction values. It’s in how the wines enhance what I’m eating, how they exist as beverages rather than artistic statements, how they remind me of a summer picnic.

Beaujolais, in eastern France is one of the historic winemaking regions of the country.
Beaujolais, in eastern France is one of the historic winemaking regions of the country.

No one here, not even the winemakers, sits around solemnly intoning about the aromas in the glass. In fact, the wine may not be mentioned until halfway through a meal. Then, somewhere between the talk and the laughter, someone will take a sip, glance at the bottle, and say out loud, “Hey, this is pretty good. “ The same easy accessibility is a hallmark of this corner of central France. Though parts of this nation offer an inscrutable, even pompous face to the outside world, Beaujolais throws open its arms.

Its scenery is soft, like a watercolour. Hillsides covered with vines give way to a bend in the road dictated, likely as not, by some property dispute centuries ago. On my way to Sunier’s I passed small goat farms and roadside restaurants with blackboard menus scrawled in chalk. Inevitably, I’d reach a village centred on a centuries-old church. Sunier and I drive down the hill to one of these, in his town of Avenas. Along the road, once part of the Roman Via Agrippa between Lyon and Boulogne, sits the stone Church of Notre Dame.

Bulkier than other churches I’ve seen, it dates to the 12th century and is known for a sculpted altar that guidebooks call one of the finest in medieval France—though you’d never know that from the small size of the sign directing visitors to the site. Even tourism here is understated. I stand before the altar and contemplate the seated figures of Christ and the 12 apostles. Then Sunier leads me outside to a bar attached to the local restaurant, Le Relais des Sapins (“Inn of the Fir Trees”). A man grasps Sunier by the shoulders and gives him a hearty embrace.

“He’s the mayor,” Sunier tells me as we sit down. “I’m not from here, as you know. But in Beaujolais, that’s not a problem.” It’s in public spaces like this, I’ve already learned, where the social life of the region plays out: in restaurants, outdoor markets, town squares, and small shops, from which a traveller can’t exit without hearing a singsong chorus of “Bon voyage!” If a visitor shows up at a bar, it’s not uncommon for locals to walk over and introduce themselves. “When someone notices you have an empty glass, you will immediately have a full glass,” Sunier says. “Within half an hour, you’ll know everyone.”

THOUGH I’VE BEEN WRITING about wine for two decades, it never occurred to me to visit Beaujolais until now. The wine-tourism boom, which began in the 1990s when American consumers sought out renowned producers and celebrated restaurants in California’s Napa Valley, Bordeaux, Tuscany, and beyond, missed the region entirely. Before World War II, Beaujolais wines were considered some of France’s finest. The French appellation d’origine controlee system, which permits food products to bear place-names only if the raw materials are actually from there, was created in 1935 in part to stop Burgundian producers from labelling their cheaper Pinot Noir with the names of Beaujolais villages. That’s how much cachet Beaujolais had. But by 1945, the local economy had ground to a halt.

Those who get to Beaujolais can spend a few hours enjoying some delicious treats from the country of wines.
Those who get to Beaujolais can spend a few hours enjoying some delicious treats from the country of wines.

Adopting high-volume production methods and chemical fertilizers to grow far more fruit—and make far more profit from the same land—proved difficult to resist. The delicate Camay grape, the region’s mainstay, seemed to suffer from such treatment. By the 1990s, Burgundies were selling for up to $500 (almost ^35,000) a bottle. Beaujolais had devolved into all-but-tasteless plonk. At about the same time, wine revolutionary Marcel Lapierre was pioneering a movement in Beaujolais away from industrial-scale wines towards wines made by the bottle, using grapes untouched by synthetic chemicals. When Lapierre died in 2010, the baton passed to his son, Mathieu, to Sunier, and others. After slow growth, their movement has gained a following. A steady stream of visitors now comes through for the wine and ends up entranced by the place itself. Beaujolais has few guided tours or formal tasting rooms. The main concession to organized tourism is the Beaujolais wine route, between Lyon to the south and Macon to the north, which links towns—bearing names I knew only from labels on bottles—spaced through the rolling countryside.

Marked with an official logo, the route follows a network of roads, including various shortcuts down glorified goat paths with street signs. Even with a GPS, this labyrinth of a course around villages and past vineyards is baffling to anyone who hasn’t grown up in the area. After a couple of days of three-point turns and backtracking, I give up on the signs and head into the hills. The sun has been up only an hour or two, and the air seems to shimmer with the freshness of the morning. The France Musique station is playing Debussy on my car radio as I sweep through a landscape of tall pines and granite outcroppings that makes the Alps feel not so distant after all. I dip down to Julienas, a village known for violet-scented wine and a cavernous church that probably could hold all 850 villagers. I walk Rue Alphonse Burdot, stopping in a patisserie to eye the pastries. Then I spot a bar across from the post office.

I’d been told that Beaujolais natives start drinking in the morning. Not brandy, as physical labourers traditionally did throughout Europe, but tiny glasses of Beaujolais, rouge or blanc. When I arrive, three men are sitting at the counter doing just that. It’s 10.30 a.m., but they greet me with such earnest good cheer (alcohol-induced, maybe, but compelling nonetheless) that I join them. Soon were talking, which astonishes me because I don’t speak enough French to carry a conversation beyond perfunctory pleasantries. Stuffing a wave of hospitality, I’m forming sentences and conveying ideas. Yes, it’s my first time in Beaujolais. Sure, it would be better to be here in the summer, but perhaps not, as I’m getting a sense of the authentic Beaujolais. To this they nod in agreement. “Sans maquillage,” one of them says. Beaujolais without makeup. My wine, a simple white, is from Pruzilly, three kilometres away. It is grown, made, sold, and consumed within a ten-minute drive. It doesn’t just taste good going down. It feels virtuous.

Soon after, I find myself entering the village of Chiroubles, where the buildings are blocky but the wines are the region’s softest and most fragrant. I slow to navigate an unexpected swell of pedestrian traffic. When I spot garlands of the numeral 3 strung across the road, I understand. I’ve stumbled upon a Fete des Conscrits, a tradition unique to Beaujolais in which villagers born in a year that ends with the number of the current year—3, for 2013, for example—throw a weekend-long party for the village. To pay for it, organizers spend weeks peddling cakes door-to-door. Events are scheduled so that no nearby towns hold them on the same weekend. I park by the town square and follow the crowd. Every second or third person I see has a coloured ribbon pinned to a jacket or tied around a lock of hair. Each colour designates a different decade—green for those born in 1993, yellow for 1983, and so on.

Up front, a group of 15 blue-ribboned sexagenarians (1953) poses for a photo. “They’ve done it every ten years since they were boys,” someone says with pride. They’re far from the only ones, I’m sure. What better way to mark the march of the years than with a photo each decade at the town hall? A drum sounds, then another. A woman throws her arm around her mother, who wears the red ribbon of her 50th year. A knot of green-ribboned 20-year-olds attempts to sing a song together but dissolves into laughter. I recognize a woman who works at a hotel I stayed in earlier in the week. She introduces me to her husband, her daughter, and her daughter’s friends. Before long, I have an invitation for lunch. But first, would I like some wine? “From the town,” the woman says. “Only grapes from the town”.

The closest airport to Beaujeu, which is the gateway to the region, is in Lyon.
The closest airport to Beaujeu, which is the gateway to the region, is in Lyon.

As festivals go, this one is decidedly informal. There are no rides or food booths, no cardboard tickets to spend, no speeches, no entertainment. There is nothing to accomplish here. Maybe that is why everyone, from toddlers to the elderly, is able to mingle comfortably together. There is nothing but time: time to chat, time to contemplate, time to chase a balloon to the far side of the square, which is what one little girl in a blue dress does until a lone snowflake flutters onto her nose. She stops and lets the balloon skitter away in the breeze. She cocks her head and stares intently upward, as if the answers to the mysteries of the universe are floating down from the sky.

ALL WEEK I’VE BEEN HOPING to catch up with Mathieu Lapierre; I wouldn’t be in Beaujolais if not for the upheaval his father set in motion. I also want to taste his wines, especially the 2009 Morgon, which is the last one Marcel made before he died, from one of the best Beaujolais vintages in years. Over a quick drink in his local bar in Villie-Morgon, Mathieu and I agree to meet at his winery on Monday morning, my last in the area. I arrive at Domaine M. Lapierre to find it shuttered tight. Moments later, a well-travelled car that seems to have been light blue once (unless it was always pale grey) putters through the gate. A young woman, curls peeking from under a red wool beret, jumps out and introduces herself as Camille, Mathieu s sister. “Mathieu wanted me to take you somewhere,” she says. Raised in Villie-Morgon, Camille has run a shop in Brazil, waited tables in Quebec, and worked as a sommelier in Biarritz.

Soon she’ll be heading to the republic of Georgia to make wine, but she expects to eventually return to Beaujolais and run the family winery with her brother. “This is where I belong,” she says. She talks while she drives, weaving through a series of hairpin turns and taking shortcuts through alleys in a way that leaves little doubt she is local. We pull up at a one-story building along a side street. Inside I see what looks like an antique oven and a table with a young man behind it selling four kinds of organic bread. Aurelien Grillet is Camilles high school classmate.

After graduating, he yearned to create something of genuine value for his town. One of his brothers made wine, another grew vegetables. “So I decided on bread,” he reasoned, and opened Le Pain d’Aure. “I wish all bread tasted like this,” Camille says. I take a bite. I hadn’t been sure why Mathieu wanted me to visit a bakery; now I know. By the time we’re back at the car, I’ve eaten half the loaf. Camille and I meet Mathieu and Mine. Lapierre—MarcePs widow and their mother—for lunch at Le Pre du Plat, in Cercie.

I’ve realized that the best meals in the region, even those at the few Michelin-starred restaurants, are simple and shirtsleeve-informal: roasted chicken, morels nestled close, good bread on the table. The meal today ranks among the best I’ve had. The restaurant is clean, bright, and modern, yet serves earthy, unadorned food. Between bites, Mathieu reveals that he plans to open a similar restaurant of his own in the coming months, in part so he can get the kind of food he likes all week long. “The places I want to go to always seem closed,” he says. Then he brings me back to the winery. The sun has come out now, and we stand in a courtyard tasting his wines. “This is where I receive my visitors,” he says. “It’s far better than standing in a cellar.”

Heopens a bottle of the 2009 Morgon and explains that he loves how different it is from the vintages that preceded and followed it. Consistency, the basis for most successful business models, is the opposite of what he wants to accomplish. “The loaf that a baker bakes on Monday is different from the one he bakes on Tuesday,” he says. “If he’s a real baker.” The sun is lighting up the sky from behind us, casting an ethereal brightness onto the courtyard. The 2009 Morgon is exceptional, the best Beaujolais I’ve had. I start to tell Mathieu what I think, but he holds up a hand. He doesn’t want me to analyze it; he doesn’t even want me to consider it. He just wants me to drink it.

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