Domaine Chasselay Beaujolais Les Grands Eparcieux 2008
This is the southern half of Beaujolais, the place where affluent Lyonnais families built country estates a short ride outside of their city. The architecture is frequently grand and regal, the villages are often darling postcards, and the wine is ostensibly simple—all straight Beaujolais, sans a hyphenated villages designation, let alone that of a cru. The land here is flatter, the soil richer, and mixed with Beaujolais's northern granite there is a good amount of limestone (which can make for fine whites). The average Gamay tends to be lighter than its sibling to the north, and for sure it is less expensive.
But that is the average. Fabien Chasselay, his sister Claire, and their father Jean-Gilles make any number of cru Beaujolais from rented parcels, but they take every bit as much pride in their own old vines in Chatillon d'Azergues. They have farmed organically since 2000, received certification in 2006, harvest later than most, and they have always undertaken fermentations with indigenous yeast and without sulfur additions (the latter is done lightly at bottling). It's worth noting too that Fabien did a part of his training at Domaine Bruno Clavelier in Vosne-Romanée, and he came to favor a degree of de-stemming rather than doing Beaujolais' traditional, 100% whole cluster fermentations. The result of all of this is Beaujolais of unusual succulence and pithy fruit.
The domaine owns 30 acres of vines in the Pierres Dorees. Fifteen of those acres, parsed among many parcels, are reserved for the cuvee Quatre Saisons. Some parcels grow in limestone soils, others in granitic soils. The average vine age is fifty-five years old. Fermentation is done with roughly half the grapes de-stemmed, and the other half kept whole on the clusters. The wine is raised for roughly four months in huge, old wooden casks, and production averages 1,650 cases annually.
The bucolic region often identified as the southern part of Burgundy, Beaujolais actually doesn’t have a whole lot in common with the rest of the region in terms of climate, soil types and grape varieties. Beaujolais achieves its own identity with variations on style of one grape, Gamay.
Gamay was actually grown throughout all of Burgundy until 1395 when the Duke of Burgundy banished it south, making room for Pinot noir to inhabit all of the “superior” hillsides of Burgundy proper. This was good news for Gamay as it produces a much better wine in the granitic soils of Beaujolais, compared with the limestone escarpments of the Côte d’Or.
Four styles of Beaujolais exist though most is sold under the basic Beaujolais appellation. The simplest, and one that has regrettably given the region a subpar reputation, is Beaujolais Nouveau. This is the wine that is made using carbonic maceration (a quick fermentation that results in sweet aromas) and is released on the third Thursday of November in the same year as harvest. It's meant to drink young and is flirty, fruity and fun. The rest of Beaujolais is where the serious wines are found. Beaujolais-Villages, which must come from the hilly northern part of the region, offer reasonable values with some gems among them. The superior section are the cru vineyards coming from ten distinct communes: St-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnié, Brouilly, and Côte de Brouilly. Any cru Beajolais will have its commune name prominent on the label.
Delightfully playful, yet at its best capable of impressive gravitas, Gamay is responsible for juicy, berry-packed wines from Beaujolais and parts of the Loire Valley. While it has received some criticism for its role in Beaujolais Nouveau—a decidedly young, charming and fruit-driven wine—the Gamay grape is very capable of producing serious wines. The variety is also widely planted in Savoie, Valle d'Aosta and Switzerland, and has recently found success on a small but growing scale in Oregon.
In the Glass
In its simplest form as Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine released just a couple of months after harvest, Gamay is fresh and full of cranberry and cherry candy flavors. But Gamay is capable of much more. The region of Beaujolais is divided into Villages and Crus, where granite-rich soils and conditions are perfect for Gamay. The Villages and Crus wines, given more time on the vine and in the winery, are capable of improving with age and offer dark blackberry or ripe cherry flavors with enticing aromas of baking spice, violets and dark wet earth.
Gamay is delicious on its own; the simpler bottling can even benefit from a light chill before serving. It is the quintessential picnic red and goes well with simple charcuterie, country pâté and terrines. Gentle tannins and bright acidity make it a great option with Asian food, even dishes with a bit of spice. Gamay is also great with poultry, especially duck or Thanksgiving turkey with cranberry sauce.
Within Beaujolais, there are ten different Crus, or highly ranked grape-growing communes. Each one has its own distinct personality—Fleurie is delicate and floral, Côte de Brouilly is concentrated and elegant and Morgon is serious, structured, and age-worthy, capable of rivaling some red Burgundies.