There is a myth abroad that the less prestigious straight Beaujolais, as opposed to Beaujolais-Villages and the Beaujolais Crus, originates in the sandy alluvial plains of the South and East of the region. In fact I have heard this said so often that I thought it appeared in many introductions to the wines of the region, but when preparing to write this blog post I could only find one textbook, albeit a rather influential one, making the claim in such an extreme way. The culprit is the WSET Advanced Certificate textbook. Maybe it has been rewritten now – the most recent version I have is from 2004 – but the damage has already been done.
When I visited Beaujolais, also in 2004, in our hotel and at several producers I noticed a raised-relief map of the region showing the geology and the limits of the various appellations, and after quite a search I managed to buy one – from De La Vigne au Verre, a gift shop in the centre of Fleurie. There is a picture of it above to show you roughly what I am talking about (be sure to note the invaluable reminder of why there is an “s” at the end of Beaujolais). The salmon pink areas are for straight Beaujolais, turquoise is used for Beaujolais-Villages, and the other colours for the Crus. I understand contour lines on maps pretty well, but I must say a raised-relief map makes it so much easier for me to appreciate the landscape. A quick glance at this map immediately casts doubt on the idea of sandy alluvial plains of the South and East of the region; it is pretty obvious even in the image above.
The alluvial plains lie by the river as you might expect, to the East of the region only, and there is little or no viticulture of any sort on them. The largest areas vineyards on low lying hills are actually to the river side of the Beaujolais-Villages area; not in the South. Most of them are classified as straight Beaujolais, but from the geology and relief alone the reason for the location of the border between Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages is not immediately obvious to me.
Southern Beaujolais is actually quite hilly - not noticeably less so than the North. Some is calcareous, and thus not so good for Gamay, but around 50% of the area is schist and granite. One can only assume that the main reason the granitic parts are deemed only to be worthy of the lowest appellation is the orientation of the the slopes. But even then some slopes do not seem to be much less auspicious than many in the Beaujolais-Villages area. I suspect there are quite a lot of decent wines produced here being sold for not very much money at all. A few years ago I enjoyed several bottles of a straight Beaujolais called La Doyenne, Domaine des Pierres Dorées **-***. The domaine is based in Le Breuil, which is in this promising-looking area of Southern Beaujolais, and according to Nick Dobson the grapes were from old vines grown on sunny slopes of granitic outcrops. I see he does not stock it now, so presumably it was a hard sell.
Having dealt with low-end Beaujolais, let’s turn our attention to the Crus, which are exclusively in granitic and schistous areas. Côte de Brouilly stands out on my map literally and figuratively. The Cru limits are basically defined by the all the slopes of an extinct volcano - even those that are facing North. And Brouilly is the area around the volcano, some quite hilly and some flat. These two Crus lie to the South of all the others, and are largely separated from them by a river. The Crus of Saint-Amour, Juliénas and Chénas seem a bit detached to the North. They have as their focus another river valley, and also have slopes facing in all directions. Most of the Crus however, including the most prestigious ones of Fleurie, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent, basically lie on one gentle slope that is largely South-Easterly facing. Looking at the relief map it is easy to jump to the, possibly false, conclusion that it is the angle and direction of the slope that are the key factors in being a top Beaujolais Cru. That and the granitic soil of course. Or perhaps there is something more specifically special about the soil and rock on that particular slope. But if not, it has to be said that other bits of Beaujolais-Villages look hard done by.
While I am in the mood for criticism, I’d like to point out in that WSET textbook from 2004, the map of Beaujolais also leaves a lot to be desired. The Crus are strung out as a series of dots from North to South like villages on the Côte d’Or. But they are areas, not villages. Some don’t even have an obviously associated village, so dots are not particularly helpful. And even if you can get past that, the dots are not nearly in the correct relative positions, e.g. Fleurie and Chiroubles seem to be inverted. I am a great believer in the use of maps to illustrate any subject with a geographical element, and that certainly includes any book on wine. They do not have to be perfect, but should be accurate to extent implied by the map’s scale and level of detail, and to be fair many of the WSET maps are precisely that. So there we have a good and bad examples of wine maps. Good ones can be very informative, but beware being mislead by poor ones.