Beaujolais Nouveau: It's just part of the story

Here, vintners and their wines seem as one

Email|Print| Text size + By Sharon Blomfield
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2005

HUIRE, France -- Bowls of salads, plates of sausages, and a tray of regional cheeses -- there was scant room for the enormous loaf of bread that Jeannine Lagneau carried to our table tucked into the rose-filled garden at Domaine Lagneau.

''And now to drink? Vin? Beaujolais-Villages, of course."

A Gîtes de France website had led my husband and me to Domaine Lagneau, a bed-and-breakfast in the Beaujolais hills. Serenaded by the echo of a cuckoo in a distant forest, we were now happily sipping the product of the surrounding vines. For the next four mornings we would awaken in chambre Ancolie, one of four bedrooms in the Domaine's stone cottage that was once home to Jeannine's grandparents.

Beaujolais, one of France's most famous wine-producing areas, cuts a narrow swath along the Saône River between Mâcon and Lyon. It is perhaps best known for the frivolity of Beaujolais Nouveau, hastily fermented from that year's grapes and released throughout the world beginning on the third Thursday of each November. The quality of the region's more serious wines is determined by their location -- simple Beaujolais in the south, the more refined Beaujolais-Villages appellations farther north, and its wines of greater complexity and depth from the 10 crus (a word that refers both to a defined region and the wine it produces) in its northernmost regions.

Jeannine explained that Domaine Lagneau, the vineyard she owns with her husband, Gérard, produces its Beaujolais-Villages wines from the vines that cover the surrounding hills. She then pointed to the village of Régnié-Durette across the valley where they grow the grapes for their Régnié cru.

Unpretentious, youthful, lighthearted -- Jeannine Lagneau is Beaujolais, seemingly living proof of the theory that people and the wine they choose to drink share similar characteristics. But then, that might be expected of a seventh-generation winemaker whose roots run as deep into the soil of these hills as do those of her vines, some planted by her grandfather.

Gérard is more reserved, a man of depth -- more, perhaps, like a cru wine. His birthplace, it seemed logical to hear, is their Régnié property where he is the fifth vintner in the Lagneau lineage.

His skin as smooth and blessed by the sun as that of his grapes, Gérard is in the field by 6 each morning, clipping the vines and tying the branches so that sunlight will reach the grapes.

''The art of the vintner determines the quality of the wine," Jeannine told us. Every morning over café au lait and thick slabs of fresh bread slathered with Jeannine's homemade jam, our wine education continued. Vintners throughout Beaujolais, the only region except Champagne that requires grapes to be picked by hand, produce wine using the labor-intensive methods of their grandparents.

There are thousands of vignobles like Domaine Lagneau in Beaujolais, small acreages usually passed from generation to generation, owned by a winemaker who grows his own grapes. Some wine they sell to large wine merchants who blend, bottle, and export the wine. The rest they sell themselves.

Throughout Beaujolais, the sign ''Cave Ouverte," open cellar, welcomes passing visitors to modest domaines and grander chateaux for a tasting. Even now, it takes only one sniff of a glass of Beaujolais to transport me to the damp coolness of a vaulted cave and the precious aroma that seeps from the pores of its endless rows of red-stained barrels.

The spiderweb of roads that wind their way around the hills of northern Beaujolais, hemmed with a parade of wild poppies, beckoned us from one jewel of a village to another, the names of many (Villié-Morgon, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Chénas) familiar to wine lovers. Each village sparkled high in its setting, the emerald fields that produce the cru that takes its name. On every street, exuberant blooms adorned lace-draped windows and spilled out of gardens squeezed beside centuries-old golden stone houses.

Our noses led us inevitably to local boulangeries with their baguettes, croissants, and pains au chocolat, croissant-like pastry wrapped around chocolate.

One noon, we followed telephone company workers heading for the plat du jour at Restaurant L'Etroit Pont in Beaujeu, the town that gave its name to the region. Their first course, leafy salade Beaujolaise, and pots of wine (green thick-bottomed bottles filled from a barrel), sat waiting on tables as the men massed at the bar, savoring their aperitifs. There was no need to hurry; lunch lasts two hours.

''C'est dommage," Jeannine had said. It's a shame. ''Most travelers rush through Beaujolais on their way to the south. People who spend time here are rare." A shame, indeed. How much wiser to install oneself in the area and explore this land slowly and thoughtfully. How much more can be learned walking, cycling, or on horseback along trails that lead from every town past Romanesque churches and cellars, through forests and vineyards whose owners often take the time to speak to passing strangers. Or along the posted ''vine trail" in Vauxrenard, accompanied on Saturdays, April to September, by a local vintner who ends the walk in his cellar.

And where better to hear the cry, ''Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!" The new beaujolais has arrived!, at midnight on the third Wednesday of November than at Sarmentelles, Beaujeu's gala four-day festival.

''Oh, you're staying chez Jeannine!" the attendant at Sources du Beaujolais, Beaujeu's museum of the history of Beaujolais wine, had exclaimed. ''Everyone who stays at Jeannine's is enchanté." Enchanted we were, especially as we gathered for dinner around the table in Domaine Lagneau's stone kitchen with Jeannine and Gérard and the rest of their guests. The evening had begun with glasses of Lagneau rosé and Beaujolais-Villages in the Domaine's 16th-century cellar. More Villages accompanied the salad and main course. But with the arrival of the inevitable cheese tray, Gérard reached for a new bottle and held it for all to see -- his Régnié, the select part of the cru aged in oak.

It is when you have watched a man in his field at dawn that you realize how intimately he knows every one of his vines. With his quiet smile of pleasure when you ask about the making of wine, you begin to understand how seriously he takes his craft. Only then do you realize that, of course, it makes perfect sense that these vintners' personalities and that of their wines are one and the same.

It was not mere liquid that Gérard uncorked that evening. It was a gift from the vintner, the very essence of his being, that he poured into my glass.

Sharon Blomfield is a freelance writer in Ontario.

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