25 September 2010

farewell, 2008: love for the off-vintages

In keeping with this blog's near-constant coverage of cru Beaujolais, I'd like to bid farewell to La Cave de l'Insolite's last bottle of Georges Descombes' 2008 Régnié, which I purchased and drank last week. (Apologies for the blurry self-photo. We had, you know, been drinking.) 

This is nothing to get sentimental about, as by most reckoning 2008 was a miserable vintage for Beaujolais, and Michel at l'Insolite always has more terrific cru Beaujolais in stock. But it seems a good moment to reflect on these vexing wines, which were not without their rewards, and which furthermore are vaguely interesting as a case study (ahem) of some differences between French and American wine criticism. 

A quick index that could be helpful with the coming paragraphs of geekery: 

Some Generalizations About Beaujolais Vintages*

2005: Acclaimed year. Structured, dense, forbidding even, although probably by now the wines have begun to come around (as much as they will ever come around - I have doubts in some cases).

2006: Hotter vintage. It was well-received, but to me the wines often taste jammy, without enough structure or acidity.

2007: My favorite of recent years: bright, silvery acidity throughout, these are keen, clear-eyed wines, totally textbook.

2008: Hailstorms around harvest time destroyed a great deal of the crop, and caused much of the rest to taste watery, limp, and spineless.

2009: From what I've tasted so far, kind of midway between the richness of 2005 and the agility of 2007. In other words, pretty brilliant.

Image swiped from ambafrance-cn.org.

In terms of Beaujolais, the 2008 vintage was pretty much all I saw in shops and restaurants when I first arrived in Paris in the spring of 2009. I was leery of it, and my restaurateur / caviste friends here found my leeriness very amusing. I was incredulous: couldn't they understand these wines were, like, the ghost of Beaujolais? Beaujolais without joy, Beaujolais that wilted in the face of food, instead of dancing? I got a lot of shrugs from these friends, all of them French, who just scratched their heads and said it was different, not a great year, but after all it was true honest Beaujolais. 

They were right. But I wasn't wrong. I implored them: remember 2007? 2005? Where's the acid, the whip-crack, the liveliness? They agreed that those other years were good years too, but admitted they didn't really think about the wines that way.

I think this is why my French industry friends were so relatively sunny about 2008. From an American perspective, it's easy to view each vintage, each wine, as a candidate for scrutiny - some new batch arriving for inspection. Whereas: suppose you are a French restaurateur or caviste with friendly relationships with many of these vignerons, whose vineyards you visit now and then, and with whom you have a standing tradition of pouring their wines season in, season out - because you like who they are, you support their methods, and you like all their wines (in general).

Fair enough. But simple distance from wine culture - distance that otherwise pretty uniformly impoverishes the American conception of wine - is also the reason we foreigners tend to be more analytical and categorical about vintages.

Anyway, I avoided 2008 at all costs until one night with my friend Guy at Le Verre Volé, the venerable cave à manger on the Canal St. Martin. Significantly less prejudiced against the vintage than me, Guy ordered Jean-Paul Thévenet's 2008 Morgon while I wasn't looking. And I protested, and I drank it, so what, and I loved every sip. Drinking Thévenet's 2008 was like standing on a low hill that was the only low hill for miles around: you missed out on nothing, except altitude. Every flavor and every nuance was perfectly in view. It was a crop circle of dark cherry and tea leaves, totally mysterious and seductive despite being flat as a dime.

I was moved to re-evaluate the entire vintage. Which I proceeded to do, much to the eventual chagrin of my dining and drinking compatriots who did not, unlike me, enjoy the pessimistic sense of experimentation that went into each order for another bottle of (probably limp) 2008 cru Beaujolais.**

Image swiped from www.vinography.com.
This is the 2006 but otherwise the label is the same. 

Anyway, there are two lessons in this. One is specific and of limited utility:

2008 Beaujolais isn't all bad, but a lot of it is kind of wimpy. The best examples, however, possess a kind of cool even-tempered elegance that is pretty singular in the world of wine. 

The other lesson is far more important and applicable to daily drinking life:

A great winemaker (In Beaujolais: Descombes, either Thévenet, Foillard, Vionnet, Metras, Chermette, Lapierre, Isabelle et Bruno Perraud, etc.) will produce an interesting and thoughtful wine regardless of the vintage. 

...And last week's Descombes Régnié? Confound it all, it barely even tasted like 2008. It was actually anomalously rich and ferrous. For me the miserable vintage was perceptible only on the outlines of the flavor, giving everything sort of a blurred photo quality. That said, after all my interrogation of this vintage, bottle after bottle, week after week, even the flaws possessed interest for me. Perhaps I'm just uncritical.

(If you're interested to taste some examples of great off-vintage cru Beaujolais, several are available right now at Le Garde Robe.)

*That Apply Only To Crus From Good Vignerons, Not The Nouveau Trash That Liquor Stores Push Every Fall. 

**I've since had 2008 Chiroubles from Karim Vionnet, 2008 "Cuvée Porcelet" Morgon from Jean Foillard, and numerous other brilliant bottles that bucked the trend of that year. 

Related Links:

A Profile of Jean Foillard at WineTerroirs.com
Eric Asimov On Hail In Beaujolais in 2008
Eric Asimov On The Awesomeness of 2005 Beaujolais

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