The “king of Beaujolais” shares his views on wine, art, and his beloved home region.
French winemakers don’t often use the phrase “vintage of a lifetime,” but that is what Georges Duboeuf exclaimed as we sat over a lunch of confit of Moulard duck leg and salade frisée at San Francisco’s Café de la Presse. We had tasted Duboeuf’s 2010 Mâconnais and Beaujolais wines and were now working our way through the 2009 crus, with one after another simply blowing me away. This was Beaujolais? Who knew it could be so complex, so layered, so full of personality?
Gamay is not only highly soil-sensitive, but prone to gray rot. Fortunately for Beaujolais growers, the weather in 2009 was perfect. As Duboeuf explained, “Nature was particularly nice to us this year. Everything came together to produce beautiful wine. We had a warm May; with all this heat, the vines grew very quickly and the flowering came quickly as well. The month of August was incredible—we hadn’t had one like this for 60 years! On Aug. 18 it was very hot, 42ºC [about 100ºF]. It was going up one degree every three days. From Aug. 26 to Sept. 15 we had a very balanced harvest, and the fruit was so precise, so extraordinarily clean. We didn’t even have flies in the vineyards. I have never seen anything like it!
“The grapes had a very rich maturity and very good acid, unlike in the solar 2003,” he added. “The 2009s are much better even than the excellent 2005s.” Duboeuf, the humble grower, brilliant producer, and ultimate salesman, said with a satisfied smile, “I can die a happy man.”
CATHERINE FALLIS, MS
How did you go from working in a family vineyard to becoming a négociant in Beaujolais?
I started working in the family vineyards in Pouilly-Fuissé and, when I was 18 years old, began delivering the family wine on my bicycle to neighboring restaurants. Some of my early customers were chefs like Paul Bocuse and Pierre Troisgros. They loved the quality of our wines, so I expanded the business and started bottling the wines of other vignerons. In 1957, I formed a group of 45 producers, and in 1963, I established Les Vins Georges Duboeuf to serve as a négociant for the Beaujolais region. Today, Les Vins Georges Duboeuf works with more than 20 wine co-ops and 400 growers in the region.
In 1982, I began working with W.J. Deutsch & Sons to sell our wines in the United States. We are approaching our 30th year working with Bill and Peter Deutsch, who have helped us grow our market share immeasurably in the U.S.
What was the reputation of Beaujolais wines when you started, and how has it changed over the years?
In France, Beaujolais wines have always been acknowledged as offering a perfect wine for every occasion; the variety of crus and their terroirs allow them to be paired with every kind of food. It is said that Beaujolais is the “third river” that flows down to Lyon, along with the Rhône and the Saône, due to the wine’s immense popularity with that city’s population. With its delicious fruit character and casual style, it is viewed in its native land as the wine of hospitality, generously shared by the hardworking, fun-loving growers with their neighbors and guests. I’ve worked all my life to spread the word about Beaujolais throughout my travels, and I believe today people in the world are aware of it.
How do you advise sommeliers to use your wines with various kinds of dishes?
Wines from Beaujolais are very versatile and are better drunk chilled, which can make for a great pairing with a fish dish or more earthy game. The Beaujolais crus tend to be fuller bodied, as they are aged one year, depending on the region—Beaujolais runs north to south, with different soils and elevations. I still recommend that the crus be served lightly chilled, at 54ºF. A lot depends on personal taste.
Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of what you find in the wines of each of the 10 crus, compared to the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) and Beaujolais-Villages?
Beaujolais-Villages has a greater complexity in its bouquet, a higher concentration, and deeper flavor than Beaujolais AOC. Its distinctive character sets a kind of middle ground for Beaujolais, with its unique and casual charm. More mature and self-assured, it is that ideal multipurpose red wine which we all seek.
Brouilly is the southernmost of the 10 crus and unfailingly displays the highest degree of exuberance in fruit. Chénas are usually gently perfumed, soft yet powerful: a nice blend of red fruit and floral fragrances. Chiroubles has the distinction of being the cru with the highest altitude, and it proves to be the most ethereal of Beaujolais wines. One can easily compare Chiroubles to a striking model elegantly dressed in bright red silk. Côte de Brouilly is produced on the steep hillsides of Mount Brouilly, originally a volcano. The soil, composed of granite and hard schist, gives this aristocratic wine all its vigorous intensity and its classic elegance. Fleurie is said to be the “queen of the Beaujolais”: elegant, refined, and finely perfumed, with silky tannins. Juliénas wines are renowned for their deep colors and fullness. With excellent aging potential, these two crus deserve noble status. Morgon is undoubtedly the most typical of the 10 Beaujolais cru wines: its particular terroir only intensifies with age and inspires certain tasters to detect the very unusual scent of fox fur as well as cherry jam. The producers of this forthright and robust red wine love to proclaim a rather clever slogan: “The fruit of Beaujolais, the charm of Burgundy.”
There is nothing more emblematic of Beaujolais than the site of the “king of crus,” Moulin-à-Vent—a windmill completely surrounded by Gamay vines as if it were seated on its royal throne, withstanding time and tempests. The mineral soil gives this cru its characteristic taste: intense, full bodied, hearty, with a fine structure. The wines of St. Amour have two different faces, according to the nature of the soil and, occasionally, to the type of vinification. The first, early maturing and produced from siliceous clay soil, is forward, soft, and charming. The second is capable of aging and, cultivated on granite pebbles, proves to be powerful and full bodied. In both styles, the wines are quite naturally seductive. The very cozy, select circle of the nine chosen crus were won over by a new suitor in 1988, when Régnié became one of them. True to character, Régnié usually offers an intensely perfumed nose of typical red fruits. It is a pleasantly lively, spicy, rounded, and generous wine.
What is the significance of the flowers on the flower labels?
The idea of creating our flower labels came to me in the 1970s after staying at a simple hotel outside London, whose silence and austerity reminded me of a cloister. We were welcomed with an arrangement of beautiful wildflowers. The effect was inviting and vibrant against the plain setting of the hotel, and it inspired me. I purchased some colored drawing pencils at a market and started sketching the flowers. Back in France, I kept sketching more flowers to visually pair with my wines: wild roses for the Morgon, violets for the Chiroubles, and honeysuckle for the Pouilly-Fuissé. I commissioned professional illustrators in Beaujolais to create the new labels for the crus, each with a different flower.
How do you find the artists for the Nouveau labels every year?
I love art, and to some extent I think art is very similar to winemaking: one person offers his vision and creativity to the world. We have great ties with the art community in France and overseas, and I like to reach out to promising talent for our Nouveau labels.
For example, our Beaujolais Nouveau labels and posters are always designed by an artist, usually in Europe. However, in 2011, we decided to work with an American artist to design the Nouveau label, focusing on the theme “Nouveau Expression.” After conducting a two-month talent search we selected Kaves, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who is widely recognized for his works of graffiti and his music. Kaves is a multitalented man with many artistic expressions. We felt he best represented the young and vibrant spirit of Nouveau. In addition to designing the 2011 Nouveau label, Kaves also judged an online art contest called “Be Heard,” which invited consumers to create their own artistic statement. He selected nine finalists and one grand-prize winner—a young glass artist from New Jersey—whose winning works were unveiled at our Nouveau Eve party on Nov. 16 in New York City.
How did the phenomenon of Beaujolais Nouveau come about?
Beaujolais Nouveau comes from a long tradition in France, which started in the region of Lyon. The wine was released with much fanfare to celebrate the end of the harvest and the first taste of the upcoming vintage. With its uncomplicated charm, it is the wine of friendship and good times, and that celebratory spirit has seduced more and more people over the years.
Do you think Nouveau has obscured the reputation of cru Beaujolais in the export markets?
I would disagree with that statement. The great thing about Nouveau is that it puts the spotlight on the Beaujolais region, and on its diversity of wines and terroirs, every year. Every time someone talks about Beaujolais in general, it gives us an opportunity to educate and guide people through that beautiful region and its range of wines.
How much of your wine do you export compared to domestic sales?
I would say our wines are distributed in more than 120 countries, which represents 75% of our production.
How much of a market is there for Beaujolais blanc and rosé?
Not much for now in the United States. We are eager to bring these beautiful wines to the U.S. market and have people discover another facet of the Beaujolais region.
How have vineyard management and winemaking changed over the years in Beaujolais?
Thanks to the evolution of technology, we are more able to study and monitor grape growth. From July, we check the quantity of grapes and sanitary state of the leaves. We implement regular maturation controls of the grapes to choose the optimum harvest date for each vineyard. We sort grapes using an infrared analyzer—a Fourier Transformed Infrared Spectrometer, or IRTF—to check seven parameters that help in making decisions during the cuvée selections. This device allows us to follow the fermentation and vinification processes closely by getting a complete analysis of the wine—sugar content, alcohol content, total acidity, pH, volatile acidity, malic acid, lactic acid, tartaric acid, gluconic acid, and assimilable nitrogen. These days we do a more delicate pressing with a pneumatic press. In the winemaking, we oversee daily fermentation controls with temperature monitoring in order to have a very fine management of the fermentation, and we conduct the final fermentation in stainless-steel tanks with temperature controls.
In 2005, the regulatory authorities accused Duboeuf of improperly blending village wines with cru Beaujolais. How have you settled that issue?
I don’t like to dredge up old news that has been settled years ago. The matter was addressed and ruled upon by the French court in July 2006. French authorities have investigated our vinification site in Lancie for incorrect registrations. Only our bulk wines were looked into, which constituted less than 0.9% of the total volume marketed by Les Vins Georges Duboeuf in a single year. Human error was responsible for this mixup. The matter was fixed; the production manager of our vinification site resigned at the time; and we undertook all necessary steps to ensure the conformity of the wines by reinstating them under their proper appellations, in cooperation with the French authorities. This matter is behind us. We are and always have been committed to producing wines of the highest standard.
Besides Beaujolais, you also make wines from other parts of France—would you describe those projects?
I have the chance to work with talented winemakers from several regions of France. Just north of Beaujolais, we are growing Chardonnay vines, which produce wonderful wines from St. Véran, Mâcon-Villages, and Pouilly-Fuissé. Down in the Rhône Valley, wonderful wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, St. Joseph, Côtes-du-Rhône, and Crozes-Hermitage. And we are very proud of our wines from the south of France, in Languedoc-Roussillon, where we focus on bringing out the best from several varietals: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
How did the Beaujolais wine park come about?
We created the Beaujolais wine park with the wish to share our passion for winemaking with consumers and wine aficionados. We also wanted to take the opportunity to showcase the Beaujolais region and its history.
The Hameau du Vin has a wine museum with a 3D movie theater, a French-style coffee place, a boutique, and a wine-themed miniature-golf course. It has become a destination: we’ve had over 2 million visitors already.
Will your family take over the wine business when you retire?
My son Franck has been working with me for more than 25 years already; he officially entered the family business in October 1983. Today Franck plays a dominant role in the business operations and serves as co-proprietor of Les Vins Georges Duboeuf. Franck’s wife Anne oversees the Hameau.
What are your hobbies and interests outside of making wine?
I am a simple man—spending time with my family around a good dinner is what I like to do, when I am not tasting wines or going around the vineyards. I also have a lot of interest in art and I enjoy reading, particularly poetry.
Les Vins Georges Duboeuf