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Despite their variations, the three Morgons are insanely easy to drink and delicious, as good Beaujolais ought to be. They each have depth as well, complexity that goes beyond mere deliciousness - a characteristic of cru Beaujolais.

Three Morgons from 2016 Beaujolais vintage are drastically different

Oct 5, 2018 5:50 AM

New York

GOOD WINE is almost never simple. If I needed a reminder of this rewarding but inconvenient truth, our examination over the last month of Morgon, one of the 10 crus of Beaujolais, gave it to me in three excellent bottles.

When reading about the crus, the areas in Beaujolais considered to be good and distinctive enough to be bottled under their own names rather than the more generic Beaujolais, it is common to see quick guides to the specific characteristics of each one.

They speak with confidence bordering on certainty: Fleurie is pretty and, naturally, floral. Morgon is powerful, but not as robust as Moulin-à-Vent, and so on. Yet, these idealised portraits often bear little resemblance to the wines themselves.

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Try a Fleurie from Alain Coudert's Clos de la Roillette, and you will find a serious wine; pretty, of course - what Beaujolais isn't pretty? - but often tannic, firm and mineral. They age well.

The variance is not a fault of the wine. It is what one would expect from Clos de la Roillette. Nor is it the fault of the guides, which are generally good-faith efforts to make wine a little easier to understand.

As is so often the case, the best efforts to organise thinking about wine falter when weighed against actual experience. The variables that go into producing good wine can be so many that even laudable efforts to characterise the general traits of a particular place inevitably give way to counterexamples.

For our look at Morgon, the second largest of the 10 crus and home to many superb producers, I recommended three bottles: Jean Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorées Morgon 2016, M&C Lapierre Morgon 2016 and Jean Foillard Morgon Côte du Py 2016.

Though these are all Morgons, and all from the 2016 vintage, the wines are drastically different.

The Brun is light and graceful - almost ethereal - yet full of the aromas and flavours of cherries and flowers underscored by an earthy, mineral component; it is delicate yet resonant.

The Lapierre is quite a bit richer: bright, fresh, energetic, also floral and fruity, with a touch of licorice on the palate and a similar sort of underlying minerality. It is deceptively easygoing, masking its inherent complexity.

The Foillard is fuller-bodied than the others, a mixture of power and finesse, with a pronounced licorice flavour among the red fruits, spices, flowers and minerals. It has more bottom to it, as if it has been amped up by a few electric bass notes.

Despite their variations, the bottles are insanely easy to drink and delicious, as good Beaujolais ought to be. They each have depth as well, complexity that goes beyond mere deliciousness - a characteristic of cru Beaujolais. The structure and minerality might further define them as Morgons, yet why are they so different?

The answer is as complicated as the wines. First, the grapes for each of these wines come from different plots within the Morgon cru. While Morgon and the Beaujolais crus in general are known for granite soils, not all vineyards are the same. Some are rocky granite, some are more sandy; some are pink granite and some are blue, indicating different mineral compositions.

Significant areas of Morgon are not even granite, but brittle, decomposed schist, a different rock altogether. And the proportion of clay in the soil plays a crucial role.

In an important movement in Beaujolais, many producers are seeking official recognition of the subzones within each cru, often referred to as climats, the same word used in Burgundy to refer to the precisely delineated vineyard areas of the Côte d'Or.

Some producers, like Foillard, have long used names of climats unofficially, as on this bottle. Côte du Py is essentially a hill of schist, and wines from the Côte du Py are often the most intense and powerful of the Morgons. Foillard also makes a Morgon Corcelette, a different climat of sandy granite that is often lighter-bodied than the Côte du Py. I highly recommend trying them side by side if you are curious.

The Brun Morgon comes from an area of sandy decomposed granite that is said to be similar to the soil of Corcellete, which perhaps accounts for the lightness and elegance of the wine. Brun also makes a wine from a particular plot on the Côte du Py, Javernières, that is firmer and more forthrightly mineral, if you ever want to compare.

The Lapierre Morgon comes from grapes grown in light granite soils, as near as I can tell, which also differentiates it from the Foillard. Lapierre makes another Morgon, Cuvée Camille, which is from a Côte du Py plot, but I have not tasted it.

The vineyard sites are not the only variables. Winemaking techniques also can differ. All three producers work naturally, without overt manipulation or technological methods like thermovinification, in which some producers of mass-market Beaujolais heat the wine to 60 deg C or so to stabilise the wine, essentially pasteurising it.

The Foillard and Lapierre are both made by the most common method among small producers in Beaujolais today, using semi-carbonic fermentation, a process in which whole bunches of grapes, stems and all, are piled into large vats. The bunches on top crush those on the bottom, producing juice that starts to ferment, emitting carbon dioxide. The gas rises and initiates a different, intracellular fermentation without yeast among the bunches higher up. Eventually, after a certain number of days, the grapes are crushed and the fermentation is completed in the conventional manner, as yeast consumes the remaining sugar. This method is said to account for the light, fresh, aromatic character of Beaujolais.

But a small group of Beaujolais producers, including Brun, prefer to avoid the semi-carbonic method. Brun destems the grapes and ferments them simply with the indigenous yeast, often referred to in Beaujolais as the Burgundian style. It is often said that Beaujolais made in this manner requires more ageing than wines made semi-carbonically, but Brun believes the opposite: that their wines are easier to drink sooner than those made semi-carbonically.

These three wines do not conform to simple descriptions of Morgon. Nonetheless, they each epitomise different expressions of the region. I imagine we could duplicate this experience in any wine region where taxonomists have tried to classify characteristics briefly and simply.

If you would like to go more deeply into the complicated subject of why wines from particular places taste as they do, I highly recommend a book to be published in October, The Sommelier's Atlas of Taste: A Field Guide to the Great Wines of Europe, by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay.

I should also note that in many regions around the world, such as Barolo, Montalcino and Sonoma, efforts are underway to better and more narrowly define appellations. Mostly, I believe, these efforts will remain unofficial: complicating labels, with additional place names and terms, are difficult politically and economically, even if the labels would better describe what is in the bottle.

The conventional wisdom about Beaujolais is that it does not age well. That certainly applies to mass-market Beaujolais, in which the processing makes them stable enough to withstand shipping but eliminates the life force necessary to age and evolve. But good Beaujolais, made carefully and conscientiously, absolutely has the ability to age and evolve. When to drink it comes down to one's own preferences.

In his review of the 2016 Beaujolais vintage, Josh Raynolds, an excellent critic at Vinous.com, recommended drinking the 2016s before they turn 10, although he said that he would not be surprised if top bottles lasted even longer.

"Even though most of the 2016s covered in this article are already delicious," he wrote, "the best wines possess impressive concentration and balance, two factors that suggest they will enjoy graceful aging curves."

The great thing about the 2016s is you can drink them anytime you want, no regrets. Or you can try this experiment: Buy three bottles. Drink one immediately, one in two years and the third in five years.

Why do this? Both to know, and to make more educated decisions. NYTIMES