Château Thivin Beaujolais: Burgundy’s ‘Little Sibling’ Offers Serious Wine With Joyous Exuberance
by Ken Gargett
Savvy wine lovers keep a close eye on their favorite products, stocking up every year. They also pay attention to excellent vintages, ensuring that they are well represented in their cellars.
Recent great vintages include the following: Bordeaux 2000, 2005, 2009, and 2010; Sauternes 2001, 2009, and 2014; Burgundy 2002, 2005, 2010, and 2015; Barolo 2006, 2010, and 2016; and Champagne 2002, 2008, and 2012.
Although, as with anything with any degree of subjectivity, even these few suggestions are likely to engender fierce debate.
For Beaujolais, 2005, 2009, 2011, and 2015 are all highly regarded, but 2018 might eclipse the lot. However, Beaujolais does not always feature in vintage discussions for several reasons.
Beaujolais carries the perception that it is not a wine designed for aging. So why bother?
And while true, most wines from this region are intended for, and benefit by, early consumption. However, in Beaujolais’s defense, look to the Crus and this can be dismissed.
Good examples from these vintages are perhaps 1990 or 1978, or even further back the great years of 1959 and 1969 highlight that Beaujolais wines can and do age and improve. Sadly, very few ever get that chance.
In addition, Beaujolais was seen as Burgundy’s little sibling thanks to style, location, and history. Good stuff, but not something to compete with the great wines from the revered Burgundian slopes.
This was despite the two wines coming from different varieties – Pinot Noir for Burgundy and Gamay for Beaujolais. The wines are very different and should be seen as such. It may surprise many to learn that Beaujolais production usually outstrips that of Burgundy.
The final perception, which works to the detriment of Beaujolais, is simply that they are not serious wines. Simple, fun quaffers. Now, there is nothing wrong with fun quaffers unless you are trying to make high-quality wine.
Beaujolais only has itself to blame for this. Anyone around back in the 1980s and ’90s could hardly forget the frenetic Nouveaux Races, which took place on the third Thursday of November and involved distributors racing to get the first bottles to various markets.
This “tradition” began back in 1970. These days, it is a far less chaotic occasion devoted to charity, but in earlier days the race was basically to get the first cases of newly released Beaujolais Nouveau to London (or New York or Tokyo or Sydney or wherever). It became so crazy that the RAF got involved and delivered a case of Beaujolais to London by Harrier Fighter Jet. Reports of skydivers parachuting into the City of London to “win” the race abounded.
What followed the race was every man and his dog piling into pubs to guzzle the new wine (remember that only a few weeks earlier, this wine was still grapes on the vines). Productivity in London was never stellar the following day.
This all began, as mentioned, in 1970. During a dinner at the Hôtel Les Maritonnes in Beaujolais, London restaurateur, wine writer, and wine distributor Joseph Berkmann and his friend Clement Freud, UK member of parliament and wine writer, came up with an idea.
A wager was made, a couple of cases of wine were piled into their respective cars, and the race back to London was on. The pair repeated it for several years, with Berkmann a perennial winner. Word spread, not least through their respective columns. Another journo offered a bottle of champagne to the winner. And it was on. These days, it is a charity event and a little more sedate.
It was all great fun and great publicity (and sales) for Beaujolais, but the downside was that many drinkers around the globe came to see Beaujolais as a simple slurper, not worth a second thought. Cheap party wine.
By 1992, half of all Beaujolais was Nouveau. Less than a decade later, more than a million unsold cases were sent to distillation as sales and interest declined. A local journo described it as vin de merde and was promptly sued, not for defamation but for denigrating French products. The producers won, but the decision was overturned on appeal. Far more damaging to the producers was the poor press around the world.
All this was horribly unfair to those attempting to make wines of quality.
This was also a time when one producer ruled, and the quality of Beaujolais came down to his wines – Georges Duboeuf. Deboeuf, who passed away a few months ago, ruled the region to the extent that he was dubbed “the King of Beaujolais.” Deboeuf was a force behind the Race, and his bottles with their floral labels were instantly recognizable. In those days, if one ever came across another producer it was almost a surprise, such was his dominance.
In recent years, we have seen numerous other winemakers emerge. They have had to work extremely hard to reverse these perceptions, but they are doing it in the best way they can – with their wines.
Beaujolais, as mentioned, is made from the Gamay grape. In 1395, Philip the Bold had outlawed Gamay in Burgundy, believing it substandard – “a very bad and disloyal plant” –and so it found its way south to Beaujolais. Sixty years later, Philip the Good declared himself one of the “lords of the best wines in Christendom” and confirmed the ban.
What is Beaujolais?
There is a white Beaujolais, made from Chardonnay (and in one of those wonderfully French twists, Aligoté, but only until 2024 and only if those vines were planted before 2004). White Beaujolais makes up about one percent of all production and is little more than a curiosity.
Gamay makes a lighter, fresher style of wine, low in tannins but reasonably high in acidity. It is easy to see why so much is consumed so early. Winemaking involves carbonic maceration, which gives lifted aromatics with spices, raspberry, and often bubble-gum notes.
How carbonic maceration works is that whole unpressed grapes are fermented in tanks full of carbon dioxide and then crushed. So fermentation is largely inside the grape (inevitably, some of the grapes are crushed by sheer weight from above and that juice undergoes traditional fermentation).
When the alcohol level in the grape gets to around two percent, the grapes burst open and the juice is released; fermentation then finishes in the normal manner. The result is an emphasis on fruit.
Beaujolais is a terrific food wine, especially for bistros, picnics, and those who prefer a red on occasions when others might reach for the white.
There are 12 appellations for Beaujolais, which have been refined and added to over the years. Around half of the production is simple Beaujolais AOC (this includes Nouveau). A step up is Beaujolais-Villages. The top classifications are the Crus.
In Beaujolais, Cru refers to the entire subregion, not individual plots. There are ten Crus: Morgon, Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Régnié, Brouilly, and Côte de Brouilly.
All have different characteristics. Brouilly, Chiroubles, and Régnié are considered the lightest of all; Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, and St-Amour a step up in concentration; and the rest fuller again and the wines most likely to age, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent especially.
As we are looking at the utterly delicious wines from Château Thivin in Côte de Brouilly, I won’t attempt to define the characters from all Crus. That is why books exist (and I suppose the internet).
Château Thivin wines
My first experience with Château Thivin came a few years ago when an importer friend told me he had some Beaujolais he thought I might like to see. They were from Château Thivin and a mix of 2014 and 2015. The ’15 blew me away, as good as any Beaujolais I could remember. So when the chance came to have a look at a range of its 2018s, I was all over it.
The Beaujolais 2018 vintage is already being talked about as legendary, heroic, special, brilliant . . . roll out whatever superlative you like. It seems that this unheralded region might have done better in 2018 than any other, relatively speaking.
The best wines are full bodied (again, everything is relative, and they are perhaps not quite as full as those from 2015), richly flavored, complex, and yet elegant. Silky and velvety are two words heard regularly. The wines have great color, are full of spice, and slightly darker berries than usual. They are generally seen as fresher than the excellent 2015s, with brighter acidity and less alcohol.
Château Thivin is a Côte de Brouilly specialist. This was a region originally planted by the Romans; wine was made here by Benedictine monks. This Cru is on the slopes of the old volcano, Mont Brouilly (the wines are considered to be more intense and offering less of an earthy tone than neighboring Brouilly, which is on the lower slopes).
There are around 320 hectares planted in Côte de Brouilly, with 50 producers. The soil is largely the blue stone of Brouilly, but the steep slopes, a grade of sometimes 48 to 50 percent, make work difficult.
Thivin is the oldest estate here, built in the fifteenth century. In 1877, it and its accompanying two hectares were purchased by Zaccharie Geoffray. a local farmer. Over the generations, the fifth and sixth generations are now running the show, the vineyards expanded. It has been a site often visited by the famous, everyone from Colette to Richard Olney.
The vines here average 50 years of age. No insecticides are used. Techniques have been implemented to avoid erosion, but it is a never-ending fight. Grapes and juice are transferred by gravity, and each vintage will spend several months in large oak foudres before bottling. The estate has been transferring to organic viticulture since 2008. Fertilizer is all by way of natural composts.
The always perceptive and entertaining American importer Kermit Lynch has described the wines as resembling “a country squire who is not afraid to get his boots muddy. Handsome, virile, earthy, and an aristocrat.”
The family vinifies each plot throughout the vineyards separately and that means that they can bottle those plots individually. La Chapelle and Le Clos Bertrand are examples.
Whatever your preconceptions of Beaujolais are, please do not dismiss the Château Thivin wines without giving them a go. They are serious, but they retain that joyous exuberance this region can confer. They are delicious and in the right circumstances a stellar match with food.
Château Thivin Vignes d’Ecussol 2018 (AUD$41): This wine is actually from a slope behind Quincié-en-Beaujolais. Bright and fruity with floral notes. Juicy, even a little sappy. Has notes of mulberries. A mid-length style, though it does drop off in intensity. Simple and easy, a style to drink while youthful. Lots of flavor. 88.
Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly Les Sept Vignes 2018 (AUD$55): This meaty Beaujolais is from a blend of all seven of the plots on Mont Brouilly – Clos Bertrand, La Chapelle, Les Griottes, Godefroy, L’Héronde, Henri, and Les Fournelles – each offering a different contribution to the final wine. Soils are largely the aforementioned blue stone, though there is more clay in the plots near the base of the hill. Vine density is 7,000 to 9,000 vines/hectare. The wine eventually sees seven months in oak tuns.
Among the meaty notes, there are lovely red berry characters. A hint of bacon and deli salami. There are some of the earth and mushrooms, which bring to mind the comments of Kermit Lynch. There is a touch of tannin and decent length.
A picnic of smoked meats and this wine? Perfect. 91.
Château Thivin Cote de Brouilly Clos Bertrand 2018 (AUD$62): A single-vineyard Beaujolais is not what one typically expects to encounter but hopefully the success the family has had with its example might encourage far more. Intriguingly, this wine has one percent Chardonnay included with the Gamay, all vines from within the château’s walled vineyard, which was planted as far back as the fourteenth century – there is an inscription here reading “1383.” The vineyard is at the base of Mont Brouilly, with deeper soil and some pink granite mixed throughout. Vine density is 7,000 vines/hectare. Seven to nine months in oak tuns.
The result is a more refined Beaujolais than some. Spice, cinnamon, a hint of vanilla, raspberries, and mulberries. Even a hint of mild milk chocolate on the finish. There is complexity, good acidity, a soft finish, and good, satiny length. This is bright, juicy, and delicious and definitely has a future. 92.
Château Thivin Cote de Brouilly La Chapelle 2018 (AUD$69): This site is a stony plot high up on Mont Brouilly, a very steep vineyard. The vines here are 60 years old, on average, with a density of 8,000 vines/hectare. The wine sits in oak tuns until the following June.
Bright purple in hue, this delicious wine offers spices, mulberries, dark fruits, and more. Bright and juicy. Terrific length. Real exuberance here. Good acidity and excellent length. Quite full bodied and finely balanced, this has at least a decade ahead of it, if you can keep your hands off it. A Beaujolais of the highest class. 94.
For more information, please visit www.chateau-thivin.com,