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Beaujolais: The Unsung Hero of French Wine

There is more quality wine being produced in the world right now than any time in history. There were very dark days in the last decades of the 20th century, when I first began buying and selling wine professionally. Vineyard yields everywhere skyrocketed from a traditional 40 hectoliters per hectare up to 70 or higher (1 hectoliter = 100 liters; 1 hectare = almost 2.5 acres). Soils ceased to be cared and tended for, but rather were flooded with herbicides and fertilizers and the lands were poisoned for a quick buck. Quality almost everywhere was marginal, and France became the largest purchaser of petro-chemicals in Europe. Cancer rates among grape farmers and winemakers dwarfed the regular population. The Germans got caught putting anti-freeze in their wines to increase the glycerin, the Burgundians got busted for adulterating their wines with Grenache from the Rhone and Beaujolais was in such a dismal state that wine importer, Kermit Lynch, said in the late 1980’s “that Beaujolais has everything the wine loving tourist could desire, except good wine”. Sadly, even today Beaujolais still produces billions of gallons of absolutely horrible, mass produced, chaptalized (sugar added to increase alcohol content), overly filtered and degassed garbage that has very little in common with the true Beaujolais. This is not even considering the 50% of the total production of the region that is turned into grown up cool-aid called “Beaujolais Noveau” and is completely quaffed up one Thursday in November each year. In fact, Beaujolais produces 6 out of every 10 bottles of Burgundy, which is 2.5 times the total production of the rest of Burgundy.

Times and tastes have certainly changed, and no region exemplifies this more than the Beaujolais. It has historically been a mystical marriage of grape and ground. Here, the sandy clay laying over granite distinguishes the Gamay grape unlike anywhere else in the world, producing uniquely fresh, fruity, light and infinitely quaffable wines. As we have so far found on this culinary odyssey that the wines match the food of the region, and here it is no different. The cuisine of Lyon is the kind that you eat with gusto and needs to be accompanied by cool draughts of the wine that was once (and is beginning to be again) Beaujolais. Real traditional Beaujolais of the 1930’s to the early 1960’s was very light in color, slightly aggressive, full of perfume and almost murky to the eye with an alcohol content that rarely broke 10%. Tonight, we offer you three distinct, traditional Beaujolais from some amazing producers. We begin the night with Beaujolais Blanc from the benchmark producer Chateau Thivin. This 100% Chardonnay wine comes from another walled vineyard and is about as classy as it gets with pale straw color, stone fruit and mellow old oak. Our next wine is from Jean-Paul Thévenet, a third generation wine maker who when he took over the family business in the 1980’s turned the domaine in an unexpected direction. In a rebellion against the over commercialized and mass produced wine of the era, he advocated a return to “natural wine”. Jean-Paul joined up with three other wine makers and together these rebels were dubbed The Gang of Four and called for a return to the old practices of grape growing and winemaking, starting with old vines and eschewing synthetic herbicides and pesticides. They practice green harvesting on the vine and intense sorting after harvest, and most importantly, they all refuse both chaptalization and filtration. By doing so he allows the character of Morgon to be revealed without any plastic surgery: rustic and spicy with the intense minerality of the granitic vineyards. Our final wine for the evening is made by Jean-Paul’s son, Charly Thévenet. Young Charly has lived his whole life under the “natural wine movement” and in his early 20’s bought a small parcel of 80 year old vines in Régnié, which if there were Grand Crus in Beaujolais, this would be one. This wine is without a doubt one of our favorite wines ever and a great example of what can be done with this grape under the proper guidance. Maybe it will even earn a place in your wine-drinking heart as well! Once again, we thank you for joining us on this lovely evening, and hope to see you for our Sunday night tours in the future!

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