Cru Beaujolais: Focus on St. Amour and Chenas
This is the 8th and final part in my serious on the Crus of Beaujolais. If you'd like to read the other posts, follow these links:
- Part 1: An overview of the 10 Crus
- Part 2: Moulin a Vent
- Part 3: Morgon
- Part 4: Fleurie
- Part 5: Julienas
- Part 6: Cote de Brouilly and Brouilly
- Part 7: Regnie and Chiroubles
Today we'll finish up with the two remaining crus, St. Amour and Chenas.
It is tempting to assume that, because I am covering them last, I hold St. Amour and Chenas in least regard among the 10 Crus. This is far from the case.
It is true that, when you browse our selection of Cru Beaujolais (we have over 60 right now!), you do not encounter very many examples of either Cru. In fact, I see that we presently have exactly one bottling of each.
But both those bottlings are dear to my heart. I drink them frequently. I cellar them. I love them.
And both bottlings express exactly what is unique about each Cru. Let's take them one at a time.
Chenas is considered the "rarest" of the Crus, and indeed there is not much quantity and the wine produced can be pretty special. Chenas shares granitic soils with its neighbors, and when people talk about its terroir they often refer to the oak forests that the vines replaced, although it's not clear what effect, if any, this might have on the wines. What's really special about the terroir of Chenas--and I believe this is only true in some parcels of the Cru--is the quartz.
I don't know much about quartz or why it should have any effect on the wine. But I can tell you this: About 5 years ago, routing around a cellar in a Brooklyn wine shop, I happened across a case of Chenas from a producer called Piron-Lameloise. The wine was called "Quartz", in honor of the soils. Now, this was a case of wine that had been missing for years. We had long written it off. The bottles were now 6 or 7 years old. I was about to go to a dinner party. I didn't want to bring anything expensive because dinner was with non-wine people. I figured this Chenas would do the job.
Now the non-wine people wanted to impress me, I guess, so they brought bottles with high Parker scores from California. There were some oohs and aahs at the tables when these were opened, but not a lot of drinking. These were wines designed to impress on your first sip but not to provide any lasting pleasure.
Then we drank the Chenas. Wow. There was still lively, fresh fruit providing sizzle to the palate. But underlying it all was this incredible minerality that reminded me of, yes, Chablis. It was iodine. And it was incredibly compelling. Not just to me, but to all the non-wine folks at the table, who were now not just oohing and aahing but also complaining about how fast the bottle was disappearing, and by the way could they buy this at my shop?
Now for a big digression. I believe that it requires practice before you can taste certain flavors. Flavors can be subtle things, and sometimes you have to be hit on the head before you notice them. Then, once you've had that eureka moment, your brain will forever be re-wired to detect that flavor, even when it is expressed in a more nuanced manner.
This is why experience--that is, drinking a lot--is so important to wine appreciation. When you start out, you may need high fruit ripeness and oak flavors to see the goodness in wine. But with practice, you notice more subtle things. And those subtle things become more and more important to you. Then suddenly those oak flavors are getting in the way! Somewhere along the way you stop drinking Argentinian Malbec and you crave the tar and rose petals of Barolo, the blueberries and bacon of Cote-Rotie, the peaches and minerals of Mosel Riesling, the forest floor of mature Burgundy...
And the iodine of Chenas...as It turns out. Until I drank that old bottle, I had no idea that it was there. I had not found that flavor in the numerous bottles of young Chenas that I had consumed. But it was so unmistakably full-on in that singing bottle of Chenas, that it seems to have permanently re-wired my brain, and now I taste it every time that I revisit Chenas. It is unique, and I will assume that it has something to do with the quartzite soils, but of course I really have no idea.
Anyway, that is Chenas. St. Amour is more famous mostly because of its Valentine's name. But here is what I find amazing about the wine: it really seems to share a flavor quality with that other, far more famous -- and far more expensive -- Valentines wine: Les Amoureuses, from Chambolle-Musigny. If you are fortunate enough to have tasted Les Amoureuses, you know that it is just bursting with sexy red fruit and raspberry flavors.
OK, I'll say it: St. Amour is not as good as Les Amoureuses. I am not a terroir-relativist when it comes to wine. Some terroirs are simply better than others, and I think this is one that the market totally exaggerates but basically gets right (a single bottle of Les Amoureuses typically costs 10 or even 20 times as much as a bottle of St. Amour). But like I said above, I love St. Amour. It really does have that red fruit that is so Chambolle-like. It ages beautifully. It is wonderful to drink on Valentine's or any other night of the year.
But there is really only one great producer from St. Amour that we are consistently able to source: Domaine des Billards. And here is the surprise ending to this 8-part series on Cru Beaujolais: if there is one bottle of Cru Beaujolais that I want you to drink tonight -- that I want to drink tonight -- it is the 2010 St. Amour from Domaine des Billards. It will give you all the pleasures that caused me to embark on this 8-blog-post project. It has the lovely fresh fruit that makes Beaujolais the drink of choice for almost all wine professionals in this City when they just want, well, something to drink. But it is also just starting to reveal its core. Just a few years of bottle age, and already there is a layer of flavor, of terroir representation, of sheer complexity and pleasure, that only time can provide. And, most shockingly, this is a $20 wine, easily one of the best values in our shop. Try this wine, and, I hope, my message will be clear.