Cru Beaujolais: Focus on St. Amour and Chenas
This is the 9th and final part in our series on the Crus of Beaujolais. If you'd like to catch up on the other posts, start with our introductory post.
Today we'll finish up with the two remaining crus, St. Amour and Chénas.
It is tempting to assume that, because I am covering them last, I hold St. Amour and Chénas 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 50 at the time I’m writing this update, Election Day 2020!), you do not encounter very many examples of either Cru. In fact, I see that we presently have exactly two bottlings of each.
But both these Crus are dear to my heart. I drink them frequently. I cellar them. I love them.
Both Crus are very high on personality. Let's take them one at a time.
Chénas is considered the "rarest" of the Crus, and indeed there is not much quantity and the wine produced can be pretty special. Chénas shares granitic soils with its neighbors (especially at its hillly western edge; in the east the soils are more alluvial), 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 Chénas--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: a few years ago I was routing around a cellar in a Brooklyn wine shop when I happened across a case of Chénas 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, by then, 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 Chénas would do the job.
Now the non-wine people wanted to impress me, I guess, or maybe our hosts, so they brought bottles with high Parker scores from California. There were some oohs and aahs at the tables when those were opened, but not a lot of drinking. They were wines designed to impress on your first sip, but not to provide any lasting pleasure.
Then we drank the Chénas. 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? (I explained that the only way to drink mature Cru Beaujolais is to buy it and then cellar it yourself.)
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 complexity -- or even quality -- in wine. But with practice, you notice more subtle things. And those subtle things become more and more important to you. More rewarding. 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 Côte-Rotie, the peaches and minerals of Mosel Riesling, the forest floor of mature Burgundy...
And the iodine of Chénas… 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 Chénas that I had consumed. But it was so unmistakably full-on in that singing bottle of Chénas, that it seems to have permanently re-wired my brain, and now I taste it every time that I revisit Chénas from practically any producer. 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.
Now, there are not a lot of producers specializing in Chénas, but Domaine Thillardon happens to be an excellent one. He got started in 2008 but really didn’t get going until 2015 after learning a few things from Metras and Dutraive. Like me, he believes that Chénas is a special Cru that doesn’t deserve its second tier status. Unlike me, he has proven the point by producing a range of single vineyard expressions from the Cru. Lucky for us, he follows the methods of his mentors and does an excellent job of it.
St. Amour is more famous than Chénas, and I suspect it’s because of its Valentine's name (which does not come from Valentine’s or anything having to do with love but rather Armor, who was yet another Roman settler in the area.). 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.
St. Amour 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. St. Amour 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.
Now, that’s not to say that St. Amour is a substitute for Les Amoureuses. I am not a terroir-relativist when it comes to wine. Les Amoureuses costs more than almost every other wine in the world for a reason. It’s just that the market totally exaggerates the superiority or Les Amoureuses relative to other Burgundy, never mind Beaujolais (a single bottle of Les Amoureuses typically costs at least 20 times as much as a bottle of St. Amour). Sure, Les Amoureuses is very special. But like I said above, I love St. Amour too!
You can think of St. Amour as the most northerly of the 10 Crus, though there is actually a small slice of Juliénas that reaches a bit further north. The soils are heterogenous, with some patches that are quite granitic, others volcanic, and also bits of limestone and clay. So I find that St. Amour is able to produce the full range of Crus, from light and cheery, to deep and ageworthy. But they all seem to have that lovely raspberry.
Like this blog post? You can learn more about Beaujolais Crus here:
- Starting with Part 1, our introduction to the 10 Crus,
- Part 2 is a focus on Moulin-à-Vent,
- Part 3 is a focus on Morgon,
- Part 4 is a focus on Fleurie and
- Part 5 is a focus on Juliénas.
- In Part 6 we look at both the Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly.
- Part 7 is Chiroubles,
- Part 8 is Régnié,
- And Part 9 finishes up with the two remaining crus, St. Amour and Chénas.
This post was updated 11/20/2020.