A Beaujolais Mixtape
Since the early '80s, when the seeds of the natural wine movement were planted there, Beaujolais has been home to the most provocative, hard-living winemakers who are busy making some of the most florid, heartfelt wines in the world.
Though current prices and demand is downright Burgundian, the 2020 and 2021 vintages have convinced me the hype is merited. By-and-large, the region has remained home to those holding true to the vision of Jules Chauvet and the Gang of Four (Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thevenet, and Guy Breton) — working with nature instead of against it to make soulful wines with very little added. I've been really enamored with this recent mix of old classics, underrated players, and new voices that have hit our shelves, reminding me of why I still love Beaujolais after so many years.
Of the original Gang of Four, Lapierre, in the hands of Marcel's son and daughter since 2011, is like finding a CD of Steely Dan's Aja in the sun visor of your dad's car. It shouldn't still be exciting to listen to after so many plays but somehow it reveals a mixture of stoic hyper-competence in the service of something that feels at turns fundamental, indulgent, and vital.
Jean Foillard's wines are a bit more lush, but they retain dazzling beauty through finesse and nuance. They're not aloof or rustic — they have a slick demeanor that comes from years of honing the craft — but they retain an impeccable level of balance and subtlety. They don't shy away from the pleasure centers and never feel pretentious. Foillard is like Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time, crowd-pleasing and respected.
Bernard Diochon pre-dates the Gang of Four by almost two decades, and he never got quite the attention that Foillard, Lapierre, et al have received, despite his uncompromising, traditional methods. The last few vintages, in the hands of Bernard's successor, Thomas Patenôtre, have overdelivered. Hiding in plain sight, as it were, with a classical tannic structure that leaves room for gorgeous blueberry, lavender, and sour cherry notes and just the faintest hint of rustic wildness. Diochon is a deep cut Charles Lloyd LP you come across at a stoop sale with the spine ripped, something you think is going to be stuffy and dated but is surprisingly nimble, earnest, and uplifting.
And what is the self-released Bandcamp cassette tape of the bunch? Elisa Guerin. She grew up in Beaujolais, left for Paris and came back in the summers to casually make some wine at home and help out some neighbors with their cellar and vineyard work. These neighbors were the Foillards. After encouraging her to keep making wine, and after working for Yvon Metras, she took their advice and made her first official vintage in 2019.
Her wines still have plenty of youthful playfulness, a low-fidelity crunchiness that gets the point across without any extra fuss. There's an immediacy that shortens the distance between winemaker and wine drinker that, though I've never met her, makes her feel like a friend or family member making wine at home. It's avant-garde French natural wine, which is what these other producers were decades ago, a reassurance that Beaujolais is still a place for passion projects and experimentation.
After many changes and many challenges, Beaujolais is showing itself to be simultaneously resilient and flexible, able to integrate novelty without losing the fundamentals. The wines below? They are the mixtape I want to throw in my bag and make copies of for my friends.
Elisa Guerin grew up in Beaujolais and enjoyed helping her neighbors the vineyards. They told her she should be a winemaker. Her neighbors were named Foillard.