Christine Austin hops across the Channel to go wine-tasting in Beaujolais and the Rhône with a Yorkshire Post quiz winner

‘We had a fabulous wine tasting experience. Until this trip the regions of Beaujolais and the Rhône were just names on wine labels, but after my visit to Henry Fessy and Vidal-Fleury, I feel as if I really know these places and their wines.’

It would be difficult for Jean Pinder from York, winner of the 2016 Yorkshire Post Fiendish Wine Quiz to be more enthusiastic about her prize trip. For three days Jean and her husband Roger were guests of Henry Fessy in Beaujolais and Vidal-Fleury in the Rhône, both of them producers of top-quality wines. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to visit vineyards and taste some spectacular wines, I went along to share the whole experience.

We started in Lyon and headed north to Beaujolais. This is the region that used to be inextricably linked to the word ‘nouveau’ but all that has changed. The fashion for drinking newly fermented, tart, slightly fizzy wines has, thankfully, gone and the region has settled back into making quality wines. Beaujolais mainly comes from the flatter southern part of the region, while Beaujolais Villages comes from the hillier, northern part of the region, where granite soils gives the wines more depth of flavour and concentration. The very best wines come from ten designated ‘Crus’ villages within this area and wines from here might not even mention Beaujolais on the label. They indicate their provenance just by the name of the village, such as Brouilly, Moulin à Vent, Fleurie and St. Amour.

The grape here is Gamay which ranges in flavour from light, fresh, red cherry and strawberry notes to more serious black cherry and red fruit flavours, sometimes with a dusting of spice.

The company of Henry Fessy was established in 1888 and has gradually expanded to own 70 hectares of vineyards mainly in the Cru villages of the region. Here they concentrate on making wines the traditional way, hand-picking grapes and allowing the wines ferment slowly to retain flavours and fruit.

‘I describe out winemaking as ‘lazy’ because I want the grapes to express their own deep fruit flavours without a lot of winemaking intervention’, said Laurent Chevalier, the managing director and winemaker at Henry Fessy, who showed us around the winery.

Jean and Roger taste the difference between the Beaujolais Crus

We then settled down to an extensive tasting of the wines, where each of the Crus villages showed its own characteristics. Brouilly, made from grapes grown just 50 metres away from the front door of the winery is full-bodied, with structure and a definite hint of violets on the nose. Morgon has more grip, perfect for food while St Amour is silky with ripe raspberry fruit and a long finish. Moulin-à-Vent, from the hill famous for its windmill combines elegance with structure and an ability to age. Each of the Crus showed its personality and individual style.

 

The famous windmill at Moulin à Vent

The reason behind these differences was easy to see when we headed out to the vineyards. From the south to the north of the region, from the breezy hill of Côte de Brouilly to Morgon, Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent and St. Amour, the soils, altitude and climate changed, each factor having an influence on the wines.

Find Henry Fessy wines at Waitrose (Brouilly £12.99), Bon Coeur Fine Wines and House of Townend.

From Beaujolais we headed south, skirting the city of Lyon, eventually meeting up with the mighty Rhône river which starts at a glacier in Switzerland and eventually makes it way into the Mediterranean. Over many millennia this river has carved its way through the landscape, creating steep slopes where vineyards are now planted. Our hosts in the Rhône were Vidal-Fleury based in the Côte-Rôtie, ‘the roasted slope’, which is a south-facing vertiginous hillside where each vine has to be anchored to a post to keep it in place.

 

 

 

Founded in 1781, this was still a new cellar when the then American Ambassador Thomas Jefferson visited in 1787. As a keen lover of wine, he clearly had a taste for quality. Now the company has moved out of those old cellars into new premises where they make and age the wines. We headed down to the cellars and with Xavier Badinand, director of Vidal-Fleury, tasted through a huge range with a focus on northern Rhône wines but also including some of their spectacular Southern Rhône reds.

‘I have never had a Côtes du Rhône white before’ said Jean, ‘it is delicious.’ Then we worked through Condrieu 2015, Côtes du Rhône 2013 (Majestic £11.99 or £9.99 on a mix six deal), Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012, Crozes Hermitage 2014, St. Joseph 2015 and Côte-Rôtie 2013.

Condrieu is made from the Viognier grape which almost died out because it is so difficult to grow in this area, but a few decades ago cuttings were taken to the South of France, Australia and California which has boosted the popularity of the grape. Now the wines of Condrieu have the chance to shine against those other Viognier wines with notes of white flowers, apricot, orange zest and cinnamon spice. Sadly I have not yet been able to find a UK stockist of this excellent wine.

What struck me about these wines is their individuality and definition. The Cairanne 2013 (£13.50 Oddbins, Manchester) which comes from one of the top villages in the Côtes du Rhône Villages is elegant with ripe warm, red fruits and layered with spice. St. Joseph 2015 (around £20) from the northern part of the Rhone is a 100% Syrah wine and hides it structure and power under velvety fruit with savoury liquorice and cumin notes adding complexity. It would be good to see these wines more easily available in Yorkshire. They are certainly exceptionally well-made wines.

In the cellars at Vidal-Fleury with Xavier Badinand

From the tasting room we headed to the vineyards to see for ourselves the sheer difficulty of growing grapes on the steep slopes of the Northern Rhone. With the wind billowing down the valley, it was good to have those vine posts to hold on to.

And a final word from Jean. ‘It just isn’t possible to do this kind of trip on your own. We have met the winemakers and the viticulturalists who have shared their enthusiasm and knowledge, and we have tasted some fabulous wines. It has been a very special trip. Thank you to everyone who has made us so very welcome.’

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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