A few years ago I wrote an article for the Financial Times and another for EATER about the market forces that had made the Beaujolais cru of Saint-Amour a veritable desert for quality winemaking. It being Valentine’s Day again, I thought I’d write a small update. I don’t wish to encourage anyone to drink 2018 Saint-Amour today – quite the opposite – but it seems a nice time to note a few small signs of progress in the sector.
Let’s start with what hasn’t changed. Much of the cru’s production is still sold to large négoçiants, who thermovinify it and rush it to market cheaply in time for today’s holiday. In fact, even some of the natural winemaker négoçiants producing Saint-Amour from purchased grapes are rushing it to market in time for today’s holiday, which is disappointing. Generally-speaking, it is too cold in February in the Beaujolais to bottle safely, because wine at cold temperatures oxidises more readily. (This is why all the other Beaujolais crus require wines be aged until mid-March.) Wines bottled in February won’t necessarily get oxidised, but often they’ll receive more sulfites as insurance against the risk. In short, one still shouldn’t purchase Saint-Amour from the just-released vintage for Valentine’s Day.
So what has changed for Saint-Amour? More natural winemakers are sourcing grapes in Saint-Amour, with the result that the potential of the cru’s terroir becomes more perceptible each year. Since my 2017 articles were published, I’ve tasted quite a few more encouraging natural Saint-Amours, including négoçiant wines from Yann Bertrand, Isabelle & Bruno Perraud, Le Grappin, and Famille Dutraive, and the domaine wines of the organic Domaine Chardigny in Leynes. By all means reach for a 2017 from any of these domaines today.
And one senses the best is yet to come, as these and other natural winemakers come to grips with their source material. While in Fleurie last Friday, I tasted an astonishingly great tank sample of Famille Dutraive’s 2018 Saint-Amour “Clos du Chapitre.”
Famille Dutraive is the négoçiant label of Fleurie vigneron Jean-Louis Dutraive, aided by his son Justin and his daughter Ophélie. The négoçiant project was inaugurated after the Dutraive’s lost the 2016 vintage to hail, and continued in 2017, another year of massive hail losses. (The 2018 vintage is comparatively abundant, but the family will continue producing négoçiant wines – not least because Dutraive’s other son, Luca, will soon be joining the domaine as well.)
Persistent, fine-grained, and profound, the 2018 Saint-Amour “Clos du Chapitre” marks the first time Dutraive’s négoçiant work has rivaled his domaine wines in sheer complexity. Dutraive credits the sterling quality of the source material, from a domaine farmed organically for quite a few years at this point. Even at this early stage the wine seems to illustrate one of the more intangible and mysterious factors of quality natural winemaking: the prime importance of long-term organic viticulture. Happy vines just plainly yield something more dimensional. (Something adjacent to – yet distinct from – the dimensionality and structure one gets from older vines.)
The Dutraives’ 2018 Saint-Amour won’t be bottled for another month or so – easily in time for Valentine’s Day 2020.