Joseph Drouhin Hospices de Belleville Beaujolais Duet

23 11 2016

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

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Great region, great wines, great story.

A few posts ago I was discussing the intractable dilemma of trying to locate value Burgundy, that nearly mythical beast of the wine world, and I’ve since realized that I neglected to mention the obvious solution to the problem:  just look for Cru Beaujolais.  The Beaujolais region is technically part of Burgundy, located just south of Macon and north of Lyon, and while it can produce its share of forgettable wines, the main difference between Beaujolais and the other zones of Burgundy is that its top wines are shockingly wallet-accessible.  In fact, Cru Beaujolais, wines from one of the ten top quality Cru subregions in the area, might be some of the greatest wine bargains on Earth, pinnacle expressions of a classic grape at absurdly reasonable prices.  Case in point:  the two bottles to be discussed below, which each clock in at $27-$30 retail and which combine old-vine vineyards in top locales, one of Burgundy’s best producers and a hell of a good back story, all for the price of a basic forgettable Bourgogne Rouge.

Unlike the rest of red Burgundy (which is crafted from Pinot Noir), red Beaujolais is made from Gamay, the thin-skinned and light-bodied red grape well known to Canadian wineries whose spiritual heartland lies in this region’s ten Crus.  True story:  Gamay used to be grown all across Burgundy until 1395, when the (likely self-titled) Duke Philip the Bold ordered the “very bad and disloyal plant” uprooted in favour of the more aristocratic and noble-approved Pinot Noir.  His decree was not all that impressively enforced way down in the south of Burgundy, so pockets of Gamay remained in Beaujolais, quietly, until the danger of extermination had passed and the region was officially recognized as a Protected Denomination of Origin.  While it’s true that Gamay may never quite reach the lofty heights of nuance and complexity that Pinot can, it can offer a pretty reasonable facsimile at an absolute fraction of the price.

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These particular bottles represent the first expression of a unique partnership between famed Burgundian producer Joseph Drouhin and the charitable organization Hospices de Belleville, which was first opened nearly 250 years ago by nuns to care for the poor and the sick.  Over the years the Hospices acquired a total of 34 prime acres of Cru Beaujolais vineyards, donated by devout souls seeking eternal salvation, including an 11-acre single-vineyard plot in Brouilly and 16 acres across three parcels in Fleurie.  As of the 2014 vintage, while the Hospices continues to own the lands and make the wines, it will now be doing so under Drouhin’s guidance in both vineyard and cellar and will be using Drouhin’s considerable marketing power to bring them to the world.

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The new collaborative Hospices de Belleville wines represent a blend of Beaujolais and Burgundian winemaking techniques, fermented partly via carbonic maceration (a common method used in Beaujolais, where uncrushed grapes are blanketed with CO2, starting an anaerobic intracellular fermentation within the grapes themselves, resulting in fruity, low-tannin wines) and partly via more traditional vinification (where the grapes are crushed and then sit on the skins during fermentation, which are punched down or have the fermenting juice pumped over them to extract colour and tannin).  The carbonic lots are matured in stainless steel and the traditional Burgundian lots are matured in large oak barrels, after which they are blended together in an attempt to create the best of both worlds.  The labels of the Drouhin Hospices bottles feature artwork from ancient apothecary jars (which look like large vases) that are still visible in the Hospices today, although the actual hospice has recently ceased active duty and is now a museum.

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This is a particularly special project for Maison Drouhin, now in its fourth generation of family ownership, because founder Joseph’s son Maurice had been injured as a member of the French resistance in World War II and was cared for and nursed back to health over six months by nuns in the famed Hospices de Beaune (which is now known for the large Burgundy charity auction it puts on every year).  In gratitude, Maurice Drouhin later became involved in the management of that Hospices, then with a group of hospices in eastern France, including…the Hospices de Belleville.  Can’t make this stuff up.  On to the wines!

2014 Joseph Drouhin Domaine des Hospices de Belleville Brouilly

Brouilly is the southernmost and by far the largest of the ten Beaujolais Cru subregions, covering 20% of the entire Beaujolais Cru land area.  It is also one of the few Crus not named for a village, instead named for the slopes of Mont Brouilly, located at its centre.  (There is actually a small chapel on top of Mont Brouilly.  It was built in 1857 to place the surrounding vineyards under the protection of the Virgin Mary.  Again, can’t make this stuff up.)  Brouilly is known for textured, earthy, structured wines, a far cry from the wimpy stereotypes of Beaujolais you often see out there.  This wine was anything but wimpy; it was power Gamay through and through.

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Immediately noticeable for this thin-skinned grape was the wine’s dark, almost brooding, yet (barely) translucent ruby-purple colour.  Deep bass notes on the nose defied any typecasting associated with carefree and casual Beaujolais:  granite, pitch and matchsticks shaded perfumed black raspberry and cherry Jolly Rancher fruit in an aromatic chorus that was equal parts rocky and luscious.  Leaner flavours of dried flowers, dusty charcoal and fresh ground pepper guarded a soft buoyant core of pure red fruit.  Surprisingly prominent, if fine, tannins promised future growth in what is already a knockout, reinforcing the restraint and Old World carriage that makes this wine come across as almost noble, with a wisdom beyond its vintage.  If you have ever doubted Beaujolais, this is a bottle for you.

91 points

$25 to $30 CDN

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Cork Ratings: 5/10 (Old school, and interesting depth of colour, but needs a graphic, of any kind.)

2014 Joseph Drouhin Domaine des Hospices de Belleville Fleurie

I will confess:  I once had the ten Crus memorized for wine exam purposes, but now could probably only name you 3 or 4 off the top of my head.  Fleurie is one of those 3 or 4, a legendary Cru located in the heart of Beaujolais Cru vineyard land and covering only three square miles of area.  Known for more elegant, floral wines, Fleurie is often referred to (with advance gender stereotyping apologies) as the most feminine of the Crus, and as the Queen of Beaujolais.  Despite this trend towards elegance and delicacy, Fleurie wines can be amazingly ageworthy for Gamay, often able to coast for a decade plus before starting to fade.

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This particular Fleurie was visibly more purple in colour than its Brouilly neighbour but was also far more transparent, much more in line with my Beaujolais expectations.  An overt aroma of gingerbread spice followed the wine out of the bottle, but over time it gave way to juicy red currant and strawberry fruit, watermelon and rose petals, a warmer, prettier nose than the preceding bottle.  There was a clear floral/soapy tinge on the palate, almost like tasting potpourri, and the immediately prominent driving acidity made the Fleurie’s scouring tannin and lithe body seem much more alive and dangerous.  Sour cherry and peach (!) fruit became increasingly tart as the wine stretched out, almost trending to citrus/pomegranate on the bright, mouth-awakening finish.  This was a dynamic, vivid bottle of wine, but for me it didn’t quite match the range and depth of the Brouilly and thus settled for silver in what ended up being an epic showdown.  Consider this an official Beaujolais awakening.

89+ points

$25 to $30 CDN

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