Beaujolais has many claims to being regarded as a classic wine region, but it’s one which has had its fair share of difficulties during the 21st century. Continuing urban sprawl, low wine prices and Europe’s decreasing interest in the Beaujolais Nouveau campaign have all contributed to what has been described as a Crisis Viticole. This has led to difficult, sometimes tragic, human consequences for winegrowers.
As the official body for Beaujolais wines, Inter Beaujolais have been keenly promoting the region through participation in trade fairs, tastings and masterclasses. They have kindly released basic data on vineyard area, production and sales which help paint a picture of how the region has developed during the early 21st century.
Vineyard prices in Beaujolais have dropped significantly over the past 20 years According to Lyon Capital, the price of generic Beaujolais vineyard has fallen on average from €38,000/ha in 1990 to €13,900 in 2010. Over the same period the average sales price of Beaujolais Villages vineyard has fallen from €49,800 to €12,700. Beginning in 2005, winegrowers were offered a compensation of €6,300/ha if they chose to pull up their vines. With seemingly grim prospects, a number of winegrowers decided to quit. This had the effect of reducing the total Beaujolais vineyard from around 23,000 ha in 2005 to around 17,000 ha today. Most of the vines uprooted were located within generic Beaujolais vineyards (down ca. 34% since 2005) and Beaujolais Villages vineyards (down ca. 30% since 2005). Beaujolais Crus vineyards have lost only ca. 7% of their area since 2005.
Vintage effects have a marked impact on wine production from the region. The European heatwave of 2003 resulted in a much smaller harvest (and also one with higher than normal sugar contents). Wine production for Beaujolais totalled only 0.85 million hl in 2003, against an average of 1.3 million hl for the two years either side. 2012 was a particularly small harvest owing to a cold winter, spring frosts, and a damp, hail-prone, summer. Aside from vintage variation, longer term trends in wine production are taking place as a result of the loss of vineyard area. These changes have significantly altered the wine production profile of the Beaujolais region. So, for example in 2011, for the first time more Beaujolais Crus wine was produced than generic Beaujolais wine.
For some wine commentators, the future of Beaujolais lies not with its well known (but arguably devalued) Beaujolais Nouveau, but with its10 Crus AOPs. In this regard there has been much talk about the Crus producing concentrated wines from low yielding vines. Yet the available statistics seem to tell a different story. Over the period from 2002 to 2012, white wine production (which is tiny) has been produced, as would be expected, at significantly higher yields than for red wines. Meanwhile average yields for generic Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages and Beaujolais Crus have historically shown little difference and there have been a number of years (e.g. 2006-2009) when the average yields from Beaujolais Crus have been higher than those from generic Beaujolais! The future of the Beaujolais wine region may turn out to be determined largely by quality-minded producers located within the Beaujolais Crus. But isn’t it time to drop the simplistic association of yield and quality?
WineStats would like to thank Charles Rimbaud and his colleagues at Inter Beaujolais for providing the vineyard area and wine production data used in this article.