On Valentine’s Day, some wine drinkers reach for Champagne, others to fine Burgundy — luxury wines that say, You’re worth it, darling. Others look for anniversary vintages, or wines that evoke a shared memory with a loved-one. But some seek, against all reason, a wine named after love.
This has proved a blessing and a curse for the tiny appellation of Saint-Amour, situated south of Burgundy, at the northernmost edge of France’s Beaujolais region. Beaujolais has 10 “cru” appellations, geographical sites known to produce its best wines — but Saint-Amour is the only that sells one-third of its annual production on Valentine’s Day each year, according to Jérémie Giloux, president of the Saint-Amour viticultural syndicate. Those selling the wine of Saint-Amour — local winemakers, or, more often, the large wine resellers called négoçiants, who set wholesale prices — take advantage of appellation rules permitting them to release their wine a month and a half earlier than the other nine crus, to ensure the year’s vintage is available to thirsty lovebirds worldwide. “It’s a commercial position,” Giloux confirms, without elaborating.
The village of Saint-Amour is in fact named for a Roman soldier called Amor, who became a Christian missionary in the region in the 4th century. But that hasn’t stopped local winegrowers from making the most of a profitable marketing association. The rest of the Beaujolais region grapples with falling sales and consumer misconceptions stemming from the precipitous decline in popularity of Beaujolais Nouveau wine in the 1990s and 2000s. Saint-Amour remains insulated by its Valentine’s Day sales bonanza.
But the consumer who purchases wine on the basis of an amorous appellation name is by definition not an especially demanding wine drinker, and many in the industry recognize this has led to a perilous complacency among the winegrowers of Saint-Amour. Winemaking standards have suffered: Saint-Amour wine released early for Saint Valentine’s Day will necessarily show the effects of its abbreviated aging period, hewing closer to the simpler, primary flavors of a vin nouveau (a wine released the year of its harvest). There’s also increased risk of oxidation when wine is bottled in cold winter weather, a practice most winemakers avoid.
“That’s the danger of Saint-Amour,” says Anka de Boisseu of Château de Lavernette, an organic- and biodynamic-certified estate on situated near Chaintré, on the geologic and cultural border between the Maconnais and the Beaujolais. “It’s become like the Beaujolais Nouveau.”
The de Boisseu family produced their first Saint-Amour in 2015 and never entertained the idea of an early Valentine’s Day release. Last July, the wine — all six barrels of it — was still aging in their cool cellar tucked into the hill beneath the château. “I had a lot of people asking me back in January, ‘Will your Saint-Amour be ready for February?’” recounts Anka’s son Xavier, a reserved fellow in his thirties who along with his American wife Kerrie handles winemaking at the estate. “It’ll be ready when it’s ready.”
Yet the reason most other Saint-Amour is so awful is simpler than a mere foreshortened aging period. Most Saint-Amour is awful because it doesn’t have to be good.
Hot in Here: Saint-Amour and Thermovinification
In the rest of Beaujolais, many winegrowers, dismayed at the declining prices offered by large-scale négoçiants, have begun to bottle and market their own wine. (In industry parlance, the term “winegrower” denotes those people who grow grapes but do not bottle or market the wine — paradoxically, even if they do make the wine and then sell it to négoçiants). But large-scale négoçiants are still willing to pay more for Saint-Amour, thanks to its readymade Valentine’s Day market — to the extent that wholesale prices of Saint-Amour wine are consistently the highest in the region. (In 2014, Saint Amour sold for 344€ / hectolitre, compared to 270€ / hectolitre for the adjacent cru of Juliènas.)
As a result, large-scale négoçiants still reign in Saint-Amour, with just 20 percent of sales taking place at estates themselves. Those négoçiants, whose principal clients are supermarkets and high-volume export markets, insist on a risk-free product. So in Saint-Amour, as elsewhere in Beaujolais, many négoçiants insist their winegrowers employ thermovinification. It’s a process in which fermenting juice is heated to above 140°F, stabilizing the wine, but standardizing it as well, eradicating its personality and leaving tell-tale aromas of cooked cassis.
“Whether you put thermo-vinified wine in barrel in December or in March, it’s all the same,” says winemaker Christophe Pacalet, one of the region’s rare artisanal micro-négoçiants. Pacalet knows from experience. He abhors thermovinification, but in previous vintages he used to purchase and bottle a tiny quantity of thermo-vinified Saint-Amour wine as a favor to a restaurant client in Paris. The grower who thermovinified the wine called it his “Cuvée Pacalet.”
“That wine was totally apart from the rest of what I do,” says Pacalet, who as a rule only ever purchases grapes, not finished wine. “But when you want to buy grapes in Saint-Amour, the guys give you a weird look, or they send you to the bad parcels.”
For the 2015 vintage, Pacalet found a different grower willing to sell him grapes. Pacalet vinifies on native yeasts, without chemical additives, and a bare minimum of sulfur addition. He rarely filters his wines. The result, in his 2015 Saint-Amour, is a huge departure from the thermovinified finished wine he used to purchase from the other winegrower. “When he asks when I’m coming to pick up the ‘Cuvée Pacalet,’ I don’t know what to tell him this year,” Pacalet says, shaking his head.
The Organic Frontier
The large négoçiants’ emphasis on standardized, risk-free winemaking has encouraged a conservatism bordering on cynicism in the vineyards of Saint-Amour. The terroir of Saint-Amour is a hodgepodge, with patches of granite, flint, and magmatic schiste dominating the center north, surrounded by swathes of alluvial clay to the east and south. But why bother farming it well enough to express the details of terroir, when thermovinification will render it all uniform in the bottle?
Further south, in the crus of Morgon and Fleurie, estates like Domaine Lapierre and Domaine de la Grand’Cour have achieved impressive influence and commercial success working along organic principles, eliminating herbicide use and returning to plowing and hoeing to remove grass competition. Saint-Amour is another planet. “If you look for organics — for plowed soil — it practically doesn’t exist in Saint-Amour,” regrets Château de Lavernette winegrower Xavier de Boisseu.
Besides Château de Lavernette, there are just two other organic-certified estates producing Saint-Amour wine: the Château des Bachelards, which farms two hectares near those of de Boisseu, and the Château des Rontets, with barely half a hectare. Adjacent to the vines of Château des Rontets, on the Mont de Besset, the Graillot winemaking family of the Rhône have also purchased just over half a hectare, which they farm organically without certification.
Of these estates, only Château des Rontets subscribes to the ethos of natural wine, or wine vinified without additives. Recent vintages have accordingly seen a minor rush of small-scale, artisanal natural wine négoçiants like Christophe Pacalet filling the vacuum of natural Saint-Amour. In 2016, acclaimed Morgon winemaker Georges Descombes made his first négoçiant Saint-Amour, purchased from 60-year-old vines just off the road towards Pruzilly, at the west of the appellation.
“Today négoçiant wine is regarded as shit,” Descombes recognizes. “But we don’t have the vision to be the kind of négoçiant that does a million bottles. [On our scale] we can do clean négoçiant work. It suffices to select the grapes well.”
Meanwhile, his son Kewin Descombes, in collaboration with Georges’ stepson Damien Coquelet and their friend the Burgundy winemaker Fred Cossard, has been releasing a Saint-Amour from purchased grapes for the last two years. In 2016, Northern Burgundy négoçiant François Ecot is débuting a Saint-Amour bottled as a Vin de France, entitled “Lubie.”
None of these wines are released in time for Valentine’s Day after the vintage. All sell for higher prices than the average large-scale négoçiant Saint-Amour, which falls in the $12-$20 range in the United States. But what unites all the négoçiant wines of Saint-Amour, from the artisanal to the industrial-scale, is that none, for now, derive from certified organic grapes.
But in Saint-Amour, one senses, if not the winds of change, at least a gentle breeze. Christophe Terrier, the robust winemaker of Domaine du Clos des Carrières, recently took his first tentative steps away from conventional chemical agriculture. He possesses nine hectares of Saint-Amour, but farms just three organically, without certification. “It represents a big cost. But little by little I’ve changed my methods according what I felt like doing,” he says, before adding, “...and also what the clients wanted.”
Arguing with Success
Wine can be a delicate expression of a unique terroir and its surrounding culture. Wine is also, inescapably, a commercial product. For over 20 years, the Saint-Amour viticultural syndicate has timed promotional blitzes to coincide with Valentine’s Day. Hearts adorn the labels on bottles in the village wine shop; one of the local gastronomic restaurants calls itself Au 14 Fevrier. For the 2015 edition of the local wine fair known as the Fête des Crus, the mayor of Saint-Amour organized a publicity stunt in which 300 couples were married. Since the appellation was decreed in 1946, Saint-Amour has proved a moderately successful commercial product, and in the Beaujolais, it’s hard to argue with moderate success.
“In Saint-Amour, they’re kind of the Burgundians of Beaujolais,” Christophe Pacalet acknowledges. ”They’ve got big houses; they all drive four-by-fours.”
So in demanding better, more sustainably-farmed wines from Saint-Amour, are we asking winegrowers to risk their livelihoods in order to impress a small circle of idealistic sommeliers? For those winegrowers, is it instead a safer bet to presume there will always be enough moony-eyed drinkers purchasing inexpensive wines named after love? Pacalet phrases it with his own particularly Beaujolais blend of wonderment and fatalism. “They just don’t care out there,” he says. “Still, one day it’ll all come crashing down.”
Aaron Ayscough writes the French wine blog Not Drinking Poison in Paris. He's at work on a book about the wines of the Beaujolais.
Editor: Erin DeJesus