“About halfway up is the windiest, where the windmill is.”
Local winemaker Richard Rottiers was explaining the vineyard layout of the Beaujolais cru, Moulin-a-Vent. “There’s about seven to ten days’ difference in harvest dates between the vineyards at the bottom, near Romanèche-Thorins and those at the top,” which are almost 656 feet higher in the village of Chénas.
The French word for windmill is “moulin-à-vent.” A century ago, the wine producers of what was then a most revered French vineyard area between the villages of Romanèche-Thorins and Chénas, decided to make more of their iconic symbol.
They persuaded the original Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée authorities to enshrine the name Moulin-à-Vent into law as one of the early AOCs in 1924. It became official in 1936, despite there being no village of that name. Today, the houses around the windmill are recognized as the hamlet of Moulin-à-Vent.
A prized region
The best areas of Beaujolais, known as the crus, are making a belated, but well-deserved comeback, recovering after a couple of decades when the whole of Beaujolais was in the doldrums after the region became synonymous with cheap and often poor quality Beaujolais Nouveau.
Moulin-a-Vent, one of the ten crus, has seen its 1,600 acres of vineyards, a mid-sized cru, attract interest from outside investors, and its wines are in ever more demand, with prices for both vineyards and wines on the up. Moulin-à Vent wines prove that in the right place and in the right hands the Gamay grape delivers not only joyous wines for early drinking but intense, age-worthy wines too.
The hills where the vineyards of Moulin-à-Vent and other nearby crus are situated, form the north-eastern edge of the Massif Central range of mountains, which run down to the south of France.
As well as altitude differences, soils are extremely diverse, although these are variations on a theme of granite from the Massif Central. With varied hillside aspects, mostly east-southeast, the topsoils have different depths of granite and often colored granites, which are pink in particular in this appellation. Vineyard soils are poor and thin on the upper slopes, ideal for long-lived wines. Whereas lower down, there are deeper, more sandy, alluvial soils and some clay with veins of manganese too giving lighter, earlier drinking wines. Locals claim these veins are responsible for the violet aromas often found in young wines.
The windmill was certainly strategically placed — the vineyards close to it benefit from a wind corridor blowing from the west and north, which not only helps keep vine disease away but provides smaller and more concentrated grape berries.
Within Moulin-à-Vent are around 50 individually-named vineyards, and more than a dozen are worthy of single bottlings. This was recognized more than 150 years ago, when in 1869, a local engineer, Antoine Budker, mapped and classified the vineyards of the southern Burgundy and Beaujolais.
Budker rated the vineyards not by price achieved, as in the famous 1855 Bordeaux classification, but by terroir. Most of his first- and second-class vineyard selections are those considered best today, especially in Moulin-à-Vent.
From this period right up to the 1950s, documents in the region and from British importers indicate that Moulin-à-Vent wines were priced higher than many top Côte d’Or crus. And in the past few years, investment has flowed in from Burgundian winemakers, keen to buy land cheaper than at home and make a new range of single-vineyard wines.
Louis Jadot was an early Beaune winery to invest in top vineyard sites, buying Château des Jacques in 1996; among others are Thibault Liger-Belair, Louis Boillot, and Albert Bichot. Outsiders have invested too, notably the Parinet family, who have worked hard to regain credibility for wines from the iconic Château du Moulin-à-Vent, which they purchased in 2009.
The vineyard area close to the windmill was always called Thorins, and — as happened in Côte d’Or to the north, with town names such as Gevrey-Chambertin — the name of this highly regarded vineyard was added to that of the main town, Romanèche. As well as Les Thorins, among the best single vineyards are Champs de Cour, Rochgrès and toward Chénas, La Rochelle.
Vines and winemaking
Moulin-à-Vent retains many densely planted, old bush vines, trained low to the ground. The average vine age is a respectable 50 years old, but many of the top Moulin-à-Vent producers have a special plot of a hundred years old or more — their centenarian plots.
The Moulin-à Vent organic estate of Thibault Liger-Belair is no exception and Thomas Combet-Joly, who manages their vineyards, explained that their 100-year-old vines lie even lower to the ground than normal. It is too dangerous to work the soil with a tractor. Instead, they are hand weeded around every single vine — a labor of love indeed. Combet-Joly notes how many local estates are in conversion to organics, which presents a big challenge with these stubby vines.
Two main winemaking methods are practiced in Moulin à Vent. The traditional Beaujolais method using semi-carbonic maceration is often wrongly considered to be suitable only for early drinking wines. The method uses whole Gamay bunches complete with stems, and by macerating them in an atmosphere of carbon dioxide released by the fermentation, uncrushed berries at the top of the vat undergo fermentation inside the grape berries, which leads to an intensely fruity character.
For longer-aged wines, many prefer the so-called Burgundy method, de-stemming the grapes, sometimes using a cold pre-fermentation maceration; punch-downs and pump-overs of the cap of skins, and then oak aging for six to 20 months. Today, the best practitioners of both methods are learning from each other and adapting to deal with riper grapes from warmer vintages.
Many using the Beaujolais method now use a few pump-overs for greater extraction of tannins and flavors, and most producers age the wines in barrels, although with little new oak. Several exponents of the Burgundy method are experimenting with part whole bunch maceration to bring out brighter fruit character and terroir expression. Oak barrel size, age, and provenance are part of the debate.
Moulin-à-Vent wine styles
The styles of Moulin-à-Vent wines reflect the different faces of the region in the 2020s — from natural-as-can-be young vignerons through well-established names to Burgundian challengers. Those based elsewhere in the region may make just one cuvée, whereas those based in the appellation itself, today make three or more. Brice Laffond, winemaker for Château du Moulin-à-Vent comments, “Those producers who make only one Moulin-à-Vent tend to extract more and make a bigger wine, whereas those who make several can go for lightness in some cuvées.”
Aging potential for Moulin-à-Vent is usually six to eight years for lighter styles and 15 years or longer for more concentrated styles, especially those aged for longer before bottling. Curiously, once the wines reach middle age, they “pinote.” This French expression describes the perception that as they develop, these Moulin-à-Vent Gamays trick you into thinking that they are Pinot Noirs.
Younger Moulin-à-Vent certainly needs different food pairings than a Pinot as it reveals a much denser, darker fruit, but once mature, you could easily think of Burgundy pairings. Chilling is certainly not for this cru and ideal serving temperatures vary from 57 degrees to 64 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on age and wine style.
The latest vintages on the shelves are the low-yielding but elegant 2019 and the richer, higher alcohol 2020. However, you will still find many wines from the warm and abundant 2018 vintage — currently, some are going into a dormant phase, so if you want to open them now, give them plenty of air. To release their flavors, just think of the windmill.
5 Moulin-à-Vent wines to try:
Paul Janin et Fils Moulin-à-Vent Les Vignes du Tremblay 2019 (~$28)
Eric Janin, who runs the family estate with his daughter Perrine, has shunned oak these past few years, maintaining that at least one year’s tank aging rounds out the wines better. This cuvée is made from one-quarter of de-stemmed fruit blended with whole bunch; some pump-overs and punch-downs are done during the semi-carbonic maceration. Zippy acidity balances out the warm black cherry fruit and this should peak in about three years.
Domaine Richard Rottiers Moulin-à-Vent Le Dernier Souffle 2020 (~$29)
“Dernier Souffle,” or last breath, is Richard Rottiers’ name for his warm organic plot of 60-year-old vines next to Romanèche-Thorin’s cemetery. Made using the Beaujolais method and with most of the cuvée in barrel for six months, the 2020 exudes lovely red and black fruit and shows extreme ripeness of fruit wrapped in soft, silky tannins. Typical in warm vintages, the wine will close up in a while, warns Rottiers, but it will reemerge in a few years and last for at least a further decade before it takes its own last breath.
Château du Moulin-à-Vent 'Moulin à Vent' (~$28)
While waiting for this fine estate’s single-vineyard bottlings to evolve, the wine labeled simply as château provides an excellent expression of classic Moulin-à-Vent from a blend of sites closest to the château including Les Caves and Les Thorins. Using Burgundian methods but with just 20% aged in barrel, it is approachable sooner, expressing brooding black fruit character, with silky tannins giving structure to age.
Domaines Chermette Moulin-à-Vent Les Trois Roches 2020
Les Trois Roches refers to three excellent Moulin-a-Vent vineyards: Rochegrès, Roche Noire, and La Rochelle. This family winery, based in the south of Beaujolais, has owned vineyards in the crus for some years. Made in the local method, it is aged 80% in large oak foudres, 20% in small barrels for about eight months. The result has a smokiness of oak combined with juicy sweet fruit to be enjoyed right away or left to evolve for several years.
Elisa Guérin Moulin-à-Vent Les Thorins 2020 (~$38)
From a 3.7 acre plot of 60-year-old vines in Les Thorins, the wine was made in the Beaujolais method with 30% aged in old barrels. A young vigneron on the rise, who is gradually taking on vineyards from her father’s estate, Domaine du Moulin d’Eole, Elisa Guérin works organically without certification and shuns winery intervention except for a minimal sulfite addition pre-bottling. This big wine is intense, smoky, and very long. It’s best to forget for a while to let the high alcohol integrate.