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A Moulin-à-Vent triptych

Julia Harding MW
16 Jun 2020

Moulin-a-Vent

Serious beaujolais is one of the best-value wines around. But how do the recent vintages that are currently drinking so well compare? Here’s how one of the most ambitious producers sees them.

Triptych was the word chosen by owner Édouard Parinet to describe three vintages of his Ch du Moulin-à-Vent bottling, the emblematic cuvée of the estate, which also makes several single-vineyard wines. They form a perfect trinity: two extreme vintages in 2015 and 2017 framing 2016, ‘the referee in the middle’, as Parinet calls it. My notes on these wines are at the end of this article.

We tasted these wines ‘together’ as we talked for an hour via Zoom, me at home in London and he chez lui in the rather grander setting of the château in the hamlet of Les Thorins.

Ch du Moulin a Vent doorway

While these are just three wines from one estate, they exemplify the three vintages across this part of the Beaujolais region, even if the hail, the hallmark of 2017, was selective in its destructive path (see below). The wines were not made in exactly the same way, as you will see from the background information in italics in my notes below, because the vinification and ageing is tailored to suit the vintage.

The weather conditions in 2015 and 2017 were completely different.

In 2017 there were frosts in spring but the main assailant for the Ch du Moulin-à-Vent vineyards was hail on 13 July, which struck a corridor going north-east from Poncié (in Fleurie, see this map of the Beaujolais crus) across Moulin-à-Vent, wiping out 70% of their crop overall, and bringing total destruction of the crop in La Rochelle and Les Vérillats. All the vineyards around the windmill – the moulin-à-vent (above) – suffered losses of 50–80%.

Fortunately the rest of July and all of August were hot and dry so the hail-damaged fruit dried out and dropped to the ground rather than rotting on the vine. Even so, they needed a much bigger team to sort the fruit, as well as a second sorting table. It was because of the hail-damaged vines that they included almost no whole bunches in the ferment. Extraction also had to be very gentle, with shorter time on the skins and more pumping over than punching down. Typically this cuvée is treated to 5–15% new oak whereas there was none in 2017.

Summer 2015 was hot and the vintage early: harvest began 27 August and was complete by 3 September. Yet the fruit was physiologically ripe and concentrated, the highest alcohol reaching 13.8%, with good acidity thanks to the early picking, giving it the potential for long ageing: the raw material for a ‘grand vin’, suggests Parinet. They have the advantage of a big team of harvesters so they can pick 30 ha in 6 days: two teams of 35–40, mostly from Eastern Europe and 20 or so from France. (I asked Parinet if he foresaw any difficulties with getting the pickers to travel to France for the 2020 harvest but he did not seem to be particularly worried about it, or even to have given it much thought.) 2020 is currently three weeks ahead of average so another early vintage looks likely.

Parinet says he finds two particular aromas in the 2015: petrichor (rain on dry earth) and an impression of ‘coolness’, which he associates with pepper, mint and chlorophyll and describes as a ‘somesthetic’ effect, ie ‘feelings we have which are not touch, visual, auditory, taste and olfactory, in this case thermic feeling’. I am not sure if I shared that sense but the freshness was impressive in a well-built and long-term wine.

He describes 2016 as ‘un grand classique’, explaining that harvest was relatively late and beneficially slow thanks to some rain towards the end of the season. While many producers and commentators refer to the tendency for beaujolais to pinote, ie become more Pinot-like, he is spot on when he suggests that this vintage has something of the northern Rhône about it. Gamay showing its chameleon character in this distinctive terroir.

Even though I have not yet tasted the 2018 (not released) nor the 2019 (not yet bottled), I thought it might be useful to get Parinet’s take on these two most recent vintages in Moulin-à-Vent – on the weather conditions and on the embryonic wines.

Winter 2018 was cold and rainy, the most humid since 1964, but the summer was warm and dry, resulting in long loose bunches with millerandage: small concentrated berries that were further concentrated by the above-average temperatures in early August. Malic acid was very low, tartaric acid concentrated so the must was rich and powerful.

Parinet writes:

‘2018 is a very fruity vintage. It is generous, fresh, very appealing to me. Main aromas are strawberry yogurt/cream and white pepper. It is also well-structured and ageworthy. No carbonic or semi-carbonic this year but 40% whole cluster addition helped in a longer vinification. Overall ageing proportion is 25% oak and 75% stainless. Oak was on average 3.2 years old. As usual the wines are unfiltered.’

With 1,784 accumulated hours of sun exposure up to the end of August (v 1,459 hours on average), 2019 is the sunniest year since 1990, especially from February to July. Early development brought the risk of frost and temperatures close to -4 °C (25 °F) on the morning of 4 April affected nearly 40% of the vineyard. As in 2018, millerandage resulted in small berries and concentrated fruit. The yield was the lowest in the region for 19 years but acidity was retained thanks to a cool and rainy August. Harvest started relatively late on 11 September.

Parinet describes the winemaking and the wines in barrel:

‘Wines are very fine, elegant, lively. Leading aromas to me are cherry and peony. 35% whole cluster used but huge differentiation between frosted vs non-frosted lieux-dits. Overall ageing is 32% oak and 68% stainless. Oak is on average 4.2 years old as no new oak was brought last year.’

The Parinet family have 30 ha (75 acres) of vines spread over 120 parcels of vines all within 1.2 km (3/4 mile) of the château, which sits just above the windmill, in the communes of Les Thorins and Romanèche-Thorins:

Les Thorins:

  • Vérillats 4.4 ha
  • La Rochelle 4.2 ha
  • Champ de Cour 3.3 ha
  • Les Caves 4.5 ha
  • Thorins 3.5 ha
  • Moulin-à-Vent 3.3 ha
  • La Roche 0.7 ha

Romanèche:

  • Delatte 1.1 ha
  • Fond de Morier 0.3 ha
  • Les Hantes 0.7 ha
  • Bois Maréchaux 0.9 ha
  • Dégollets 0.6 ha
  • Rochaux 0.9 ha
  • Maisonneuves 1.4 ha

The location of these lieux-dits, as well as the main soil types, can be seen on this close-up of the central part of the map below of Moulin-à-Vent, one of a brilliant series published in 2017 by Inter Beaujolais. The granite soils are shown in orange and brick red. (For an overview of all 10 beaujolais crus and their soils, see also this Beaujolais soil map, new to the latest, 8th edition of the World Atlas of Wine.)

Ch du Moulin a Vent lieux-dits
The lieux-dits in the central section of the Moulin-à-Vent cru

The vines are so close to the winery – the most distant vines are in Le Fond de Morier, just 1,200 m away (3/4 of a mile) – and their team of around 80 pickers so experienced and efficient that the grapes reach the winery very quickly after they have been picked, maintaining the quality of the fruit, though they do also use one of two sorting tables, depending on the vintage. Harvesting lasts only 6–7 days. As Parinet says, ‘Our two strengths are our terroir and our ability to harvest quickly’.

During this online tasting and during my visit to the estate in 2018, both Parinet and winemaker Brice Laffond mentioned the high level of manganese in the soil. The element was mined in Romanèche – the biggest production anywhere in France – until 1919. Knowing how difficult it is to make direct links between soil/geology and wine flavour, I asked Parinet why this was so important. He was equally circumspect but does believe that ‘even if manganese is hard to link with vines, the high presence of oxides is related with this manganese and explains in part the specificity of the environment of Moulin-à-Vent together with several other important factors: the wind that keeps the vines healthy (hence the windmill) and silica in the sandy-textured soil.’

Manganese mine on Romaneche postcard
Postcard showing the manganese mine in Romanèche-Thorins, which operated 1823–1919

The Château du Moulin-à-Vent bottling reviewed from three vintages below is usually a blend of fruit from any of five or six lieux-dits but the exact make-up of that wine varies according to the vintage conditions (for example the hail in 2017). Their most important vineyards, which vary in elevation, soil type – even though they are all mainly granitic – and age of vines, are described in great detail on the estate’s website. Of the 30 ha, 24 are farmed organically but not yet certified; ‘some biodynamic practices are used, some are not’, says Parinet. All picking is done by hand, and the use of whole bunches and the proportion, size and age of barrels for ageing depend on the vintage. The winemaker is Brice Laffond, pictured below left with Parinet.

Brice Laffond and Edouard Parinet

The three wines are listed in the order tasted, though I went back and tasted them several times – and even drank them – over a period of a week. They opened up over those days and proved to me once again the wonder and beauty of vintage variation – for the taster if not for winegrowers dealing with the difficulties in the vines. While I scored the 2017 a little lower than the other two vintages, I found just as much pleasure in the lighter, more aromatic and open style even if it is unlikely to age for quite as long as the 2016. The 2015 suggests it has a long life ahead and the 2016 had the perfect harmony of a classic vintage.

Stockists/importers

In the UK: Flint Wines/Stannary St Wine Co (2015, 2016, 2017); Liberty Wines (2016, 2017); The Wine Society (2017).

In the US: Wilson Daniels (2015, 2016, 2017).

Ch du Moulin-à-Vent wines are also available in Belgium (Wijnhandel de Brabandere), Luxembourg (Wengler), Switzerland (CAVE SA & Markus Nauer), Netherlands (de Bruijn), Denmark (Vinens Verden), Norway (Nafstad), Russia (DP Trade), Singapore (Grand Vin), HK (Fine Wine Experience & Vintage HK), China (Fine Wine Experience), Taiwan (Seafield), South Korea (Andrew Wine Company), Australia ( Langton’s), Quebec (SAQ), Ontario (LCBO).

Ch du Moulin-à-Vent 2017 Moulin-à-Vent

They lost 70% of their crop to hail in 2017, which particularly affected La Rochelle and Les Vérillats. Average yields were down to a minuscule 10 hl/ha. So in this vintage the fruit is mainly from what was left of Les Thorins, Le Moulin-à-Vent and Les Caves, plus a very tiny bit of La Roche and Maisonneuves. Shorter vatting and more gentle extraction than usual because of the frost-affected vines and only 2–3% stems at the bottom of the tank to help with drainage. Production was c 10,000 bottles rather than the more usual 20–25,000.
Lightish crimson with soft ruby rim. Even though the percentage of whole bunches is very small, there is an attractive stemmy/herbal freshness to this lifted and aromatic wine. The fruit is definitely in the red spectrum, but tangy and fresh like raspberry and cranberry not sweet like strawberry, or perhaps a hint of wild strawberry as it opens, and rock-dust quality that I associate with granite soils. This is delicate and precise, beautifully scented,  suggesting a wine made with the fingertips, which was necessary in 2017. Even though it is in this more scented and delicate style, it does still show the fine dry tannins of Moulin-à-Vent though they have a little more fine-ness than you might normally expect at this youthful stage in its evolution. On the palate it is more scented than sweet, and the finish, as in all three vintages tasted today (2015, 2016, 2017), is salty and salivating. Juicy and pure. Good length for a lighter wine. Probably not for the very long term – though I am often caught out by cru beaujolais. Even after it had been open a week, it was fresh and vibrant. (JH)

13%

Drink

2020

2025
16.5

Ch du Moulin-à-Vent 2016 Moulin-à-Vent

There was some hail in the region but mostly on the lower vineyards so they were less affected than they were to be in 2017. Fruit from the lieux-dits Le Moulin-à-Vent, La Rochelle, La Roche, Les Thorins and Les Caves. Vineyards are 40–80 years old on granite soils, subsoils rich in manganese and metal oxides. Hand-harvested 20–26 September. Yields 32 hl/ha. 23% whole bunch. Cold pre-fermentation maceration. Pigeage early on and remontage later in the ferment. Three weeks on skins. 66% of the wine aged in 225- and 350-litre barrels but only 4% new oak. Six months in tank.
Mid crimson, a little darker than the 2017, and a little darker fruited and opens up in the glass to a darker and more peppery scent, more peony, a little bit like northern Rhône Syrah, as Édouard Parinet points out – and I agree. This has the classic savoury character of Moulin-à-Vent and still the fragrance of thoughtfully made Gamay on granite, a gently dark-earthed aroma. Makes me think of clean, dark friable earth. Dry, elegant and beautifully balanced. Elegant length and dry finely textured finish even though it is still pretty youthful. (JH)

13%

Drink

2020

2028
17

Ch du Moulin-à-Vent 2015 Moulin-à-Vent

A very hot summer and one of the earliest vintages, hand harvested 27 August to 2 September. In this vintage the blend comprises fruit from Les Thorins, Le Moulin-à-Vent and Aux Caves. Vines aged 40–80+ years on granitic soils over subsoils rich in manganese. Yields a little lower than 2016 but much higher than 2017 at 27 hl/ha. 80% whole bunches. Cold pre-fermentation maceration then three weeks on skins. 20% of the wine aged 18 months in oak, of which 20% new and the rest 3rd fill.
A bigger and more powerful wine from a hotter vintage, which shows in the deeper colour. Much darker in colour than the 2016 and much much darker than the 2017. There’s also a sweetness of spicy black fruit, blackberry and damson, which points to a hotter year and perhaps also some new oak. As it opens up on the day after opening, the scent of the 2016 and 2017 starts to appear though without the floral notes. Also that stone-dust character. On the palate, this is firm, beautifully dry and it’s the tannins that, combined with remarkably good acidity, give the freshness on the long finish. Dry like dark chocolate – ie not astringent but leaves your mouth feeling clean. Lovely tension and as in all three vintages, that salty, mouth-watering finish. This is one for the long term even with the riper fruit character. Persistent. And still terrific after being open a week.  (JH)

13.5%

Drink

2020

2030
6/16/20
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A Moulin-à-Vent triptych