Beaujolais winemakers want to lose plonk image

ODENAS, France (Reuters) - Makers of vintage wine from France’s Beaujolais region have launched a campaign to improve their image and step out of the shadow of Beaujolais Nouveau for which the area is best known.

The hilly winegrowing area in eastern France is famous around the world for its Beaujolais Nouveau, a young red wine of varying quality which goes on sale in the third week of November and is meant to be consumed by the following May.

But a handful of winemakers producing top-of-the-range wine want to shake off the region’s reputation for poor quality.

“Our problem is that we have 10 quality vintages which are unheard of. We are the only appellation in the world known for plonk and not for its top quality,” said Jean Bourjade, president of the local trade body.

“We have the image of an industrial wine, but actually it’s the other way round, everything is made by hand here.”

He was speaking on Friday at the Chateau de la Chaize which is owned by the Marquise de Roussy de Sales who produces one of the most refined Beaujolais wines.

The 17th century chateau, which hosted former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary in 1996, was where the winemakers launched their “Expressions of Origin” to raise their vintages’ profiles.

They will organize three top-end wine tastings a year, in France, Europe and one big export market. In 2009 this will be in the eastern United States with stops in New York, Philadelphia and Florida.

The region, which extends from Lyon to the edge of the Burgundy wine area, has been in crisis for around 10 years.

Many French winemakers are struggling with plummeting domestic consumption and fierce competition from new world producers such as Australia and Chile.

The Beaujolais region is no exception and is undertaking a restructuring, reducing the number of vines, to improve quality and make winemakers more competitive.

The region’s image has also been hurt by scandals over production methods. Police launched an investigation in December into whether winegrowers had illegally tipped extra sugar into their wine to raise alcohol levels to within official limits.

The winemakers were persuaded to launch their campaign after a recent visit from the American wine journalist Matt Kramer, a contributor to the influential Wine Spectator magazine.

“He usually comes to Bordeaux and Burgundy, but never to Beaujolais,” said Guillaume de Castelnau, who manages the Chateau des Jacques a Romaneche-Thorins.

“I showed him a selection of my favorite wines. He didn’t say anything but I could see he was very surprised.

“Finally, we got a really good mark in the Wine Spectator which had up until now had a negative mark on the region.”

Writing by Anna Willard