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Wednesday
Jul052006

French King of Beaujolais Beheaded

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Mon Dieu! What's the world coming to? Now you can't even trust that the Beaujolais you're drinking is what its supposed to be. At least the Beaujolais produced by the celebrated Georges Duboeuf.

"A French wine producer who rose from humble origins to claim the laurel of the "King of Beaujolais" was yesterday convicted of defrauding wine drinkers by mixing low-grade wine with fine vintages.

Georges Duboeuf, 72, the erstwhile toast of connoisseurs and top chefs, was found guilty of "fraud and attempted fraud concerning the origin and quality of wines" and fined 30,000 euros by a French court.

The court found that his family business had knowingly blended good grapes with bad - a practice forbidden under the "appellation controlée" system - in the equivalent of 300,000 bottles of wine produced from Gamay grapes from nine areas of Beaujolais country north of Lyons.

The ruling comes as a further blow to the French wine industry, already in crisis over dwindling domestic consumption, slumping exports and the rise of New World (read Australia, South Africa, Chile, New Zealand, The U.S.) wines.

Duboeuf has been credited with almost single-handedly transforming Beaujolais Nouveau into a global phenomenon.

But the court found that the illegal mixing was performed to ensure consistent quality in other wines produced on his vineyards after a patchy harvest in 2004.

Grapes from the superior Beaujolais "crus", or growing areas, such as Juliénas, Saint-Amour and Morgon, were mixed together and in turn added to the lesser Beaujolais-Villages, whose 2004 harvest was considered poor quality.

Such practice is banned under strict rules governing the wine trade, even though the aim was to improve the inferior wine.

Inspectors on a routine check-up became suspicious after comparing records of grape deliveries to the site managed by Dory.

Based in Romanèche-Thorins in the Saône-et-Loire region, Vins Georges Duboeuf produces mainly Beaujolais wines, three quarters of which are for export.

Duboeuf's family have lived in the Beaujolais region since the 15th century. He began his business 50 years ago, selling wines to restaurants from his bicycle. Today his company sells more than 30 million bottles a year in 120 countries." From The Telegraph

The annual Beaujolais Binge is a big deal here in France with bars, restaurants and shops displaying banners proclaiming le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivée on the third Thursday of each November - a marketer's dream. Most serious wine people consider Beaujolais Nouveau little more than cheap plonk but the public go for it in a big way. Its more like a white than a red and is meant to be served chilled and to be drunk within three years of bottling. Part of the fun of drinking it on the Third Thursday of November is knowing that all round the world people are doing the same thing.

Two pieces of Wine Trivia - In 1985, a bottle of Chateau Lafite 1787 which had once belonged to Thomas Jefferson (and was engraved with his initials), was bought at Christie's by Malcolm (or was it Christopher?) Forbes for £105,000. Unfortunately it was stored at the Forbes Museum under bright lights and...yeah you guessed it...the cork dried out and shrank and the wine was ruined.

Then there is the case of the most expensive bottle of wine never sold. In 1989 William Sokolin, a New York wine merchant, had a bottle of Chateau Margaux also from 1787 and with Jefferson's initials, on consignment from its English owner. He was asking $500,000 for it but had had no offers when he took it along to a Chateau Margaux dinner at the Four Seasons restaurant.

At the end of the evening he was getting ready to leave when a waiter carrying a coffee tray bumped the bottle, breaking it. Luckily, Sokolin had the foresight to insure his valuable vin, and shared the $225,000 payout with the owner, which makes this the world's most expensive broken bottle of wine. Presumably the waiter was given the rounds of the kitchen.

Jefferson is probably the most important intellectual to have occupied the American presidency to date. Not only was he a revolutionary, scholar, scientist, philosopher and diplomat, he was a hugely accomplished wine connoisseur. Before he became president, Jefferson was sent to France as American ambassador, where he became the first big game wine hunter.

He travelled around the country, noting, tasting and cataloguing its best wines. He charted a map of French wine excellence long before the British nobility understood the unique contours of the great wines they were drinking.

Jefferson sidestepped the wines of choice of the French and English – Domaine Romane e-Conti and Haut-Brion - and honed in on the Lur Saluces family winery, Chateau d’Yquem, Chateau Lafite and the Grand Vin de Leoville.

He encouraged the idea of great wine as the ultimate mark of a civilised man and a civilised nation, accumulating an intriguing cellar in the process.

In contrast, the concept of a library-like wine cellar was an alien one in Europe.

Jefferson demanded the wine be bottled in etched bottles at the chateau and packed and shipped to him with letters confirming the authenticity of the wines.

In French and English mansions, however, the shipper delivered barrels of wine, which were hauled into the cellars and slotted into giant bins or arched caves. One of the best examples of this can be found in the Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte, just south of Paris.

The man who built the chateau - Louis XIV’s minister for finance, Nicholas Fouquet - spent only one night there, ensuring the cellars were extraordinarily well preserved.

Fouquet invited the king and the entire court to Vaux-le-Vicomte for its opening night.

There were fireworks, elephants, the largest orangerie in Europe and guided tours of the magnificent house.

Louis XIV thanked him by having him arrested the following day. He died in prison nineteen years later. See the Chateau website for more on this - an intriquing story.

Vaux-le-Vicomte’s cellar is a good example of the barrel, bin and bottle process that operated in all the great houses of Europe. It was an elitist, anti-intellectual approach to wine.

You relied on the merchant to give you what you paid for and the chateau was barely involved in the transaction.

Jefferson, on the other hand, demanded proof that he was receiving the authentic wine he requested. Today, evidence of authenticity is the cornerstone of both wine appreciation and the extraordinary prices rare wines command.

The Chateau Lafite 1787, marked with TH.J, has become the ultimate big game wine goal.

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