By Cindi Cook
PARIS (AA) - The French wine world has lost a giant: Winemaker Georges Duboeuf passed away on Jan. 4 at his home in Romanèche-Thorins near Lyon. He was 86 when he died of a stroke.
Duboeuf was widely known as the man who put Beaujolais, a historical wine-producing region located north of Lyon, on the map, even nicknamed the “Pope of Beaujolais Nouveau” by those who admired him as he grew his business from wine merchant to vineyard owner and ambassador of wine for the masses.
“He raised the Beaujolais flag worldwide," said Dominique Piron, the president of Inter Beaujolais group and a man who knew Duboeuf well. "He was a step ahead of his time."
Since the very beginning, the winemaker had a schooling in viticulture, having been born in Crêches-sur-Saône into a family that was making wine for four centuries in Burgundy. Raised on a small farm in the nearby town of Chaintré, Duboeuf took part in the business even as a young child, tending to the production on the few acres of Chardonnay the Duboeufs owned.
When he was just 18, Duboeuf started to deliver the family's wine to local restaurants by bicycle, even to some of the best establishments in the French culinary world, such as the Michelin-starred Le Chapon Fin, owned by chef Paul Blanc.
Duboeuf gradually became a purveyor, with founding L’Ecrin Maçonnais-Beaujolais in the 1950s, a collective of wine makers promoting local vineyards.
After the group dissolved, Duboeuf came into his own, founding Les Vins Georges Duboeuf in September 1964. From then on, the master winemaker was on a course to build his own small empire, and to grow a very gentle grape into a staple of wine lovers worldwide.
His elevation of Beaujolais Nouveau throughout the 1970s and 1980s was a product of pure viticulture genius: Harvesting the early grapes in the region was standard, a festive yet local welcome to the new season, with young grapes that proved enjoyable, even downright zesty, to drink. But it was Duboeuf's capitalizing on this autumnal festivity that would help him to become a household name.
- Beaujolais Nouveau Day
Exporting Beaujolais Nouveau had been a practice for years in France, gaining popularity after the shipments of the young wine were legally permitted on the third Thursday of November in mid-1980s.
Duboeuf ensured that cases of his wines were loaded onto trucks and pallets, ready to be shipped to locales around the globe. He photographed his lot and used the footage in television advertisements that ran across the airwaves in lucrative, and wine-loving, markets.
The third Thursday in November became known as Beaujolais Nouveau Day, and "Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive!" cemented itself as the rallying cry of those who hailed its arrival.
Beaujolais Nouveau is made with a process called carbonic maceration, which takes no more than six weeks. Composed from the Gamay grape, the wine must also be made from whole bunches of grapes, thus the need for them to be picked by hand and not by machine, a less precise method.
In the 1980s, Duboeuf introduced the wine to North America, Japan, and Australia. He held events with celebrities, chefs, and restaurants who furthered the Beaujolais Nouveau brand.
In the U.S., the wine was marketed to perfection, with the release date coinciding closely with the Thanksgiving holiday: It was billed as the perfect accompaniment to turkey.
Despite rocky times during the late 1990s and early 2000s with the waning popularity of Beaujolais Nouveau and the rise of alternative grapes like Merlot and Syrah, Duboeuf's ingenuity helped him stay the course. What was once a petite family plot grew into a global force, which now produces an average 2.5 million cases annually from their chateau deep in the heart of the region.
It includes a shop, museum, wine tasting bar, restaurant, seminars, and a vinification center that tells the storied process of winemaking and its traditional techniques. There is even a theme park which guides visitors through 2,000 years of vine cultivation history. Rare family objects and interactive activities are also on display.
- Duboeuf, a meticulous eye
Tom Matthews, the executive editor of Wine Spectator magazine, had the pleasure of visiting Georges Duboeuf in Beaujolais, and gained the first-hand accounts of his powerful and positive impact there.
"He encouraged hundreds of growers to work hard, grow healthy grapes, and make fine wines, helping them with technical advice and marketing support. Without Georges, Beaujolais would not be in the position of strength it enjoys today."
Moreover, consumers, Matthews said, have always known what they were getting from a Duboeuf Beaujolais: "fresh fruit, lovely balance and a great match with food."
With such a domination in the wine world, it's hard to think that Duboeuf could succeed even more. But he did, with the purchase of additional vineyards and the offering of more serious bottles of wine, usually single-vineyard variety from the crus of Beaujolais -- 10 villages in the north of the region.
Testament to his lasting mark on the industry is the impression Duboeuf left on today's tradesmen.
Chris Adams, CEO of Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits Merchants, one of New York City's premiere wine retailers, recalled a deep affection for Duboeuf, and admired most his careful attention to everything.
"He was so meticulous. He would bring tasting notes to each meeting, and point to the wines he'd want us to buy. He had such an eye."
The run of the company passed to Duboeuf's son, Franck Duboeuf, upon his retirement in 2018, but the elder Duboeuf's signature can be seen on everything from the colorful labels that adorn each bottle to the awards he won for his outstanding wine.