Say the name Beaujolais to most people and the well-worn cliché of Beaujolais Nouveau instantly springs to mind. This phenomenon of sending young wine from the recent harvest across the world has detracted from the region’s immense strengths, superb wines, and unique terroir. For at its best, the Gamay grape is capable of producing structured, perfumed and concentrated wines of real class – bottles a world away from the hackneyed trick of Beaujolais Nouveau.
The Beaujolais region, located north of Lyon, is a vast area; it contains more than 10 appellations, including the Beaujolais Crus and the Beaujolais Blanc designation for wines made from Chardonnay. Production is considerable, as the region contains more than 18,000 hectares of vines and many wine growers. Indeed, Beaujolais has a long and proud history of vine growing; the first vineyards were planted by the incumbent Romans, who needed wine to keep their garrisons happy.
Over the centuries, as is the case with Burgundy generally, care of the Gamay vineyards fell to the monks, who subsequently lost control to the Dukes of Burgundy.
Unfortunately, the local aristocracy took a great dislike to this once unfairly maligned grape variety. Gamay was once found in abundance further north in what we now call the Cote d’Or; that was until the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe the Bold, outlawed the cultivation of the grape. At this time, the ruling class was more interested in increasing the production of Pinot Noir, which was seen as a much more noble variety. So, it was without much surprise that his successor Philipe the Good issued a further ruling against planting the grape, the result being that growers moved further south to the region we know as Beaujolais, taking their beloved Gamay with them.
Today, the wines of Beaujolais are consumed globally, although for many centuries demand was confined to the regional markets of southern France. Its heyday occurred in the 19th century when the construction of the French railways allowed the wines to be shipped to Paris and beyond. Then came the massive – but ultimately fickle – attraction of Beaujolais Nouveau in the 80s, with consumers lining up to drink very young and simple wines barely 2-3 months old. Thankfully, this fad was soon pretty much played out the world over, allowing growers to concentrate on producing distinctive wines that can reaffirm the region’s reputation for high-quality.
Incredible diversity of styles
So, when discussing the history and state of Beaujolais today, it is crucial to understand that this wine is not simply a one trick pony, consisting of a glass of something light and fruity for early consumption. Nor is all Beaujolais top-heavy, structured and designed to be cellared. No, the real beauty of Beaujolais today is the incredible diversity of styles; from light and supple to rose, white and the great, age-worthy example from the leading villages or Crus in the region. But as much as winemaking plays a part in determining style, of at least equal importance is the growing environment as granite, schist and in some places, sand or clays soils give often radically different interpretations of what Beaujolais can do. Climatically, the region enjoys warm, semi-continental weather conditions, although spring frosts are a constant threat.
The winemaking approach used in the region is quite unique and therefore merits a mention. The technique employed is known as carbonic maceration. It essentially involves extracting color rather than tannin from the grape skins in anaerobic conditions. Whole uncrushed grape bunches are added to stainless steel tanks and the bottom third of the grapes are crushed, allowing for a gentle fermentation spurned on by the yeasts naturally found in the skins. The berries then gradually split and fermentation proceeds as normal. This method typically gives fruit forward, vibrant flavors and not too much structure.
The mainstay of Beaujolais production comes under the AOC Beaujolais appellation, which covers wines from all 96 villages in the region. The majority of wine under this designation comes from the Bas Beaujolais region, located near the town of Belleville. With such a large geographical area naturally comes a variance in quality, but good examples are richly fruity, low in acidity and tannins, very quaffable and hard to resist. Different interpretations of the style, even within the generic appellation do exist, however, and some producers aim to get more structure into the wines, emulating the vinification and aging regime of their colleagues in the Cote d’Or. At their best, these wines combine depth with charm and offer more weight than everyday Beaujolais, and of course, Beaujolais Nouveau.
Superior Beaujolais both in legal recognition and general quality comes from the northern or Haut-Beaujolais, renowned for its purer soils and better vineyard exposure – indeed, superior terroir overall. The higher/steeper slopes at the northern end of Beaujolais allow the Gamay grape to ripen more fully, this coupled with the schist and granite-based soils gives an altogether bigger, more complex glass of wine. Many wines are sold as Beaujolais-Villages, an essentially intermediate category of classification that covers over 35 villages in the Haut-Beaujolais zone. This is potentially the best value source of more ‘serious’ Beaujolais; delicious, food-friendly wines at very fair prices as production levels are still quite significant.
The top tier of Beaujolais emanates from the ten recognized Crus from within the Haut-Beaujolais area. The term Cru, however, is slightly misleading for this suggests wines from an individual vineyard. For while it is increasingly common for wine growers to identify individual climates within the Crus, the term in Beaujolais refers to an entire wine-producing sub-region, most commonly named after the local village. What you often won’t see though is the region’s name advertised on labels, as growers prefer consumers not to associate their superior wines with a generic region!
But what should a consumer expect from these apparently superior, and therefore more expensive wines? The grape remains the same and it should be emphasized that Beaujolais Cru wines vary significantly in style and characteristics. Generally, however, you should expect a wine with deeper color, more weight, and texture than a standard young Beaujolais. Many producers use oak aging to add structure and complexity to their wines. The best of these can compete with the more famous and expensive red wines of the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune.
Running north to south, the first Cru we encounter is Saint-Amour. The sub-region borders the Maconnais zone, so some Chardonnay is also found here, although growers are entitled to use designations such as Saint-Veran for their whites. The wines from Saint-Amour tend to be lighter and more straightforward than those of Julienas, a lead Cru further south. The Cru benefits from well-positioned slopes, clay soils and a firmament of quality conscious winemakers. It’s neighbor Chenas has some higher, steep vineyards but again the wines veer toward the lighter side. Now, for Beaujolais of real depth, structure, and power, you need to search out Moulin-à-Vent from a leading grower. Another favorite, both for connoisseurs and critics is the Cru of Fleurie, the best examples of which are strongly perfumed but also unequaled for their lush texture and density of fruit. Even more refined are the wines of Chiroubles, produced from the finest grapes on the most elevated vineyards in the region – the very taste and smell of elegance.
We then arrive at the village of Morgon, renowned for its dense, powerful interpretations of the Gamay grape, the best examples should be cellared for 3-5 years to enjoy them at their best. The latest addition to the Cru family is Regnie, which is now producing some of the most exciting wines in the appellation. Finally, the large Brouilly Cru closer to the southern end of the area surrounds the hill of Mont Brouilly whose slopes provide the attractively fruity Cote de Brouilly. Expect plenty of excellent value, lightish wines that are enjoyable on release and stuffed full of red berry fruit.
Over the past ten years, Beaujolais has been engaged in an important battle of image and reputation, promoting itself as a diverse, exciting wine region rather than simply the source of disposable and one-dimensional Beaujolais Nouveau. Their fight and commitment to quality have paid dividends; today, the curious wine lover finds several renowned Crus, old vines, a varied terroir and ever-improving winemaking and aging techniques, spearheaded by a younger, dynamic firmament of winemakers. So, from light refreshing wines to something more serious, there has never been a better time to add a bottle of Beaujolais to your shopping list.