Pssst, Try This
May 23, 2015
So, why do most people think Beaujolais is plonk?
If there ever were a more misunderstood, underappreciated, and over-maligned region for wine, it is Beaujolais. Too often, we see Beaujolais on the shelf and immediately recoil with flashbacks of grapey, thin, cloying strawberry banana bubble gum – like the wines served at Aunt Rita’s last Thanksgiving dinner (sorry, Aunt Rita). Great Beaujolais does exist. In fact, it is one of the best, unheralded food wines perfect for these hazy, hot, and humid days. Lovely acidity, low tannins, and pleasingly fresh cherry fruit make Beaujolais an ideal complement for a variety of cuisines. Serve it chilled when it’s hot outside and room temp when it’s not. Even better, it’s a bargain: you can buy a bottle of extremely good Beaujolais for a fraction of an o.k. bottle of Burgundy, Beaujolais’ northern neighbor.
Located south of the Burgundy’s southern outpost Macon, Beaujolais historically has been lumped in with Chablis, Côte d’Or, Côte Chalonnais, and Macon. Post-French Revolution, boundaries were changed, provinces were reorganized, and Beaujolais became independent of its northern cousins. They are still closely connected: many Burgundy producers and negociants also produce wines in Beaujolais (they also make so-called regional wines labeled Bourgogne Rouge and Bourgogne Blanc that allow grapes from Beaujolais). Othewise, Beaujolais and Burgundy operate as two distinct regions.
Burgundy is home to the prestigious Pinot Noir while Beaujolais’ reds are made from Gamay, a thin-skinned varietal that produces pleasingly crisp, juicy, low-tannin wines, with aromatics of red fruit and fresh-cut flowers. The French produce a tiny amount of white Beaujolais from Chardonnay – like the delicious Jean Paul Brun Beaujolais Blanc, which, by the way, over delivers for around $18 a bottle. Beaujolais’ climate is a bit warmer than Burgundy; the mountains block cold western winds, and its proximity to the Mediterranean translates into hot, dry summers, especially when compared to the mild summers of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or.
Much confusion surrounding Beaujolais stems from a phenomenon that occurs the 3rd Thursday of every November: the release of the Beaujolais Nouveau. To understand this, we have to look at the way the wines are made. Most Beaujolais are fermented through “semi-carbonic maceration,” which means that the grapes are put into tanks without being crushed beforehand. The weight of the grapes causes some grapes on the bottom of the tank to burst, and that free flowing juice ferments via wild yeast. This creates carbon dioxide, which forces the oxygen out of the tank and kick starts enzymatic fermentation within each individual grape in the tank. Essentially, the juice begins to ferment inside the grapes. The grapes are pressed, then the juice is fermented a second time without any skin contact and the resulting wine is lighter in color than most reds with fewer tannins. White wine with a sunburn, really. The wine is then either aged in oak casks or sold immediately without aging, as in the case of Beaujolais Nouveau.
The un-aged wine sold immediately is Beaujolais Nouveau, which started as a marketing campaign to help producers create quick cash-flow. The more serious, age worthy wines are aged in cask. The campaign worked and “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est Arrivé” signs were in every bistro and wine shop from Paris to Lyon and sales skyrocketed. Eventually, the push spread to the UK, United States and even Japan, which has resulted in Beaujolais Nouveau accounting for more than a third of production, significantly outpacing non-Noveau wines. Other places in the world celebrate drinking new, unaged wine, but nobody has done so with as much success as the Beaujolais.
Non-Noveau wines fall under several categories: Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages, or one of ten different “Crus” Beaujolais. Beaujolais-Villages wines come from 38 different communes throughout northern Beaujolais; they are less grapey and more structured than basic Beaujolais simply because of different soil types, tougher grape-growing regulations, and more skin contact during fermentation. They usually cost only a dollar or two more than the basic model, and are great every-day wines to serve chilled with picnic fare, including poultry dishes and cheeses.
Cru Beaujolais are the most complex, grown on ancient granitic soils north of the Nizerand River. They are produced like traditional Burgundy and have greater individual character and style. From North to South, here are the Cru:
St. Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-A-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Cote de Brouilly, Brouilly.
These wines have the characteristics of regional Beaujolais plus some: they have more weight, darker fruit, and more pronounced spice and floral aromatics. These wines rarely cost more than $25 dollars and offer a wide range of styles. Want something more juicy and refreshing? Try a Fleurie or a fresh blueberry-accented Brouilly. Need something bigger for red meat or strong cheese? Try a Morgon or Moulin-a-vent, two of the darkest, spiciest crus that can age quite a while and substitute handily for Pinot Noir. Unlike regional Beaujolais or Beaujolais Nouveau, these wines are best served not too chilled and often need a couple years of age after bottling to really come into their own.