by: Maxine Hendry
Fact: wine professionals love Beaujolais.
Curious why? Continue reading to learn a bit about this classic wine and understand why it enjoys such universal adoration among wine professionals (even if it’s a polarizing choice for many consumers).
First off what is it? Is Beaujolais a grape, a place, or what? It’s a place, a rather large area in France that produces distinct styles of wine primarily out of one grape: Gamay. This varietal is a thin-skinned grape that yields light-bodied, aromatic red wines that are lower in tannin and higher in acid. The grape is a cousin of Pinot Noir, and the wines can be similar in flavor.
Do they only make reds? No. You can find Beaujolais Rosé made from Gamay and there is also Beaujolais Blanc, which is made with Chardonnay or sometimes Aligoté. But 98% of their production is Gamay, so it is mostly red.
Where is it located? Beaujolais is situated in the middle of Eastern France sandwiched between Burgundy to the north, and Rhône to the south. Grapes have been planted here since the 7th century, but it was only as of 1936 that Beaujolais was awarded Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status. The region is about 34 miles long and 7-9 miles wide. The soil here is granite and schist in the north, and marl in the south. That soil is what gives these wines wonderful mineral character.
What does it taste like? Wines made from Gamay are typically light in body with attractive fruit flavors of berries combined with floral and earthy nuance. In Beaujolais specifically, you’ll find the wines taste reminiscent of cranberry, raspberry, and tart cherry fruit complimented by floral aromatics like violet, and earthy notes like potting soil, mushroom, forest floor, and smoke. The wines are dry, fruity, and refreshing. Depending on where it’s from in the region, you’ll see variation in style and flavor profile. Part of Beaujolais’s distinctive flavor profile comes directly from the wine making technique used by many producers called carbonic maceration. This is a really cool process where the berries are not crushed first, but put into a sealed tank with carbon dioxide that permeates each intact berry to stimulate fermentation. Basically the alcohol ferments inside the whole berry and is crushed later. This process creates wine with lower tannin and wonderfully fruity character, plus it’s ready to drink quickly. Not all Beaujolais is made using this technique, but many are fully (or partially) made using carbonic maceration, so it’s important to understand how this process affects the flavor. So, what does it taste like? Delicious, fresh, fruity, earthy, and sometimes funky.
How do I pick a bottle? The real key to understanding this often misunderstood region is being familiar with their classification system. The wine labels will help you decipher between the different classes, like Beaujolais-Villages, Cru Beaujolais or Beaujolais Nouveau. By understanding this simple system of how the wines are categorized, you can easily find a bottle that fits all your needs. This map might help you understand visually how the wines are organized.
Beaujolais Nouveau: perhaps the best known type of Beaujolais, it’s a light, very fruity style that became popular stateside in the 1970’s. It’s made with a special fermentation technique (carbonic maceration) that enables Beaujolais Nouveau to be drinkable wine just weeks after harvest. That precociousness comes at a cost though, the wines are not designed to last much longer than a year. It was made to celebrate the bounty of harvest and is always released on the third Thursday of November. Its rather infamous reputation stems from the fact that it is so light, so fruity, and needs to be consumed quickly. It lacks complexity and structure but is very crushable. There are a few giant producers that dominate the market like Georges Duboeuf, with their colorful labels and aggressive marketing. This style of Beaujolais is why most people want nothing to do with the region at all. There is nothing wrong with this style of wine, but you won’t find those here at Mr. B’s.
Beaujolais AOC: the most extended appellation that can be used in any of the 96 villages and refers to all basic Beaujolais wines. A great place to start, these wines are fruity, simple, and very drinkable. These wines have higher yields in the vineyards, and a minimum alcohol of only 10%. They are going to be much better quality than Nouveau and should cost between $12-$16. Pick up a bottle of this for an easy, casual red you can enjoy any night of the week. It will just simply says “Beaujolais” on the label and the maker, with no mention of the grapes or much else.
Beaujolais-Villages AOC: here’s your intermediate category that covers 39 villages with better potential quality. It’s about a quarter of the production here, so Beaujolais-Villages wines aren’t hard to find. Because this area of the region is hillier with more schist and granite soil, it is said to have better quality for growing grapes, and imparts more mineral character to the wine. These wines should be consumed young, within about 2-3 years of harvest. You can expect to pay between $14-$20, so it’s a bump up in price and quality from standard Beaujolais. And it’s another great wine for any night of the week. Look for labels that say “Beaujolais-Villages” on the front.
Cru Beaujolais: this is the highest category of classification in Beaujolais and is reserved for the 10 best areas/villages in the foothills of the mountains here. They are all situated in the north area of the region, where there is exceptional granite and schist soils. Clarification: in some areas of France, like Burgundy and Alsace, the word Cru refers to an individual vineyard; but in Beaujolais, the word Cru refers to an entire wine-producing area. Again, there are 10 “crus” of Beaujolais, and here you’ll find stricter maximum yields of grapes to protect quality and the wines are fuller in body, darker in color, and can age a great deal longer. You will also see more expressive styles showing additional layers of earth, spice, funk, and mineral nuance. These wines rarely say Beaujolais on the bottle, and you will see it listed by what cru it is from (listed below). Expect to pay $20-$30 for a majority of Cru Beaujolais, but some can cost up to $40+.
The 10 crus are (from north to south) Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly, and Côte de Brouilly. That is how you will see them labeled, with no mention of the word Beaujolais, or the grape, Gamay. Each “cru” has its own personality and characteristics. We will talk more about that below.
Saint-Amour: “The Romantic” is the most northerly area and sees almost a quarter of its sales during February due to its popularity during Valentine’s Day. There are two styles of wine in this appellation: light and easy drinking on one side; more serious on the other due to soil variation. But don’t call Saint-Amour a fickle lover! Both styles have refined tannin that are fantastic with lighter cuisine such as herb roasted chicken or sauteed mushrooms.
Juliénas: “O.G.” this cru dates back 2000 years to the time of Julius Cesar, hence the name. It’s the oldest cru that’s best aged 5-10 years. The wines here can vary more because of diverse soils, but tend to be on the weightier side with dark red fruit flavor and subtle earthiness. Try it with coq au vin or grilled tuna steaks.
Chénas: “Worth the Chase” because this area is the rarest cru and the most difficult to find, so it’s more elusive. So sometimes Chénas plays hard to get, but hunting one down is worth the trouble because they’re easy to love and sometimes Burgundian in style. Sturdier structure with a lovely mineral intensity that develops with age. It’s fuller-flavored and fuller-bodied, ages well, and matches with spice rubbed pork, smoked meats and umami-driven veggies.
Moulin-à-Vent: “Top Dog” has the body, age-ability and structure that reign supreme. That’s why this is known as the king of the crus. Lower yields of concentrated berries offer a robust and relatively tannic style that can age sometimes 50 years! While the cru is named for a windmill that dominates the hillside, the most notable thing about this area is its pink granite soil. Boeuf Bourguignon, anyone?
Fleurie: “Flower Child” is not as powerful, but makes up for it with wonderfully charming floral elegance. It’s the pretty princess of these parts because of its lighter style and aromas marked by rose and violet that leave a lasting impression. Try it chilled! And try it with tarragon chicken or oven roasted salmon.
Chiroubles: “The Intro Cru” is a great way to transition from standard Beaujolais! Not because it’s lesser quality, but because it’s the lightest cru of the bunch. This is because it has the highest elevations and therefore coolest temperatures. It’s the gateway to drinking cru so feel free to think of Chiroubles as the marijuana of Cru Beaujolais. Also think of it as perfect for picnics, and ideal with 2-5 years of age.
Morgon: “The Overachiever” is another serious cru with more body and structure, second only to Moulin-à-Vent. It’s the second largest cru and has a good amount of quality producers taking advantage of the granite-centric soil. It’s a more tannic style that ages extremely well (and pairs wonderfully with roast duck). Be mindful its character becomes much more apparent with a bit of cellaring!
Régnié: “The Newbie” is the youngest cru, which was elevated in 1988, thanks to the hard work of the winemakers and growers. Its supple but lively style is like combining the fresh fruit of Brouilly with some of the structured body of Morgon, with a touch of spice that is great to drink young. Especially with pork rillettes or a nice Camembert.
Brouilly: “Mr. Laidback” is always a good choice because its friendly and crowd-pleasing style is juicy, fruity, and enjoyable young. It’s also widely available because it’s the largest cru, so tracking some down shouldn’t be a challenge. Keep some around because it pairs easily with mid-bodied meals like stir-fry chicken, stuffed turkey, broiled cod, or mushroom pizza.
Côte de Brouilly: “Big Brother” has all the fruity elegance of baby Brouilly, but with extra meatier character, and it pairs just as well with food. This area sees a little more sun and has better drainage, so the wines are a bit more ripe, serious, and ageable compared to Brouilly. It sits in the center of Brouilly situated on an old volcano! Best with 4-6 years of age, try with seared duck breast, beef stew, rack of lamb or Comté.
Now that we’ve explained what Beaujolais is, where it comes from, what it tastes like, and how the wines are classified, you can start to understand why they are held in such high regard. It’s because the wines are undervalued, delicious, exciting, drinkable, plus they pair wonderfully with food. Most wine connoisseurs love Burgundy, and Beaujolais is a close alternative for a fraction of the price. There is also a strong movement of natural wine making in this region producing wines of exceptional quality. Maybe part of the reason wine geeks love Beaujolais is because it fell out of mainstream fashion years ago and is generally misunderstood by the average American. And it’s also true, wine pros can get pretty defensive when consumers are quick to write off wines of Beaujolais as insipid fruity swill.
So there you have it; Beaujolais is full of great values and exciting styles, plus it’s been misjudged and under-appreciated by the masses. Numerous producers have developed a cult following because of their small but very passionate fan base. And, many people draw similarities between Beaujolais and its more famous, more expensive beloved northern neighbor, Burgundy…which hasn’t hurt.