Few wines, or wine regions, are as much fun as the Beaujolais. The whole purpose of this blog is to make it easier to appreciate wine by stripping away preconceived notions and focusing on what’s in the glass. And since most people don’t do that with Beaujolais, for the lucky few it becomes a bottomless resource of incredibly tasty, refreshing, versatile wines at excellent prices. When I reach for a red, it’s usually Beaujolais — long on quality and value, short on pretension.
The red wines here are gamay, typically fruity and relatively light-bodied. This makes them great for drinking as an aperitif, or in warmer weather, or with lighter foods. With heavier fare, they complement and don’t distract. The earthier, deeper, more complex wines from the crus – the hillsides with the prime growing locations – can rival Burgundies and other better-known wines in their character and complexity. But, not in their price!
White wines from the Beaujolais are chardonnay – this is the southern end of Burgundy,
after all – and can be dry, flinty and delicious, although most are not. This is starting to change, though, with growers such as Chateau Thivin planting more chardonnay in the calcareous soils in the southern end of the region.
The hills are where we find the 10 crus, or the sub-areas that historically have produced the best wines. Some are very distinctive, like the steep, expo
sed hillsides of Côte de Brouilly. The crus wines are usually earthier and more age-worthy than their siblings from the less distinctive areas of the Beaujolais. But today, in my opinion, the differences between the winemakers and their particular styles are usually more dramatic than the difference in the site-specific characteristics of the various crus.
One of the distinctive characteristics of Beaujolais is carbonic maceration, an extra step in fermentation that produces nice fruity flavors. Whole, uncrushed grapes begin to ferment without exposure to oxygen– I’ll spare you the details but the result is a wine of about 2% alcohol that then undergoes the normal alcoholic fermentation and winemaking process. It’s a small but important difference. Some producers overdo this effect, but a little carbonic touch can be very nice.
The reputation problem
So if the wines are so great, why are the prices low? Like an undervalued stock after a market crash, the Beaujolais continues to suffer from a reputational hangover. Decades of mass-production of generic export wine, typified by the Beaujolais Nouveau craze, ran the region’s reputation into the ground.
Peaking in the 1980s, in the U.S. and elsewhere Beaujolais Nouveau became an incredible commercial success – the only problem being that it was terrible. True, in the Beaujolais there is a tradition of celebrating the harvest (the region’s major economic driver) by drinking fresh wine just after it finishes fermentation. They called this the vin de l’année (the year’s wine), but it wasn’t something anyone would export, or even send to Paris. Still, it was real wine, not the pesticide-laden, characterless plonk pumped out by giant négociants (blender-bottlers) like Georges Duboeuf. Swayed by intensive marketing, the entire U.S. learned to identify Beaujolais with teeth-staining purple swill, slightly sweet and maybe even fizzy – “The red wine you can chill!” I don’t mean to harp, but this industrial-scale profit-taking is something the region’s real winemakers are still working to overcome.
The upside to this – for us consumers at least – is that in most markets people aren’t demanding good Beaujolais enough to drive up the price too much. There are exceptions, of course. The Beaujolais is a major center of natural winemaking, the back-to-basics concept of minimal-intervention winemaking mastered by locals such as Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, and Guy Breton. People fall all over themselves to grab these wines, but for the quality they are still a bargain, topping out at maybe $45 in the U.S. That’s the price of a good Burgundy, but usually not an exceptional one.
Beaujolais really hits its sweet spot in the $20-25 range, where there is a huge range of options in New York such as Jean-Paul Brun, Chateau Thivin, Clos de la Roilette (a delightful guy, by the way), Damien Coquelet, and many others. This is my kind of stuff, inexpensive and delicious! I’d take it over expensive Bordeaux, and even Burgundy, maybe five out of seven nights a week.