The Beaujolais has had a very checkered career over the last few decades. Situated in eastern France, just south of the main Burgundy region, it came to fame in the 1970s, when the craze for Beaujolais Nouveau hit first Paris, and then the UK and the US. Its fame was also it’s downfall, as the wave of popularity waned at the turn of the century, and in 2001, producers were forced to destroy thousands of litres, due to collapsed sales.
Add to this other scandals of illegal blending, and adulterated wine, a decrease in popularity and awareness, and a sense of displacement for this once, highly popular region, and the picture doesn’t look good for Beaujolais.
However, at the heart of this, is a classic French region, situated in some of the most beautifully bucolic landscape in all of France, which produces lots of very average, but also some truly stunning red wines, which easily deserve their place in the history book of French wine.
Beaujolais lies just south of the main region of Burgundy, and just north of the city of Lyon, therefore effectively linking the 2 great regions of Burgundy and Rhone – it is classified as Burgundy, but its styles of wine are very different, and in terms of climate, it tends to resemble the northern Rhone more than it does Burgundy.
Beaujolais is unique in both its style of wine, and the fact that 99% of the wine production is red, and of one single grape variety, Gamay. There is a little Pinot Noir produced, to add to the blend, but this has to be phased out, legally, by 2015. The 1% of white wine that is produced for Beaujolais blanc, is from the chardonnay or Aligote grapes, and again , they are sometimes used in the production of traditional red Beaujolais, with 15% permitted.
The star of the show in this region is the Gamay grape, which produces exuberant, bright, juicy, fruity, low tannin, light reds, for early drinking. At their youthful best, they are bursting with joyous, glugging fruit flavours; at their top level, they produce gloriously ripe, fruit-driven, yet textured and structured reds, with entrancing style; but at their simple worst, they are insipid, thin, and yawn- inspiringly dull.
The light, highly acidic, early-ripening style of the Gamay gave rise to a unique style of fermentation in the region, which is now used more extensively both in France, and in other countries – maceration carbonique. Unlike traditional fermentation methods, where the grapes are crushed, and then fermented, here the whole berries are fermented, with the weight from the top of the fermenting vats, crushing the berries underneath, and releasing carbon dioxide, which in turn creates fermentation and intercellular activity with the grapes in the vat. The resulting wine, is brightly coloured, vibrant, fruity, juicy, and easy – drinking, with a much shorter fermentation time than most reds, hence the very low tannins . it was this style that prompted the rise of ‘Beaujolais Nouveau’ , in the Parisian society of the 19th and 20th century, as it supplied Paris with juicy, fruity wines, to get through the winter months.
The Beaujolais region is a large, expansive area of rolling hills,rich pastures, and beautiful vistas, stretching over a 55km area in length and 14km in width. It is larger than any single Burgundy area. It is a very arable land, rich for farmers as well as vinegrowers.
The climate is a cross between continental and Mediterranean, warmer than its Burgundy neighbours, particularly given the protection afforded by the Massif Central to the west and the Alps to the east. This warm, gentle climate is another factor in the style of wines that are made in this region.
The town of Villefranche lies at the centre of the region, with Lyons at its southernmost point. The region naturally divides into two, both in terms of weather and soil types. The north is hillier, with granite and limestone soils, and a slightly cooler climate; it is here that all the top quality, Beaujolais Crus wines are produced. The south has a warmer climate, a flatter landscape, and has richer, sandstone and clay soils, which lead to lighter, softer, less structured styles of wine – the majority of entry level Beaujolais wines, will come from the southern area.
With the exception of a tiny amount of Beaujolais Blanc, the appellation is entirely red. Wines can be classified as simple ‘Beaujolais’, ‘Beaujolais Villages’ – a more refined selection, from specified villages anyway; and the 10 ‘cru’ appellations, which fly the flag for the high quality style of Beaujolais that they produce, and are beginning to re establish the region’s quality credentials. These are from 10 individual villages, and all have their own unique style.
Beaujolais has a lot of damage to undo, in terms of its credibility, but is one of the most joyous, and consumer friendly wines on the planet, and the hope is that the interest in the area’s quality wines will now be rediscovered, in the light of the now, seemingly totally defunct Beaujolais nouveau phenomenon.
Styles Of Wine Produced In Beaujolais
Whilst Beaujolais works to a general theme of fruity, juicy, low tannin wines, there is a wealth of variety, styles and intensity, depending on both producer and location. At their best Beaujolais wines are joyous, fruity and utterly delicious, bursting with friendly appeal; at their worst, they are thin, and flavourless, with no backbone. Beaujolais is defined in various categories,from the ‘Nouveau’ phenonmenon, to the classic French classification by region and sub-region.
Beaujolais Nouveau – this is a phenomenon that took the world by storm in the 80s, but whose popularity began in the 19th century, when young wines were produced to give Parisians something to drink through the winter months! The wine is released after only 6 weeks, traditionally on the 3rd Thursday of November.
Until the turn of the century, Beaujolais Nouveau had huge popularity, with races across France to deliver the first case to the Uk, after the wines had been released at midnight. No shop, pub or restaurant, worthy of its name, would not have the new wine on offer that very day, with parties across the country. 20 years on, and the phenomenon has virtually died, with a few stalwarts still paying homage to this tradition.
It is possible to make drinkable wine within this period, because of a process called ‘maceration carbonique’, where grapes are put into the vat, uncrushed and the fermentation process begins within the grapes, which are slowly crushed by their own weight, and then burst. This process extracts fruit and colour, but doesn’t extract the harsher tannins from the skins. This is why many of the youngest wines do not last, since they simply do not have the structure or guts.
Made for early consumption, at best , these wines, are vibrant purple in colour, and have bold, primary aromas of bubblegum, strawberries and bananas… juicy, fruity, low tannin, fun drinking, and won’t last more than 6 months at best.
Beaujolais – this is the broadest appellation in the region, with all 96 villages part of this – juicy, fruity, low tannin wines, which can be disappointedly thin and washed out, or offer some pleasant, easy drinking, lively, light berry fruit. Produced for early drinking, as are the vast majority of higher grade Beaujolais also.
Beaujolais blanc and Rose – these wines account for a tiny percentage of production, and often the white wine ( made from the Chardonnay grape), is used in the permitted appellation of Macon Villages – fresh, lively and dry.
Beaujolais villages – a higher grade of wine, produced from 39 villages in the north of the region, where the soil has a higher proportion of granite, and the wines have an extra element of depth and structure, and last a little longer, but not that much.
Beaujolais Crus - this is where the epitome of the highly attractive Beaujolais style can really be seen, where quality really comes into its own. IN the northern part of the Beaujolais region, there are 10 villages who are entitled to put their village name on the label.. quite simply these wines not only offer richness, flavour, and far more intensity, they are some of the best value reds around, with their exuberant, high quality fruitiness and approachability.
They are produced in the north of the region, and epitomise its quality . these are wines, which are great after one year, but will be fine for ageing up to 5 years or more, depending on the degree of freshness and youth required.
Although all in the northern area, the cru villages all differ in style, and character, depending on their location and terroir, which is truly unique and showcases some real extremities in terms of style.
Regnie - the most recent addition to the range of Crus, as it was a Beaujolais villages until 1988 - a delightfully aromatic, red berry fruit style of wine, with a delicate edge, and vibrant flavours.
Brouilly – the lightest, and potentially the most charming of all the Crus, with vibrant, raspberry and cherry flavours.
Chiroubles – a delicate, scented little charmer! Less well known than many of the crus, this is sophisticated and elegant, with intense aromas of violets and crushed raspberries – a highly aromatic style.
Next up are 3 slightly fuller bodied wines – the intensity of the wines depends to some extend on the winemaker, but ultimately is all to do with location and terroir.
Fleurie – one of the best known crus, and the most exported – known for its floral, aromatic and fruity character.
Saint Amour – another well known cru, and the most northernly village, with ripe, fruity flavours, and intense aromas.
Cotes de Brouilly – more depth, weight and structure than Brouilly, with intense berry fruit flavours.
The fullest, richest and most structured crus are detailed below, and are the wines which will last and improve for a few years:
Julienas – rich, spicy, and heavily perfumed, this is one of the richest, most voluptuous of the crus.
Morgon – these wines have some of the deepest colours and extract of all Beaujolais ; rich, intense and very aromatic, Morgon produces truly great wines.
Moulin a Vent – a wine to keep for a few years, and with more body, colour and structure than many of the other crus; very aromatic, but also bursting with vibrant fruit character.
Chenas - the smallest of the cru appellations , and one of the best cru Beaujolais for ageing – will drink at its best at about 5 years – ripe, spicy,with structure and body.
Grapes, Wine Styles & Food Matches
Gamay – this is the red grape, from which all red Beaujolais is made; it is a dark-skinned grape, with naturally high acidity, which produces wines, of vibrant colour ( partly due to the maceration carbonique vinification process), ripe, bold, primary fruit flavours, and a light, low tannin style.
The lightest Beaujolais wines are best served slightly chilled, with salads and charcuteries.
The fuller styles and crus wines are perfectly suited to duck, game, spicy roast vegetables, and also mild Asian and Indian dishes, since the low tannin structure of the wines, will help enhance and mingle the fruitiness of the wine, with the rich spiciness of the dishes.
The Rose wines, also made predominantly from Gamay, tend to be fuller and softer than Cotes de Provence rose and are great matches for tuna, chicken, and mildly spiced dishes.
Beaujolais blanc - There is a tiny percentage of Beaujolais wine, which is white, made mainly from the Chardonnay grape – these are juicy, fruity, creamy and refreshing – generally light in style, with a lemony, baked apple character; best with light salads and fish dishes.