You’ve probably, by now, if you’re a wine lover, tasted a Beaujolais Nouveau and maybe even a Beaujolais-Villages or two, and therefore think you know all about Beaujolais.
And if that’s all you’ve tasted – sorry to be blunt – but you know almost nothing about what the real, the core, the heart of Beaujolais is all about.
Two of my absolute favorite types of wine get me routinely laughed at by other wine weenies and chastised by readers who send me emails like the following, an actual message from back in 2009:
“How am I supposed to take you seriously as a wine “expert”, when you freely admit that you drink Zinfandel, Valpolicella, and Beaujolais? And you seem proud of it! You write about those wines as though you’re boasting about this handicap! NO serious wine person ever deliberately sits down and opens a bottle of ANY of those wines. And the fact that you do calls into question every single thing you write about real wines.”
That was from realwines770, a name which pretty much sums up what this guy’s views are. Sadly, he’s far from alone in that attitude. Some types of wine are not widely accepted by self-styled wine “connoisseurs”; the kind of people who worry incessantly about their wine “cred” and would much rather die than admit to anyone in their circle that they occasionally crack open a bottle of something not properly anointed by the wine “intelligentsia”.
Okay, I’m going to ditch the “”s before this turns into Chris Farley in a van, down by the river, but I’ll admit that I’m not really a friend – and may, in fact, be the most visible detractor – of that school of wine appreciation that invites the sort of group-think that afflicts realwines770. And my long-standing love of and advocacy for those oddball, cultish, nearly-inbred Gamay-based reds from that emanate from that little duodenum that dangles from the ass-end of Burgundy, (of which Beaujolais is technically and legally a part) while having almost nothing at all to do with its ballyhooed parent region, has won me scorn and derision from all corners, ever since the mid-nineties.
Honestly, it’s all just funny. I’ve never been offended by it for a moment…and I’m often easily offended. But I just cannot seriously take that kind of overt snobbery as anything but what it is…Ignorance, of the worst possible type: Willful Ignorance. People who possess the intelligence, knowledge, and palate to appreciate wine but choose to deny themselves an entire range of absolutely brilliant wine experiences for no reason at all except that they were programmed by some shadowy “wine guru” (usually a friend or neighbor whose sole credentials are that they’re “into wine”) back when they were first learning and just never bothered to question it.
DO NOT be one of these people.
(NOTE: I’m not going to repeat this blanket condemnation of wine snot attitudinal smarm again in these “Thing” posts, so the rest will do a far better job of cutting to the chase. Had to be said, though.)
Gamay Noir, the grape that produces all Beaujolais reds, is only slightly related to the American (make that Californian) version of the grape that has cyclically become fashionable for its soft, fruity, chill-friendly character. The name of that particular grape has now been changed to Valdeguié (Pron: VOL-duh-gee) and is still produced by certain vintners there. Several Oregon producers have gone to considerable trouble to grow and vinify the actual Beaujolais species of Gamay Noir in the Willamette Valley, most notably at Amity , Willakenzie, and the irrepressible Doug Tunnell of Brickhouse, who will tell you all about real Gamay for hours, if you don’t stop him. I spent two and a half of the most fascinating hours in my entire wine experience with Doug, a former CBS news foreign correspondent whom I watched when I was a twenty-something, discussing the virtues of not only his sublime Brickhouse Pinot Noirs but a good 1:20 on Gamay. We tasted his 2001, at the time almost eight years old, and completely shot the hell out of that old snob’s tale that says that Gamay doesn’t age.
Here’s the skinny on Beaujolais – and bear in mind that real Beaujolais is made ONLY in that little Rorschach-blot of a French valley, with each appellation less than four square miles each! – that makes it so fascinating for me and such an object of smirky condescension to so many wine snots:
Beaujolais doesn’t taste like any other type of wine. Gamay, grown in those twelve little appellations – ten actual villages and two larger, peripheral regions, Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages – takes on very different flavors, depending on which soil it’s in, who makes it, and what the weather is like. It is among the most purely expressive grapes in the world, developing astoundingly different flavors that are found almost nowhere else, at least in the same bottle. Roses, black and red plums, custard, blueberries, pomegranate, rosemary, spruce tips, stewed cranberries, pipe tobacco, licorice, and the gorgeous delicacy of candied violets are all common flavors, varying widely – and rather wildly – by appellation…
Chiroubles: The wines of Christophe Pacalet show that fabulous cranberry character right up front, layered with Maraschino cherries, blackberry jam, and sweet herbs. The textures are light and softly fruity and they are as easy to drink as rainwater and make an absolutely killer addition to a Thanksgiving dinner. They can also chill – slightly!- for picnic drinking during the warmer weather, without closing up. Other notable producers include Daniel Bouland and Damien Coquelet.
Fleurie: Fleurie is often called “The most feminine of the Beaujolais cru wines” and, in fact, several people for whom I’ve poured the wines have said just that. They’re pillowy but nicely structured; soft, gorgeously fruity, blessed with the most remarkably perfumey aromatics of almost any wine on the planet, and flavors that can, in certain vintages, change radically but mostly center on plums, black and red currants, tobacco, licorice, those magical violets, and an array of what can be dozens of grace notes. The extraordinary soil contains a large percentage of pink granite(!), which lends the wines an elegant, subtle minerality, and the name, which means “flowery” is dead-on accurate. Aromas of violets and roses and irises and even sweet peas waft from every glass. The most celebrated producers here are unquestionably Lucien Lardy, Clos de la Roilette and its rock star winemaker Alain Coudert, Julien Sunier, the venerable Yvonne Metras, and the emerging young genius Metras disciple, Julie Balagny.
Juliénas: This tiny (2 square miles) appellation is home to 120 different producers, turning out an astounding 4 million bottles a year. (Some of which, to be honest, is sold off as bulk wines and turned into the kind of stuff you can find in French gas stations and drug stores) If that sounds like a recipe for over-saturation, relax. Juliénas (Zhoo-lee-a-NAH) wines are among the most popular village wines from the entire region, for their sturdy structure and deep-pile mellowness and almost decadent fruit flavors. The wines are a deep, bloody red but light and supple and expressive of a whole dessert cart of fruit opulence: strawberry, violet, cinnamon, red currant, jasmine, and peony aromas, leading into intense, delicious flavors of vanilla, Asian and baking spices, mixed berries, and a lush cherry character that ranges from ripe Bings to candied pie cherries. If you’re a newbie, Juliénas is a great choice for a starter Beaujolais and is affordable, to boot. Producers to look for: Domaine du Clos du Fief, Pascal Aufranc, Domaine le Cotoyon, Ferraud et Fils, Gaël Martin.
St. Amour: The most northerly Cru Beaujolais, adjacent to the Mâcon region of Burgundy., St. Amour wines vary wildly in quality but, at their best, show a beautiful intensity and richness, while still retaining the hallmark Beaujolais lightness and fresh fruit character. The top wines in the appellation are frequently and justifiably compared to the prototypical sex-bomb wine in all of Europe, Les Amoureuses, from Chambolle-Musigny, in the appellations of Burgundy proper. The most distinctive aspect of these wines is the unmistakable aromas and flavor of peaches(!), both of the common yellow variety and the more delicate white peach species. Layered atop the core of vibrant red berries, rhubarb, and black cherries, it makes for a genuinely voluptuous red that becomes dangerously drinkable as you sip. Domaine des Billards, Mommessin, and Chateau Thivin are the premier producers.
Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly: “Côte“, in French, means “hillside“, so Côte de Brouilly means “the hills above Brouilly“. Not complicated, and a good distinction drawn between two wines from almost exactly the same soil that can be very different in the glass. In Brouilly, the pink granite shows up again, and the wines show an assertive minerality that sets them apart a bit from the full-frontal fruit assault of the other appellations. Aromnas and flavors can include vivid raspberry jam, fresh strawberries, red cherries, a distinct note of pencil lead, those alluring violets, wildflowers, a mild spiciness, and an occasional edge of the same coppery character as a new penny. The structure of the Brouilly wines sets them apart from a lot of the softer, less tannic wines of some other areas and the hillside wines of the Côte tend to ripen better and develop larger flavors. Notable producers include Nicole Chanrion, Chateau Thivin, Domaine de Vissoux, and Georges Descombes.
Chiroubles: Chiroubles’ sits at the highest altitudes of any Beaujolais appellation and the grapes take about a week longer to ripen than they do anywhere else. These are among the lightest of the Beaujolais Cru wines and the higher elevation produces more complexity and makes for better drinking when young. The wines almost explode with uber-fresh red fruit, sweet minerals, sweet herbs, and even occasional exotic notes like eucalyptus, tobacco, and honeysuckle. There is a lovely and notable viscosity in these wines; an almost satiny texture that belies their age, when young, and deepens into an even more opulent feel with some cellar time. The previously noted Christophe Pacalet is among the top producers here, as are the others mentioned before, Daniel Bouland and Damien Coquelet. The most celebrated wine, Crêt de Ruyerè “Cuvée des Anges”, is made by a producer actually based in the Morgon appellation, the family winery of Cathy and Jean-Luc Gauthier.
Chénas: Chénas wines are among the most age-worthy of any Beaujolias Crus. They’re still quite obscure in the US but Beaujolias geeks usually snap ’em up whenever there’s a sighting, and for good reason: the soils here are chock-full o’ quartz, which gives them a mineral character that’s amazingly appealing; an edge of what can only be described as iodine(!), that sounds unspeakably weird but is utterly charming and delicious on the tongue. The fruits are common to all the rest of Beaujolis – red berries, cherries, rhubarb, Red Vines candy, plums, flowers, and red currants – but the odd note of licorice, especially along with the iodine, is haunting and definite. The problem: there just isn’t much Chénas to be had in the US. The bottle that pops up most often is called, appropriately, “Quartz“, from Domaine Piron-Lameloise, Pascal Aufranc, and a couple from a possibly related winery called Domaine Dominique Piron.
Régnié: Régnié is yet another soil full of that pink granite and are almost as hard to find as those from Chénas, further muddled by the fact that the most exported and most celebrated wines from the region are made by producers based elsewhere, the aforementioned Georges Descombes and Morgon giant Guy Breton. Other important producers include Domaine Dupré, Domaine les Capréoles, and Chateau de Pizay. The wines are soft and crammed withthat hallmark red fruit, but can also express some blackberries, black tea, and a brambly, woodsy background. They are frequently described, somewhat hazily, as “finer” and “more refined” than other Beaujolias and, in fact, the only other wines I’ve had from the region that compare closely are certain fabled Cru bottles from one of the two prestige appellations, Moulin-à-Vent. Which brings us to…
Moulin-à-Vent: These last two appellations are unquestionably the most celebrated areas within Beaujolais. Moulin-à-Vent is often called “The King of Beaujolais” but I can’t agree. These wines are so unmistakably soft, seductive, and just flat sexy that it’s hard for me to think of them in patriarchal terms. “Queen of Beaujoilas”, okay. But it’s hard to cast the rich, perfumy aromatics and lush, borderline-decadent textures as anything as crass as a man. BUT…while all this is demonstrably true of this appellation’s wines, they sometimes achieve a somewhat unBeaujolais-like dryness and even an austerity that, while it doesn’t approach the stony stinginess of, say, a Loire Cabernet Franc, makes them considerably more “serious” in character than almost any other of its adjacent appellations.
Several factors figure in to Moulin’s consistent top-dawg status, not the least of which are its sharply-sloping hillsides, high iron content that produces more tannic, longer-lived wines, and the presence of manganese, a hard, grey metal that, in higher concentrations, would actually kill off the vines but, in Moulin-à-Vent, is just enough present to, in effect, limit the vineyards’ yields, producing fewer but more concentrated berries, leading to bigger wines. The flavors run to dark and complex mystery: blackberries, black cherries, black plums, cloves, brandied raisins, dried fruits, aromatic herbs, bacon fat, cinnamon, pencil lead, saline, wildflowers, leather, red currants, and those haunting rosesthat have made this appellation a traditional sipper for young French kids in the first blush of romance. Yep, that’s right: Moulin-à-Vent is a classic date wine!
Just a handful of the many great producers who have fallen under the spell of Moulin-à-Vent and specialize in taming its eccentricities are Jean-Paul Brun, Olivier Merlin, Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair, Domain Diochon, Terres Dorées (Jean-Paul Brun), Chateau Moulin-à-Vent, Domaine de Vissoux (Pierre Chermette),
…and, finally, saving the best for last…
Morgon: These names…Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thévenet, Jean Foillard, and the late, much-lamented Marcel Lapierre. This is the little famile supréme of Morgon winemakers that Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate once famously dubbed “The Gang Of Four”. In all of winemaking, there may be no more recognizable a collective moniker than this one, despite the fact that -at a conservative estimate – 90% of all wine fans (and that does NOT mean people who fancy themselves wine aficionadoes) have never heard of any of them and, in fact, have no idea what “Morgon” is. Because of that American fixation for the aforementioned Beaujolias Nouveau, many people just assume (because, lets be honest here, reading French wine labels ain’t no day at the nude beach) that all those that say Morgon or Julienas or Fleurie are just fancy Nouveau that costs more.
Not so and especially not in Morgon, where that oft-mentioned granite is at its most prevalent. Here, that miraculous soil is even more decomposed than in the other appellations and here, even more importantly, the Beaujolais and even the French loyalty to “natural wine” was first born. Back in the 1950s, Jules Chauvet, a chemist, researcher,winemaker,and (many would say) oenological prophet, swam mightily against the rising tide of infatuation with chemical fertilizers and pesticides and openly tried to drag Beaujolais back to its roots of naked vineyards, untainted by chemical residues. After a chance encounter with Chauvet in 1981, Marcel Lapierre became an early disciple and his wines told the tale: big, rich, meaty, reds that showed another order of magnitude of body and heft as opposed to even his Morgon neighbors. Lapierre Morgons were soft and approachable but dark and complex and swimming in grace notes by the fistful: vibrant minerals, candied violets, sugar plums, cherries, stewed plums, sweet herbs, brandied currants, raspberry compote, tobacco, baking spices, burnt sugar, cinnamon, white flowers, and a bewitching intimation of those rose petals that lurk in all corners of the Beaujolais aesthetic. Other names to seek out are Damien Coquelet, Julien Sunier, the very busy Daniel Bouland, Jean Paul Brun, Jean-Marc Burgaud, and Dominique Piron…and the man who wisely partnered up early with one of France’s most celebrated and accessible negociants to produce what is, without doubt, the most easily found and consistently excellent Cru Morgon available in the US, Jean Descombes, whose entire production is sold, annually, to…
Georges Dubœuf…one of the world’s most prolific and active negociants, without whom, it is at least arguable, the whole subject of “Beaujolias” would still be the sole province of esoteric wine geeks and some of those who visit France regularly. Along with fellow competitor and neighbor, Pierre-Henry Gagey , current head of the uber-active Maison Louis Jadot, Dubœuf (whom I still, stubbornly, insist on calling “George The Beef”, despite that fact that I’m the only one who laughs at it) owns and/or buys from vineyard properties all over Beaujolais, as does Jadot. It’s a very rare American wine shop or supermarket that doesn’t have at least one from each of them. Under the Debœuf labels, you’ll find various levels of production and quality: Selection, Domaine, and Prestige. Across those categories, you’ll usually find wines from each appellation in three different editions. The pleasant surprise is that, in many vintages, the wines from the middle tier, the Domains, are actually as good or better than those in the upper, Prestige, tier. Across the board, Debœuf’s unerring palate is as finely attuned to what the spirit of “Beaujolais” should be as anyone on earth.
And the great thing about that is that both Jadot and The Beef have impeccable taste in what they offer. The Descombes Morgon, a consistent 90+ point winner from most wine critics, actually is one of Morgon’s top wines, in most vintages, and is certainly among the whole region’s best values. The Morgon Jean Descombes will run ya about…$15. If you’re a Beaujolais newbie, the Jean Descombes is going to be the best and easiest to find of any of the Cru producers’ offerings – the perfect “gateway drug” to kick-start your very own little Beaujolais Jones.
And…one final note: the wines from the appellations simply called “Beaujolais” and “Beaujolais-Villages” (VEE-Lazhs; this IS French, y’know) should NOT be overlooked, just because they’re not the cru appellations. These wines just come from areas which are not oriented to a village and seem like they may be lesser choices but many are wonderful, flavorful, reliable bottles that deliver BIG value at SMALL prices. Many are even single-vineyard, small-grower wines that just happen not to be situated in the glamour neighborhoods. If you try some Beaujolais wines and find you like ’em, I urge you to experiment with these two appellations. They may just become some of the wines you like best and wind up buying most.