Beaujolais Nouveau may get all the headlines, and that has led to some decidedly dodgy wines hitting the market each November, but there’s far more to this interesting and diverse wine producing area of France.
Beaujolais comes from eastern central France, north of Cotes du Rhone and south of Burgundy, about 250 miles south-east of Paris. It is made from the Gamay grape, not the ‘Beaujolais’ grape grown in California, it’s a little like Pinot Noir, but the wines of Beaujolais are made in a unique way to create original flavors.
The growers of Gamay grapes were forced out of the Burgundy around 600 years ago in an early trade dispute, so headed south to what is not the Beaujolais region, and their grapes really thrived in the granite soils, rather than the limestone and marl further north. The people of France do bear grudges, particularly where wine is concerned, so the boundaries of the wine regions from the fourteenth century still hold true.
Beaujolais wines are made by semi-carbonic maceration, which isn’t as scary as it sounds. The bunches of grapes are picked by hand to prevent damage, and thrown into giant vats and a lid is put on, where the weight of the grapes crushes the ones at the bottom. They start to ferment in the natural yeasts found on the grape skins, and this quickly uses up the oxygen. The uncrushed grapes then get affected by the carbon dioxide that surrounds them and they ferment inside their skins, so when all the juice is out they have little of the tannin that is found in red wine from the skins and stalks.
The quality of Beaujolais wines increases the further north you go towards Burgundy. The basic Beaujolais is most often sold as Nouveau, next up is Beaujolais Villages, then the Beaujolais Cru. Let’s take a look at each.
Beaujolais Nouveau, Fast and Fresh
Beaujolais Nouveau is dashed out to stores in November each year, just in time for Thanksgiving, from the grapes picked just weeks earlier. If you’re feeling kind you could describe it as fresh and exuberant, with winemakers in a hurry to show off their work. If you’re feeling cynical you might think winemakers are getting rid of their wines good and early to get paid fast before anyone notices anything is amiss.
A good Beaujolais Nouveau really expresses that carbonic maceration, with sweet and fruity flavors fresh red fruits, and sometimes you’ll get the oddities of bubble gum, banana and cotton candy, but most just taste a bit like a wine mixed with grape juice and water. It’s worth trying at least once, in November, served quite cool, around 55 degrees, so either take it out of the refrigerator, or throw it in an ice bucket for a little while before serving.
Beaujolais Villages, The Quality Price Balance
The Beaujolais Villages surround the more expensive Cru vineyards. The ground is hillier, the soils poorer and the yields lower. It may not sound sensible, but the harder it is for the grapes to grow, the better the wine, as the vines draw up more minerals and concentrate the flavours. These wines usually go on sale the spring after harvest, so look or wines a year old, the’ll last an extra year, but they are not really designed for keeping.
A good example will burst with lots of fresh crushed raspberry and cherry flavors. They put me in mind of springtime with their fruity enthusiasm. They’re more expensive than Nouveau, but more affordable than the Beaujolais Crus so make for a good balance of quality and affordability.
Beaujolais may be red, but if you’re opting for Beaujolais Nouveau, AOC or even Beaujolais villages, you may want to cool it a little.
If you’re serious about looking after your wines and keeping them at the right temperature, and if you have the space, consider a wine cellar, in the meantime, a chiller will have to do.
There are ten Beaujolais Cru, each comes from a specific neighborhood, with its own style. These wines are designed to be kept and drunk a little older when they’ve had a chance to develop their unique characteristics. Moving up south to north the Cru are:
My favourites are Fleurie, with sour cherry and strawberry flavors, and JuliÃ©nas, which has all the upsides of Fleurie, but with some extra tertiary flavours of cinnamon and candied peel, which make it a good Beaujolais to drink through the winter.
Julianas is named after Julias Caesar, as the Romans planted vines here, which adds a little romance to the wine, which is no bad thing.
The prices can be much higher than other Beaujolais wines, but the quality is good, and with the prices of Pinot Noir from the Burgundy vineyards getting silly, the Beaujolais Cru represent good value in French wines.
The right glasses make a positive difference to the wine drinking experience, remember to only fill them to a maximum third full so there’s room for the aromas to develop
Schott glasses (not shot glasses) are a great choice if Riedel isn’t your style, they feel wonderful in your hand and make a reassuringly expensive ringing tone when you clink them.