Beaujolais is one of my favorite red wines. Ranging from fresh and fruity to rich and complex, these food-friendly wines with low tannins and brisk acidity are excellent companions to a broad range of fare. In the world of red wines, Beaujolais has been overlooked, occupying a smaller and smaller amount of shelf space in stores. But the wine is well worth a try.
The woes of Beaujolais can be traced to a stunning marketing success. A small amount of Beaujolais, barely finished fermenting, was traditionally sent to Paris cafés in mid November as Beaujolais Nouveau, giving Parisians a fresh fruity drink as a celebration of the just-completed harvest. In the 1980s, Beaujolais marketers expanded this tradition and sent the new wine around the world, principally to the US and England. The fad caught on and peaked in 1992 when hundreds of thousands of cases were shipped. But the young wines, while fun, gave the wrong impression of genuine Beaujolais, confusing and ultimately undermining the market.
As with all French wine designations, Beaujolais is a place, and the wines are named after it. The region is just south of Burgundy and the town of Mâcon extending for thirty-five or so miles toward the famous culinary city of Lyon. All red wine here is made with the Gamay grape or more formally Gamay Noir, a cousin of Pinot Noir – the variety of legendary Burgundy reds. Gamay has been grown for wine here since the reign of Philip the Bold in the 14th century.
The wine quality rises as you travel north in Beaujolais. Ordinary Beaujolais (a staple carafe wine in the bistros of Paris but seldom seen in the U.S) comes from the limestone soil in the south. Beaujolais Villages is next as you head north, often seen here as a shippers wine (Louis Jadot, Drouhin, and Georges DeBoeuf, for instance). Cru Beaujolais, the best wine, usually from individual growers, comes from the ten towns at the top of the region, where the elevation rises and the soil changes to granite. The ten crus are: Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Régnié, Morgon, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent, Chenàs, Saint-Amour and Juliénas. All this naming is strictly controlled by French law.
Beaujolais is known for fresh fruit flavors and delicate floral aromas, often described as seductive, using words like raspberry, cherry, blackberry, cinnamon, vanilla, violet, rose, smoke and mineral in an attempt to explain the character of the wine and the differences from wine to wine and region to region. Wine descriptions are hard to do and often go over the top, but there’s no denying that when tasting two similar wines side by side, there are differences. The trick is to put those differences into words.
We recently gathered for dinner with some friends to explore six Beaujolais. The wines were sampled and discussed accompanied by three artisinal cheeses (Tunworth from England, Italian Robiola and Willoughby from Jasper Hill in Vermont, all recommended by Chris at Fairfield Cheese) Afterwards, everyone drank their favorite at dinner: chicken braised with sausage, olives and rice (www.franksfeast.com for the recipe) – a great match with the wines.
The wines, tasted in pairs, were: Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages, 2012 ($11), and Chateau du Pierreux, Brouilly 2012 ($29); George Dubouef Morgon Descombes 2012 ($16) and Jean Foillard, Morgon “Cote du Py”, 2012 ($35); Chermette, Les Trois Roches, Moulin-à-Vent 2012, and Diochon, Moulin-à-Vent Vieilles Vignes, 2012 ($23). (Prices are approximate.) The Jadot and Dubouef wines are widely available. The other four wines are from smaller producers and may take some searching. The Pierreux Brouilly was recommended by Craig at World of Beverage on Main Ave. The Foillard Morgon and the Diochon Moulin-à-Vent are selections by Kermit Lynch, a well known importer of small production wines of notable character.
The eight tasters, most with little experience drinking Beaujolais, agreed that the wines were all delicious, each in their own way. Each wine had the expected aromas and flavors: some delicate, others more robust; some with a tart and refreshing finish, others more mineral and earthy; some with enough tannin to provide structure, others with less; some with more personality than others. Each wine was unique, and we had fun looking for the words to describe the differences.
We tasted two at a time, discussing, comparing and voting our preference. The vote was close for each pair, tallying at four to three (I abstained) with no landslide winners or losers.
Then at the end everyone was asked to name their top pick of all six wines.The votes for overall “Best in Tasting” were equally diverse. The Jadot, Pierreux, Chernette and Diochon each earned one. The Jean Foillard, Morgon “Cote du Py” had two, edging out the others by a very slim margin. At $35 it was the most expensive, but an affordable splurge. The tasters agreed that the Jadot at $11 was a delicious bargain for everyday drinking.
Beaujolais wines in general, are exceptional values with good quality across the board. Villages wines from a broad array of producers give a good bang for the buck. The cru wines, at the top of the Beaujolais pecking order, are excellent values, too, the highest prices stopping well below the entry level wines from Burgundy, the famous neighbor just to the north. Always look for the most recent vintage year.
When tasting these wines, I can’t help thinking about the upcoming Thanksgiving feast. It’s a tough menu for wine picking, with so many flavors; savory turkey, rich stuffing, tart cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and all the other fixin’s. For me, any of these Beaujolais would be a good choice; fresh, crisp, complex, flavorful and lower in alcohol for the long siege at the table.
Beaujolais is, sadly, an overlooked wine region right now. Store displays can be meager, but the wines are definitely worth the hunt. Give some a try and let me know what you find!