Beaujolais red wines have long suffered from a cheap and tacky image thanks to the annual festivities of Beaujolais Nouveau day. However, red wine snobs who reject Beaujolais on the grounds of its “bubble gum” reputation are missing out on one of France’s true gems.
The Beaujolais district lies within the greater Burgundy region in France. Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape giving it its distinctive light and fruity characteristics. Add to this the influences of the district’s granite soil and the unusual maceration carbonique process used for fermentation and it results in an easy drinking red wine usually best drunk young.
Beaujolais has little history as a quality red wine. Whilst other famous French wine styles were recognised and sold all over the world Beaujolais was still being served in local cafes from casks and pitchers until as late as the mid 20th century. It wasn’t until an enterprising local grower named Georges Duboeuf started a negociant business in the 1960s that Beaujolais began to become better packaged and better marketed.
Duboeuf was responsible for the introduction of Beaujolais Nouveau or Beaujolais Primeur as it tends to be known in France. Beaujolais Nouveau is launched onto the export markets each year on the third Thursday in November, just weeks after the red wine grapes were still hanging on the vines. Millions of bottles are consumed around the world by enthusiastic drinkers in a variety of bars and restaurants.
Beaujolais Primeur is one of a number of Beaujolais AOCs ranging from the most basic red wine to the top class Crus. The more basic styles are extremely quaffable and are thoroughly enjoyable drunk lightly chilled on a summer’s evening. However, the 10 Beaujolais Crus AOCs are serious red wines and should not be dismissed as “bubble gum” or “lollipop” wines – labels applied frequently to Beaujolais reds.
A substantial volume of all Beaujolais produced is sold as Nouveau or Primeur. Intensive semi-carbonic maceration production methods are used to ensure it is ready to flood the export market by late November and the resulting red wine deserves its “lollipop” label. However, take a step up the AOC ladder to Beaujolais AOC and you’ll find a still basic but much more enjoyable quaffing wine.
Another step up leads us to Beaujolais-Villages AOC. There are 38 villages which have the right to use this appellation, some of which qualify for the superior Crus classification. All of the villages can also use the Beaujolais (village named) AOC but very few do as most of them are entitled to other, more recognised classifications. However, if the red wine is blended from more than one village then the Beaujolais-Villages AOC comes into play. Good quality Beaujolais-Villages reds have a deep pinky-red colour and plenty of Gamay characteristics such as cherries, raspberries and black pepper.
One classification to ignore is Beaujolais Superieur AOC. Most of us would be forgiven for assuming that the Superieur classification should mean a superior wine. In fact all it means is that the red wine is slightly stronger than a basic Beaujolais AOC with an extra one per cent alcohol.
There are 10 Beaujolais Crus, the top classification of this red wine style. These wines are amongst the best examples of Gamay in the world. Whilst they are best drunk relatively young compared with many other red wines, some of the Crus can be aged for up to 10 years.
Brouilly AOC is the most southerly of the Crus villages and is the largest. The wines are full-bodied and fruity and can be quite tannic. Brouilly AOC and neighbouring Cotes de Brouilly AOC are the only two appellations which allow the wines to contain grapes other than Gamay. Cotes de Brouilly is one of the better quality Crus producing an intense, flavoursome and richly fruity wine.
Chenas AOC is the smallest of the Crus, producing full and generous reds. The best can be exceptionally rich and powerful. Chiroubles AOC, by contrast, produces light and fragrant red wines with wonderful delicate flavours.
Fleurie AOC is the most expensive of the Beaujolais Crus. As the name would suggest the wines are fragrant and floral and enjoyably fresh with depth and structure. Reds from Julienas AOC are rich, spicy and chunky when young but give them a few years and they become classy and smooth.
Wines from both Morgan AOC and Moulin-a-Vent AOC are sturdy and powerful. Reds produced in Morgan have a penetrating bouquet and compact fruit characteristics whilst wines from Moulin-a-Vent are intensely fruity with spicy-rich oak characteristics and well-structured tannins.
There are two styles of wine produced in Regnie AOC. All the wines are fresh, fruity and supple but some are light and fragrant whilst others are more meaty and full-bodied. The wines from St.-Amour are fragrant, soft and fruity and improve with some ageing.
Image by Nicolas Hoizey.