France's value red offers surprisingly high quality at the cru level.
Beaujolais, the light-bodied red wine made in the central-eastern French region of the same name, is the epitome of a “likeable” wine—it has character, fresh berry-fruit flavors and an affordable price tag. In a sea of wine choices, it’s a solid pick for a pure, pleasurable experience.
But at its top tier, or cru level, Beaujolais (not to be confused with Beaujolais Nouveau, which is fermented just a few weeks before being released for sale on the third Thursday of November), offers all of the approachability, but with additional texture and complexity.
Often selling for under $20, these wines are made exclusively from the Gamay grape. They are packed with vibrant cherry and red berry flavors, are richly textured and offer a line of acidity that makes them excellent for pairing with food.
These better wines are the result of a recent trend: Producers are becoming more serious about their cru bottlings. A younger generation is putting quality above quantity. Many are turning to more natural ways of vineyard management, particularly organic and biodynamic.
A growing number of these producers are eschewing the classic early-drinking Beaujolais vinification techniques of whole-bunch, semicarbonic maceration and employ the Burgundian red winemaking technique of destemming the grapes. The result is an increasingly impressive range of cru wines that have concentration, silky tannins and the ripe cherry fruit of Beaujolais.
The blossoming quality of Beaujolais cru wines remain a secret, especially to wine drinkers who are not fans of the more commercial Beaujolais Nouveau. But these are superb early autumn wines for enjoying after the whites and rosés of the summer. Price-wise, they leave any Pinot Noir from further north in Burgundy at the starting blocks. Exciting producers and a variety of terroirs result in a range of flavors from the Gamay grape.
Two great though contrasting vintages (2009 and 2010) are on the market now, making it the perfect time to explore the 10 crus of Beaujolais.
“Very Beaujolais, a classic,” says Yves Dominique Ferraud of négociant Ferraud et Fils, speaking of the 2010 vintage. He says that 2009 “was fabulous, concentrated, but unique for us. [The 2010 vintage] is less complex, but more friendly—very easy to drink. Perhaps 2010 is less for aging, but that is often the pleasure of Beaujolais.”
Ferraud is on target: The 2009 vintage, beautiful throughout France, was exceptional in Beaujolais. The wines have firm tannins—lots of them— but they are barely noticeable amid the ripe, velvety fruit that surrounds them. Producers in Beaujolais expect these wines to age for many years.
The wines of 2010, the more typical Beaujolais of the two vintages, present the natural fruitiness of the Gamay grape with acidity and softer tannins. Even with these wines, though, there is some aging potential.
Domaine Dominique Piron. Using Burgundian winemaking techniques, Piron’s wines are powerful and concentrated, while retaining their essential fruitiness. Crus: Morgon, Chénas, Brouilly. Importer: Sherbrooke Cellars.
Domaine Louis-Claude Desvignes. Fine Beaujolais has been made here for generations, and these wines, made from some of the best vineyards in Morgon, are extremely ageworthy. Cru: Morgon. Importer: Louis Dressner Selections.
Marcel Lapierre. Following innovator Marcel Lapierre’s death last year at 60, his son, Mathieu, continues to fashion serious wines, often unfiltered and with no sulfur dioxide. Crus: Morgon. Importer: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant.
Domaine des Terres Dorées. Fruity, delicate wines with an approach that’s as natural as possible. Crus: Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Côte de Brouilly. Importer: Louis Dressner Selections
Robert Perroud. A winemaker whose product reflects the seriously sloping terroir. Crus: Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly. Importer: Wine Traditions.
Domaine du Vissoux. Although based in the south, Pierre-Marie Chermette’s wines cover the gamut of Beaujolais. Many are deep, complex wines. Crus: Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent, Brouilly. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler.
Château des Jacques. An estate owned by the Beaune-based négociant Louis Jadot. Manager Guillaume de Castelnau follows organic principles to fashion richly colored and flavored wines. Crus: Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon. Importer: Kobrand.
Georges Duboeuf. With a range of nearly 50 wines—including every cru—Georges Duboeuf covers Beaujolais. The great protagonist of Nouveau has now created a range of much more serious single-estate wines. Importer: W.J. Deutsch & Sons.
Mommessin. Owned by the Boisset family, Mommessin has adopted many Burgundian vinification methods to make richly satisfying wines from all the crus. Importer: OWS.
Henry Fessy. Since its purchase by Louis Latour, the wines of Henry Fessy (with their signature handlebar mustache label) have improved every year. Each of the major crus are represented in the portfolio. Importer: Louis Latour Inc.
Making wine in Beaujolais
If you’ve dreamed of harvesting grapes in France, head for Beaujolais. It’s one of only two wine regions in France where the grapes must, by law, be picked by hand (the other is Champagne). The reason: to ensure the thin-skinned Gamay grapes reach the winery intact.
Winemakers use a variation on carbonic maceration for many wines (especially the less expensive wines, such as Beaujolais Nouveau). Fermenting whole berries in closed tanks filled with carbon dioxide brings out color quickly and gets the light, fruity, soft-tannin wine ready for market in a few weeks. A telltale sign that the wine has been fermented in this fashion is the suggestion of banana that can creep in, particularly in late harvest years like 2010, when there is a short time between harvest and Nouveau release.
Many of the more serious wines, such as crus Beaujolais, are fermented traditionally. In Beaujolais, they call it Burgundy-style vinification. There is a division between some home-grown Beaujolais producers who like their carbonic maceration and want their wine younger and fruitier, and the producers (such as the Burgundy merchants from Beaune who produce and bottle Beaujolais) who make wine for aging. Sometimes it’s noted on the bottle. Otherwise, ask the seller.
Beaujolais and food:
With its integrated tannins, great fruit and fresh acidity, Beaujolais is just right for so many foods. In Beaujolais, the wines are sipped with stews, cold cuts, salami, chicken and hard cheeses, such as Cantal from the mountains to the west. The wine is also commonly paired with fish and scallops.
Beaujolais is always the wine touted for Thanksgiving—and let’s be frank, the meal is a mélange of all kinds of flavors. The light tannins in Beaujolais bring those traditional tastes together, or at least keep creamed cauliflower and cranberry salad from colliding with the wine. Remember, the Beaujolais often slightly chill their red table wines. (Try an hour in the fridge, not three hours in the freezer.)
But it’s even more versatile than that—a light cru, such as Régnié or Brouilly, will complement a fruit crumble, red fruits or an almond tart.
A cru for every moment:
The 10 Beaujolais crus are surprisingly different. Each has its own style. Some wines are for aging, others are for drinking now. Here’s a quick guide to the 10, moving from the lightest to the most powerful. The light wines on the list are fruity, the dark ones tannic and ageworthy. Intriguingly, Gamay wines—particularly Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent—often become closer in taste to Pinot Noir as they age.
Régnié. The newest and softest of the crus, Régnié wines are rounded, perfumed and packed with cherry, cassis and strawberry flavors. The tannins are light, so wines are attractive young. Age for: 1–3 years.
Brouilly. The largest and most southerly of the crus, Brouilly wines are ripe, soft and accessible. The style is fruity rather than perfumed, sometimes with a mineral character from the granite subsoil. Age for: 1–4 years.
Chiroubles. At an elevation of 1,200 feet, it’s the highest of the cru villages and, as a consequence, the coolest in character. The wines have a delicious freshness and perfumed red fruits, often with distinct acidity when young. Age for: 2–5 years.
Côte de Brouilly. The Côte de Brouilly is a small appellation in the heart of the Brouilly appellation, on the slopes of Mont Brouilly. Côte de Brouilly often shows mineral character, with red cherry fruits and a strong tannic presence when young. Age for: 1–5 years.
Chénas. The least known of all the crus (due to small production), these wines start out soft, yet age well. Red fruits dominate the generous tannins. These can be remarkable bargains. Age for: 1–6 years.
Fleurie. Fleurie wines are among the most expensive of Beaujolais crus, which is not always justified. The wines have floral aromas, a rounded and rich character and tannins that sit comfortably in the dense fruits. Age for 2-6 years.
Saint-Amour. Wine of choice for Saint Valentine’s Day and, of course, for lovers. In fact, the village at the far north of Beaujolais is said to be named after a Roman soldier, St. Amateur, who converted to Christianity. This wine is very fruity, floral and rich with well-integrated tannins. Age for: 1-5 years.
Juliénas. Powerful wines come from this northern cru village. Raspberries, violets and spice give the wines an exotic, fruity character. Their dense texture is what sets these wines apart from other crus. Age for: 2–5 years.
Moulin-à-Vent. Named after the windmill on the highest point of the appellation, Moulin-à-Vent produces powerful wines that are intense and tannic when young. They have all the Gamay fruitiness, in addition to excellent structure. Age for: 2–8 year.
Morgon. The big Beaujolais, Morgon hails from some of the finest vineyard sites of all the crus. Taking their power from the schist and volcanic soils around the Mont de Py, these solid, structured and richly fruited wines can easily age. Age for: 10 years.
The landscape of Beaujolais is as attractive as its wines. The wine road crosses bucolic landscapes, deep valleys and rolling hills, always with views out to the Saône Valley and the Alps to the east. Red-roof-tiled villages with evocative names offer great eating, B&Bs and some exceptional hotels. And it’s within an hour of Lyon-Saint Exupéry Airport (LYS) and a TGV railroad station that deposits you direct from Paris. The northern cru vineyards are less than 30 minutes south of Burgundy’s Mâcon.
With bucolic landscapes, rolling green hills and quaint red-roof-tiled villages, Beaujolais’ setting is as attractive as its wines. An array of cozy B&Bs and exceptional hotels and restaurants ensure the wandering traveler a pleasant stay, and its close proximity to Lyon’s Saint Exupéry International Airport and the TGV railroad station makes travelling a breeze.
Where to eat:
Restaurant Le Cep, Fleurie. Marked with old-school cooking and a brush of friendly informality, this Michelin-starred restaurant is sure to please. Tel +33 474 04 10 77.
Chez la Rose, Juliénas. Here, diners enjoy locallyinspired dishes paired with this village’s celebrated wines for the ultimate locavore experience.
Le Beaujolais, Belleville. Located near the railroad station, this accessible restaurant offers French country classics in a charming setting.
Where to stay:
Auberge de Clochemerle, Vaux-en-Beaujolais. Guests stay in classic, upscale rooms and enjoy the convenience of the notable downstairs restaurant where Chef Romain Barthe is constantly trying new culinary concepts.
Auberge du Paradis, Saint-Amour. This hotel features stunning, modern rooms set behind a traditional façade. For dinner, mingle in the hotel’s restaurant and enjoy Chef Cyril Laugier’s sophisticated creations.
Château de Pizay, Saint-Jean d’Ardières. Set in an elegant castle, this luxury hotel offers grand suites and opulent amenities as well as a property that’s surrounded by manicured gardens and 75 acres of vines.
Beaujolais has its very own theme park, the Hameau Duboeuf located just beside the Georges Duboeuf winery in Romanèche-Thorins. The Duboeuf family created a museum with 3,000 objects, complete with a model vineyard and winery, gardens and a miniature railway, which displays the carriage that once belonged to Emperor Napoleon III.