There is something supremely comforting about a glass of Beaujolais. It could be the the caress of the wines themselves: the vibrant berry fruit, gentle tannins and sturdy yet lightweight frame of the region’s most planted variety, Gamay; the silky texture and shimmering fruit of the region’s Chardonnay; or the crackle and crunch of a ballerina-hued Beaujolais Rosé—all achieved without muscle or flash—that warm the hardest of hearts and palates. Or perhaps it’s knowing that Beaujolais is so darn affordable, offering superb bang for buck beside ultimate drinkability. Then again, it could be the fact that Beaujolais is an exceptionally versatile wine to pair with food, capable of coupling with everything from Thanksgiving dinner to Middle Eastern cuisine, from charcuterie to grilled fish. At a time when so many of us are holed up in our homes, uncertain of the future, Beaujolais is a glassful of calm, cozy deliciousness.
The 34 miles that make up the Beaujolais region are located in eastern France, with the hills of the Massif Central in the west and the Saône River—which flows to the Cotes du Rhone wine region—in the east. The city of Lyon lies to the South and Burgundy is just to the north.
Beaujolais’s climate is continental, its vines sheltered by the Haut-Beaujolais mountain range and its temperatures regulated by the nearby Saône river. Combine this with rolling, often steep, hills and ancient, diverse soils, and Beaujolais is prime wine growing territory, as recognized by people as far back as the Romans. (One of the region’s “Crus”, Juliénas, likely refers to Julius Caesar.) In the Middle Ages, the village of Beaujeu became a hub of winemaking thanks to wealthy lords of the same name. But wine didn’t really take off until the 17th century. Proximity to the Saone and Rhone rivers meant easy transport to the thirsty citizens of Lyon. By the 19th century wine production increased further with the advent of the railroad, allowing wines to be shipped to Paris and elsewhere.
When it comes to grape varieties, while Chardonnay plays a supporting yet solid role in the region, Gamay Noir rules the roost, comprising 98% of all of Beaujolais’s production. Gamay can vary widely in style depending on where it’s grown and how it’s made.
Beaujolais’s signature fermentation style, developed in the early 20th century, is called carbonic maceration, a process of whole berry fermentation that enhances the wine’s fruity flavors and softens its tannins. The technique is particularly utilized for Beaujolais Nouveau, an early-drinking wine released just weeks after fermentation is complete. While there is a move from some “Cru” producers towards traditional yeast fermentation, many in the region still employ a semi-carbonic technique.
Terroirs, however, still has the final say. This is where Beaujolais’s 12 AOCs (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) enter the picture.
In the more clay-based soils of the south, the wines from thin-skinned Gamay tend to be light and refreshing, with bouncy red fruit flavors like strawberry, cherry and cranberry, backed by floral, gamey and earthy spice notes. Many of the wines here are designated Beaujolais AOC.
Wines that fall under the region’s middle tier, Beaujolais Village AOC, are located mainly on the northern granitic soils and can offer more complexity and color intensity. It’s under this designation, in the clay-limestone or marl soils of the far north of the region that you’ll find much of the region’s tastiest Chardonnay, generally full bodied, silky and bright-fruited. Crisp, refreshing Rosé, made from Gamay, is a style that has risen steeply in popularity and is another of Beaujolais’s specialities.
All 10 of Beaujolais’s AOC Crus are located in the north on soils referred to locally as “lardon”, in other words, bacon fat-like cross sections of iron oxide, granite and silica.
From north to south the designated Crus are: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. Each Cru produces unique wines that reflect individual terroirs, but generally speaking, Cru Beaujolais wines are the most nuanced and elegant in the region, walking tightropes of satiny fruit, florals and spice, fine tannins and a structure set for both cellaring and drinking young.
The best part? They’re exceptionally good value for such outstanding quality. So drink up.