Beaujolais is the home of some of the most flavored fruity red wines in France; made from Gamay, the wines are known for being light, refreshing, and easy to drink with little bitterness/tannin. These examples contrast dramatically with the classically made wines that France is perceived as having, which require years of aging and even then can be "unfriendly." However, these more refined and often more complex styles do exist in Beaujolais.
Beaujolais is vinified using a different process than most wines. Called carbonic maceration, this process makes the juices ferment while still inside the grape skin. While unsuccessful in other places, this technique has worked in Beaujolais due to specific soil and climate conditions. Beaujolais Nouveau, the wine most commonly associated with Beaujolais, exemplifies the effects of carbonic maceration: light body, low tannins, and approachability. These factors make it popular among "casual" wine drinkers, which gives Beaujolais in general a bad name among "serious" drinkers.
Despite being a large region, Beaujolais has relatively few AOCs of its own. Most wine is made as Beaujolais AOC, including the entry-level Nouveau, however Beaujolais-Villages and the ten Beaujolais crus can offer good quality for low prices. This simplistic AOC system makes Beaujolais wine an easy purchase for non-wine geeks, as quality is simply ranked and prices are also reasonable.
Generally, Beaujolais is becoming a better place to find red wine. Mainly thanks to the bad connotations of Beaujolais Nouveau, richer, more powerful wines can sometimes be found in the crus of Beaujolais for prices disproportionate to their quality--mainly because people associate Beaujolais with low quality and are unwilling to pay much for even very good wines. This creates bargains for savvy shoppers.
Beaujolais is known for its long history of winemaking. Roman rulers as far back as the 500s or 600s first established Beaujolais as a winemaking area. Like most other French wines, it boomed when the development of French railroads made shipping and distribution easier.
A bubble was established in the 1960s when a Beaujolais craze took hold across the world, and demand for Beaujolais rocketed in regions as far away as North America. Beaujolais Nouveau was mostly the variety in question. When demand for Nouveau dried up, quality took a dive, and by the early 1990s the region's reputation was in the dumps. Only now is it starting to make a recovery. Wine critics generally prefer the more serious wines of Beaujolais-Villages, but extra-light Nouveau is still popular among consumers.
Climate and Viticulture
While Beaujolais theoretically falls under the Burgundy province, its climate is different enough to produce wines from a different grape, different rules, and generally much lower quality. Beaujolais also borders the Rhône Valley, with which wine analysts consider it to share several similarities. Nonetheless, for the wines it makes, Beaujolais should definitely be characterized as a separate region.
The factors that differentiate Beaujolais and make it suitable for such an unusual type of wine are many. The slight difference in temperature between Beaujolais in the south and the cooler northern regions is significant. The use of carbonic maceration, which is the distinct winemaking process that gives Beaujolais wine its unique lightness, is common only in Beaujolais. Schist and sandstone are the prominent influences in the soil in the north and south of Beaujolais respectively. The Rhône-like schist soils produce generally more complex wines, while the sandstone soils produce more Nouveau-like wines.
Considering Beaujolais' size and the number of growers there that produce wine, it is surprising and quite revealing that almost all plantings are based on a single grape. Gamay often makes bland, overly light wine in other places, but it reaches an uncommonly high peak in Beaujolais' particular climate.
The thriving of Gamay-based Beaujolais, Nouveau and otherwise, has caused producers and the government to cooperate in running nearly every other grape out of Beaujolais. At this point the number of non-Gamay grapes is at about 2%, and rapidly shrinking. Of the three major Burgundy grapes, Aligoté, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, only Chardonnay is still allowed, and its plantings are rapidly diminishing.
For Beaujolais Nouveau, few producers really excel as the wine is made in a fruity, simple, generally homogeneous style. If drunk soon enough, these wines should provide the desired flavors for a reasonable price from nearly any producer.
However, more serious wines exist, and within those appellations there is an undeniable hierarchy of producers. In the appellation of Beaujolais-Villages, five very good producers make wine.
- Domaine de Bel-Air
- Domaine du Clos du Fief
- Domaine Rochette
- Domaine des Terres Vivantes
The crus shall be covered separately below.
The various crus and villages can seem confusing. Although wine critics and major enthusiasts will find it worthwhile to study the appellations of Beaujolais, someone who wants a simple bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau should simply go and purchase one. More serious wines with entirely different flavors require more research into the various appellations of Beaujolais.
One confusing point to clear up is that of the Nouveau designation. Beaujolais Nouveau is not a region, but simply a time. Its name indicates its release in November--the third Thursday, to be exact. It fizzles within a few months and, to appreciate the juicy fruit most, one should simply drink it immediately after purchase.
Beaujolais-Villages AOC, one of the larger AOCs, was granted its AOC status in the same year. Critics have shown approval of Beaujolais-Villages lately, and the relatively low price makes many of these wines good choices. They are in the north, where schist is prominent, and therefore have a little more of that classic style that characterizes Burgundy wine. Many producers have moved to the crus since they do not share the name Beaujolais and therefore are not associated with Nouveau. A few still use the Villages designation; see Major Producers for five good domaines.
The ten Beaujolais crus provide some very good wine. Almost everything produced here is Gamay and none of it is sold as Nouveau. It is worth learning to recognize these wines, as they will not be labeled as Beaujolais but under their individual name. They all have their own AOCs, which are worth becoming at least cursorily familiar with. The ten, with their major producers and distinguishing characteristics, follow in list format.
- Brouilly: Brouilly, the largest cru in Beaujolais, strikes a compromise between simple Nouveaus and more expensive, complex crus. Most of the wines are made from Gamay; unfortunately, a few other grapes are still legal here, though unpopular. The wines are rich but medium-bodied with soft berry notes. There are many good producers; in alphabetical order, Domaine Georges Descombes, Drouhin, Duboeuf, Domaine Rochette, and Château Thivin are especially noteworthy.
- Chénas: This small cru makes powerful but slightly obscure wines. Domaines Duboeuf, LaPierre, Sancy, and Trichard are good producers. It is said that these wines often need time to soften, but with age they can become rather complex.
- Chiroubles: Fairly light, floral wines, made on cool, high hilltops with good soil. Floral and usually drinkable early on, they can also develop with a few years to have the tone of a feminine Burgundian wine. Domaine du Chapelle des Bois, Domaine Cheysson, and Domaine la Combe au Loup are good producers here.
- Côte de Brouilly: Located entirely within the cru of Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly produces more serious, exclusive wines from high hilltops on the volcano of Mont Brouilly. These wines are considered among the most intense and serious of Beaujolais wines. Domaine du Pavillon de Chavannes, Potel Aviron, Domaine Rochette, Domaine des Terres Dorées, and Château Thivin are among the good producers.
- Fleurie: Though Brouilly and Morgon closely compete, Fleurie is probably the most common and well-known of the Beaujolais crus. Ageworthy, complex but not overly structured, the wines can be deliciously smooth and fruity if drunk at the right time. Many of the wines will deliver the magic, but some of the better producers are Domaine Chignard, Clos de la Roilette, several of Georges Duboeuf's offerings, Potel Aviron's old-vine examples, and Domaine des Terres Dorées.
- Juliénas: Due to its location closer to Burgundy, Juliénas is a cru that makes much more structured, tannic Beaujolais wine. Rich, spicy, and earthy, the wines get better with at least a few years of age. Domaine du Clos du Fief, Georges Duboeuf, and Domaine Pascal Granger are among the best winemakers.
- Morgon: Possibly the most powerful, rich, structured examples of Beaujolais, Morgon wines are much closer to a powerful Burgundy with chunky, earthy flavors that develop and become smoother with age. However, the size and popularity of the region mean that quality is not always certain, and many wines totally lack the characteristics that distinguish great Morgon. Domaine Aucoeur, Domaine Georges Descombes (especially the old-vine bottles), Domaine Georges Duboeuf (the Descombes and Prestige bottlings especially), the classy Domaine Marcel Lapierre, and Domaine des Terres Dorées can usually be counted on.
- Moulin-a-Vent: Meaning "windmill" in French, Moulin-a-Vent is another of the powerful crus, making extremely intense, ageable wines that have few, if any, of the characteristics typically associated with Gamay. Although the wines can even go too far in the monolithic direction, the good ones can be the best in Beaujolais. Good producers include Domaine Diochon, Domaine Pascal Granger, Jadot's cuvées, Domaine Thibault Liger-Belair (this Burgundy domaine is interested in the Burgundian soil of this particular cru), and Domaine du Terres Dorées.
- Régnié: Régnié makes fruity, fairly simplistic wines that usually should be drunk early on, perhaps due to its more southerly location. Régnié is also the new kid in town--the most recently created Beaujolais cru. Good wines are made by Jean-Marie Burgaud, Georges Duboeuf, and Domaine Rochette, but many other producers also get the style right.
- St-Amour: This romantically named cru makes wines that are earthy, sometimes dark and anonymous, but after a year or two are often quite juicy and good. Domaine Billard, Domaine des Champs, and Georges Duboeuf are three good producers here.
Between Nouveau and the crus, versatile Beaujolais proves itself to be a good region for both light, simple, straightforward inexpensive red wines, and more complex styles. Although the latter are a little hard to seek out, especially in comparison to the high visibility of Nouveau, they are often underrated. Hence, Beaujolais offers something to every fan of red wine.