Light-bodied and elegant like Burgundy, and at its best sharing nothing with most Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais reveals a melding of fruit and earth that is increasingly rare in today’s world, and is well worth exploring. Particularly when you take a look at the prices. Even though great Beaujolais has become more expensive of late, you can still score killer bottles for less than $30, sometimes much less!
The Beaujolais region lies on the hills and plains located just north of the city of Lyon. The appellation actually falls almost entirely within the department, or province, of the Rhône, though its affairs are administered by the department of Saône-et-Loire, which includes a small but meaningful part of the appellation as well as the Mâconnais region, the southern half of Burgundy.
When most people think of Beaujolais they tend to think of Beaujolais Nouveau, that fruity first wine of the year. In fact, the regulations that established Beaujolais actually would have prohibited Beaujolais Nouveau as we know it. We currently can expect the new vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau to be released the third Thursday of November, while the original regulations prohibited the release until the 15th of December each year.
In 1951, the regulations were changed and Beaujolais Nouveau as we know it was born, but it wasn’t known until the négociant Georges Duboeuf put his considerable resources to work promoting the Nouveau. In the 1970s, the annual race with the first wine of the season to Paris grabbed the media’s attention and has since spread around the world. Most Nouveau is rather light and fruity to the point of resembling fruit juice more than wine, and not always grape juice at that!
Beaujolais is broken down into three distinct classes. The broadest is the generic Beaujolais appellation, which can include the vineyards located anywhere within the AOC. The basic Beaujolais wine need only ripen to provide 9% alcohol, 10% if it is to be labeled as Beaujolais Supérieur. Not surprisingly, much of the fruit that comes from these vineyards has found a home in the light, fruity Beaujolais Nouveau.
Beaujolais Villages is a distinct step up in quality from generic Beaujolais. This appellation, encompassing 39 villages, sees the terrain change from the more southerly reaches of Beaujolais. These wines themselves are a bit fuller and richer than those from the broader Beaujolais appellation. These are still fruity wines, and are soft, with bright acidity, but they tend to have more complex flavor profiles, adding notes of soil and herbs to the appealing red fruit that is so characteristic of Gamay.
The jewels of the Beaujolais appellation are the 10 Crus that follow the hills from the edge of the area delimited as Beaujolais Village right to the edge of the Mâcon. In fact, many of the northern-most producers bottle their Gamay as Beaujolais but are entitled to, and do, bottle their whites under the more prestigious Mâcon-Villages or Saint-Véran appellations, which make up the southern-most reaches of Burgundy. Let’s took a look at the Crus as we travel from south to north.
Brouilly is the southern-most Beaujolais appellation and also the largest. As such, it is probably the most variable as well. The majority of the vines lay on the rather flat plains in sandy soil that surrounds Mont Brouilly. The wines here tend to be fruit-driven with a gentle, soft character.
The vineyards that flank the upper reaches of the extinct volcano that is Mont Brouilly are not surprisingly referred to as the Côte de Brouilly. Unlike the sandy soil found at the base of this small mouth, on the slope the soil is rich with granite, giving the wines a firmer structure and brighter, tauter character.
Régnié, the most recent village to be elevated to Cru status (only in 1988), lies just to the north of Brouilly. Like Brouilly, the vines here tend to be on rather flat, sandy soil. The wines retain the fruit character of a Brouilly, but with a slightly richer feel, in a round, rich style that remains a little chunky and perhaps rustic.
Like Brouilly, Morgon has a combination of relatively flat vineyard lands as well as a prime set of vineyards that fall on the hillside of a mount, in this case the Côte du Py. The wines of Morgon, and the Côte du Py in particular, are recognized as some of the finest of the entire appellation, and those with the greatest potential to improve in the bottle. The soil here, referred to as “rotten rock” in the local French, consists of broken slate to a large degree.
Moving farther to the north and occupying a wonderful set of southeastern-facing hillsides are the vines of Chiroubles, which include the highest vines in the appellation. This altitude lends the wines a delicacy and perfume that sets them apart from the rest of the Crus. These are not long-lived wines but rather reward early consumption.
Where Chiroubles stops, Fleurie begins and, while the Crus occupy a contiguous southeastern-facing slope, the wines are worlds apart. In fact, the wines of Fleurie, often thought to smell of flowers – hence the name – tend to be age-worthy within the context of Beaujolais, and frequently vie for top honors in any vintage with the equally famous wines of Moulin-à-Vent.
As one follows this ridgeline of Chirobles-Fleurie further to the north, one comes to the lower altitude vineyards of Chénas, Beaujolais’s smallest Cru. These vines, which are bordered by Fleurie to the south and Moulin-à-Vent to the south and east, seem ideally situated to take advantage of the best of both of those appellations. The truth though is that the granitic soil of the vineyards gives them a bit of an austere quality that makes them somewhat less approachable than either.
Moulin-à-Vent is Beaujolais’ most famous, and to many minds, top Cru. Named after an iconic windmill in the appellation, the wines here are full and rich with a touch of the astringent tannins found in the wines of Chénas. The soils share a disposition towards granite, particularly towards the west, and Chénas, but in the heart of the appellation the soil is famously rich in manganese. Manganese is toxic to grape vines, though at the concentrations found in Moulin-à-Vent the vines only suffer greatly reduced yields, imbuing the wines coming from those affected vines with uncommon richness and depth!
To the north of Chénas, and extending quite a ways to the west, away from the Saône river and into the hills, is Juliénas. Named after the Roman emperor Julius Caesar, these hillside vines tend to enjoy very varied soils with elements of clay and granite offering complementary aspects of power and elegance. These are relatively rich wines with a spicy edge to them.
The final Cru in Beaujolais lies to the north and mostly to the east of Juliénas. The romantically named Saint Amour lies on mostly clay soils that rise from the edge of the Saône river to meet the gentle hills of Saint Amour and Saint Vérand. These are plump, juicy wines with a touch of spice and earth accenting their fruity flavors.
To view the photos for this article, go to Wine 101 - Beaujolais.