Defending the Honor of Beaujolais

(Originally published November 2003)

With the release date of the third Thursday of November right around the corner, it's way too easy to work up a dander by bashing the innocuously fruity and basic wines we call Beaujolais Nouveau. But, hey, let it never be said Hanes passed up an easy shot to bust on something!

Released after only 7-9 weeks, Beaujolais Nouveau is more than anything a simple, fun burst of temporary insanity fueled mainly by the relentless marketing machine of Georges Dubœuf. Thankfully, being built for extremely short-term consumption the wines tend to implode a few months later, providing a naturally short lifecycle to the hype. So, while every store in sight has a special table or section devoted to Beaujolais Nouveau during the holiday season Hanes wants to protect the honor of the Beaujolais region as a whole and extol the sundry virtues of Beaujolais' more serious wines.

So, yes, Beaujolais is much more than Beaujolais Nouveau. During the early 1990's the Nouveau craze peaked and production accounted for almost half of all the wines made in the region. Today more producers appear willing to strive for wines that will survive past February. Let's step back and lay out some background 411 on Beaujolais.

Technically, Beaujolais is considered to be part of Burgundy. It represents the southernmost part of Burgundy, beginning just below the Mâconnais region (where mostly inexpensive Chardonnay wines are made and labeled as, for example, Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Mâcon-Villages or specific village designates) and running south to around the city of Lyons. Beaujolais averages about 13 million cases of wine annually. Oddly enough, Beaujolais falls within the Rhône département surrounding Lyons, thus Burgundians consider Beaujolais "les vins du Rhône." "Beaujolais" gets its name from the house of Beaujeu, back in the day of the mid-900's. The Dukes of Beaujeu ruled the crib until the Bourbonnais hit the set in 1400 and snatched it from them. Because Beaujolais' climate and soils differ vastly from the rest of Burgundy you get a quite different wine, especially with reds where different grapes are favored to grow. So, why is Beaujolais considered part of Burgundy? Who the hell knows? Not Hanes...

Anyway, there's lots of granite and metamorphic rocks and it comes in flat basement form rather than as the more slanted scarp-slopes or block faults found to the north in Burgundy. Asleep yet? There's more! Whereas the soils of Burgundy are richer, the sandier soils of Beaujolais are less forgiving. As throughout all of France, this means finding the right grape to fit the right conditions. For Beaujolais, this means the Gamay Noir grape. Banned from the ritzier Côte d'Or by Philippe le Hardi (known in the ambient/techno-trance world as DJ "Philip the Bold") in 1395 because it grew too well and hardily and produced big, dilute crops, Gamay found its home in Beaujolais. While there may be some Pinot Noir here or there, for red wines in Beaujolais it's all about the Gamay. In fact, of the 36,000 acres of Gamay planted in the world, 22,500 of them are in Beaujolais. Red Beaujolais = Gamay.

White Beaujolais, on the other hand, seems to be almost all Chardonnay, as throughout Burgundy. It would be really cool if Beaujolais also had a unique white grape to make it special. It doesn't. It's Chardonnay. For the smarties among us, yes, there's some Aligoté grown too but in such small amounts that let's forget it. White Beaujolais = Chardonnay.

Hanes wants to focus on the best Beaujolais wines but we do need to mention the various qualitative tiers so that all is clear. Basic Beaujolais is just called -- they went out on a limb here -- Beaujolais. These wines come from the most basic, flattest vineyards (the Bas-Beaujolais), in the more southern areas. Next up in quality is Beaujolais Supérieur. These wines are a little bit better because the yields per acre have to be lower by law to get the extra special "Supérieur" label. There's a pretty big qualitative leap to the next level, Beaujolais-Villages. There are 39 villages which have been deemed to represent the best vineyards and terrains Beaujolais has to offer. This is where you get the most compelling and satisfying wines. If a wine is made entirely from one village then you will see that name attached to the Beaujolais name. But, wait, it gets better!

Within the 39 villages, there are 10 villages that are so extra, extra special that they have been designated as "cru" level. These 10 villages are the aristocracy of Beaujolais, existing on granite soils some 300 million years old. These are the wines Hanes wants to exhort/extort you to try. But before launching into a discussion of them, it makes sense to get all the background information sorted out.

Part of the classifying of Beaujolais wines is done by alcoholic content when picked. On the whole, Beaujolais wines are light and low in alcohol wines so in order to protect their street cred the powers that be made sure you wouldn't have to drink a case to catch a buzz. Can't have too high of a yield and too dilute wines! Regular Beaujolais has to be at least 9% hootch. Beaujolais Supérieur has to be 1% higher than that. Beaujolais-Villages does not have to be higher than Beaujolais Supérieur but their superior soil and microclimates are supposed to ensure more concentration and ripeness and thus potentially higher alcohol levels. At all levels, sometimes elevated alcohol levels are reached by chaptalizing, or adding sugar to the fermenting grape juice. Rarely does Beaujolais get over 13% alcohol. After all, you're supposed to be able to tell your boss that all you had with your lunch was a single bottle of Beaujolais!

One of the most attractive elements of Beaujolais is their prices. They're cheap! Regular Beaujolais wines are $10 or less, most Beaujolais-Villages (which comprise around 25% of all production) are between $12 and $18 bucks. To the best of his recollection, Hanes has never seen a retail bottle of Beaujolais break the $30 barrier. So, basically, you are getting the best wines an entire region produces for a song. Now, there's incentive!

A large part of what makes Beaujolais particularly appealing is that it serves as great "food wines," that is, wines that complement a broad array of food dishes and don't need to be the star of the culinary show. The lower alcohol contents contribute a lot to this as you don't get any alcoholic burning sensations to interfere with food flavors or your physiology's basic performance. Another technical aspect is that the wines are made using a process called carbonic maceration (Hanes won't bore you with the details), which makes the wines lighter and freshly fruity with lower tannins. They are bright and supple and don't outweigh lighter food dishes. Beaujolais also has very good balancing acidity and is high in minerals such as potassium or magnesium, contributing further to their freshness.

OK, let's see what motley cru wines Beaujolais offers! In alphabetical order, the 10 cru villages are Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié and Saint-Amour. These wines will have the most body of any Beaujolais and some of them can age and improve in the cellar. Hanes knows this will drive his readers to utter despondency but he doesn't know everything. In a blind tasting, he probably couldn't tell a Morgon from a Chénas, a Brouilly from a Chiroubles. Hell, he's never even had a single Saint-Amour. Hanes leaves it to the hardcore geeks to fetishize these details. But here's a brief skinny on each of the cru villages...

Brouilly: Covers about 3,000 acres of vineyards, making it the biggest of the 10 crus. Soils mostly sandy, some granite. Fairly heady and rustic in character with a light grapey character. Vineyards occupy the plains around Mont Brouilly.

Chénas: The smallest of the cru villages, about 650 acres. It's messed up because somehow Chénas is actually within Moulin-à-Vent. Mostly granite soils. Can produce some of the bigger cru wines but fairly rare to find.

Chiroubles: Around 850 acres and the highest altitude of all the crus, at an elevation of around 400 meters. The soils are mostly granite and porphyry. These wines are supposed to be the most delicate and cerebral of the crus, perhaps owing to the cooler environment up above.

Côte de Brouilly: Makes up around 700 acres. Soils more granite and schist-driven. Seems to be one of the harder crus to typify in a nutshell. These vineyards are on the slopes of Mont Brouilly — that's why they are called "Côte de Brouilly." You needed Hanes to tell you that?

Fleurie: A big old 2,000 acres with granite soils. You see a fair bit of Fleurie in the U.S. and they seem to have a more violet-driven floral and delicate nature. Has some of the best sun exposures among the crus.

Juliénas: Around 1,450 acres planted here. And the roots suck on pebbles, schist, clay and granite. Believed to be the oldest of the crus, named after Julius Caeser. So it's got to be good. Can be on the earthy or grassy side. Thought by some to be among the most ageworthy of the crus.

Morgon: Roughly comprised of 2,700 acres. Soils are mostly a slate called "roches pourries" or "rotten rocks," by the natives and from which the name "morgon" comes. Some of the bigger cru Beaujolais come from here, at times putting force before complexity. Lots of cherry and berry fruit and fuller bodied wines.

Moulin-à-Vent: Made up of 1,600 or so acres. Reputed to be the best and most ageworthy of the crus and named after an old windmill. The soils are granite with much talked about quantities of manganese. Floral and possessing broad dark fruit flavors.

Régnié: Covers about 1,600 acres. Only elevated to cru level in 1988. Sand and granite soils predominate. Solid wines, a bit ruddy-faced and straightforward.

Saint-Amour: Its 680 acres are at the northern edges of Beaujolais. Thin soils contribute to a more sturdy but lean and acidic nature than the other crus. Distinctive for its spiciness, and somewhat tart featuring more white fruit, especially peach.

On the whole, the cognoscenti believe that Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon and Juliénas make the biggest wines.

Way back in the beginning of all this Hanes mentioned white Beaujolais. Then nothing but Gamay, Gamay, Gamay. Where's the vin blanc? Well, truth be told, around 98% of the wine produced in Beaujolais is Gamay. The white wines are quite rare although they can be most excellent. If you can find them here in the U.S., you'll discover a floral, honeyed wine with plenty of citrus and mixed white fruits. A big part of why you don't see much Beaujolais blanc is that in 1971 Saint-Véran was granted its own independent status, which kind of sucked up a lot of the acreage that would have otherwise been considered Beaujolais. You have to guess that if there's any white Beaujolais to be found stateside, it's pretty good and worth a gamble. Hanes would be happy to see more Chardonnay experimented with in Beaujolais.

Those who follow such things say that the 2002 vintage in Beaujolais is a quite good one, to rival the beloved 2000 vintage. This makes it a quite opportune time to sample the high end of Beaujolais as these wines are just now coming to market. You heard it hear first, folks. Unless you heard it somewhere else.

FYI, while you may not want to bequeath these wines to your grandchildren, they can often positively reward some aging (say 3-6 years). How long the aging curve cashes out to be depends -- you ain't getting more out of Hanes on the subject. "They" say that in Beaujolais most folks wait until the following year's harvest to try the previous year's cru wines, using the wonderfully cheesy French saying that the wines have "fait leurs Pâques" ("done their Easter duty"). Now, that's classy!