Let's face it, Beaujolais gets a bad rap. It is often thought of as a cheerful, soft, and juicy wine of no particular merit. Its most famous manifestation, Beaujolais nouveau, was a great marketing gimmick in the 80s, but it was a victim of its own success. Today, the frenzy surrounding the release of Beaujolais nouveau has all but disappeared except for Japan.
But the wine's less-than-stellar reputation has historical roots. In the fourteenth century, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (Beaujolais is part of the Burgundy wine region) and one of the most powerful men in France, declared that gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, was a "very bad and very disloyal plant" of "very great and horrible harshness." He banned the growing of gamay in favor of pinot noir. This law was confirmed by another duke 60 years later, when Philip the Good declared, "The Dukes of Burgundy are known as the lords of the best wines in Christendom. We will maintain our reputation."
Gamay was then banished from the best vineyards of Burgundy and exiled to the fringes around the region of Beaujolais.
While Beaujolais may have been seen as a pariah for much of its history, it does have some virtue. Gamay ripens earlier than the more exalted pinot noir. It produces abundant fruit and makes a light red wine with little tannin and high acidity, with the better examples exhibiting flavors of red berries and a slight pepperiness. This is the sort of red wine you would like to have for a summer picnic.
Perhaps most people know Beaujolais through Beaujolais nouveau. It had long been the custom in Beaujolais to release wine from the just-completed vintage in order to celebrate a good harvest. Some savvy marketing types and, in particular, Georges Duboeuf, now the largest producer of Beaujolais, saw the potential of this young wine as a way to generate quick cash. There was no need to wait several months to sell the wine; it could be bottled and shipped off practically right after the harvest.
A car race to Paris with the new wine was a way to drum up interest in Beaujolais nouveau and the run became a national event covered by the media. The races soon spread to other parts of Europe, then to the US, and, lastly, in Asia. Officially, the wine is released on the third Thursday of November, when the race begins. Much of the hype has died down, although there are still Beaujolais nouveau parties and Japan continues to be a strong market for the wine. It is the lightest and fruitiest wine from Beaujolais but has no particular merit beyond that. It should be drunk as young as possible and will not benefit from any aging. These industrially produced mass-market wines are certainly not representative of what Beaujolais can offer.
Beaujolais nouveau is actually a sub species of the basic Beaujolais appellation, which covers wine made in any of the 96 villages of the appellation. Higher up the quality ladder are wines from Beaujolais Villages, an appellation consisting of 39 villages located in the northern part of the region. Lastly, Beaujolais Cru, representing vineyards from around the best villages of Beaujolais, is where some seriously good wine can be made.
Beaujolais also produces a small amount of white wine from chardonnay and an even more miniscule amount of rosé also from gamay.
A new wave of producers is also breaking the mold of Beaujolais and producing exciting wines even outside the Beaujolais cru. There are even some age-worthy examples that could fool you into thinking they are good burgundies instead of humble Beaujolais. It is certainly worth exploring these wines in more depth.
Here are some of the best Beaujolais available in the market:
JEAN CLAUDE LAPALU CUVEE DES FOUS BROUILLY 2009
Very dark purple. Juicy. Cherries, blueberries, fruit syrup and berry confit. Coffee and cocoa powder. Soft and sweet and absolutely delicious! Maybe it's not a profound, serious wine but it is so well-crafted and enchanting and a real pleasure to drink. Immediately accessible. Not sure how it will age but why wait? Outstanding and a genuine surprise and delight.
JP BRUN COTE DE BROUILLY
Light crimson-purple in color. The aroma expresses a rich undertone of truffles and mushrooms.
JP BRUN MORGON
Earthy and vivid raspberry and cherry accentuated with pleasant acidity, lime, and licorice. Develops more elegantly when aerated.
JP BRUN L'ANCIEN
Dark ruby with a transparent purple tint at the edge. With a bouquet of red fruits accentuated with soft tannins. A well-balanced wine of natural sugar and lively acidity.
LAPALU RANG DU MERLE
Deep ruby red with violet edges. Wonderful grapey nose with aromas of blackcurrants, redcurrants, plums, and strawberries. Nuances of floral and vegetal hints leading to a lively and fleshy mouth. Intense and spicy.
LAPALU BROUILLY VV
Ruby red with purplish highlights. The nose is moderately expressive of ripe red cherry, plum, graphite, cardamom, leather, and minerals. Has the taste of fresh grapes with robust tannins.
Photographs by Ian Castanares
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 17 2014.