The word Beaujolais can evoke a whole range of thoughts and associations: Thanksgiving, Nouveau, Gamay. The latter is the only grape used in this esteemed wine-making region of France, while the former is widely regarded as the season to consume said wine. Caught in between is a word that might make devout wine drinkers cringe, especially those who prefer the finesse of old-world, terroir driven wines, but there is an occasion for everything.
Beaujolais is a small (we’re talking less than 40 miles long and less than 10 wide) area that is due south of the famous Burgundy region, and because of this the terroir found in this tiny plot of land is highly coveted and can produce similarly elegant, and especially earthy, wines with unique character. The Gamay grape has a profile that does, in fact, compel one to think of Pinot Noir; though it tends to possess a slightly denser structure and can often carry those dirty, wet forest-floor flavors that Pinot Noir can only achieve in certain environments. The fruit flavors found in Gamay can range from ripe, dark cherry to black berry. For this reason, Gamay, and Beaujolais for that matter, is an intriguing option for someone looking to branch out from lighter, feminine wines.
How to find good Beaujolais, you ask?
First, you can start with anything that is simply labeled Beaujolais AOC. Wines with this designation can be made from 60 different villages and will often be where you find Beaujolais Nouveau. Wines made here are rather straight forward and quaffable.
Or, for another introduction into the world of Beaujolais, look for the Beaujolais Villages designation. This means that the grapes made into the wine you’re drinking may have simply come from one of the 39 permissible communes within that area (known as Haut Beaujolais). For this reason, they often will be inexpensive. They will be simpler. They will be less thought-provoking. They will also be very approachable and an excellent introduction to Gamay.
Next, you can work your way up the Cru ladder. Get ready. In short, the word Cru is used to designate some of France’s most elite and esteemed winemaking villages. Most often it is indicative of the type of terroir found on site. It is a feat to reach this status, and these wines will often carry a higher price tag. Furthermore, Beaujolais possesses ten separate Crus, and they are (relatively) more affordable than, say, a Cru Chablis from Burgundy. Listed below are each Cru found in Beaujolais, starting from North to South, along with a little bit of explanation on their varying styles, distinctive qualities and food pairings.
St. Amour is the northernmost Cru of Beaujolais. Here you will find wine that is rich, a little spicy and slightly more robust, while some tend to be softer and more harmonious like a Pinot Noir. Roasted chicken is the quintessential pairing for Gamay, but also drink this with Bolognese, pizza and other white meats.
The name Julienas hails from Julius Ceaser, and, similarly, these are powerful wines laden with spice and floral notes. History traces wine growing in this region back 2,000 years, and some of the soil found here has volcanic origin, which can impart a particularly dark and dirty element to wine, especially those lighter in body like Gamay. Enjoy with lentil soup, swiss and brie cheese, and grilled beef kabobs.
Chenas refers to the ancient oak forests which, a long time ago, dotted the hillsides of this region but fell out of favor to the planting of grapes when the Romans and monks came through and conquered the land. An earthy element still resounds in the soil and can be tasted in the wine. You’ll also find notes of flowers such as rose and iris. This is the smallest, and the rarest, of the Crus in Beaujolais.
Pink quartz and granite lay underneath the vineyards planted in Moulin-a-Vent, giving their wines a majestic color of dark ruby and garnet. The wines may taste more robust than most other Beaujolais, offering ample tannic structure and depth on the palate as well. Give them some time to age and they will relax and settle into a more elegant style wine with lighter body and grace.
Vines in Fleurie are planted at high elevation on steep slopes, and the wines embody a slightly more feminine character than others in the Beaujolais region. Floral components are also signature to these wines, so this is where you stop to smell the roses. Pair these with Ahi Tuna, prime rib or beef ravioli for your next dinner party.
Also planted at high altitudes, wines from Chiroubles tread lightly and move with a certain softness that makes them so appealing. A distinct type of sand called ‘gore’ offers optimal conditions for vines to thrive. Light in style, they’re elegant and supple with floral components. Grab a bottle of Chiroubles for your next fried chicken night, or you can also enjoy these with goat cheese and charcuterie.
Unlike many of the other wines found in Beaujolais, those from Morgon can be rather big and powerful. Decomposed schist soil sits beneath the vines, which imparts a rather earthy, austere element to the wines. This is a good starting point to begin your introduction to Beaujolais, and suggested pairings include curry chicken, grilled lamb and grilled cheese sandwiches.
The new kid on the block, Regnie was added to the Cru list in 1988. Wines found here are full of ripe red and blackberry, often fruit forward and guaranteed to be a lot of fun. The square footage of this Cru is only 1 mile and the land sits on pink granite, which lends a rather prominent minerality to the wine. Also, a good number of producers here are using organic practices. Start off with crab dip, teriyaki chicken wings or chevre cheese.
Brouilly is one of the most recognizable Cru in Beaujolais, and it is also the largest. Wines from here boast ample flavors of fresh berry, dark cherry, plum and currant. Clay and quartz are among the four different soil types found here, so minerality is prevalent in these wines as well. They tend to lean on the lighter side and will be approachable. Enjoy with roasted garlic potatoes, Shepherd’s pie or Cornish game hens.
Cote de Brouilly
Mount Brouilly, upon which vines here are planted, is an extinct volcano, and the placement of these vines provides an ashy sort of minerality that can be very complimentary to the vibrant fruit found in the wine. These wines are juicy, round, sometimes even meaty, and possess significant aging potential. If you’re hungry now, enjoy with seared duck breast, beef stew or Dijon potato salad with bacon.
After all of this talk you must be parched, and perhaps even asking yourself when the best time might be to start drinking Beaujolais. Don’t wait until Thanksgiving. Don’t even wait for the cold weather to set in. This wine is consumable all year long it and one of its best friends is food. Now, if you’re the kind of person that just likes your grapes in the bottle, put a slight chill on this wine, find somewhere in the sun and savor every sip.