A light, fluffy wine known as Beaujolais Nouveau hit its peak of popularity in the 1980s, thanks to a marketing invention of negoçiants Georges Duboeuf and an assist from the INAO, the body that makes French wine laws and legalized the phrase Beaujolais Nouveau.
Unfortunately, while the wine introduced America to the wonders of the Gamay grape, the low quality of the wine (and a few scandals) tainted the reputation of other, more serious wines from Beaujolais.
This region was cultivated first by the Romans, with plantings lining their trade routes through France. The most notable vineyard of the time was Brulliacus, on the hills of Mont Brouilly.
The 10th century gave the region its name: the area was ruled by the Lords of Beaujeu (a town in the Rhône) for 500 years before it was ceded to the Duchy of Burgundy.
Indeed, this unique region bridges two better-known wine districts: the very southern part of Burgundy (it is administratively a Burgundy district) and the very northern part of the Rhône Valley (they share similar climates.)
Beaujolais isn’t a large region: just 34 miles long and from seven to nine miles wide. Yet, it is bigger than any single department in Burgundy and, in particularly prolific years, will produce more wine than Chablis, Côte d’Or, Côte Chalonnaise and Maçonnais combined.
Overall, the region is warmer than Burgundy, with a semi-continental climate. The Massif Central to the west and the Mediterranean to the south provide a moderating influence to cooler weather. This offers Beaujolais vintners more consistent ripening in the vineyards.
The vines – over 50,000 acres of them – grow in granite-based soils. In the north, where the cru Beaujolais villages are located, grapes enjoy rolling hills with more schist and granite in the vineyards. This results in wines with greater structure and complexity.
The southern parts of Beaujolais are flatter, with soils heavier with sandstone and clay, resulting in lighter, fruitier wines.
The key grape here is Gamay (officially Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc), a cross of Pinot Noir and Gouais, an ancient white varietal. This is not to say that Gamay is a spring chicken; it dates to at least the 1360s.
At any rate, Gamay ripens earlier than its red parent and is less difficult to cultivate, resulting in stronger, fruitier wines in greater abundance.
Only one percent of Beaujolais’ wine production is white wine, usually Chardonnay though Aligoté is permitted here as well.
Many vintners use carbonic maceration to craft their wine. In this process, whole grape berries are put into large cement or stainless steel vats (with a capacity from about 1,000 to 8,000 gallons) and left to ferment under a blanket of carbonic gas with no oxygen present.
The bottom third of the fruit is crushed and begins normal fermentation, naturally releasing carbon dioxide. The gas rises through the tank, seeping through the skins and starting fermentation at an intracellular level, a process encouraged by the lack of oxygen.
This whole process takes two to four days for Beaujolais Nouveau. In contrast, most vintners let the grapes undergo this process for five to 15 days. The result is a wine with good color and low tannins with distinct fruity flavors that make it very easy to drink.
Some producers – particularly in the cru Beaujolais appellations – use a modified version of this called semi-carbonic maceration in which a brief period of carbonic maceration is followed by conventional yeast fermentation.
Still other winemakers in the cru regions stick with purely traditional methods of vinification.
There are three basic appellations in the region (pink on the map):
This designation covers 6o villages. A minimum of 9% alcohol level is required. Beaujolais Superior requires a higher alcohol level. Most of these wines are sold as Beaujolais Nouveau.
This designation includes 39 villages and about 25% of total production.
This is the highest classification in Beaujolais, covering 10 villages in the foothills of the Beaujolais Mountains. Unlike other French regions, cru refers to the village, not a particular vineyard. These appellations are not allowed to produce Beaujolais Nouveau.
Though more substantive than their counterparts, cru Beaujolais wines are nonetheless meant to be consumed within years of the vintage, not aged for decades as some Burgundy and Rhône wines are. Each village creates a wine with its own distinct personalities and flavors. From lightest to heaviest they are:
Located on Mont Brouilly, this appellation surrounds the sub-district of Cote de Brouilly. This wine is known for its aromas of blueberry, cherry, raspberry and currants.
The newest cru was recognized in 1988. It has a slightly fuller body with notes of red currant and raspberry. Local lore says the first Roman vineyards were planted here.
These vineyards are planted at some of the highest altitudes in Beaujolais. These wines are known for their delicate perfume and violet aromas.
Côte de Brouilly
On the higher slopes of Mont Brouilly, these wines are heavier than those from their surrounding appellation. These wines are deeply concentrated and less earthy as well.
One of the easiest crus to find in the US, this wine is known for its velvety texture and floral notes. The best vintages can last up to 16 years.
Spicy flavors and peach aromas characterize this wine, which can last up to 12 years in excellent vintages.
This is the smallest of the crus. The wine has a distinctive perfume of wild roses.
Based around a village named for Julius Caesar, locals contend this is where the first Roman vines were planted. This rich wine boasts spicy aromatics and notes of peonies.
These earthy wines also boast a silky, Burgundian texture. Generally, these have the deepest color of all the crus and are rich with peach and apricot notes.
This is the longest lasting of all the crus, generally keeping for around 10 years, though that can double in the best vintages. It is named not for a village, but a historical windmill (it stopped working in 1850) that overlooks the vines. This wine starts off with violet and cherry aromas, becoming floral and even a touch musky as it ages.