Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly described Moulin-a-Vent, one of the 10 crus of Beaujolais, as a town. In fact, that French wine-producing area was named for an old windmill, and its vineyards lie within the towns of Chenas and Romaneche-Thorins. This version has been corrected.
Tomorrow is the third Thursday in November, which means the return of one of wine’s most famous marketing gimmicks: Beaujolais nouveau.
We used to see signs in restaurants and wine stores proclaiming “Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrive!” almost as a harbinger of cold weather and the holidays. Nouveau’s luster has faded, thanks to rising prices and the cynicism of wine purists who feel Beaujolais should be above all that. But I still like it.
I have a fondness for nouveau because it celebrates the harvest just completed, and it arrives a week before our own national harvest celebration of Thanksgiving. It’s fun, fruity and simple. I’m happy to quaff a bottle or two each November. I also like nouveau because it gives me a reason to concentrate on Beaujolais as a wine region and on the variety of wines it offers.
If your impression of Beaujolais has been formed entirely from your annual indulgence in, or avoidance of, nouveau, you owe it to yourself to explore the region more thoroughly.
Beaujolais is the southernmost part of Burgundy, near Lyon. The wines are almost exclusively red, from the Gamay grape. (Beaujolais blanc, made from Chardonnay, is rare and quite tasty.) Gamay makes a light-bodied wine, with none of the pedigree or seriousness of cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir and nowhere near the heft of syrah. Beaujolais isn’t a “road to Damascus” wine that will change your life. It can be an ideal “bistro wine,” a house red suitable for sipping by itself or for accompanying a variety of foods, from charcuterie to steak. It can even benefit from a slight chill.
Like most French wine regions, Beaujolais has its hierarchy, though here the status is easier to understand than in most areas. The basic wines are labeled Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages. The better wines, called cru, are labeled for the various small towns in the region, and each has its own subtle terroir. These are attractive-sounding towns such as Morgon, Brouilly, Regnie, Fleurie, Julienas, Chenas and the mellifluous Chiroubles. While good Beaujolais should feature flavors of cherries and a hint of smoky mushrooms, each of the crus adds its own accent.
If you read the winestream media, you’ve probably seen that Beaujolais is in crisis: The success of nouveau has overshadowed the region’s other wines and convinced consumers that Beaujolais is a once-a-year quaff. That misperception is reflected in the poor availability of Beaujolais wines in the market; there are plenty in the distribution system, because importers and sommeliers like them, but they can be scarce at retail.
Most stores will have only a few wines from a single producer: Georges Duboeuf. Duboeuf made nouveau a success and built his brand into the region’s largest producer. There’s nothing wrong with his wines, despite what the wine geeks say, but taste a few and you might notice a commercial quality and a sameness that hints of winemaking indoors rather than in the vineyard. For a true exploration of Beaujolais, one must seek out wines by small, family-owned producers.
Another reason to explore Beaujolais is that you can really taste the vintage variation in these wines. Three vintages are available now: 2008, 2009 and 2010. In my recent tastings, I found the 2010s to be the most lively and vibrant, reveling in their youth. (Unfortunately, they are just coming onto the market, so they’re still fairly hard to find.)
My most interesting tasting compared the 2008 and 2009 vintages of the Chenas from Domaine Pascal Aufranc. The vintage difference was visible in the glass: The 2009, from the riper harvest, was noticeably darker. We’re conditioned to think a dark wine is a better wine, but in this case I disagree. The 2008 was light in color and body but lively in its fruit and acidity, while the 2009 smelled and tasted a bit pruney and overripe, as if the grapes had hung on the vine a bit too long. I preferred the ’08, but I can understand why others might prefer the bigger wine.
That’s what the fun is all about.