Once upon a time there was a charming "little" wine called Beaujolais. It was quaffed in and around Lyons and in the bistros of Paris. Nearly everyone liked Beaujolais, though it never was regarded as seriously as its royal cousins Burgundy and Bordeaux.

No one worried about how to store the wine. Most of it was served directly from barrels and almost all of a year's production was consumed berore the next harvest. In fact, as the popularity of economical, fruity Beaujolais grew and grew, it became a standing joke to talk about how much more wine called "Beaujolais" was drunk than real Beaujolais was produced.

Then someone discovered America and, what was worse, Americans discovered Beaujolais. Even as naive as we were about wine in those days, no one thought to advertise Beaujolais as a wine to serve with everything.That sort of commercial yahooism came later. But word quickly spread that Beaujolais was inoffensive, be the meal picnic fare or filet mignon. What's more it didn't cost much.

The wine's popularity was assured. But something was lost in translation. We were told that Beaujolais made in the traditional style - light and short-lived - didn't travel well. French winemakers were told that Americans like red wine to be full-bodied and high in alcohol. Give them more bang for the back.

So it came to pass that the Amercians got more bang and began paying a lot more bucks. With the convenient (and legal) use of sugar during fermentation (a process known as chaptalisation) a more robust wine could be produced. More grapes were cultivated to increase yields. Beajolais became such a cult object that Beaujolais nouveau, the year's new wine, barely a month old, was flown across the Atlantic each November to make mouths pucker and produce quizzical expressions on the faces of U.S. consumers.

During the early 1970s demand remained high and prices moved upward in a steady, undramatic fashion. Beaujolais avioded the economic disruptions that hit Bordeaux. But after the memorable 1969s and the excellent 1971s there was no great vintage. Then, in 1975, disaster. Rain led to rot in a crop that Mother Nature already had frowned upon. Only a few fine wines were made, leaving both growers and mechants eager to hail 1976 as a great year.

Thus the sharpened disappointment caused by a tasting of 23 recently arrived 1976 Beaujolais. So much has been expected of them, yet throughout the appraisal that followed the tasting no one mentioned "charm," one of the characteristics that should set Beaujolais apart. Most of the wines were heavy in color and taste, rather alcoholic and dull or flat on the palate. Only a handful had the qualify of ripe fruitness that is prized in Beaujolais and the wines light in color and body were so few that there was a tendency to score them down.

The tasters used a rating scale that awards 20 points for a "perfect" wine. That the average scores for 20 of the 24 wines were between 10 and 13 is an indication of the tasters' lack of enthusiasm and the wines' lack of individuality.

There may be a temptation to conclude that the tasters were on the wrong track, that the wines are merely too young to show their best qualities. These Beaujolais are from a year in which the weather favored the grapes, thus nudging the wines toward fullness and strength. Certainly the wines will bear retasting and may develop pleasing characteristics with additional age. That happened with some of the 1972 wines from the region.

Yet most consumers buy wines for current consumption. Not only do most textbook description of Beaujolais differ from the 1976 Beaujolais currently found in Washington wine shops, the experts advise purchasers to drink the wine early. Furthermore, the prices of these wines make it impossible to dismiss their defects or shortcomings. Seven of them retail for substantially more than $4 and none costs less than $3 once tax is paid.

Consider some of the alternatives. A check with the wine consultant at one downtown wine shop last week brought endorsements of Cru Bourgeois wines from the Medoc, St. Emilions and Pomerols from the highly regarded 1970 vintage, northern Italian wines and several California reds at similar or lower prices. Whatever its style, the 1976 Beaujolais should be very good indeed to justify the prices being charged for it. The overall impression at the tasting was that the wines were not very good.

Perhaps, as the style of some of the wines indicates, Beaujolais should be compared with the red Burgundy. Some producers even have used the word "Burgundy" on their labels. That has a certain historic geographical justification, but can only be confusing to the novice wine buyer.

Red Beaujolais (some white and rose wine is made within the appellatoin) is made from the gamay grape while red Burgundy is made from the pinot noir. The soils of the two regions are different. Beaujolais is produced north of Lyon in a fairly compact, hilly area west of the Saone River. The wines that are exported to the United States have the following appellations of origin: Beaujolais or the slightly more alcoholic Beaujolais Superieur, Beaujolais Villages or a specific town such as Brouilly, Morgon, Fleurie or St. Amour. The wines increase in price, and are meant to improve in quality as the appellation becomes more specific. The most respected and supposedly the best wines for aging come from the slops of Moulin-a-Vent.

The wines tasted for The Washington Post were bought at retail stores around the city and served "blind" (with labels covered). The accompanying chart lists the wines, their prices, the average score they received and comments from the tasters. In some cases the importer's name has been added because Beaujolais from the same source may appear under different labels. The wines mentioned as coming from Eagle (Wine and Liquor) were found only at that store.

Those painting to serve Beaujolais should consider chilling it slightly in the refrigerator or a wine cooler in a restaurant. The wine shoud not be served cold, but it will taste fresher if cooled several degrees below room temperature.

More Beaujolais will be arriving here in the next month or so and if several prove to be of outstanding quality, they will be cited in a future article.