IT IS ARGUABLY France's most widely appreciated wine, made famous in the bistros of Paris in the '50s and '60s. Beaujolais (pronounced bo-sho-lay, not boo-jo-lay) is of course that soft, grapey, fruity wine tourists discovered when they asked for "un carafe de vin rouge" at a Parisian restaurant. Nowadays, the best vin de table one could hope for at a Paris bistro is a solid co tes du rho ne, although the odds are more in favor of a clumsy red wine from France's Midi. Nevertheless, beaujolais remains France's best known fun wine.
Beaujolais always has been a remarkably simple wine, with a straightforward fruitiness and effusive personality. It is better casually quaffed than studied or reserved for debate by the wine intelligentsia. However, more than a few patrons took it quite seriously when prices rocketed to $8 to $10 a bottle several years ago. Consequently, beaujolais quickly gained a reputation as another overpriced French wine.
Well, this good-time wine is back in favor, and its innumerable proponents are now enthusiastically praising the 1981 beaujolais vintage. This vintage did indeed produce good wine -- soft, fruity, round, generous and alluring -- that will no doubt provide satisfactory drinking over the next several years. If this sounds like good news, the prices for the 1981 beaujolais are even better -- the lowest they have been in three to four years. While $4 will purchase a fresh, simple, fruity wine, for $6.50 you can buy a superb beaujolais, with plenty of lush fruit and the inimitable beaujolais character.
With close to 9 million cases of beaujolais produced in a good vintage, all from the gamay grape, one can safely assume that not all beaujolais is fruity and delicious. Some of the beaujolais on the market looks like 10-year-old rose' and is best avoided. To see just what was good and bad, I sat down with several other beaujolais zealots and tasted an assortment of beaujolais wines from reputable shippers, such as Robert Sarrau, Monmessin, Sylvain Fessy, Georges Duboeuf, Paul Sapin and Joseph Drouhin. (Most of the top-flight beaujolais offerings from such high-quality producers as Trenel and Thorin are not even on the market.)
The results, listed in the tasting box that follows, proved what beaujolais proponents have been shouting about: This is a very attractive vintage with numerous good wines produced.
Incredibly, there wasn't a bad or unpalatable wine in the bunch. The beaujolais from the necogiant Sylvain Fessy, imported by Barry Bassin, received most of the highest accolades, although it was rare for any of the tasters to find much of anything to criticize among the others. While the Fessy beaujolais may be the very best on the market, the wine consumer who is unable to stash away a few bottles of Fessy's top-flight wines hardly need complain. Duboeuf's wines, as well as those of Robert Sarrau, also showed well.
As far as understanding beaujolais, the hierarchy of quality is as follows. At the very top are the nine crus or recognized top growths that bring the highest prices. Moulin-a-Vent, Che'nas and Morgon are usually the fullest in body, darkest in color, and most capable of aging for three to four years after the vintage. A very good Moulin-a-Vent can often be mistaken for a lighter burgundy after several years in the bottle, but it is usually the most expensive wine from this region. If you like the fuller-bodied styles of beaujolais, I recommend a Morgon or Che'nas -- both are less expensive but just as good.
My favorites include the wonderfully fruity wines from Fleurie, St-Amour, Chiroubles and Julienas (the last cru named after Julius Caesar). I find the top beaujolais from these four growths to be the fruitiest, floweriest and most perfumed of all the wines in the beaujolais region. To their credit, these wines lack the tannin and heaviness of some of the other well known beaujolais growths.
The other two beaujolais crus are Brouilly and Co te de Brouilly. These two wines are the lightest and easiest to drink when first released.
Below the nine official growths of beaujolais are the wines called beaujolais-villages, which can give good value when well vinified, but are often mediocre and watery.
At the lowest level of the quality hierarchy are the wines that are simply called beaujolais. They should never cost more than $4, and can be palatable, particularly if the vintage is a good one such as 1981. The following tasting box reflects only the top 12 wines tasted. All these wines merit consumer attention, as do just about all the 1980 beaujolais bottlings.