Mention Beaujolais, and many wine drinkers automatically think of Beaujolais Nouveau, the festive wine of the vintage released in a pleasingly pagan harvest ritual on the Ides of November, immediately following the harvest.
While the raw, unfinished and often slightly fizzy charm of Beaujolais Nouveau is irresistible, the truly best wines of Beaujolais are just now reaching our shores. These are the 10 officially classified Crus of Beaujolais: Moulin-a-Vent, Morgon, Fleurie, Julienas, Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, Chiroubles, Chenas, St. Amour and Regnie.
These 10 wines are to Beaujolais what Le Chambertin and Romanee-Conti are to Burgundy, and Lafite Rothschild, Margaux and the other Premiers Crus Classes are to Bordeaux--the officially sanctioned creme de la creme. Like their fellow elites, they are produced on the best soils of the region, in relatively small quantities, using the most meticulous winemaking techniques. What is especially endearing about them, however, is that they offer all of us long-suffering wine consumers our rightful privilege of going first class all the way. Most sell for about $10 to $12. In what other wine region of France does pure self-indulgence cost so little?
To understand the stature of the Crus, it's helpful to look at the entire Beaujolais appellation. The region sits at the southern end of Burgundy, separated from the more illustrious Cote d'Or by a distance that is greater in prestige than it is in miles (about 75). Thirty miles long from north to south and eight miles wide, it has over 54,000 acres under vine and produces more than 15 million cases of wine, making it one of the most prolific regions of France. All red Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape, banned from the aristocratic Cote d'Or by Philip the Strong in 1395, probably because of its well-deserved reputation as an exuberantly fruity party grape.
Ironically, although Beaujolais Nouveau started out as a rarity, it has become the tail that wags the dog. It now accounts for almost half of the total production of Beaujolais, as its quick trip from the vine to the cash register makes it the region's proverbial cash cow.
The "true" Beaujolais are not released until the spring following the vintage. At the lowest level is simple Beaujolais AC ("Appellation Controlee"). Virtually all of it comes from the southern part of Beaujolais, where the soil is not especially good, and the wine tends to be light and simple. Most Beaujolais Nouveau also comes from this soil.
For just a dollar or two more, Beaujolais Villages offers the next step up. It comes from 39 villages (hence the name) with superior soils in the northern part of Beaujolais. However, the wine may be sold only under the "Villages" AC, because these little towns, unlike the Crus, are not allowed to put their individual names on the label. However, there always is hope. In 1988, one of the Villages, Regnie, was promoted to Cru. Although it has more weight and complexity than Beaujolais AC, Beaujolais Villages is more solid than special and is really more of an insurance policy against getting a bottle of watery plonk.
The really special wines of Beaujolais are the Crus. While maintaining the easygoing, fun-to-drink character of all Beaujolais, they do so with lots more pizazz. They offer considerably more depth, concentration and complexity than other Beaujolais. Some approach the stylishness of some of the better wines of the Cote d'Or.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion about which Cru is the best. My favorite is Fleurie, the most floral and aromatic. Fleurie sits at the cusp between the Crus that are enhanced by a little aging--Moulin-a-Vent, Morgon and Chenas--and those that are best drunk young, in the fullness of their grapy fruit--Julienas, Brouilly and Cote de Brouilly, St. Amour, Chiroubles and Regnie.
Vintages vary surprisingly little in Beaujolais. The general rule is to drink the youngest vintage available. The newly arriving 1998s are juicy and delicious and the 1997s are still quite good. Approach anything older with caution, bearing in mind that some Beaujolais, particularly Moulin-a-Vent, can age gracefully.
The following is among those highly recommended: Georges Duboeuf 1998 Fleurie "Flower Label" ($12; France): Georges Duboeuf is the only producer who exports all 10 Crus to the United States; he remains the man to beat in Beaujolais. This Fleurie has Duboeuf's trademark lusciousness of fruit and bright raspberry and violet aromas. The other Duboeuf Crus are of similarly high quality, differ only slightly in style and deserve equal commendation.
The Duboeuf style, is not the only one, however. The Burgundy houses of Louis Jadot and Joseph Drouhin make a slightly more subtle style of Cru Beaujolais and their wines are excellent. Finally, a bevy of small producers also export one or more Crus, each highly individualistic and often quite exceptional.