Beaujolais may be the world’s most over-marketed and under-appreciated wine. We’re familiar with Beaujolais nouveau, the grapy, effusively fruity wine released on the third Thursday of November, a tribute to the recent harvest. But consumers rarely think of regular Beaujolais and the region’s 10 cru appellations. These aren’t the most prestigious or complex wines, but they are among the most fun.
“Fun” can be hard to describe in a wine, but here’s the skinny on Beaujolais. Made from the gamay grape — not exactly A-list in the viticulture pantheon — it’s a fruity red that goes down easily and matches with a lot of foods. Think of it as your house “bistro” red, the type of wine to have on hand when you want “a glass of red.” It won’t make you purse your lips and peer into your glass to ponder the depth of its meaning, but it may fuel your conversation with your dining partners. And on a daily level, that’s what wine should be about.
No one personifies Beaujolais as much as Georges Duboeuf, the iconic negociant who popularized Beaujolais nouveau in the 1980s. Duboeuf’s name graces the majority of Beaujolais labels sold in the United States, through his nouveau and his “flower label” of wines from the various crus.
“We always wanted to showcase the cru Beaujolais, our primary focus,” Duboeuf told me during a recent visit to Washington. In addition to the flower label, graced with his own name, and the cru appellations — Chiroubles, Fleurie, Régnié, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Chénas, Saint-Amour, Brouilly and Côtes du Brouilly — Duboeuf’s company also markets several family domaine wineries.
Duboeuf was born in 1933 into a winemaking family in Pouilly-Fuissé, an appellation in Burgundy specializing in chardonnay. Selling his family wines in the 1960s, he encountered some famous Michelin-starred chefs who demanded something more.
“Chefs like Paul Blanc and Paul Bocuse told me, ‘Your Pouilly-Fuissé is terrific, but we want red wines,’ ” he recalled, speaking through a translator. So he went to the nearby Beaujolais region and began recruiting producers.
Duboeuf is known as a negociant, someone who buys grapes or wines from growers, then bottles and markets the product under his own name. Yet the single-family domaine wines he markets represent the high end of his portfolio. Back in the 1960s, as he started his own company, Duboeuf undercut the traditional negociant arrangement by operating a mobile bottling system. The Beaujolais market was dominated by more than 100 negociants at that time, he recalled, but Duboeuf allowed growers to bottle and market their own wines rather than sell them in bulk to negociants.
“Our first focus was always the quality and personality of the wines,” he said. As Duboeuf helped the region’s wines gain prominence, the writer Alexis Lichine dubbed him “Mr. Beaujolais.”
And then came nouveau. “Contrary to what many people think, I did not create Beaujolais nouveau,” he said. “Everybody was doing it then.”
Yet Duboeuf certainly popularized nouveau. With a knack for seeking out celebrities and media, he even pulled a publicity stunt, opening the first bottle of the 1996 vintage live on morning television from the top of the World Trade Center in New York. “And I’m afraid of heights,” he said. “It’s a very vivid image. The things you have to do to sell wine.”
It paid off, though. “Without Beaujolais nouveau, we would not have been able to introduce the Beaujolais crus to the American market,” he said. “Nouveau was the spearhead for Beaujolais.”
Today, Beaujolais and other wines made from the gamay grape (and there are not many outside its home region) are darlings of sommeliers looking for food-friendly reds without the heaviness and gravitas of cabernet and other reds. This month, Washington-area restaurants and wine stores are celebrating Ga May, promoting Beaujolais and other gamay wines and contributing part of the proceeds to fight pancreatic cancer. Ga May was launched last year by Max Kuller, beverage director of Estadio and Doi Moi, in honor of his late father, Mark Kuller, who founded those restaurants and Proof before succumbing to pancreatic cancer.
It’s a great way to explore a delicious, underappreciated wine while supporting a great cause.