This is Part One of a Two Part Series on Beaujolais
Beaujolais is one of the most misunderstood wines in all of France. Most people know Beaujolais Nouveau as the “grape drink” masquerading as wine that is released every November to much fanfare. There is another side as well. Beaujolais can be a complex wine capable of improving in a cellar and even the best producers can be purchased for reasonable pricing. Beaujolais is a wine that every wine lover should get to know.
Technically, Beaujolais is in the wine region of Burgundy. It has little to do with the rest of the region and really is its own de facto region. Like many areas of France the name of the region and the name of the wine found on the bottle, in this case Beaujolais, is the same. It is located north of the city of Lyon with the rest of Burgundy to the north and the Rhone wine region to the south. The area is mostly a continental climate but its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea makes it a bit warmer than Burgundy. Frost remains a regular challenge in the spring as can hail in the summer.
Winemaking in Beaujolais dates back to the Roman times. The historical capital of the region was the town of Beaujeu from where the region was named. After the fall of Rome, as in Burgundy, it was Benedictine Monks who took over the tending of vines. Perhaps the start of modern day Beaujolais occurred back in 1395 when Philippe the Bold, a Duke of Burgundy, issued a proclamation that the Gamay grape was not to be planted in Burgundy. He believed that Pinot Noir was a better grape and that the reputation of greatness in wines that Burgundy had achieved was being destroyed by the use of Gamay. Many of the farmers in Burgundy had preferred the more prolific and easier to grow Gamay grape as they were trying to build up an economy that was just emerging from the dark ages. The people of the neighboring independent region of Beaujolais, however, embraced the Gamay grape. There, Gamay wines tended to be fruiter and stronger due to the granite soils. The resulting wines were of very good quality and the grape found a home. By the 15th century, the dukes of Burgundy gained control over the region, but permitted cultivation of Gamay in Beaujolais.
Most of the wine produced was consumed locally until the country was opened up to the railroads allowing producers access to the rest of the country. Beaujolais wine became a staple at the café’s of Paris and everywhere in between. The inexpensive and unpretentious wines fit in perfectly with the emerging city lifestyle. It was at this time during the 19th century that the concept for Nouveau really began. The vignerons in Beaujolais adopted a process for making wines called carbonic maceration. In this process, the grapes are not crushed and allowed to ferment. Rather, the grapes are picked, by hand and the whole cluster is placed into a large container (often cement). The carbon dioxide builds up and penetrates into the grapes causing the juice to ferment into alcohol inside of the grapes. This is true only for the top two-thirds of the grapes. The sheer weight of the grapes will crush the bottom grapes releasing their juice which ferment in the more traditional method. Eventually the top grapes are crushed and the wine is a blend of both methods.
The resulting wine is quite fruity and low in tannins. Moreover, it can be bottled within a matter of weeks of picking. This is great news for the winemakers who seek a quick return on capital. The trade off is that these wines are not “serious” or complex and are not meant to age. Back in the 19th century, these freshly bottled wines were put on a boat or train and sent to the markets of France where their release was celebrated each year a few weeks after harvest with the slogan, "Le Beaujolais Est Arrivé!". The wines were inexpensive and were great wines to consume immediately with food. They were never meant to be aged in bottle for longer than a matter of months. By the middle of the 20th century, these wines had achieved a level of acceptance in the markets of Europe and increasingly in the United States. That’s when a Nègociant and expert marketer named Georges Duboeuf took Beaujolais to a whole new level.
Duboeuf began marketing his wines as Beaujolais Nouveau. He almost singlehandedly created a worldwide frenzy for these wines. Duboeuf arranged to have his wines shipped worldwide and held back until just after midnight to create a marketing dream for his wines. Customers would line-up across the globe to be one of the first to taste the new wines. Between the accessibility of the wine and the low price, the public ate it up. In 1985, an official release date of November 15th was established. Soon a large segment of the producers and Nègociants in the region were getting into the Nouveau game. Unfortunately, the fad had run its course and demand began dropping. Beaujolais may have reached its zenith of fame in the 1980’s.
Today about one third of all Beaujolais is sold as Nouveau. It is now released worldwide on the third Thursday of November. Although it is still made and some try to trumpet the release of a new vintage, most people have come to realize what the wine really is. It gives a glimpse of what the vintage offered, but is really not a quality wine for serious wine lovers. Personally, I rarely enjoy the wine and abstain from that party. (See Ohio State vs. Michigan: That’s Right, I’m Talking Wine to see how I celebrate the occasion.)
The success of the Nouveau movement, and its resulting decline, had an effect on the rest of the region. People began to associate any kind of Beaujolais with inexpensive wine that is not meant to age. It became hard to sell a bottle of wine, Nouveau or not, no matter how well made, that carried the Beaujolais label. Prices fell across the board making it difficult for those producers who truly cared about quality to carry on. Luckily, a few staunch stalwarts have met the challenge and produce wines that are world class.
Today, the Beaujolais wine industry is bifurcated. There are thirty Nègociants who dominate the industry. This is the traditional model that separated the growers from those who would bottle and market the wine. They include some of the largest Burgundy Nègociants including Louis Jadot and Bouchard Père et Fils. Probably the most famous Nègociant in Beaujolais is Georges Duboeuf. Besides his Nouveau, he makes wines at all levels of quality. About 90% of all wine made in Beaujolais is sold through these Nègociants. The remaining 10%, however, include a handful of quality minded producers that are challenging the notion that Beaujolais can not be hand crafted and cellar worthy wines. In Part Two, I will look more closely at these producers.
One of the great things about Beaujolais is how well it works in all seasons. In the winter, it can be wonderful with a meal. In the summer, put a slight chill on it (about 55F) and it works great at BBQ’s or with a lighter summer meal. The wines are fresh and tend to have great strawberry and cherry notes. If you see a bottle of Beaujolais in the store, I encourage you to give it a try. It might be a great place to start. Just make sure it is not a Nouveau and the vintage is recent. If you do, I would love to hear about your experience.
Next: Part Two- The terrific wines of Beaujolais today.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.