Something Not New in Beaujolais

by Jim Clarke
January 2010

Wine, unlike most fruits of the harvest, by-and-large can’t really be celebrated with the fruits of the just-picked vintage. You can pick an apple off the tree and eat it, and even if you want to make cider out of it, it’s not a long wait. In both cases, not only can you enjoy it immediately, but it even tastes better that way than if you waited. It’s just not so with wine.

The marketers of Beaujolais Nouveau would have you think otherwise. A “vin de primeur,” Beaujolais Nouveau is fermented and bottled in a matter of weeks, to be released for sale on the third Thursday of November. It’s a marketing coup for the region, certainly. A few other regions in the Old World make and sell wine within a month or two of the vintage—close enough to be part of the harvest celebrations, if still not the same as picking and eating an apple. But it’s rarely more than the celebratory nature of the occasion that makes these wines enjoyable, and they are typically consumed locally. Beaujolais Nouveau’s quality is no greater than that of many other “harvest wines,” but it’s the only region to pin its identity so firmly to this style, which is a shame because it makes many wine drinkers reluctant to try the region’s more serious wines.

And there is serious Beaujolais out there. The region marks the southernmost portion of Burgundy, and shares at least a small part of Burgundy’s classification system, despite the change in grape (Gamay rather than Pinot Noir) and soils (Beaujolais’ soils are mostly granite and schist, whereas those of the Côte d’Or is largely limestone). The broad Beaujolais AOC includes the Nouveau wines, and the Beaujolais-Villages AOC acts as an intermediate step up in quality. Properly speaking, wines made from a single village within the Beaujolais Village area could include the village name on the label, but there is little recognition in the market for these names, so many producers do without.

Within the northern half of the Beaujolais-Villages area lay ten villages or communes that mark the pinnacle of Beaujolais wines, often age-worthy and denser in flavor, without losing the inherent fruity qualities of the Gamay grape. These ten villages make up cru Beaujolais. They are not “cru” in the Alsatian or Côte d’Or sense, as each Beaujolais cru makes up multiple, not just single, vineyards. Actually, three are not named for the local village at all, instead bearing the name of a local landmark; “Moulin-à-Vent” means “windmill”, and Brouilly and Côtes de Brouilly are named for Mont Brouilly.

Since these are labeled by the village name, with Beaujolais in small type, if at all, there is sometimes some confusion about the identities of these wines, with consumers either neglecting to realize the wine is a Beaujolais at all, or, on the other extreme, calling them Beaujolais-Villages, since they do include the village name. However, it’s not the same set of villages and the quality is a big step up. For one thing, Beaujolais-Villages is good for a couple of years, at best, whereas in good vintages most Cru Beaujolais can produce age-worthy wines that peak between 5 and 12 years of age. In principle, they may not be ideal for celebrating the most recent vintage, but I’d rather match the quality of autumn’s fresh produce with a wine of similar quality, rather than a similar age.

Here are the ten, listed north-to-south, as well as some of their typical attributes and recommended producers:

Juliénas: Somewhat spicy and/or floral.
Recommended producer: Potel Aviron

St-Amour: Light, elegant, spicy wines.
Recommended producer: Maison Joseph Drouhin

Chenas: Quite floral, violets or roses, and silky in texture.
Recommended producer: Potel Aviron, Hubert Lapierre

Moulin-à-Vent: A larger cru, the wines are often age-worthy, with a good mix of dark and red fruit aromas.
Recommended producers: Jean-Paul Brun, Olivier Merlin

Chiroubles: Light-bodied and floral.
Recommended producer: Christophe Pacalet

Morgon: Typically more powerful with dark fruit and earthy notes. Age well, in some cases more than a dozen years. Another fairly large cru, and well-represented in the US market, along with Moulin-à-Vent and Fleurie.
Recommended producer: Louis-Claude Desvignes, Marcel Lapierre, Chateau de Pizay

Régnié: Lots of bright red fruit and fairly light.
Recommended producer: Henry Fessy

Fleurie: Floral and silky.
Recommended producer: Henry Fessy

Côte de Brouilly: Earthy, but medium-bodied and restrained. Surrounds Mont Brouilly, with the broader Brouilly cru encompassing it.
Recommended producers: Christophe Pacalet, Jean-Paul Brun

Brouilly: The largest cru; light-bodied, but often showing a good mix of red and dark fruit.
Recommended producer: Chateau de la Chaize