A delicate Beaujolais makes the perfect springtime sip.
Most wine drinkers spend about five minutes thinking about Beaujolais each year. but Beaujolais, especially cru Beaujolais is a category of wine worthy of more than a passing glance. While Beaujolais Nouveau is released on the third Thursday of November each year, enjoying a glass of the lighter-bodied red is perfectly suitable for the upcoming spring season.
Beaujolais is at the southern reach of the Burgundy region. It is just on the cusp of the Rhône just northwest the great city of Lyon. Although white and rose versions of Beaujolais exist, some very delicious ones I might add, the region is most renowned for its reds. All of the varietals come from a very special but maligned grape variety known as gamay. Philippe the Bold in the Duchy of Burgundy outlawed this grape in 1395. It was seen as an outlier, a grape that produced only second-rate wines in comparison to pinot noir. Its yield was too high, and the wines dilute. Thus, gamay was proliferated in the Beaujolais region rather than the Côte d’Or.
As it turns out, this was great for both regions. Pinot noir continues to thrive in the Côte d’Or, where Beaujolais finds its voice and prestige in the cru villages of the Beaujolais district. What makes the Beaujolais unique for gamay is the soil. Among the rolling hills, peaks and valleys, there is a preponderance of granite sub soil, which agrees most appropriately with growing gamay. Depending on the village, the subsoil and exposure is what changes, and gives each of the villages their character and dimension.
Like much of Burgundy, Beaujolais has its own quality and quantity pyramid; as you climb higher, the quantity diminishes, but quality rises. Begin in quality with straight Beaujolais (which can include Beaujolais Nouveau), and then one can graduate to Beaujolais Villages. Th is classification includes wines made from fruit grown in specific villages that are deemed a cut above. Th ese are usually better-situated vineyard sites with good draining soils. At the top is Beaujolais cru. Th is is a select 10 villages that are so good that they can put their names on the label without the mention of Beaujolais at all. From north to south, they are: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas and Fleurie are known to be the most elegant of the crus. Chiroubles can be quite fruity but less soft. Moulin-à-Vent is perhaps the most structured and tannic. Morgon may be the most regal of them all, especially when it comes from a special slope called the “Côte de Py.” Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly must be taken together, as Brouilly is simply the lower lying area surrounding Côte de Brouilly, which are the slopes leading up to Mont Brouilly. Brouilly tends to be softer, with the Côte de Brouilly being earthier, mineral even—but they often taste as if they were siblings. This diversity of top wines creates a playground for drinkers to explore.
Layered above is the pedigree of flavors that can come from gamay when it is treated with the same conscientious touch as pinot noir but sans new wood. In my opinion, new oak is better used on pinot noir than gamay. Yes, I wrote pedigree. Many in the wine world would not consider gamay as a noble variety, and yet, when it is made properly, gamay can be as singular and delicious as many pinot noirs from around the globe. Gamay can have a special and unique juiciness—not all from the winemaking technique called carbonic maceration, which is used on Beaujolais Nouveau. It has an intrinsic juiciness that expresses itself with ripe strawberries and cherries: a veritable basket of berries. It does not have much pigment in the skin; therefore, it has a lucid coloring, and it rarely has a tannic edge. Its best examples offer softer structure, roundness and plumpitude. (Is that even a word?)
Perhaps the finest of heights with cru Beaujolais are the wines of Jean Foillard in the village of Morgon. I have been visiting the region for a decade now, and every time I visit, I have to taste the wines of Foillard last, because they always have something extra special that makes them akin to Grand Cru Burgundy. His Morgon ‘Côte de Py’ is so expressive, and ages so well. I’ve had decade young wines from him that make me want to buy more to hold. Luckily for us, he has added some vines in Fleurie to the domain in recent years, making his wines slightly more available. These are wines are worth the hunt. Equally delicious, if not quite as regal, are the wines of Marcel Lapierre, which are now made by his son, Mathieu. These wines are explosively delicious. Métras also is a producer worth the time to seek. His Fleurie and Moulin-à-Vent are as close to cult wines as you can find in the Beaujolais. Château Thivin is my top producer of Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. The wines are sleek, pedigreed and plain delicious. There are so many more great producers: Chignard, Château des Jacques and Diochon—just to add to your list. Seek them out, and you will taste the pleasure that is Beaujolais.