When the third Thursday of November rolls around every year, the light, fruity red wine known as Beaujolais Nouveau appears all over the world to celebrate the French harvest. Meant to be drunk the first few months after its release and made from grapes that were literally hanging on the vine 8 weeks earlier, the wine has become popular largely through great marketing techniques. With aromatics of strawberry and bubble gum and flavors of strawberry, banana and pear, it is hardly a serious wine and has in fact, had a negative effect on the reputation of serious winemakers from the appellation of Beaujolais.
Beaujolais is found in the region stretching from southern Burgundy to the northern Rhone. It is considered part of Burgundy, but the terroire is closer to that of the Rhone. Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape, an offspring of the cross between Pinot noir and an ancient varietal known as Gouais. Thin skinned like its parent, Gamay ripens a full two weeks earlier, is much easier to grow, and is much more prolific. It was once widely planted in Burgundy, but much was ripped up and replaced by the more elegant Pinot Noir and pushed southward to where it thrives today.
Beaujolais is a large region with 44,000 acres of vines spread over 96 villages. In the northern part, the soil is granite and limestone and the wines tend to be more complex and structured. In the southern part the soil is clay and sandstone and the wines are lighter and fruitier. The vast majority of Beaujolais Nouveau comes from the south. There are several levels of quality.
The lowest is the already mentioned Nouveau and fully one third of the total production of the region goes to this wine every year. The next level is simply called Beaujolais. The grapes are sourced from any of the 96 villages. The vines must not produce more than 60 hectolitres of grapes per hectare, preventing overproduction and less concentration of flavor.
Beaujolais Villages is sourced from 39 of the villages, and the yields are further restricted, resulting in wines that are more concentrated in flavor and a little more complex and structured. These wines still should be drunk within 2 years.
Cru Beaujolais is the highest quality designation and the wines must come from 7 villages or three small areas. The restriction on yields is even stricter and this combined with the local terroire ( all these villages are in the northern region with the granite and limestone soils) results in the most complex and structured of the Beaujolais, often approaching Burgundy Pinot Noir in finesse. None of these Cru villages are allowed to produce grapes to be used in Beaujolais Nouveau. The different villages produce wines of varying structure and complexity and this can be predicted by the north /south location of the villages.
Brouilly, Regnie and Chiroubles are the farthest south and produce the lightest wines that should be drunk within 2 years. Fleurie, St Amour and Cotes du Brouilly produce more complex wines to be drunk within 4 years. Finally, Moulin A Vent, Morgon and Julienas are the farthest north and produce the most complex and structured of all. These wines improve with age and are meant to be drunk 4 to 10 years after release.
Serious Beaujolais has aromas of spice and red cherries with flavors of red fruit and spice with a bracing acidity and a bit of earth making them great food wines. They are especially good with Thanksgiving Turkey. They are often better slightly chilled, especially the lighter ones.
One of the very best Beaujolais is made by Dupeuble for $18.99. Louis Jadot, one of Burgundy’s great producers makes a very respectable Beaujolais villages for $13.49. The Cru Villages are the ones that illustrate just how good these wines can be. Clos du Roilette Fleurie ($16.99) is my go to Thanksgiving wine and the Thivin Cote de Brouilly is crazy good at $28.99. The Grange Julienas Cuvee Speciale is well named for it is truly special at $25.99 with great depth and surprising structure.
The 2013 Beaujolais is here, and if you want to celebrate the harvest and the holidays go with the Rochette Nouveau
Villages at $9.99, although the Georges DuBoeuf with its celebratory flower label is a bargain at $6.99.
Beaujolais is more than the simple wine quaffed over the holidays at cocktail parties. It can be a serious, very good wine to be enjoyed on its own or with food and deserves the attention of every wine lover.