Is the image of Beaujolais experiencing a rebound? Or will these noble wines always be negatively linked to Beaujolais Nouveau and in the consumer’s perception, held in lesser regard?
Unfortunately, we cannot have a serious conversation about the superb wines of Beaujolais without acknowledging the 800-pound (actually the multi-million case production) gorilla in the room. Known as Beaujolais Nouveau, this early release of somewhat insipid wines financially served the industry well for decades with immediate cash flow. But unfortunately, these Nouveau wines largely destroyed the quality image of true Beaujolais.
History tells us that Beaujolais vintners always produced a Vin de L’année that was released shortly after harvest and intended primarily for local consumption. The wine was officially christened Beaujolais Nouveau in 1951 with a formal release date of Nov. 15.
This release became a national event during the 1970s and morphed to an international sensation with Concord jets carrying the precious cargo to markets far and wide (including the U.S.) for gala release celebrations at the stroke of midnight. The release celebrations were so successful that at one time, Nouveau accounted for 50 percent of total Beaujolais production. The official release date was moved to the third Thursday in November (regardless of harvest date) as a marketing tool in 1985, to take advantage of the Thanksgiving holiday and still remains as “Beaujolais Nouveau Day.”
Regrettably, consumers around the world began to relate the very simple nature of Beaujolais Nouveau as the character of Beaujolais. This could not be further from the truth, and sales of Cru Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Village and Beaujolais declined precipitously. But there are strong indications that the pendulum is swinging and with several recent stellar vintages, the traditional wines of Beaujolais (especially from the Cru appellations) are beginning to regain their well deserved notoriety and acclaim.
Beaujolais is one of France’s smallest appellations, about the length of Napa Valley but roughly twice the width. It is located just south of Burgundy (some have always considered it part of Burgundy) and just north of Lyon and the Northern Rhone. The only officially recognized grape is gamay noir (aka gamay 15), and the region is divided into two general appellations separated by the Nizerand River.
Beaujolais-Village lies to the north surrounding the hilly ten Cru appellations of Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliéanas, Morgon, Moulin-á-Vent, Réginé, and St. Armour. The soils on this side of the river are primarily granite and schist leading to more elegant and focused wines. To the south of the Nizerand is Beaujolais with its sandstone and clay soils producing more fruit forward and softer wines.
The 10 Cru vineyards are at the top of the Beaujolais ladder both in quality and price (from the mid $20s to high $40s) yet account for only a small fraction of overall production. Fruit from these appellations is not permitted in the production of Nouveau, and the Crus have received the lion’s share of attention in Beaujolais’ resurgence.
Next in prestige is Beaujolais-Village surrounding the Crus and ranging in price from the high teens to mid-$20s. Fruit from the Village vineyards can be used in Nouveau production; they often bear the Beaujolais-Village Nouveau designation.
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The grapes of the Beaujolais appellation are often used in the Nouveau production, but more classic examples are also available ranging in price from the low-teens to low-$20s. These wines, like those from Beaujolais-Village, are charming and offer delightful pairings with lighter fare.
The unpretentious wines of Beaujolais are lighter in style and best served slightly chilled. They exhibit refreshingly higher acidity with dominant red fruit flavors, modest tannins and lower alcohol levels — all leading to a very pleasurable vinous experience.
While many think of Beaujolais as a summer wine (no argument here) they are also a treat throughout the year when paired with a wide range of cuisine, especially spicy dishes, cold roast chicken and others served at cooler temperatures so popular today.
The rebirth of classic Beaujolais is definitely a trend in the market supported by the aggressive vineyard investment of Burgundian and other prestigious producers, along with the newly energized passion and commitment from the stalwarts of the area.
Thankfully, the glitzy Nouveau celebrations and overwhelming focus on inferior wines are largely events of the past and somewhat unknown to the millennial generation that is the future of Beaujolais.
The responses to my April 14 column — “The many rewards of collecting” — not only addressed several readers’ personal favorites of the wines our family enjoyed but also views on the process of collecting.
Pablo—I always thought of collecting wine as holding-on to pieces of history. When we open a bottle to share with family and friends on special occasions, we are re-living and paying tribute to that history as we also mark our current life passages.