You don’t have to know a lot about wine to enjoy it, but misconceptions often get in the way of widening our experience with it. Some I regularly encounter: that German white wines are always sweet, that Burgundy can be made in the U.S., that sherry is something only maiden aunts and Oxford dons should be seen drinking. When we pour Beaujolais in wine corner its common for folks to reveal that all they know about it is that it appears in November, that it’s cheap, and that it tastes like Welch’s grape juice with a banana thrown in.
For these folks, Beaujolais begins and ends with Beaujolais Nouveau or, even worse, with the mass-produced, additive-laden, highly manipulated version of it. Now, there is some proper, naturally-made artisan nouveau out there (although you may have to hunt for it), but I think the holidays are a great time to get acquainted with the more serious side of Beaujolais, and for a very good reason: It’s hard to think of a wine region that gets more sheer deliciousness into a bottle.
First off – a little orientation. Beaujolais is a wine region in the east of France, south of Burgundy. Reds here have been are made here since the middle ages with a single varietal – gamay. Their reputation as the cafe wines par excellence of Lyons goes way back. It owes something to proximity of course, but its hard to imagine that the famously gourmand Lyonnais would not have searched it out no matter where in France it was hiding. For sheer drinkability – especially with the hearty cuisine Lyons is famous for — they’re hard to beat. Ask any experienced sommelier what category of red wine she would be most happy to drink every remaining day of her life and chances are very good the answer will be Beaujolais.
The region hosts 13 appellations. This sounds more complicated than it is, since their are really only three categories to account for. These are, first, basic Beaujolais which can be sourced from any vineyard or combination of vineyards within the designated wine growing areas. Next come 10 communes (townships) with a historic claim to producing the region’s finest wines, or crus (pronounced ‘crew,’ silent s). Bottles made from fruit sourced exclusively from one of these designated sub-regions have the right to position its name prominently on the label. Wine that is a blend of fruit from more than one of these townships may labeled Beaujolais Villages. A final category, the aforementioned Beaujolais Nouveau, is wine released late in November the same year of harvest.
To help Christopher get a feel for the region our radio spot started with a shining example of basic Beaujolais from Domaine Vissoux. Most of what is sold under this designation is produced on a large-scale with ordinary-quality materials and are priced at the lowest end of the scale. That’s emphatically not the case here. This is an artisan-quality product made with care and skill from a family with a top reputation. It’s priced at around $18 and it provides a wonderful introduction to the region. Expect to find it for around $18.
With the next three wines we get a bit more serious – but in the Beaujolais never means challenging or lots of drama (oak, alcohol, or tannin). Each is from the 2014 vintage and comes from one of the cru villages I’ve mentioned which are all sited in the northern, hillier territories. The first, from Domaine David Beaupère in Juliénas, said to be only estate farming organically there. We love its pretty red fruits, juicy acids and almost crunchy feel. A little dreamboat of a wine for around $25. The second, from Bruno and Isabelle Perraud in Fleurie, is made using fruit purchased from neighbors. It’s a natural wine from the get-go with minimal cellar work and no additions of sulfur – not even a little (entirely forgiveable) dose at bottling. Fleshier than the Juliénas, but with plenty of zip. Aroiund $30.
Wines originating in the cru village of Morgon are often thought of as sturdier and more age-worthy. And there has been a movement in the last couple of decades or so – here as almost everywhere else – to try to make a bigger, more muscular style. You don’t really see that influence in our third wine, the Roland Pignard Morgon, but we’re tasting it last because it is just a bit heftier, a little bit richer, than the others. It’s a wine I love with a roast bird and oven-browned potatoes.
About now, I can hear readers murmuring “what about Beaujolais Nouveau?” Well, the earliest nouveau appears on the third Thursday of November – and since we were recording this a bit in advance of that date we couldn’t taste any for this segment.
My advice on nouveau is always to wait a few weeks for the hoopla to die down and look for the stuff that travels by sea rather than what’s rushed in by air. Here’s your chance to score some nouveau from smaller producers who avoid the manipulations that make the industrial version so disagreeable. Even though you’re not hearing much about it now, you’ll find some if you do a bit of asking around. Christmas is a much better time than Thanksgiving table to bring some fresh-squeezed nouveau to the table.
Beaujolais is welcome year-round at our table, and you certainly don’t need a special occasion to pour some. But we do especially prize them at the holidays when their light to medium body, pretty fruit, and appetizing freshness makes them both serviceable and delicious. And if you can’t find these particular wines, don’t be discouraged. Any wine shop with a passionate and knowledgeable staff will be able to point you to their favorites. You may not get to spend Christmas in Lyons, but its favorite wine can add some sparkle to your holiday feast wherever you are.