Rethinking Beaujolais - It's way more than nouveau, we just don't know it yet...
Beaujolais hits the trifecta for Old World wine: it's the name of a grape, a wine, and a geographical region in France, all at the same time. Beaujolais the grape goes by other names confusingly -- gamay, for instance; the region is further broken down into regions and neighborhoods like Morgon, Fleurie, Saint Amour and at least a dozen others that would be hard to keep in your head unless you lived there.
Beaujolais the wine is famous for essentially two things in the US: a version of itself called "nouveau" -- French for new -- a wine that's made and released the same year within weeks of harvest, and low prices. Really low prices. Order-now-and-save low prices. Very top of the Beaujolais food chain is about $25, the middle or bottom tier of wines in many other more famous French regions. In a typical wine shop, you'd have to look hard to find one for $20. Most are between $8 and $12.
This nouveau phenomenon is not limited to the Beaujolais region, nor is it limited to France. Nouveau has been made for probably thousands of years in many different forms all over the wine-making world. Wine makers have always siphoned off a little bit of the early juice and made a quick easy wine to celebrate the harvest, or they've always wanted to. The Rhone valley in southern France makes very tasty nouveau in almost complete obscurity, and many wineries in northeast Italy make self-styled "novello" from an otherwise unknown grape called teraldego.
When I say there's more to Beaujolais than nouveau, I want to make sure that comes out just right. I'm not anti-nouveau: I buy plenty of it every year. It's fun and frivolous, and in spite of itself, nouveau is interesting and a little meaningful, being the first wine from the new French vintage many of us will taste. But nouveau is in the $12 range, at least when it first arrives by air on the third Thursday of every November, and for only $5 more all year long, you can be drinking some of the best wines the Beaujolais region makes. This time of year, there's a huge rush on nouveau, and the rest of the time, people see Beaujolais on the shelf and think to themselves, "You're supposed to drink that stuff by New Year's, right?"
Landscape Of Wines
Imagine that the Beaujolais region is shaped like a wine bottle with the top pointing north and the bottom sitting right on the city of Lyon. The big southern end of the bottle is generic Beaujolais where most of the cheapest wine comes from. When you think about Beaujolais, the classic bistro wine, this is the region that affordable juice comes from. It's big and expansive (in European vineyard terms), relatively flat and accessible, and produces lots of easy-to-drink wine at a bargain price.
As you move north towards the top of the bottle, the region tapers, until you have ten tiny wine towns all in a row filling up the neck of the bottle. They call these towns "Crus Beaujolais," and although "cru" doesn't literally mean crew, it's pronounced the same and means just about that. They hang together in the top tier, committed to high-quality region-specific Beaujolais.
These ten towns -- Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, Regnie, Morgon, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Moulin a Vent, Chenas, Saint Amour, and Julienas -- account for many of the best wines the region has to offer. Their soils and geographies are drastically different place to place, and since each town grows the same grape -- Beaujolais -- and makes wine in essentially the same way, it's fascinating to experience the flavor of the different landscapes right in the wine glass. The wine makers say the Beaujolais grape has a unique ability to photocopy the soil and render unique flavor profiles based on geologic composition. After a couple of millennia, the ground has evolved into the key variable element in the whole system. If you can remember the ten towns -- or at least remember that there are ten towns -- you're taking a small monetary step ($17-20 a bottle versus $12 maybe) but a giant leap in quality.
2006 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau (about $10) Bright berries, fresh fruit, tastes like a lot less alcohol than the label says, nice juice that won't last long this holiday season. I have a confession: I opened my top-secret sample before midnight on Thursday.
2005 Georges Duboeuf Brouilly (about $13) Much more tannic grip than you expect from friendly, easy-going Beaujolais. Aromas of earth and dust, lots of bark and sap, fit for a piece of big red meat.
2004 Georges Duboeuf Moulin a Vent (about $20) Smells just like ripe new world pinot noir, full of brown sugar and molasses. Tasted blind, there's no way I would have made this for Beaujolais.
2005 Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages (about $11) I know I said look for the ten towns, but the best producers are strong from the top to the bottom of the product line. This is a super entry-level Beaujolais for people who are new to the region. The wine has great fruit concentration, good tannin, lots of blueberry and blackberry flavors. As business-people say, it over-delivers, which for us consumers is refreshing.
2002 Louis Jadot "Chateau des Jacques" Moulin a Vent (about $25) This wine absolutely turned my mind around about Beaujolais when I tasted it last spring at the winery. Herbal and aromatic, lots of earth and wood and spice, it had deep dark fruit flavors like dried figs and dates. Without a doubt, one of the best Beaujolais I've ever tasted, and only $5 a glass once you get it home.
2003 Mommessin "Cote de Py" Morgon (about $20) Rich and ripe, almost sweet, with flavors of plum and peach and some dried fruits, dried apricot maybe. Really nice pervasive tannin. Fermented with wild yeast from the vineyards, but still tastes very refined and civilized.
2003 Mommessin "La Montagne Bleue" Cote de Brouilly (about $20) Soils in these volcanic vineyards are literally blue from mineral deposits. The grapes come from a vineyard high on the slopes and facing southwest, and it tastes like it: ripe, concentrated blueberry flavors and exotic aromas of spring water and rain.
2005 Manoir du Carra "Non-Filtre (Unfiltered) Beaujolais-Villages (about $14) Dark red, nearly opaque ruby color, lots of dark fruit like plum, cranberry, and blackberry. Nice and lean but fruitful and citrusy.
2005 Manoir du Carra Julienas (about $22) Beautiful garnet color, awesome smooth texture, great spicy aromas come together to make a beautiful wine with real character. Julienas is the oldest of the ten towns, named for Julius Caesar when the Romans ran things.
Duboeuf wines are available literally everywhere in the US. Louis Jadot is available through Kobrand, 212-490-9300. Mommessin is imported by Boisset, toll-free 800-878-1123. Manoir du Carra is distributed nationally by Kysela Pere et Fils, toll-free 877-492-7917.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathon Alsop has been writing about wine since 1989. He is author of the wine column "In Vino Veritas" as well as feature articles for La Vie Claire, Cultured Living, Beverage Magazine, the Associated Press, and many others. In addition to writing, Jonathon lectures on wine, conducts wine tasting classes, and hosts wine events around the country. You can reach Jonathon at email@example.com and read more wine writing at here. To learn about upcoming wine classes and events, click here.
IN VINO VERITAS
By Jonathon Alsop
(c) 15 November 2006