People often dismiss Beaujolais wine as a whole based on their experience with Beaujolais Nouveau. While it’s certainly true that the Nouveau is the most widely known wine from said region, and that its success has been mostly reliant on one of the great marketing campaigns the wine world has ever seen (orchestrated by Georges DeBouef), the truth is that there is much more to enjoy from this area.
Beaujolais Nouveau is a vin de primeur, the only style of French wine allowed to be released during the same year it was harvested. This wine is typically fermented for just a few weeks, mostly using the carbonic maceration method (meaning the fermentation occurs inside intact whole grapes, which limits tannin from the grape skins), and then pasteurized to prevent any malolactic fermentation. The result is wine that tastes like, well, grape juice. It’s simple, easy to drink and somewhat primitive.
Whether you like it or not, it’s important to understand that Beaujolais Nouveau is a very unique, specific style that’s different than every other wine labelled Beaujolais (though the grape – Gamay – is the same). Personally, I found it to be a great gateway wine – one that was easy to drink when I was first discovering wine, but that has now lost its appeal. Nouveau certainly has had its time in the spotlight, when anyone who was anyone drank it on the third Thursday in November (and often on the fourth one, with turkey). Nowadays, it’s on the outs with most wine drinkers again, and the rest of this small region in Southern Burgundy is paying the price. There’s actually quite a bit of great wine to be had in Beaujolais, and mostly at a very nice price, from the Cru regions (which means growth in French, but in this case it signifies a better place to grow the grapes).
The ten Crus offer surprisingly varied styles of wine, so it’s worthwhile to try a wide selection. The most commonly available in PA are:
Brouilly: The largest Cru, closest to the Villages areas to the south. Approachable, soft and fruity wines. Though good wines can be found, the area is somewhat inconsistent. Sub-region Cote de Brouilly (considered its own Cru) offers more reliable quality. (Pronounced Brew-yee)
Fleurie: Lighter wines with a floral quality are generally approachable when young.
Morgon: The big boys, very tannic and dense. Have the structure to age 10-20 years.
Moulin-à-Vent: Considered the most serious winemaking region, also makes bigger, more tannic wines that are well-balanced and can age for extended periods.
The other Crus, which can be more difficult to find locally, are Chénas, Chiroubles, Juliénas, Régnié and Saint Amour.
In Pennsylvania, the most commonly found Cru Beaujolais wines are from the Henry Fessy label. Fessy was a famous négociant – or wine merchant who sells wines from smaller farmers and winemakers under his own label – but the company is now owned by mega-négociant Louis Latour. The Fessy Cru wines tend to be around $15, and are solid introductions to what the Cru Beaujolais can be, though they fall short of the best.
Currently in stores, there’s a 2007 Henry Fessy Brouilly for $8.99 that’s worth a try. Brouilly is not a particularly age-worthy region, so this is more mature than most Brouilly found at retail, but it’s a good opportunity to see what Gamay tastes like as it ages – light and smooth, with earthy and herbal notes.
I also liked the 2009 Henry Fessy Morgon, which features the trademark violets, as well as some nice savory notes. At $16.99 however, it’s harder to recommend as a must-try, especially when you consider some other wines that are in the mid-20s and noticeably better.
The 2009 Domaine Vissoux Moulin-à-Vent les Trois Roches, for example, is an outstanding bottle of wine for $24.99. Its beguiling nose features warm spices, wet leaves, butter, and scorched earth, and its palate offers dark fruits like fig, plus sweet tobacco. The incredible finish that lasts 30+ seconds and cycles through spices, violets, garrigue, and more.
If that one doesn’t change your mind about Beaujolais and Gamay, perhaps the 2010 Jean-Marc Burgaud Morgon Côte du Py Vieilles Vignes ($25.99) will do the trick. This huge wine offers a ton of tannin and acidity, suggesting it could age well for a good 10 years, but it’s also delicious now. The aroma features tea, tobacco, earth, and more. On the palate it is wonderfully bright with candied cherries and an herbal finish. The only drawback here is that PA is charging $26, while other online retailers seems to have this priced at $16-18. (It’s probably worth $26, but that still doesn’t make it right!)
In sum, the lesson to be learned here is that there are some seriously good wines being made in Beaujolais. Don’t be afraid to seek them out!