When many people hear “Beaujolais,” chances are they think of Beaujolais Nouveau, an inexpensive, often mediocre wine that is shoved down their throats every November. A marketing trick from Georges Duboeuf that reached its apogee in the 1980s, Beaujolais Nouveau was a smart way for producers in the Beaujolais region to make a lot of noise and turn a quick buck. (The wine is made using a fermentation technique called carbonic maceration that produces fruity, simple wines that are ready to drink almost immediately. No need for a long fermentation or aging period requiring winemakers to hang on to a lot of inventory for months and months.) The problem with Nouveau, in addition to the fact that it usually doesn’t taste very good, is that it overshadows the really good wine that comes from Beaujolais.
Located in east central France, north of the Rhone Valley, Beaujolais is home to the Gamay grape. At its most simple, (eg, Beaujolais Nouveau) it produces easy-drinking, fruity wine without a lot of tannins or structure. The next step up the quality ladder is Beaujolais-Villages, and then, after that, are the ten Beaujolais crus, or growths: St-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly, and Côte de Brouilly. No, you don’t need to memorize them, and I realize this may be more technical/theoretical information than I usually provide, but I list them here to prove a point: usually, the more specific (and obscure) a place name, the more distinctive the wine will be. This rule really comes into effect in Europe (or, as dorky wine people like me say, the Old World), where people have spent a lot of time — as in, centuries — experimenting with which grapes and production techniques work best for which specific parcels of land. Climate and soil play huge parts in explaining why the wines from each of these tiny sub-regions retain their specific characteristics, and, this being Europe, there are plenty of regulations and big bureaucracies in place to help things stay that way. So for example wines from Chiroubles, the highest-altitude cru, are going to be pretty light in body (to oversimplify: high altitude = cooler climate = less ripe grapes = lower sugar = lower alcohol, less body) compared to a Morgon, where the lower altitude, and a famous hillside slope that has great exposure to sunlight, translate into riper grapes and fuller bodied, more complex wines that can age.
At their best, these Beaujolais crus are versatile, medium-bodied wines with bright red fruit flavors (think CranApple) and a really pleasant earthy quality. Aside from an aged Moulin-à-Vent, which are few and far between in most stores and restaurants anyway, these wines can also benefit from 20 minutes or so in the fridge before serving to make them all the more refreshing–if you’ve been drinking rosés all summer, think of them as a nice transition to early fall. They’re really versatile a great match with roast chicken, pork loin or a plate of charcuterie. My husband and I polished off this Henry Fessy Régnié with some leftover grilled chicken and smoked pork roast the other night. At $11.99, it’s a great deal. And with its moderate alcohol level of 12.5% — which is typical of Beaujolais — we felt none the worse for wear the next morning.