‘Classic’ is an epithet to be found in vintage reports, tasting notes and producer profiles. European producers and wine regions in particular are more likely to be described as classic. The truth is, and Beaujolais is no exception, that the idea of what is typical, or classic has never been more open to interpretation. Differences of opinion on how a wine should taste are inimical to the ever shifting sands of taste, fashion, style and vineyard interpretation and the evolution of climate and growing conditions.
What is Beaujolais?
Beaujolais as a wine region offers remarkable diversity of flavours, textures and wine styles. All this within the narrow confines of a delimited region with a single grape. It is true that not all Beaujolais is red and not all wine is made from Gamay. Other permitted varieties are Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Aligote and Melon. There are some excellent examples of these varietals, but it is the Gamay grape that defines Beaujolais. More so than Pinot Noir in Burgundy, or Cabernet in Bordeaux. Beaujolais is Gamay.
The climate of Beaujolais
Beaujolais’ climate is temperate, so nothing is as it seems and the weather conditions vary enormously. Temperatures can range from -20 to 40, rain may be a deluge or a drought and frosts are often late.Hail too may destroy the harvest only days before its set to begin. Gamay however is a consistent producer of at least good wine, despite what the weather gods may throw at it. Imagine the dilution of flavours and structures with a wet vintage, or the lack of freshness in hot dry years in almost any other wine region in the world. The effect on quality and style is marked by the vintage, and this is true in Beaujolais too. However, the diversity of styles from the region and the adaptability of Gamay, enables wine growers to produce terrific wines in challenging vintages.
The regions of Beaujolais
Soils, elevation and exposure are crucial to the style and quality of Beaujolais. The region is broken up into two distinct growing areas. The town of Villefranche-sur-Saone provides an invisible division between the two. The vineyards of the south are composed of limestone and sandstone. Darker, richer, and with a high proportion of clay and a ferrous oxide that colours the soil a rich red/brown. The soils here hold heat and moisture and are less likely to provide wines of structure. This is the land of bulk Beaujolais, including Beaujolais Nouveau.
To the north of Villefranche-sur-Saone is where things start getting serious. Here are the ten crus and Beaujolais-Villages and the soils and topography are very different. The hills are round and undulating, without the jagged steepness of the south. Granite, clay, schist and sand are the real feature of the north, to one degree or another.
The best vineyards are the crus and their differences are chiefly in their mineral composition and elevation. Generalisations are difficult, however, due to the size of the vineyards, aspect, geological diversity within the vineyard, elevation and, most importantly, the quality of the grower.
The Beaujolais Crus
Below is a list of the ten crus, from north to south, and a general guide to their unique characteristics:
- St-Amour: Floral, red fruits, kirsch, spice, elegant, delicate, high toned, fresh
- Juliénas: Peach, floral, darker fruits, peony, spice, textural, deep, savoury tannins
- Chénas: Aromatic, floral, powerful, full bodied, spice, dark fruits, tannic
- Moulin-à-Vent: Structured, gamy, savoury, cassis, blackberry, germaniums/roses,lush
- Fleurie: Fragrant, floral, red fruits, spice, silky texture, high toned, refreshing acidity
- Chiroubles: Delicate, crucnhy red fruits, floral, complex, threaded tannins, soft acidity
- Morgon: Structured, full bodied, gamy, red/blue/black fruits, mineral
- Régnié: Aromatic, red fruits, fragrant, bright
- Brouilly: Round, soft, fruit driven (all colours), full flavoured
- Côte de Brouilly: Full bodied, dark fruits, mineral, ample, ripe tannins
I have included these generalisations as possible markers and identifiers for the various crus. With such knowledge, wine drinkers can draw conclusions about the wine’s style, possible food/occasion matches, and whether the wine is cellar-worthy or not.
Beaujolais’ cru classification system
The crus are not graded as they are in Burgundy, so in essence they are of similar quality. Nothing is as simple as it seems though, with most wine professionals drawing their own qualitative conclusions. Moulin-à-Vent is widely considered the finest cru, with Morgon close behind. What I like about the system of cru identification is that it indicates the best areas for growing Gamay, without the forensic detail of Burgundy. The differences of the crus are invariably exaggerated and there are many deep and structured wines from Régnié for example, even if this is not necessarily ‘typical’. It’s a system that guarantees diversity and not bureaucrats.
Wine production in Beaujolais
Wine production methods vary greatly in Beaujolais. Organic, biodynamic, ‘natural’ and traditional – the permutations available to the producer in the vineyard and cellar are endless.
The fruit is virtually all hand harvested due to the sloping nature of the vineyards. ‘Classic’ Beaujolais is almost always made via a process called carbonic maceration. The whole bunches are placed into sealed vats without crushing and left to ferment under a blanket of carbon dioxide. The resultant wine is aromatic, intensely fruity and vibrant, with a pale colour and light tannins.
There are of course many choices, variations and completely different ways to make Beaujolais. For instance, the fermentation and maturation of the wine may take place in concrete, steel, large format oak, barrique, demi muid, fibreglass, glass lined or amphorae. Other variables include picking dates, natural or cultivated yeast, pigéage, cold soak, temperature control, sulphur dioxide levels, carbonic maceration or conventional fermentation, destemming, racking, filtration, fining and length of ageing before bottling.
The retort to the point I’m trying to make would be that every single wine producer in the world has the same choices to make, and this is true. However, Beaujolais is capable of producing a remarkably diverse selection of wines, where one vigneron’s Morgon can be utterly different from their neighbour’s, and it’s the cru identification system that allows this to flourish. They may both be delicious and representative of their vineyard, but the style and taste will have the profile of the producer too. In this regard, the versatility of Gamay and the fact that Beaujolais is less revered than regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy gives its growers greater freedom of expression.
The power and the glory of Beaujolais (borrowed from Graham Greene’s finest novel!) lies not only in the strength of the vineyard, but in the intuitive quality of the producer. No other wine region in France can boast the diversity of expression of a dry red wine that Beaujolais does. Many wine lovers see the region as an ‘affordable’ alternative to Burgundy. Interestingly, all of my English friends compare Beaujolais’ taste and style to the northern Rhone, a position I agree with, rather than Burgundy.
Either way, it’s a shame. The wines are liberating, effortlessly serious and casual, lithe, sensual, gay, refreshing and versatile, and yes even at their most expensive, a fraction of the price of top Burgundy and top northern Rhone. But they are entirely unto themselves. I love the fact that we do not (not yet anyway) have the same forensic obsession with site. That producers interpret Beaujolais’ joy in a myriad of ways. And that power and glory is to be found in their easy suavity. The wines everyman can afford.