Although considered to be a “slave’s drink in antique times” and remaining with a poor perception from Parisians thanks to its short production time and short vintage period, if any, Beaujolais wines and winemakers certainly deserve the respect of wine enthusiasts and new drinkers alike. While the term Beaujolais may not be familiar, the Burgundy wine region is more well-known and contains Beaujolais in the Southern half of the region. We will discuss where the Beaujolais region can be found, what kind of grapes and processes make Beaujolais unique, some identifying characteristics of the Beaujolais wines and how the wines are viewed socially, in France and in the United States. I was surprised by some findings and hope that I can help you discover a whole new facet of red wines.
We have all been told that you drink red wines at room temperature and white wines chilled (around forty-five degrees Fahrenheit), but Beaujolais wines are the exception. These wines have been crafted in a way which has been described as a white wine disguised as a red a wine, and this seems to ring true in my experience. In reality, wines should be drunk in the way that best pleases the drinker, but this wine is versatile to please many palates and can be enjoyed either warm or slightly chilled due to the special combination carbonic maceration, gamay grape and limestone-rich soil. Beaujolais wines cannot be grown anywhere else in the world, besides the southern region of Burgundy, France.
Burgundy, France is a much more complex region in comparison to Bordeaux; this is mostly due to the great variety of separate parcels and villages. After the French Revolution in 1789, all the vineyards were sold off in small parcels. The matter was further complicated by the Napoleonic Code, which called for equal inheritance disbursement for siblings, causing additional fragmentation of the vineyards. Beaujolais is located in the southernmost part of Burgundy, nearly stretching to the gates of Lyon, France. Beaujolais lies upon granite hills, stretching only about forty five miles long and about twenty three miles wide, so it amazes that thirty nine different villages exist within the small expanse to produce about fifty percent of the region’s wine and exclusively made with the gamay grape. The Granite Mountains of Beaujolais rise to a reasonable 3000 feet, but the lease obscure of producers stay to the foothills and are generally expected to produce wine reflecting their own unique style or touch of character. The Beaujolais region is certainly a unique place and has a very special history riddled with change, with people willing to change with time.
A very special kind of grape is used to create Beaujolais wines—the gamay grape. Like any naturally occurring foodstuff, varieties of this grape exist, but to get true Beaujolais wine, the gamay noir must be used. More notably, the gamay noir is the only gamay varietal allowed to be grown in the region, per the European Union. To clarify, noir denotes a dark grape and thus red wine compared to the gamay blanc, which produces a very a nearly clear wine which we call a ‘white’, but is considered inferior. The noblest grape to be grown in the region is the petit gamay but is regarded as an insufficient grape if grown anywhere else in the world, like its family member. The gamay grape is truly “at-home” in southern Burgundy thanks to the rich soil, fertile from the granite-based mountains which lie beneath. Once the same grape is transplanted to California, USA the same result cannot possibly be yielded. The development of tannins, the acidic bite we taste in wine, is only effective with the gamay grape in the granite-rich mountains, which run beside the Saone River. It is said that every few months, members of the lower-most villages must scoop up any sediment which has washed down the mountain during the last growing season and take it back up the mountainous terrain to the vineyards for new crop development. Simply put: the soil is really that important. The gamay grape is the most time-efficient grape for a couple of reasons: gamay grapes ripen comparatively early in the harvesting season and mature rather quickly, often ready to drink as soon as it hits the market. All grapes are hand-picked in Beaujolais, with some producers removing the stalks and stems before fermentation and others leaving them on. The light, fruity flavors of the well-known Moulin a Vent would not be possible without sweet combination of locale, weather and produit.
There is much to be learned about how Beaujolais wines are produced. A great deal of care is taken during harvesting and transportation as not to break the skin of the grapes. The process of carbonic maceration is used to create the quickly-aged Beaujolais wines, and in this process it is of utmost importance that the skins of the grapes remain intact until the grapes are loaded into processing vats. Once they are hand-picked from vine, chosen for processing, the grapes are transported in no more than 130 pounds per containment and combined into 60-hectoliter vats (equals about 8,000 bottles of wine). The process of carbonic maceration relies on the release of Carbon Dioxide through a unique process: the grapes at bottom of the vat are crushed by the weight of grapes upon them, causing them to be juiced. The fresh gamay grape juice will then release carbon dioxide, which rises, and envelopes the upper grapes, causing them to begin fermentation from the inside out. The upper grapes’ skin remains intact until fermentation time is considered to be complete. Some vineyards still “pump over”, which means that they pump the already-released juice over the fermenting grapes, claiming that this enhances the flavor derived from the skins during further crushing and extraction. During carbonic maceration, it is important that the vats are held between seventy-seven and eighty degrees Fahrenheit, so some use the “pumping over” as a measure to keep the grapes cool as well as reaping flavor benefits. The “pump over” method is a rapidly fading process in a vineyard market where product must reach market almost more quickly than it can be made, although carbonic maceration is a unique process that truly showcases the light fragrances, lively notes and identifying characteristics of Beaujolais wines.
What does every Beaujolais wine have in common? Producers and bottlers turn to the historic, slope-shoulder glass bottle (which is synonymous with the Burgundy region) for each ¾ liter of Beaujolais-Villages, Beaujolais Cru or Beaujolais Superior. Glass bottles made their introduction as an English invention to solve the problem of long-term storage of liquids, so a thin light-bulb-shaped bottle was used, but found to be far too brittle. The shape of the bottle was of some consequence, as it was purposed for decanting liquids, especially wine, to remove sediment but the bulb shape grew longer and more recognizable as today’s slope-shouldered bottles. These bottles differ greatly from those synonymous of the Bordeaux region, the wealthiest of the duo, who adopted a more storage-friendly version of the glass bottle. The Bordeaux region was, classically, produced wine that needed to age before they were happy with its flavors, but with little space to store the wine before it was ready for sale a wine bottle was developed with flat sides, allowing them to store the bottles more efficiently and for longer periods of time than before.
The wines of Beaujolais are afforded a much shorter period time before the pique flavor is reached, often as early as three months and as late as sixteen months or more. Beaujolais Noueveau literally translates to New Beaujolais is a regional specialty and variety of Beaujolais wines that is released on the third Thursday of November every year and has become a sensation in the recent years. Beaujolais Noueveau is meant to be enjoyed immediately and is bottled a mere three months before its release; a three-month vintage is like a newborn in comparison to most wines. In contrast, Beaujolais Crus are made in a handful of villages and is allowed to age a bit longer to increase the level of alcohol a small bit, but the overall product is often spicier and leathery and fails to benefit from being chilled. Beaujolais Crus are the most expensive the region, for more care has been taken with these wines, but the middle-of-the-road option of Beaujolais Noueveau and Beaujolais Crus are the Beaujolais-Villages wines. The Beaujolais-Villages wines are also hand-picked and often a blend of gamay grape crops throughout the thirty-nine wine-producing villages in Beaujolais. The Beaujolais-Villages wines are often the least expensive and most-accessible of the three styles of Beaujolais wines.
Before I had a chance to taste any Beaujolais wine, I started my research by asking local wine shop clerks what they could tell me about the mysteriously chilled re, French wine. The first person I spoke to said that the wine in question was rather “Chug-able” and that he generally offers it to “people just starting to drink wine”. I believe that that translates to a wine with simple, non-invasive characteristics. I asked two additional store clerks in two different stores the same question and got generally the same answer referring to the Beaujolais’s drinkability. Most serious wine-drinkers dismiss Beaujolais as a marketing gimmick, feeling that it is a cheap wine with no possibility of aging or developing flavor, but they then miss the magic and intoxicating, delicate fragrance and deliciously strong and fruity flavors derived from the carbonic maceration and special combination of gamay grapes and granite-rich soil. The biological masterpiece of the granite hillsides meshed with the Saone River, rich soil, luckily indigenous grape with the swift and loving care of hard-working winemakers gives us the unique experience of wondering whether or not to chill this red wine. Upon procuring my first bottle of Beaujolais, I knew the experience must be surveyed and measured, so I surveyed my husband, Mr. Newman. Mr. Newman has what I call, a child’s palate, with little tolerance for the tart and “fire” behind most wines, but stated on his survey that he was pleased with what he had tried. On the survey, Mr. Newman gave the balance of alcohol a high mark, saying that it was “very well balanced” and when asked if it was hot he said it was “very mild”. Mr. Newman commented on the aftertaste saying, “[it had] a very small after-taste and better than most wines.” For someone that is a self-admitted wine un-enthusiast, Mr. Newman had a great experience, rating it an overall eight out of ten, and saying that he was open to other Beaujolais wines. During our tasting, we tried the wine highly chilled, around thirty-five or forty degrees Fahrenheit then again around fifty degrees Fahrenheit. I found that the aroma was easier to identify or more pronounced at the fifty-degree mark, just as anticipated. The aroma does fade rather quickly and does not remain with the wine after the sitting for which it was opened. Beaujolais does not tout longevity in the fridge, but hopefully it can be enjoyed at once anyway.
To find a Beaujolais wine is not as difficult as it may seem, as long as you’re not much on variety. There are many producers of the European-Union-Approved Beaujolais wines, but there is only one that seems to be everywhere: Louis Jadot, Beaujolais-Villages, 2008. This wine can be found from the local wine store to the corner Walgreens, but it truly is the the lowest representation of what the region has to offer. In France, the entire Beaujolais wine region in South Burgundy has gained a poor reputation because most serious wine enthusiast feel that the wine cannot possibly compare to the vintage Cabernet Sauvignon they’ve had for twenty years or Sauvignon Blanc from their child’s birth, moons ago, so most of the grapes each harvest is processed into Beaujolais Noueveau, the quickest and most quantitative of all, and turned for a quick profit; like a Waffle House server compared to one of Jackson’s Steakhouse. Dr. Jacques De Castelnau of Beaujolais is working with the French Appellation Authority, the department which regulates wines, to study the topography, soil and climate of the Beaujolais region. After the data is collected, the French Appellation Authority will taste wines from the respectively studied regions and establish stylistic links between each. This new classification system could be a hand up for the Cru winemakers that feel plagued by the “cheap and easy” image of Noueveau, but some may continue disregarding Beaujolais altogether.
If I am ever served a chilled, red wine I’ll certainly know why and be able to tell you about the special magic the petit gamay grape encounters on its journey from the granite-rich mountains of Eastern France to my glass. Beaujolais wines are somewhat obscure, but maybe it’s like holding a special secret only to be shared with the ones closest to you. The region of Burgundy is enriched by its southernmost district, which appears to be lost in time. The hard working people still reside in eleventh century buildings which peer over seventeenth century gardens, honoring their past with processes, products and the fervor of their ancestors, the consumers of the “slave’s drink”.