Beaujolais may be the second most misunderstood wine in the world, after sherry. It's known, often to its detriment, for inexpensive, fruity wine that's designed to be drunk young. There's certainly a lot of that, but it also produces complex, sometimes challenging wines that demand ageing. These wines come from the ten crus, based around spectacularly situated hilltop villages. Vines abound here, crawling up the slopes in incredibly densely planted vineyards. The grape is Gamay, a high-yielding, early-ripening grape that often produces fruity and simple wines. Control those yields, however, and subject the juice to serious vinification and suddenly the grape produces high-quality wine - kind of what happens with any other grape variety in the world.
The problem that Beaujolais has, of course, is Beaujolais Nouveau, a style of wine that's marketed as one to be drunk young rather than to be aged. Beaujolais Nouveau grew out of a series of crises that afflicted the region - phylloxera, subsequent overproduction, and two world wars - and it in effect performed a rescue act that allows us to enjoy the wines of Beaujolais today. There's a place for Beaujolais Nouveau, as after all most people like to drink young, fresh fruity wines for immediate consumption, but it dogs the image of Beaujolais and prevents people understanding that the best wines of the region get better and better with time.
Basic Beaujolais comes from the flat plains to the south of the region, the grapes grown on clay and limestone soils that do little to limit yields. The plains rise to the north, where 38 villages contribute to Beaujolais-Villages, a higher-quality appellation. At the top of the slopes are the ten crus, where the granite-based soils, mixed with quartz, schist, and sand, limit yields and create much more intense wines.
I attended a tasting in San Francisco which featured wines from each cru. There were some fantastic wines on display, demonstrating how the ten crus differ in style and taste. Neighbouring Burgundy successfully markets such intra-regional differences as terroir, causing the wines to command very high prices. Cru Beaujolais is much cheaper, just as varied, and in my opinion just as good: the discerning consumer is in the advantageous position of being able to afford wines of such quality.
The problem that Cru Beaujolais has is not just one of image, but that it's very hard to categorise. Each cru has its own distinct character, and each producer have their own distinct style. Some producers make their wines with a form of carbonic maceration, making their wines softer and fruitier. Others destem and ferment the wines 'normally,' allowing the tannins to express themselves. Few, however, use new oak - and this is a wonderful aspect to Beaujolais as you get to taste the wine rather than the oak.
So, how to make sense of Beaujolais and its varied crus? The simple fact is that each cru and their producers make fantastic wine: it's hard to go wrong. These are very food-friendly wines that go well with salmon, chicken, pork, beef, or game dishes. They can be drunk young because of the natural fruitiness of Gamay, but they can age extremely well too - if you spot an older cru Beaujolais snap it up.
The highlight of the tasting was Domaine Marcel Lapierre's 2015 Morgon. Marcel Lapierre, who died in 2010, was one of the icons of Beaujolais, with a focus on quality and minimal intervention in the winery. The wine was simply incredible: fruity, chewy, ripe, crunchy, and spicy, with a long, warm finish. 2015 was a hot vintage, so the wine is probably bigger than usual, but there's still an elegance and balance to it. If you can get hold of a bottle, it retails for $48. ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪
the ten crus from north to south
sales apparently shoot up around Valentine's Day. Yes, that's the culture we live in. The wines are bigger and spicier than most Beaujolais.
the cru that's in the middle of all Beaujolais's styles, and therefore my favourite: fruity, with some tannins and ageability.
one of the more famous of the crus and one of the more ageable.
floral and pretty wines that can still age: Clos de la Roilette's Marque Déposée is a great example.
we tried Domaine Damien Coquelet, a producer who made his first wine in 2007 when he was twenty. He's trying to revive Chiroubles's reputation and doing a very good job.
there is a verb in French, though I don't know if anyone still uses it: morgonner - to Morgon, which means when a wine becomes like Pinot Noir as it ages. Morgon, like many of the crus, can certainly taste like Pinot Noir as the wine gets older.
the youngest of the crus (it became an appellation in 1988) and high up, the wines are aromatic and best drunk young.
fruitier and designed for earlier drinking. This is the furthest south of the crus and more like Beaujolais-Villages wines.
Côte de Brouilly
from the mountain above Brouilly, the wines are much more intense and tannic. For either Brouilly or Côte de Brouilly, try Château Thivin.