When I have been away traveling and return home there are certain tastes that I am eager for. At the top of that list would be Annie’s roast chicken. The perfect wine to pair with this dish is a bottle of Jean-Paul Brun’s Beaujolais. The wine has depth and beautiful clarity of flavor and it has been fun to enjoy it in many vintages, always with satisfaction. It was one of the wines I was happy to see on the shelves at Parker and Otis, and at $18.99 it represents a great value.
Jean-Paul Brun is somewhat of a hero amongst natural wine advocates. Brun’s Beaujolais is labeled “L’Ancien” because the grape grows on his oldest vines with the greatest concentration of flavors and Brun follows traditional techniques in the way he makes the wine.
Authentic Beaujolais and the Gamay grape are underappreciated in America, where most people associate the word Beaujolais with Beaujolais Nouveau, the November extravaganza, which began innocently enough as a way to celebrate the fall harvest. In past times when the population was more directly involved in agriculture, it was important to gather as a community and toast the end of the growing cycle. For years and years casks of freshly made wine was sent on paddleboats from Beaujolais to the thirsty folks in Lyon for this harvest celebration.
Oz Clarke sums up what has happened with Beaujolais Nouveau when it exploded into an international phenomenon:
“Beaujolais Nouveau, what a stroke of genius. Beaujolais has been drunk as young as possible in Lyon since the vineyards were first planted. But first the Parisians caught on to the idea, in the 1950s, then the British joined them in the 1970s, then the Americans, then the Japanese – the world. By the 1980s Beaujolais Nouveau had been relentlessly sold and oversold as a concept of the first wine of the year’s harvest released on the third Thursday in November- gushing, purple-pink wine hardly old enough to have forgotten the flavor of the grape on the vine.” Oz Clarke, Wine Atlas
Beaujolais Nouveau can be fun, but the other wines of Beaujolais are so much better. Nouveau overshadows the other wines and represents one third of yearly sales. And its commercial success has created mass produced Beaujolais that threatens the reputation of authentic Beaujolais. Because of the over hyped Nouveau, and often innocuous bubble gum flavor of these new mass produced wines, most people disregard authentic Beaujolais, one of the most pleasurable and reasonably priced red wines.
Decades ago most of the Beaujolais was authentic, but many growers have taken short cuts to keep up with the demand for Nouveau. Below is a comparison of authentic Beaujolais vs. mass produced Beaujolais.
Mass-produced…the wines are made from vineyards which have stretched yields to the maximum. The grapes are picked early before they have ripened to develop sufficient sugar. To make up for this shortcoming the wines are chaptalized, a quick fix that adds cane sugar during fermentation to boost sugar and therefore the alcohol in the end product. Industrial yeast, which speeds up the fermentation process, is used and makes many of the wines taste the same. Finally the wines are stripped of their flavor when they undergo severe filtration in preparation for shipping.
Authentic…the wines are made from vineyards with yields kept to 20 – 30% below what is regulated. The grapes are often organically grown and hand picked. The wines are made from indigenous yeast naturally present in the grapes. There is no chaptalization, and the wines are minimally filtered or not filtered at all.
1. The place…In the east central part of France, just south of Macon and just north of Lyon, lies Beaujolais. It is an area of low granite hills that stretches 35 miles north to south and is about 9 miles wide. It is located in the southernmost part of the Burgundy region.
“For French administrative purposes, Beaujolais is considered part of Burgundy even though, aside from proximity, the two regions have almost nothing in common. The climates are dissimilar, the grapes are different; the way the wines are made varies radically. Even the spirit of each place is singular. Beaujolais is as lighthearted as Burgundy is serious.” Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible
2. The history…Beaujolais is named after Beaujeu the 10th century town in the western hills of the area. Because the area was on the trade route through the Rhone and Saone valleys in ancient Roman times, there have been vineyards on this land for a long, long time. In recent centuries the region has made a living providing everyday wine for Lyon, France’s second largest city.
3. The grape…98% of the region’s wine is red, and all the red wine is made from 100% Gamay. Gamay is king in Beaujolais.
4. The appellations…French law defines three categories of Beaujolais. Nouveau can be made from any of the following categories. In ascending order of quality they are:
Beaujolais…the basic stuff from the southern lowlands
Beaujolais Villages…from the 24 villages in the midsection of the region
Beaujolais Cru …from 10 special villages on the steep granite hills. They are listed below from north to south. These wines often do not have the word Beaujolais on their label. Instead they list the name of the Cru and the producer.
Cote de Brouilly
5. How the wine is made…the tradition of carbonic maceration is in part responsible for the character of these wines. Here’s how it works: whole clusters of grapes are loaded into the tank without crushing, so the fermentation takes place inside each grape. In 4-7 days the grapes burst and the juice runs forth. Because the tannin from the skins does not get mixed into the juice, the process is really successful in expressing the character, the perfume, and the fruit extract of grape.
6. The flavor…the Gamay grape grown in this part of France has unmistakable flavor. The combination of Gamay being so low in tannin and the way carbonic maceration maximizes the clarity of the fruit flavors go together to make these wines supremely fruity. What I love is the fruit driven nature of the wine comes with a lightness and elegance that make them such a pleasure to drink.
7. Negociants…most of the wine is sold by middle folks called negociants. They do not grow the grapes or make the wine. They select, blend, bottle and sell. The most prominent names in the Beaujolais are negociants like George Duboeuf and Louis Jadot.
8 More Things About Beaujolais
- Chill it…this is a wine that the French drink chilled! Not 38 degrees but 55…Beaujolais in buckets of cold water under a big tree in the center of the village on Sundays is a tradition in the region.
- Bistro beginnings…the popularity of Beaujolais in French Bistros is well known. There are two reasons for this; the first Bistros started in Lyon the gastronomic capital of France and close to Beaujolais. And the wine goes so well with the traditional dished of the French bistro; roast chicken, pork sausages, coq au vin, stews and other simple dishes.
- George Duboeuf…is a wildly successful businessman. Beautiful labels and all the marketing materials you can imagine are hallmarks of his company. His wines sell well but wine purists find his wines over manipulated. Industrial yeasts used for fermentation often create over the top aromas and flavors which compromise the authenticity of the Beaujolais.
- Moulin a Vent…is one of the Cru wines said to be the most serious, and along with Morgon and Fleurie the most long-lived. It is named for a 300-year-old windmill in the village.
- January 1… much like the fashion police have a date when you are supposed to stop wearing linen clothing, the wine cops say that January 1 is the date to stop drinking Beaujolais Nouveau. Many believe the wine last through the winter but you might not want to order a bottle of Nouveau at a restaurant in April.
- 2007… when all California wineries must stop using the word Beaujolais on their labels of the wines made from Gamay clones.
- Red wine objectors… some say Beaujolais is the only white wine that happens to be red. Because of the low tannins and light and refreshing body many folks who say they do not drink red wine might enjoy Beaujolais.
- Cru labels…the labels on bottles of Beaujolais Cru will have the name of the producer and the name of the Cru.
“If one single name stands for uncomplicated and satisfying red wine it is Beaujolais. “ Hugh Johnson, The World Atlas of Wine