Beaujolais in November

Nov 30, 2009

If you've been in the LCBO recently, you'll notice a section at the front of the store. Beaujolais Nouveaus has arrived.

What is going on here? What's so special?

For those new to the world of wine, Beaujolais is that southern portion of Burgundy that you might describe as the black sheep of the family. Burgundy is made up of Chablis, the Côte d’Or (encompassing the Côte du Nuits and Côte de Beaune), the Macônnais. All these wines tend to be serious aside from the Chalonaise – their reputation is changing. 

The main two red grapes of Burgundy are Pinot Noir and Gamay. Pinot Noir is the serious and studious grape, a staple for such famous villages as Gevrey Chambertin, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanee, Nuits-St.Georges and Volnay. Pinot Noir has been revered by dukes, queens and kings. Some of the most expensive and prestigious red Burgundians continued to come from the Côte de Nuits.
And then there’s Gamay, the Gamin grape. She is what I call the Audrey Hepburn of reds – fun, flirtacious, but a redhead with blushing cheeks and a ribald sense of humor. There’s nothing sophisticated about her (but there’s nothing wrong with Holly Golightly either). Whereas a Pinot Noir is delicate, a Cleopatra of wines, age worthy, sensuous and intellectual, Gamay is here today and gone tomorrow. She’s fun. And when you’re in the midst of winter, you to have a bit more fun?

It would seem kind of silly that Beaujolais, a wine meant to be drunk young should be saddled in with Burgundy. Is it a case of the odd couple? Perhaps, but it just so happens for French bureaucratic and administrative purposes the Beaujolais vineyards are part of Burgundy.

However, for the Burgundians, Beaujolais wines belong to the vins du Rhône as the vineyards fall within the Rhône département that surrounds the city of Lyon in southeastern France.

The climate is distinctly warmer and the vinification methods are substantially different.

For a Beaujolais wine to be truly, truly Beaujolais, clusters of grapes are thrown in whole into the fermentation tank. The fermentation takes place literally within each grape. This is called carbonic maceration.

After fermentation has occurred, the wine rests in tanks for five to nine months before bottling. Sometimes a producer might throw the wine into a smaller oak barrel to impart a bit of oakiness.

It sounds basic but it works. In his Adventures on the Wine Route, Kevin Lynch writes: “What a concept, downing a newborn wine that has barely left the grape, a wine that retains the cornucopian spirit of the harvest past. It even serves to remind us of the first time man tasted fermented grape juice and decided it was an accident worth pursuing.”

The climate of the region is considered Semi-Continental meaning you can expect cool to colder winters but hotter and dryer summers. The soil in Beaujolais is decomposed granite (for the best sites) in the north and sedimentary rock clay and limestone in the south. And another thing, the wines don’t grow on trellises like they do Burgundy but freestanding vines.

There are 96 villages but only 10 of which are recognized as making superior wines.

There are three levels to Beaujolais (we’ll get to Beaujolais Nouveau in a minute).

BEAUJOLAIS – the regular, everyday quaffing wine. The vineyards are less distinguished, the soil is fertile (which means grapes grown in abundance and growers care less about yields, meaning fairly typical, dull, but fruity wines) and the land is flat (the better sites are on slopes).

BEAUJOLAIS-VILLAGES – these wines come from 39 villages in the hilly middle of the region. Here the soil is less fertile meaning the vines have to struggle to produce better grapes. The struggle imparts character and flavour to the berries. The finished product is a blend of several villages.

BEAUJOLAIS CRU – in Burgundy and in other famous wine regions, Cru indicates a vineyard whereas in Beaujolais, it refers to a village. These villages are located on steep granite hills at higher altitudes than the regular Beaujolais. Here are the names of those ten. (Note: if you want the best, you’ll have to memorize the names of these villages because no where on the label will you find the term ‘Beaujolais’. Why? Again, strange, French administrative policy. Go figure.)

St.Amour – a rich, silky wine with aromas of peach, said to be named after a canonized Roman who accepted Christianity following a near death-experience.
Juliénas – a bit more powerful than the others, this wine is rich and spicy, named after Julius Ceasar.
Chénas – smallest of the Crus, you can expect a bouquet of roses and a supple, princess- like grace on your palate.
Moulin-à-Vent – is a hearty rich red with a beautiful balance. The village is named after a 300-year old windmill that stands near the vineyard.
Fleurie – whereas Moulin-a-Vent is the more masculine, Fleurie is the easy feminine wine with a floral bouquet and velvety texture to match.
Chiroubles – is located at the highest altitude and offers a boquet of violets, not to mention the lightest body and the lowest tannins.
Morgon – is rich and massive, deep purple with aromas of apricots and earth.
Régnié - will please you with its round, full-bodied red currant rush of fruit. It is also the newest cru, added in 1988.
Brouilly – is the epitome of Beaujolais – fruity, grapes, light-bodied with irristable aroms of raspberries, cherries, blueberries and currants. The largest cru.
Côte de Brouilly – offers heady, lively deep fruit in a light-bodied wine. The vineyards are located on an extinct volcano.

We live in a variety-obsessed culture where Chardonnay and Cabernet are the first grapes we think of when we think wine. These international varieties are globetrotters, making their way into vineyards from California to South Africa’s Cape to the coasts of Australia and New Zealand.

Gamay is a stay-at-home type. You can find a bit here and a bit there, notably Switzerland in the Dole where it is blended with Pinot Noir and the occasional plantings in Canada, New Zealand and England.

As I mentioned earlier, November is the time when Beaujolais Nouveau is released. What is this wine and why is it so special?

Well, Nouveau is French for ‘new’ and in the world of wine, one that is produced specifically to be drunk young, just weeks after the harvest.

Every year on the third Thursday of November wine and liquor stores will be stocked with this type of wine. These wines undergo carbonic maceration but for just a few days.

These wines are meant to drunk slightly cool and within weeks of release. They are easy to quaff and when you drink a Beaujolais Nouveau, you share in experience that occurs around the world. While you’re drinking your Nouveau here in Niagara, people in France, Germany, Spain, Japan, China, the United States and England are also opening up bottles to savour the fun and flirty wines. It’s like the New Years of Wine – when we drink in, we join in on the celebration.

The great benefit for French producers of Beaujolais is that they get an immediate return on their wine. The benefit for us, we can enjoy the fruits of their harvest and forget about the coming winter.

Johnson, Hugh and Jancis Robinson, World Atlas of Wine. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2001.
MacNeil, Karen, The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company Inc. New York, 2001
Robinson, Jancis, The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2003.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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