By now, you've likely been anvilled over the head a dozen or so times about the annual arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau. Naturally the cynic in me sees Beau-Nouveau as a ploy to sell off lots and lots of mediocre wine. On the other hand, the wine lover in me sees this 3rd-Thursday-in-November wine rush as damaging to the overall perception of this unique wine region, which is technically part of Burgundy - but not really. Hint: If you must Nouveau, try laying your hands on a bottle of Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau - it's a step up from basic Beaujolais Nouveau.
This past summer I came face to face with François Mauss, the French wine critic who referred to Beaujolais as 'not proper wine', and 'vin de merde'. In fact, upon meeting Mssr. Mauss, his guide/translator excitedly told me that, "this is the guy that called Beaujolais shi**y wine." Were this bloviating critic referring only to Nouveau, I would be hard pressed to argue with his summation (let's face it, B.Nouveau is, in the pantheon of wine, fairly unremarkable). However, to drag the oft decent Beaujolais Villages and frequently fabulous Beaujolais Crus into the merde is, in my opinion, wrong.
Gamay + Ground
Geographically speaking, Beaujolais hitches snugly up to Maconnais, Burdundy's Southern flank. In fact, Macon red is actually made from Gamay - the red varietal which predominates in Beau-jo. Lest you get the impression I am a Beaujolais expert, I will sheepishly admit to pronouncing the first bottle of Beaujolais I ever saw as, "Bo-jolly-ass." Ahem.
In this area of Burgundy, Gamay is king. Fairly generic everywhere else, the French believe Beaujolais' good Gamay can be attributed to, surprise!, terroir. Gamay plus good terroir often results in light, lively and fruity wines. The best Gamay vineyards tend to exist in hilly areas with sandy clay-over-granite soils. Such sites are most common in the northern portion of Beaujolais. Whereas most of the southern Beaujolais is a flat, clay 'wine flat', which is responsible for Nouveau and the more generic versions of B.Villages. For now, let's ignore the south and have a looksie at Beau-Jo's North.
Know Your Beaujolais Crus
Within a stretch of just 15 miles lie the ten Crus (i.e. premiere growing sites) of Beaujolais. Where Burgundy fanatics consider the Cote d'Or hilly, Beaujolais groupies look at its Cru terrain as downright mountainous. While all the Crus have hills and granite bedrock in common, there is remarkable diversity amongst them.
Brouilly is the largest and perhaps most available of the Beaujolais Crus. Due to its size, you may encounter mediocre wine, but if you locate wine labeled as Cote de Brouilly, you may be surprised by a concentrated, black-raspberry laden wine.
Chenas is the smallest, rarest and most prized Cru. Wine from Chenas is often described as fat, fleshy and floral.
Morgon ranks #2 in Cru size. The soils here are incredibly rocky. The best Morgon wines possess full body and concentrated fruit flavors of cherries and plums.
Régnié is the youngest Cru - obtaining its status in 1988. In contrast to Morgon, Régnié's soils are quite sandy, and thus produce soft, smooth wines with simple berry flavors.
Chiroubles is unknown to many (including me). This is the highest altitude Beaujolais Cru. Chrioubles is said to produce some of the most unique wines in this region - redolent of violets and peonies.
Fleurie is the 'happy medium' of Beaujolais Crus. It produces fairly soft, fairly floral and fairly fruity wines.
Moulin a Vent, with its ancient windmill, is the icon of Beaujolais Crus. The best wines from Moulin a Vent offer scents of roses and ripe berries.
Julienas is renowned for its quality standard. Wines from this Cru are often able to shine after 2-3 years of ageing. Whereas 'berries' is the most common adjective for Beaujolais Cru wines, Julienas often possesses peach characteristics.
Saint Amour is the northernmost Cru. These wines tend to be quite lively with flavors of tart cherry & spice. Due to their characteristic high acidity, the wines of Saint Amour, tend to be age-worthy (up to 3 years).
Recommendation: Alas, I live under a Stalinist wine regime which is monopolized by wines from the famous/infamous 'Don' of Beaujolais, Georges Dubouef. However, I will say that Georges knows his Brouilly! In recent years, Duboeuf has taken to bottling Domaine-specific Brouilly. For twelve bucks, take a wild ride on Duboeuf's Domaine de Grand Croix Brouilly 2005 ($12). It's anything but light and racy. This wine will wow you with heft and sensual-smooth texture.
Have you sampled a Beaujolais Cru recently? If so, tell us about it in the comments.