How to geek out on Beaujolais

Posted 11/21/19

Recently, I've had several conversations with other wine professionals in town about Beaujolais. And believe it or not, there's plenty to talk about.

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How to geek out on Beaujolais

Posted

Recently, I've had several conversations with other wine professionals in town about Beaujolais. And believe it or not, there's plenty to talk about.

This time of year is a true Beaujolais season: the new vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau is unveiled the third Thursday in November every year, and the wine is also a great option for Thanksgiving, being particularly food-friendly and versatile for a traditional holiday table.

But beyond that, there's a lot for wine pros to geek out about when it comes to Beaujolais, starting with a winemaking process called carbonic maceration.

How it's made

Most wines around the world are made by crushing grapes to release the juice, which then ferments in contact with the grape skins, from which the juice acquires color, tannin and other molecules that influence the wine's flavor and texture.

In carbonic maceration, grapes are dumped into a fermenting vessel without being crushed first. Thus, most of the fermentation happens inside the whole grape. Because the juice isn't in as much contact with the surface of the grape skins, wines made by this method tend to be very fruity and low in tannin.

A great deal of Beaujolais, and pretty much all Beaujolais Nouveau, is made using carbonic maceration. More and more producers of higher-end Cru Beaujolais (the top of the quality line in the region), however, are stepping away from this tradition and using carbonic maceration for only a portion of their grapes, or for none at all.

Where it's made

There are 10 cru Beaujolais, each taking its name from a village or region in the hills of east-central France. These wines are notable not only for their lack of carbonic maceration, but also because all 10 villages are reputed to make very distinctive wines, all from the same grape - gamay.

(A quick historical side note: Gamay used to grow alongside pinot noir in Burgundy, just to the north of Beaujolais, until the late 14th century, when Duke Phillip the Bold banished gamay from the region. He had a virulent dislike of the grape, calling it a "very bad and disloyal plant," claiming that it was "very harmful to human beings," and that people who drank it "were infested by serious diseases." The grape was exiled to the lands south of Burgundy, where it thrives today. And I haven't heard of any epidemics of Beaujolais-related illness, so I think we're safe.)

Comparing village wines

Anyway, this business of the 10 crus got me thinking. Could I tell the difference between cru Beaujolais from different villages? Don't worry - the limitations of both page and pocketbook prevent me from doing a thorough analysis of all 10 here. But I thought it might be fun to compare wines from three different cru villages in Beaujolais, and see if they match up with the traditional character each village claims--and whether they're all that different from each other.

If I were doing a real scientific comparison, I would select wines from one producer and one vintage. But that wasn't a realistic expectation, so we'll be comparing wines from three different producers and two different vintages.

We'll begin with the cru of Morgon, known for producing weighty wines that age well for at least 5 to 10 years (non-cru Beaujolais, especially Nouveau, should usually be drunk within a year or two of production). Gamay loves to grow in soils rich in granite, and Morgon is blessed with an abundance of it. Wines tend to show aromas of dark cherries and plums that deepen to earthiness as they age.

The 2017 Jean-Marc Burgaud Morgon Les Charmes ($26/750ml bottle) has a woodsy, almost perfumey aroma -- notes of cedar and incense mingle with spice and raspberry on the nose. On the palate, the wine has more ripe raspberry and strawberry, and a leathery resonance. Interestingly, I tasted it again after the bottle had been open a couple of days, and it was only then that I began to sense the dark cherry and plum the region is known for. While a beautiful wine now, this one needs some time before it will be at its peak.

Moving just northwest from Morgon, we come to the smaller region of Chiroubles. Chiroubles has a higher elevation than the other crus, which means the climate is a bit cooler, and grapes don't develop as much oomph as they do at lower elevations. So the wines tend to be more elegant and silky, and also ready to drink earlier than those of Morgon.

The 2017 Maison Passot Chiroubles Les Rampaux ($20) is classic Chiroubles through and through. Vibrant mixed red berries and cherry shine on the palate, and just a hint of sandalwood on the nose. It's refined and approachable, and my fellow tasters both pronounced it their "favorite" of the three.

As the name suggests, the cru of Fleurie has a reputation for having a distinct aroma of flowers -- especially violets. They are known for being a light, "feminine" expression of gamay (as opposed to the "manlier" Morgon, I suppose), with lots of ripe red fruits alongside the flowers. Some people call it "the queen of Beaujolais."

The 2015 Maison L'Envoyé Fleurie Château Vivier Monopole ($25) is a couple of years older than the others tasted, but it doesn't seem to be showing any signs of losing its fruit character. In fact, it's as close to a fruit bomb as I can imagine coming from Beaujolais. My tasting notes say things like "stewed blueberries" and "grape jam." While perhaps not the floral, feminine wine I was expecting, it's certainly royal in its fruit content, and would make a fun, festive Thanksgiving wine. I expect it would taste pretty nice alongside some cranberries and stuffing.

So, did my unscientific comparison of these three wine illuminate the differences between the crus for me? A bit. They were all somewhere within the bounds of their reputations, and were certainly all very different from each other. Could I pick them out in a lineup of all 10? Well, I'm going to have to taste the other seven in order to be able to answer that question. So maybe stay tuned for Part II in a few months. For now, enjoy some Beaujolais with your turkey.

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