Just as the industrial revolution wouldn’t have happened without the steam engine and the digital age would be unthinkable without the home computer, our current era of wine consumption would look entirely different without the American wine industry’s belated discovery of Beaujolais.
The famed region north of Lyon has become required drinking, an essential pillar of the contemporary canon of wines that helped rewrite the script about where greatness resides. Long gone are days when the region suffered under the stigma of cheap, mass-market “nouveau,” that boomer-era marketing gimmick (since repurposed as cool) that nearly tanked Beaujolais’ image for an entire generation of consumers.
Whenever industry types mention Beaujolais today, they mean cru Beaujolais—sourced from the 10 name-designated villages, including Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent, and Morgon, where the most famous Beaujolais is grown. And for drinkers who came of age amid the region’s postmodern renaissance (i.e., the early aughts), these were the bottles that offered the first glimpse of how profound real Beaujolais could be.
Not only were the crus billed as a bargain alternative to Burgundy (to which collectors were just beginning to flock), but Beaujolais was also the birthplace of natural wine. Known as the Gang of Four (though technically there were more of them), the band of rogue vignerons credited with kick-starting the movement in the 1980s had already been canonized as patron saints of wine’s counterculture by the time their bottles surfaced on U.S. shores. This perfect mix of affordability, drinkability and alternative street cred transformed Beaujolais into the emblematic wine of our times.
Beaujolais Got Expensive. Now What?
Once the quintessential bang-for-your-buck option on a wine list, Beaujolais has recently priced itself out of the $60 slot. Here’s what’s taken its place.
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Then, of course, Beaujolais got expensive. Benchmark bottles that reliably landed in the $25 range—notably, the celebrated Morgons from Jean Foillard and Marcel Lapierre—have since doubled in cost. To fill the void, buyers rushed to expand their horizons, combing the globe for other light, chillable reds, from Sicilian frappato to Spanish mencía to Chilean país and Piedmontese pelaverga. In this constant hunt for the new, however, many overlooked the humble appellations of Beaujolais (a regional designation encompassing all of Beaujolais) and Beaujolais-Villages (a specific group of 38 hillside villages clustered in the area’s north). Increasingly, production in these appellations is being driven by small, often natural-leaning growers who are working to reclaim the potential of these unheralded corners of the region.
“We always talk of the crus,” says Jean-Paul Dubost, winemaker at his family’s fourth-generation estate in the up-and-coming village of Lantignié. “But in Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages there are great terroirs as well, giving wines that are extremely interesting with identities of their own.”
With Beaujolais’ top bottlings quickly encroaching upon fine wine territory, meticulously picked apart for subtle distinctions in terroir, soil type, and production methods, Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages provide an ideal point of entry and what Eric Moorer, director of sales at Washington, D.C.’s Domestique Wine, calls “a ‘big picture’ sense of what Beaujolais is about as a region.”
Stylistically, that translates to a spectrum ranging from friendly, fruit-driven wines designed for immediate enjoyment to more concentrated, structured efforts that approach cru-level complexity. Without knowing a producer’s individual style, it can be difficult to anticipate which part of this continuum to expect. But with prices rarely exceeding $25 per bottle—and then only for cult names like Lapierre and Foillard, both of whom make excellent versions—the results rarely disappoint. As Moorer puts it, “I struggle to find bad examples of these wines.”
It’s a sentiment worth keeping in mind the next time someone complains about that bottle of Morgon hovering at $140 on the wine list. While the price inflation that has befallen the biggest names in Beaujolais shows no signs of abating, there’s an upside. No longer confined to the same handful of famous reference points, the Beaujolais section of the average U.S. wine shop has rapidly expanded—and with that growth has come a new wave of wines that invite us to consider a timely paradox: What if the Beaujolais substitutes we’ve been seeking have been under our noses this whole time?
Shifting Out of Crus Control
Michel Guignier (Les Améthystes) Beaujolais
The unexpected concentration and depth that Beaujolais veteran Michel Guignier coaxes out of his most basic Beaujolais make perfect sense, considering that most of the grapes that go into it come from his family’s holdings of 50-year-old vines in the heart of Morgon. Dark-fruited, perfumed and succulent, this delivers way more wine than anyone could reasonably expect from an $18 bottle.
- Price: $18
- Vintage: 2021
Aurélien Burgaud Beaujolais-Villages Grignette
This may be winemaker Aurélien Burgaud’s first professional vintage, but the artfully man-bunned upstart (and nephew to Morgon legend Jean-Marc Burgaud) already makes one of the best “Villages” around. Sourced from a tiny parcel of organically farmed vines in the hamlet of Quincié-en-Beaujolais, his bright, spritzy inaugural release bursts with fresh strawberries and goes down with ease.
- Price: $26
- Vintage: 2020
Laura Lardy Beaujolais-Villages Gourde à Gamay
A classic example of the children of Beaujolais legends, Laura Lardy (daughter of Moulin-à-Vent stalwart Lucien and sister of the equally talented Yohan) rents just under 14 hectares of vines from her father to produce wines from the crus of Chénas, Moulin-à- Vent, Morgon and Fleurie, plus this juicy, semicarbonic wine from the non-cru village of Lantignié. It’s bright, tangy and chuggable, with a distinct pink peppercorn aspect and flavors of raspberry and rhubarb.
- Price: $23
- Vintage: 2021
Jean-Claude Lapalu Beaujolais-Villages
Among the Gang of Four’s most noteworthy disciples, Jean-Claude Lapalu now enjoys equal acclaim as one of the region’s guiding lights. The product of 45-year-old, estate-owned vines, his take on “Villages” skews toward the more serious, structured side of the Beaujolais spectrum, with layers of Bing cherry and thyme and a firm backbone of tannins that suggest this would improve with a few years of age.
- Price: $25
- Vintage: 2021
Jean Foillard Beaujolais-Villages
No list of top Beaujolais would be complete without the inclusion of natural wine legend Jean Foillard—and this delivers a textbook introduction to all the reasons why. From several organically farmed parcels in the villages of Villié-Morgon, Lancié, Saint-Amour and Saint-Étienne-la-Varenne, it channels the stylistic signatures of his incomparable Morgons and Fleuries (the silkiness, depth and floral intensity) into a more accessible, earlier-drinking package. Not insignificantly, it’s also half the price.
- Price: $29
- Vintage: 2020
Jean-Paul Dubost Beaujolais-Lantignié
When a wine is made exclusively from a single commune’s vineyards, it can be labeled with the name of that village—hence this “Beaujolais-Lantignié,” courtesy of vigneron Jean-Paul Dubost, who has long called the town home. Rich and sappy, with a mouthful of blackberries and a bright mineral streak, it drinks every bit as seriously as the acclaimed crus he makes from holdings in Brouilly, Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon.
- Price: $20
- Vintage: 2020