If you think Beaujolais is all fruity and light gamay, you haven’t been looking hard enough. Yes, of course, gamay makes up a substantial majority of the region’s plantings, but with 12,500 hectares and 12 crus, all with unique terroir, Beaujolais is far from just one thing.
“With the increasing [number] of quality-minded producers, I believe that Beaujolais is a singular place with the ability to make both refreshing wines and deep, age-worthy ones too,” says Grant Reynolds, sommelier and founder of Parcelle, adding that the region has long been one that he personally drinks and collects wine from. “Tasting through the different crus of Beaujolais sheds light on how this region is the most diverse in France.”
While Beaujolais is often compared to its northern neighbor, a more apt comparison may be the fresh, versatile Italian wines Barbera or Dolcetto, fruit-forward Spanish Mencia or even Alto Piemonte—a little-known Italian region in the Alps that is also quickly gaining popularity. Food-friendly, versatile and affordable, a good Beaujolais can be paired with Thanksgiving dinner or sipped with slight chill on a sunny, hot afternoon—making them a must-have for in-the-know sommeliers. Combine that with an influx of new producers and a tradition of hands-off, natural winemaking, and you have a true crowd-pleaser.
“I have an affinity for the region because of gamay’s versatility on the dining table,” says Nicole Ward, a certified wine specialist who represents North Berkeley Imports in Southern California. “It’s a great wine when dining out and everyone has a different dish. I could have bouillabaisse and my husband could have steak frites and a cru Beaujolais will go beautifully. You can also find really affordable cru Beaujolais.”
Ward’s favorite cru is Fleurie, which is one of the region’s better known appellations, thanks to its feminine style: it’s fruity and floral, with an exceptional delicacy. And while the family has many wines across Beaujolais crus, Ward recommends Domaine Les Gryphées Fleurie, as the vines are older and sourced from a lieu-dit: “Les Grands Vières.” “It’s so fresh, elegant and a great bang for the buck,” she says, as the average price is about $22 a bottle.
The same affordability can be found in the village-level wines, even those from natural producers utilizing old vines, like Lapalu Beaujolais Villages Vieilles Vignes. “The misguided story is that [the region] only produces fruity, ‘basic’ styles, when there are remarkable wines, whether it’s Beaujolais Villages or Cru Lieu Dit,” says John Burns Paterson, managing partner of Frankies Nashville. “This is especially true for the newer generation, who are working with exceptional vineyards and only doing partial carbonic maceration, yielding an expression of gamay that’s pure—still fruity, yes—but structured and no doubt ‘serious.’”
Styles like this are bold enough to pair with smoked barbecue, Paterson says, especially in the warmer months. “There’s something about the kiss of smoke that works so well with these wines, especially on a sweltering afternoon when you still need that red wine kick,” he explains. Gamay is also one of the few red wine grapes that can benefit from a slight chill, so feel free to stick a bottle in an ice bucket if it’s a hot day.
If you're looking for a bottle to impress friends with over dinner, you should look to Morgon, an appellation that consistently produces age-worthy wines. Jean-Paul et Charly Thévenet, another old vine expression, is the producer that Reynolds recommends for a classic example. It’s still fruity, but with a bit of complex earthiness too—and at around $42, you can pop a few in your cellar.
When it comes to white wines (yes, this region does produce whites!) Reynolds considers them to be “a great gateway for French style of chardonnay for new world consumers.” According to him, Beaujolais Blancs are one of the most exciting things about the region right now. Typically, a Beaujolais Blanc is a soft and fruity expression of chardonnay, perfect for a classic pairing with shellfish, or (less classic) with meats. “Also, it works well with spicy and umami flavors like Asian and Latin cuisines,” Reynolds adds.
For a prime example, Reynolds recommends Domaine Dupeuble’s Beaujolais Blanc. The family has been producing wines here for more than 500 years, operating out of 100 hectares. While most of the vineyard space is dedicated to gamay, chardonnay has been planted too, and does especially well thanks to old vines and limestone soils. The grapes are then hand-harvested and fermented naturally, without any sulfur dioxide. The result? A fruity wine with peach and citrus notes, as well as bright acidity.
“One of the advantages a producer of Beaujolais has is a wide range of vineyard types to work with,” Reynolds explains. “Unlike a chef, a winemaker is limited to their raw material (grapes), so with many different soil types they can explore different flavors and styles.”
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