Beaujolais, the Rodney Dangerfield of Wines

Beaujolais don’t get no respect. It’s been the butt of jokes and derision for as long as I can remember.

“These are robot wines, rolling off the assembly line, millions and millions of them,” wrote wine importer Kermit Lynch in Adventures on the Wine Route. “When I see wine writers taking the current formula Beaujolais seriously…awarding points and stars, discussing the ‘banana’ aroma, I want to scream, THESE ARE NOT LIVING WINES.”

Our line-up of joyous, girly girl Beaujolais

Our line-up of joyous, girly girl Beaujolais

Lynch hammered out this screed back in 1988, but in the 25 years since, Beaujolais has yet to find its superhero defender, its redemptive plot point or way into the hearts and minds of wine conoscenti. A simple bistro wine, it’s not the kind of thing that’s featured in professional wine tastings in New York, so it rarely crosses my path. (I’m not at all opposed to summer quaffers—au contraire—but I usually turn to Italy for these: basic Chianti, Valpolicella, Ciro…)

That’s why I was delighted when Lynn Abell offered to host a Beaujolais Cru tasting for our bimonthly wine club. The idea was to give Beaujolais a fighting chance by focusing on its best wines: the 10 cru that lie on the granite-based soils in the northern half of the appellation, a 67-square-mile zone above Lyon.

The crus comprise just a fraction of the whole. Factoid: Half of all Burgundy wine is Beaujolais. And half of all Beaujolais is Beaujolais Nouveau—the “assembly line” wine that Kermit Lynch was dissing, which arrives with such great fanfare at Thanksgiving.

Beaujolais Cru flash cards

Being a Beaujolais novice, I picked up some ABCs, starting with this fact:  Beaujolais crus do not include the word ‘Beaujolais’ on the label. So we all need to write these names on flash cards and memorize them: Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Régnié, Morgon, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent, Chénas, Juliénas, and Saint-Amour—the 10 cru, strung south to north along the meandering Saone River.

Reading up on Beaujolais and the gamay grape before our tasting, I uncovered a few more interesting tidbits. In A Carafe of Red, former Gourmet wine writer Gerald Asher explains how the Beaujolais Nouveau phenomenon took shape soon after France introduced its AOC laws in 1935. “Growers were still shipping barrels of new (and probably fizzy) Beaujolais to Lyons as recently as the 1930s,” he writes. In bistros, the wine went straight from barrel to carafe. When drunk in its infancy, Beaujolais was a charmer: “tender yet sprightly…redolent of peonies in full flower—as seductive as any wine can be.”

But that practice was curtailed when France’s new appellation laws clamped down on such freewheeling, undocumented selling. WWII intervened next, definitively breaking tradition. The Vichy administration’s restrictions were revoked in 1951, when authorities fixed December 15 as the date when AOC wines could be sold. “Too late!,” cried Beaujolais growers who’d traditionally sold some of their fresh-pressed wine soon after harvest. They lobbied for and obtained a waiver that allowed them to release en primeur wines one month early, on November 15. For commercial motives, that date was changed in 1985 to the third Thursday of November. As Asher euphemistically notes, “The arrival of the new wine in far-flung places could be tied to a weekend during which everyone could enjoy it.” (“Or tie one on,” as club member Michael Shroeder translated.)

I was particularly interested in reading how Beaujolais has evolved in style over the past half-century. That’s what set Kermit Lynch off. He quotes Jean-Baptiste Chaudet, a post-war wine merchant, recollecting Beaujolais being “very light in color, at times really pale, slightly aggressive, even a touch green, and rarely above 11 degrees alcohol.” Chaudet decried the overproduction, lazy cellar techniques, and heavy-handed chaptalization that changed Beaujolais entirely, raising the alcohol several degrees and making the wine “supple” instead of “young, light, and aggressive. ”

Indeed, all the wines we tasted were between 13 to 13.5%. It’s impossible to know how much is due to global warming, which has affected all of Burgundy. But undoubtedly sugar plays a part.

The thing is, today's wine drinkers prefer “supple” over “aggressive”. We certainly did. There was one Kermit Lynch wine at our tasting—a 2010 Chateau Thivin Côte de Brouilly—and not surprisingly, this was the lowest alcohol (12.5%) and most tart of the lot. Pale in color, its bouquet was delicate, reminiscent of strawberries (“strawberry lip gloss,” I jotted in my notes). But it was more linear than plump, and it fell to the bottom of the list when we voted for our favorites. (For a differing opinion, see Eric Asimov’s “Looking for Renewed Magic in Beaujolais.”)

And the winners are…

Instead, the group’s wine of choice was the 2009 Domaine Pascal Brunet Morgon, sourced from the granite- and schist-rich soils of Côte du Py.  In my mind, this was in a class by itself, possessing a structure and minerality that made it resemble—how shall I say this?—regular wine. I missed the flirty charm and fruity aromatics of gamay and, for that reason, was less smitten than the others.

My favorite of the tasting

My favorite of the tasting

To my mind, the wines that really sung were those that offered the prettiest fruit and the most floral aromas. These were the ones that flaunted the essence of gamay, like proud girly girls. My top picks were the 2009 Dom. Tranchand Fleuri Vielle Vignes, which offered a noseful of violets, reminding me of my grandmother’s guest bathroom, with its rose soap and dried-flower sachet; the same vintner’s 2009 Saint Amour, which added a grapey scent to the floral base, like a trellis of ripe Concord grapes in your flower garden; and—topping my list and #2 for the group—the 2009 Dom. Chevalier-Métrat Brouilly Vieilles Vignes (above). Made from 50-year-old vines, this offered an intense bouquet of peony, grape, and plum, and its higher acidity supplied a nice, food-friendly tartness. Whereas many of the wines were lovely at first blush but stopped short, this had some length and seemed the most complete wine, while retaining the charm.

These Beaujolais make me smile. And not just because of their reasonable price (all $17 to $18). Friendly and winsome, they’re perfect companions for a pleasant summer afternoon or an al fresco supper. And that gets my respect.