In the eastern interior of France, just north of Lyon, lies one of the most underrated wine regions of the world, but many wine lovers would not know that.
This has mostly to do with the horrible reputation that the area has obtained through its one brilliant marketing stroke ‘Beaujolais Nouveau’. The idea behind this wine was fully realized by the George Duboeuf winery (the biggest producer in that part of France) as a quick way to get rid of excess grape juice and to realize cash flow as the grapes of ‘the new Beaujolais’ are harvested in September and are on store shelves in late November. This recipe hardly makes for exceptional, thought provoking wines… but rather slightly alcoholic grape juice meant to be quaffed - as quickly as possible.
The grape of Beaujolais is Gamay Noir… lighter bodied, red fruited and relatively high in natural acidity, not to mention rather lower alcohol levels. This is at the basement level of the Beaujolais hierarchy but when you taste the same wine from old vines and from one of the better sites of the area, and if you were able to match that with a good vintage (2009/2010 came to mind) a totally different wine emerges… red and black fruit, medium weight with a sense of savory tension that would match a number of foods: roasted chicken, grilled pork or mushroom dishes.
And these wines can age; they will become, in 6 to 8 years (in a cool cellar), perfect imitations of red Burgundies (their slightly northern cousins made from Pinot Noir). There are numerous of the best producers in Beaujolais who have in their cellars, wines that are 20, 30 or even 50 years old, and they are perfect examples that the Gamay grape ages impressively well. But as opposed to having paid $30 to $50 for the Burgundies, first class Cru Beaujolais will only have cost roughly half of that.
So what is this ‘Cru Beaujolais’? At the top of the Beaujolais pyramid are the ten Crus. These are the best areas, with mostly old vines, perfect sun exposure, the best soils and a proven track record. The wines are almost entirely made in the traditional way, with some aging in oak. The best of the ten are Moulin a Vent, Morgon and Brouilly… and they would be labeled as such: the best producers never put Beaujolais on their labels. Below the Crus, comes Beaujolais Village, then Beaujolais Superior, then just Beaujolais, before finally ending with the ‘Nouveau’.
At the lower levels of the Beaujolais pyramid the wines are made with a technique know as carbonic maceration… which makes overtly fruity wines with no oak influence. These are the wines that people most often identify as ‘real’ Beaujolais. Sometimes these wines are fun to drink, but they certainly do not possess the nuances and/or gravitas of the traditionally made wines, which are aged in mostly older barrels… and these are mostly the Cru wines.
In summation, here is one of the real red wine bargains of the Old World and if a light to medium bodied food wine is required, and in addition one that has a reliable record of aging, the Beaujolais Cru wines are a great option with lots of versatility.