I’m young, broke, and in love with wine. The same was true a little more than a year ago when I was studying abroad in gloomy Edinburgh. The pervasive gray underfoot and overhead was threatening to turn me into a chain-smoking, sun-starved zombie, so I planned a three-week jaunt across the continent. I had a good friend studying in Paris at the time, so we joined forces and ventured into the French countryside, searching for sunnier pastures — and vineyards.
Rendered practically destitute by the weakness of the dollar against the Euro, we nixed the pricey train to Bordeaux and set out in a rental car for famed Burgundy. With nothing more than some faded Mapquest print-outs to guide us, we ended up in a small town in the northwestern corner of the Beaujolais region. See also: not Burgundy.
I’d been looking forward to drinking good wine and the general opinion of Beaujolais is that it is a simple wine; the table wine of Parisian bistros — light, fruity, and easy to drink. My only encounters with the variety came from a Christmas tradition: my mother, who drank nothing but cheap California Chardonnays, bought a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau every year around the holidays.
Although we were disappointed, we’d spent most of the day getting hopelessly lost so we called it a day and hung up our hats. The countryside was breathtaking, our B&B came with chickens, donkeys, a claw-footed tub in our gorgeous room, and the little town was effortlessly charming. I doubted I’d find anything revelatory in our travels but I was relieved on behalf of my friend, a white-wine purist so, Beaujolais, I figured, might actually be a good compromise.
After the first sip it became clear that my disappointment had been uncalled-for. Delicate, floral, tightly structured, and redolent of fresh raspberries and strawberries, this was some delicious wine. At tasting after tasting, wild roses, violets, and peonies perfumed my glass while the wine’s acid woke up my tongue and, for the first time, I tasted the pleasant tang of granite. Light but velvety, the wine had none of that sticky, saccharine aftertaste I’d come to expect from Beaujolais Nouveau.
Beaujolais is the name of the region, but the wine is actually made from a grape called Gamay. The Gamay grape is not a diva; it’s relatively easy to grow, rigorous, and versatile. Her flavor is delicate but not often considered as elegant as her cousin, Pinot Noir. It’s naturally high in acidity and low in tannins; although it may dance on the tongue, it won’t cloy.
The region itself is large and can be easily split along the North/South divide by soil type (rocky and dry in the North and richer clay in the South). The southern parts produce wines that fall under the appellation of plain-and-basic Beaujolais and are generally lighter and fruiter — this is where the grapes that go into Beaujolais Nouveau are grown.
The Northern half produces wine under two different appellations: Beaujolais Villages and Cru Beaujolais. The former is usually of higher quality than plain Beaujolais, but not as highly regarded as the latter. Cru Beaujolais are broken down even further into ten specific appellations, each representing a distinct area and usually named after a nearby town. From North to South these appellations are: Julienas, Saint-Amour, Chenas, Moulin a Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Cote de Brouilly, and Brouilly.
We were lucky enough to stumble right into the heart of this Northern region, so we were tasting the best that Beaujolais has to offer. Just like people, grape vines reflect the way they were brought up; the Gamay vines that are grown on the rocky and acidic soil of these northern areas have to struggle a little more to produce fruit. That struggle is reflected in the fruit and manifests itself as a more complex and structured wine.
Beaujolais is an excellent starter wine; it’s not intimidating, not meant for aging, and you can find a great bottle for a wonderful price. If you’re mostly a white drinker, it’s a nice red to ease you into the heavier stuff. More experienced drinkers will appreciate the subtleties of this delicate wine – it’s a pleasant surprise in such a “light” wine.
By the end of our trip, we were both loyal Beaujolais drinkers. My friend swore off the whites and began diving into deeper, heavier profiles. For my part, I finally found something to take the edge off that gloomy Scottish fog.
Fleurie is commonly referred to as the most feminine of the Cru Beaujolais; with the most floral nose, often of violets, ripe red fruit, and a velvety finish (Chateau des Deduits Fleurie Beaujolais 2006 $16.95, Terres Dorees Fleurie 2008 $18.99)
Morgon wines are the darkest and richest of the Cru Beaujolais and are most similar to Burgundian wines; a peachy nose, earthy taste, and silky texture (Maison Louis Tete Morgon 2007 $14.99, Domaine Georges Descombes Morgon 2007 $19.99)
Cote De Brouilly is somewhere in between — not as earthy as Morgon wines but richer than a typical Fleurie (my personal favorite is the smoky 2006 Chateau de Thivin at $14.00 but also good is the more lively 2008 from the same winemakers at $18.00 and Daniel Bouland’s 2008 at $20).