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Beaujolais Wine for the Weekday

Apr 14, 2014 09:50AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Matt Anderson

Wine expert Karen MacNeil once described Beaujolais as “the only white wine that happens to be red.” It is not uncommon to see a bottle stuck into a bucket of ice and brought out to enjoy with picnic fare—a little hint to keep handy as spring settles in. Like the refreshing, light bodied white wines we crave when weather warms up, it is celebrated for its immediacy. Most of the 75 million plus bottles of entry level Beaujolais are released by March, less than six months after harvest. It is often the first wine to hit Parisian cafés and, in the case of Beaujolais Nouveau, the first French wine released of the vintage. The region is not without controversy (what French region is?), but despite its bad rap, the opportunity for a truly joyous wine drinking experience, void of pretention, exists here in abundance.

This wine, in the tradition of many French wines, is named for its region of origin. Beaujolais is a 37 mile stretch between two powerhouse names in French wine, dipping its vines into both—the Rhone Valley just to the south and Burgundy to the north—although it is connected more to Burgundy, both historically and administratively. There are roughly 67 square miles of land dedicated to the vine, which is just more than 3/4 the land area of Baltimore City. Most of the wine we see is bottled by negociants, or large wine merchants that purchase grapes from the almost 4,000 growers and bottle under their own name. You’ve likely seen the names Louis Jadot, Bouchard Pere et Fils, and Georges Duboeuf on a bottle somewhere before. They are three of the biggest houses, producing wine in both Burgundy and Beaujolias. Overall, negociants account for ninety percent of Beaujolais exported around the world. If you’d like to find a unique individual grower wine experience, look for the names of Kermit Lynch or Alain Jungenet on the back of labels. The two importers specialize in selecting and distributing wines of exceptional character and complexity.

The region cultivates the Gamay Noir grape almost exclusively with annual production totals reaching 99 percent of the area’s total output, with the final 1 percent being the less commonly seen Beaujolais Blanc made from Chardonnay. Gamay generally ripens two weeks early than Pinot Noir and is far less difficult to cultivate, which made it popular with farmers in the 14th century. However in 1395, The Duke of Burgundy, referring to the plant as “disloyal,” outlawed production of the grape to clear room for the more noble Pinot Noir. The result may have helped the grape, pushing it further south to the current location of Beaujolais and setting up some of the region’s finer vineyards with more favorable granite soils, allowing the grape to develop a character and style all its own.

The wines of Burgundy were long the choice of nobility, with the Pinot Noir grape producing some of the most elegant and long lived wines in the world. Gamay, on the other hand, turned out simple quaffing wine often drunk in the villages soon after it was bottled, if it was bottled at all. While the wines of Beaujolais have come a long way in the past few centuries, bottles should be consumed within a year or two of being released before they lose their fresh fruity charm.

There are longer lived examples of what is known as “Cru Beaujolais” that are labeled under the name of the particular villages from which they come. The finest examples from Moulin-a-Vent and Morgon are much more concentrated than their everyday counterparts and can develop for upwards of 10 years.

Beaujolais really exploded onto the wine scene when the local tradition of Beaujolais Nouveau became an annual international craze. Each year, in celebration of a successful harvest, producers would ferment, bottle, and release a small share of the production to be enjoyed young. Due to the savvy marketing of a few of the larger negociants like Georges Duboeuf in the 1980s, demand for this wine worldwide was soon more than producers could keep up with. The quality of the wine began to suffer and by 2001, consumer backlash left producers with more than 1 million cases of unsold wine, which was then either distilled or destroyed. Because of this, the word Beaujolais sometimes inspires a twisted look of disgust on the face of consumers. The time has come, however, for resurgence. Producers at all levels are releasing wines of unmatchable joy and simplicity that aren’t flashy and demand little from you. They demonstrate the future of this overlooked and often under-rated French region.

For immediate pleasure, take a bottle of Louis Jadot’s entry level Beaujolais, stick it in the fridge a short while and enjoy a glass with light snacks, or (as previously mentioned) on a picnic. If you can still manage to find it, grab Marcel Lapierre’s Morgon for a master class in the nuance and complexity that Gamay is capable of in the right hands.