Tick-tock . . . less than two weeks until the release of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau. It’s often shunned by serious wine drinkers, but I’ll admit it — I buy a bottle every year. Now, I don’t just love Beaujolais Nouveau (it tastes like a banana Runt wrapped in bubble gum to me), but I’m a sucker for tradition. The Beaujolais Nouveau spectacle might be a marketing gimmick, but it’s a clever one. And one that brings attention to the entire Beaujolais region — there’s so much more to Beaujolais than Nouveau.
Every year when I’m buying my bottle of banana bubble gum wine, I think to myself, I really need to drink more Cru Beaujolais. And then I don’t. Because my Cru Beaujolais knowledge is pitiful. So this year, I’m going to Carpe the Vinum — the best way to fix my Cru Beaujolais knowledge problem is to have a Cru Beaujolais wine tasting. This month, Carpe Vinum will study and taste Cru Beaujolais. But before we taste, I need to brush up on Beaujolais, so I can contribute something worthwhile to the conversation besides, “yeah, this is good!”.
So, first things first. Where is Beaujolais? France. Duh. It’s sandwiched between Burgundy to the north and Rhone to the south.
Map used by permission from Wines & Beyond Import.
The main grape of Beaujolais is Gamay — a cross between Pinot Noir and a white grape called Gouais. Gamay first appeared in the village of Gamay (in Burgundy) in the 1360s, following the Black Death. It was a low-maintenance grape, and it ripened quickly — both plusses when you’re recovering from a worldwide pandemic. In 1395, the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe the Bold, banished Gamay from Burgundy because it was a “bad and disloyal grape” (you don’t get to call yourself the Bold by keeping bad and disloyal grapes around). Fortunately, Gamay found a new home in Beaujolais, where it thrived.
Typically, Beaujolais is a light-bodied wine with lower tannins, characterized by bright berry flavors with some tropical punch notes, a product of carbonic maceration (when grapes go into the tanks whole and ferment with their skins on). The wines are a vivid purple-ruby color, and they’re usually ready to drink almost as soon as they are bottled. That said, some (most?) Cru Beaujolais is capable of aging, some longer than 10 years.
Serving Beaujolais slightly chilled brings out the acidity in the wine, making it a superb partner for a whole gamut of foods. You want to see a neat trick? Pick one of your “I only drink white wine” friends and offer them a glass of Beaujolais. You might just convert them to Team Red.
There are three basic levels of Beaujolais:
- Beaujolais — this is the basic (think ordinary) Beaujolais, and most of it is sold as Beaujolais Nouveau. Grapes can come from anywhere in Beaujolais, but most come from the flat-lands in the southern part of the region.
- Beaujolais-Villages — these wines come from one of the 39 designated villages in the northern section of Beaujolais. It’s mostly a blend of wines from various villages, and usually the bottle simply says, “Beaujolais Villages”. But they’re more complex than “regular” Beaujolais.
- Cru Beaujolais — these are the “best” Beaujolais wines, and come from any of the ten villages in the northern section of Beaujolais. Usually, only the name of the village appears on the wine label. This is one of the infuriating things about French (and Euro) wine labels. Unless you happen to know Saint Amour is a Cru Beaujolais, you have no idea what’s in the bottle you’re holding. So you put it back and head straight into the arms of a California Merlot.
So . . . it’s high-time to commit the names of the Cru Beaujolais villages to memory.
Here are the 10 Cru Beaujolais villages. I spliced together some general Cru Beaujolais tasting notes from around the web:
- Julienas — named after a village planted by the Romans and named for Julius Caesar. Rich, spicy peppery wines, with aromas of peonies (my favorite!).
- Saint Amour — noted for being delicate, with spice and stone fruit flavors.
- Chenas — the smallest Cru Beaujolais. Noted for its pronounced minerality and rosy nose.
- Moulin-a-Vent — Maybe the most famous and full bodied of the Cru Beaujolais. The name comes from an ancient windmill that’s in the middle of the vineyards. Capable of aging 10+ years.
- Fleurie — Fruity and “flowery” Beaujoalis, with a smooth texture.
- Chiroubles — vineyards at the highest altitudes in Beaujolais. Known for it’s light, violet aromas and strawberry cherry flavors.
- Morgon — Earthy flavors with dark colors and a firmer structure. Capable of aging 10+ years.
- Regnie — the most recent Cru to get its designation. These wines tend to be a notch above Beaujolais-Villages with light fruit.
- Cote de Brouilly — Subdistrict of Brouilly. Grapes are grown on slops of an extinct volcano. More robust because the grapes get more sun. Less earthy than Brouilly. Brouilly and Cote de Brouilly are the only areas in Beaujolais where it is permitted to grow grapes other than Gamay.
- Brouilly — The largest Cru. Grapes are grown at the bottom of a hill. Famous for blueberry, cherry, raspberry and currant aromas. Best young.
How am I going to remember all that?? I happened to mention to Wayward Wine that Carpe Vinum would be studying Cru Beaujolais this month, and he cleverly suggested I make up a mnemonic device to keep the villages straight, so here goes.
From North to South, the villages are JSCMFCMRCB, which is an acronym for . . . nothing. Except maybe an owl sneeze, and I’d still need to buy a vowel.
So we’ll have to go with this:
Just Saints Chase Mouse Fleas ~ Chirping Mortals Regret Cotton Brooms
It’s no ROY G BIV, but it’ll do.
Just for fun (and people disagree about the exact order), here’s a chart of the 10 Cru Beaujolais from lightest to heaviest:
OK, I think I’m ready. I’m very excited and curious to compare these notes with our own impressions at tomorrow’s Carpe Vinum. Stay tuned for the wines . . . and the pairings!