Updated: Apr 23
Beaujolais wine: it doesn’t suck!
Beaujolais is and always has been the lifeblood of the city of Lyon. It’s delicious, so don’t listen to whatever malicious gossip you’ve heard about it. Long live the Beauj!
Ultimately there are two really good reasons to drink Beaujolais. One: it’s delicious. Two: it’s cheap.
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What is Beaujolais?
Beaujolais is a wine region just North of Lyon, we’re talking 30 minutes to an hour in the car, depending on where you’re going. They make red wine from Gamay.
Beaujolais and Burgundy
From an administrative perspective, Beaujolais is considered to be part of Burgundy, but it’s a very different place with very different wines.
If you need to compare the two wines, think of Beaujolais as Burgundy’s awkward little brother. He’s probably a skater. He had a briefmoment of popularity in middle school, but for the most part he’s got a pretty crappy reputation, which frankly he deserved. He’s now pretty cool in his own right, if you get to know him, but he’ll never be the captain of the football team.
Red Wine Only
Beaujolais is 99% red, all from the Gamay grape. The 1% of white is made from Chardonnay, and there are some delightful but occasional rosés. Anything but red is statistically insignificant, so I won’t be talking more about them.
Southern and Northern Beaujolais
In terms of landscape, I’d say that I prefer Beaujolais to Burgundy. This is gorgeous countryside, rolling hills, bucolic villages, vines everywhere. Paradise!
Southern Beaujolais is responsible for much of the volume, it’s a little flatter than the north and the earth here is a bright mustard color, a golden clay that makes very attractive walls and houses. It doesn’t have any village level AOCs, so anything from here is classified as Beaujolais.
Northern Beaujolais is where the Crus live, these are the highest appellations in Beaujolais, and there are ten of them. We’ll dive more into these below.
Beaujolais Nouveau is the year’s new wine, released only a few weeks after harvest, and it’s a thing. Keep reading for the specifics of what this is, how it’s made, and why it’s such a thing.
History of Beaujolais
I’ve already written all about this, it is long and detailed, but super interesting. You have been warned! Includes: an impressive French nose, the plague, and serious shade.
Got it? Good.
The Gamay Grape
Beaujolais is Gamay and Gamay is Beaujolais. It does exist outside of the Beauj but not much, so don’t worry about it too much.
Gamay is a thin skinned black grape. The vines are hearty, they can be densely planted, and they are able to produce a lot of volume, something that has gotten Beaujolais into trouble from time to time. For the most part, gamay makes fruity, sharp reds that are light bodied.
The aromas veer towards red fruits, and can often have a raspberry or cherry vibe, as well as lovely floral notes.
These are wines that are juicy and gluggable. Even in the case of more serious Cru Beaujolais, they are absurdly easy to drink. They pair well with most food and are also very good on their own.
Winemaking in Beaujolais
So what makes Beaujolais special? One answer is carbonic maceration, a winemaking technique that is rarely used outside of Beaujolais and imparts very distinctive aromas and flavors.
This is nerdy, but not super complex, so bear with me.
The vast majority of red winemaking goes like this: grapes are picked, sorted, de-stemmed, crushed, and then left to macerate and ferment before pressing to separate the liquid from the solids.
Maceration is a fancy word for ‘soak’. This step is all about extracting color and tannins from the grape solids.
That is normal winemaking. Beaujolais is not normal.
In Beaujolais, this initial fermentation and maceration process is completely turned on its head.
Most Beaujolais is made by carbonic maceration. Whole bunches, stem and all, are dumped into sealed tanks.
Fermentation begins, CO2 rises to the top in the case of semi-carbonic, or is pumped over in a blanket in the case of full-carbonic, and the whole thing ferments in this anaerobic environment, protected by the carbon dioxide.
The grapes actually begin ferment within their skins, since they haven’t been crushed yet, and its this intracellular fermentation that gives wines made by carbonic maceration incredibly distinct aromas.
For me, this technique imparts a fruit candy twizzler thing, as well as graphite. It also produces wines that have really light tannins, so the result is always something juicy and bright.
This type of fermentation can happen pretty quickly, much more quickly than in normal winemaking, and came about as a result of industrialization. It requires proper sealable tanks to work, so it wasn’t the standard until the early 20th Century.
It must be said that #notallbeaujolais is made like this, and that some top tier Beaujolais producers are making wines without carbonic maceration.
You’ve heard of it, you’ve probably drunk it, maybe you like it, maybe you think it’s crap.
The truth is, a lot of it is crap. But the good stuff isn’t!
Beaujolais Nouveau is released on the 3rd Thursday of November and is the first wine of that year to get on the market. Like all things French wine, this is highly regulated.
About 25% of all Beaujolais is Nouveau (means “new” in French), and most of it sells within the first ten days! This is a big cash cow, and it’s been a *thing* since the 80s that has variously been in and out of fashion.
It’s all carbonic all day, super light and fruity, basically juice. It’s yummy, it’s simple, and it really needs to be drunk yesterday. This is wine that is made to be drunk ASAP. It will not improve. Drink now or forever hold your peace.
Like any wine, when good producers make Beaujolais Nouveau, it’s good. When mass production McDonalds wineries make Beaujolais Nouveau, it still tastes like juice but it’ll give you a gnarly headache.
There’s nothing wrong with this wine just being what it is, which is a delicious, fruity, boozy juice drink. It’s a great excuse for a party, and the whole rigamarole around it is good fun. I love it, and you should too, at the end of November and no later than New Year’s Eve!
Not all wine is serious wine, not all wine is for the cellar, not all wine is for analyzing at length and being a nerd about. Beaujolais Nouveau is #notallwine!
Now we get to the serious wine, of which there is plenty.
Beaujolais AOC Classification
The Beauj appellation pyramid goes like this: at the base you have Beaujolais, then Beaujolais-Villages, then Cru Beaujolais at the top.
Cru Beaujolais will be labeled by and named after it’s Cru. There are 10 Crus, which all have different terroir and characteristics.
All of the Crus are in the North, as is Beaujolais-Villages.
There is plenty of great wine in Southern Beaujolais as well, but it’s not as prestigious. Mostly this is because it’s a little flatter and it has mostly clay soils rather than the volcanic schist and granite that make up Northern Beaujolais.
From North to South you have:
This is a lovely little appellation butting up right against Burgundy, with a variety of soils. It’s the furthest North, so tends to have light styles. They pride themselves on their mixed terroir, as shown above.
Named after a delightful village that is home to a wonderful little hotel that I highly recommend, the wines of Juliénas are known to be robust and powerful.
This is the smallest and rarest of the Cru Beaujolais, at only 285 hectares/704 acres.
Named after an actual windmill! This is the “King of Beaujolais” and can produce powerful and ageable wines.
If Moulin-à-Vent is the King, Fleurie is the “Queen of Beaujolais” and sits on beautiful pink granite. Seriously all the walls and houses are pink, it’s the cutest. These wines are feminine and fresh.
This is the highest altitude of the Crus and has a lighter style.
Morgon is the second biggest Cru and is very well known, these wines have structure and can age.
This is the newest Cru and has a lot of organic production.
Côte de Brouilly
These are the slopes of Mont Brouilly, and the wines from here are intensely concentrated. The soil here is hard, black, volcanic rock.
This is the biggest of the appellations and wraps around Mont Brouilly.
So there you have them. The 10 Crus of Beaujolais.
Let’s have some real talk for a second. They are all good, the differences are pretty minute, and you shouldn’t worry too much about them unless you are an uber nerd like me.
ANY of the above should be damn good wines.
Why You Should Drink Beaujolais
Ultimately there are two really good reasons to drink Beaujolais.
One: Beaujolais is delicious and goes with pretty much everything. Repeat after me. Beaujolais is delicious.
Two: it is CHEAP. The best of the best Beaujolais, the literal best that money can buy, is about 30€.
Really, really good Beaujolais is 15€. For the same amount of money, you could buy a pretty bad bottle of Bordeaux or a truly terrible bottle of Burgundy.
Beaujolais doesn’t have the high price tag because it doesn’t have as much prestige, it’s as simple as that. The value here is nuts, and there are a ton of amazing small producers making wonderful wines.
There’s plenty of organic and natural winemaking in these parts as well! As your local wine shop about Cru Beaujolais and they will love you!
Beaujolais is awesome, and we love it here in Lyon. It will always be present in my tastings, and in my home!