In past years, Beaujolais was synonymous with simple, fruity, and uninspiring wines. However, a new day is coming for the region and its wines. The changing tide is a result of evolving winemaker mentality, consumer education, and continued proof that the wines can age and develop beautifully over time. However, before one can understand where the region has been and where it's going, one must know exactly what it is.
Beaujolais isn't a grape, a style, or the name of a producer. Rather, Beaujolais refers to a region in southern Burgundy. It is a region comprising the rocky, higher elevation, granite-filled vineyards to the north of the familiar Rhone Valley. The warmer climate and varying elevations of vineyards influence the style of the wine providing a mix of ripe fruit with undertones of rustic spice/savoriness and flowers. Also, if you are enjoying a glass of Beaujolais, you are the drinking wine from the Gamay grape. Think of this grape as similar to Pinot Noir. It's naturally lighter on the palate, has moderate tannins, and a signature refreshing juiciness. However, the style of Beaujolais many people have become familiar with is one where a technique called carbonic maceration was used to produce the wine. This process, although fascinating, leads to a wine with a more manufactured feel.
Carbonic maceration was the clear choice for Beaujolais winemakers during the 80's and 90's. When Gamay is fermented in this way, the winemaker takes the grapes, throws them a large steel tank, fills the tank with CO2, and seals the top. By doing this, the grapes experience intercellular fermentation. Essentially it's a quick way to ferment wine and results in a wine showcasing the process of fermentation, rather than the grape or place. Thus, wines produced through carbonic maceration showed more candied fruit notes, perfumed florals, pear drop, and sweet spice aromas, versus the more subtle flavors and aromas of Gamay that didn't go through the process.
Due to the popularity of this style, wine drinkers began associating the Beaujolais with uncomplicated, light, and "sweet" wines. However, a new generation of winemakers are beginning to take over the region, and change has ensued. A younger, more internationally trained generation of winemakers are beginning to guide the quality of the region's wines. They are putting more emphasis on viticulture, with more structured vine training (wire-trained vs. bush), traditional fermentation, and a desire to make a wine equal parts refreshingly fruity and seriously elegant.
Another lofty accomplishment in Beaujolais's corner is the fact that more wine drinkers are starting the understand Gamay and what the wine's potential is. Beaujolais has been a somm's sweetheart for the last several years. It's not hard to see why, due to the food-friendly nature, affordability, and ability to please multiple people at a restaurant table. In the current landscape, the wines are rarely overblown and offer a look at the genuine expression of grape and place. Thus, sommeliers helped bring the wines to people's palates and to the front of their minds.
The ability to age is Gamay's crowning and mostly unrealized achievement. Because of the light, bright, and easy-drinking style of the past, many people never thought to age wines from Beaujolais. However, today's Beaujolais is more reminiscent of Burgundy, instead of the Beaujolais "nouveau" of the past. That being said, the wines have enough structure, complexity, and longevity to age gracefully.
All in all, it's time to start giving Beaujolais a well-deserved place in our cellar, at our tables, and in our glasses.
Wines to Try:
*all price points range from $19 to $29.99 from various outlets
Ch Thivin, Les Sept Vignes 2016 Cote de Brouilly
Robert Perroud, Pollen 2014 Brouilly
Dom Chapel, Cote de Bessay 2017 Julienas