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The Beaujolais Revival

Map of Beaujolais wine growing area
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A few years ago, the only word that would ever follow “Beaujolais” was “Nouveau”. However, in recent years there has been a real turnaround in the perception and fortunes of the region. Wine preferences have changed, quality has improved and wine drinkers are learning that there is a lot more to this region than the primeur wines. The new words on wine drinkers’ lips are “Beaujolais is back!”

Beaujolais is in eastern France and is part of the Burgundy winemaking region. The area is located north of Lyon, and covers parts of the north of the Rhône département (Rhône-Alpes) and parts of the south of the Saône-et-Loire département (Burgundy). The picturesque Beaujolais vineyards extend for 35 miles along the Saône river. As Thomas Henriot from the Champagne house, Maison Henriot – a recent investor in the region – said, “Countryside as beautiful as this can but make excellent wines.”

People who find many red wines bitter or harsh or are looking for an antidote to rich and oaky wines will enjoy Beaujolais, which are lighter and don’t have rough tannins. These low tannins make the wines a great companion for all sorts of food, ranging from traditional French to fish to spicy Asian.

Fleurie in Beaujolais wine region   Moulin a Vent in Beaujolais wine region
The vineyards of Fleurie                                                               Moulin a Vent                                             © Daniel Gillet

Gamay

Beaujolais reds are all made from 100% Gamay grape which produces light wines which have a flirty, fruity aroma and an appetising acidity followed by a refreshing rush in the mouth. Gamay is today almost exclusively the Beaujolais grape variety and of the 36,000 hectares of Gamay planted throughout the world, 20,500 are in the Beaujolais vine growing area. It has found its perfect home in the limestone-clay and granite soils of the Beaujolais region – and is there to stay.

12 appellations

Beaujolais is made for all year-round drinking and handily there are 12 appellations from the region so that you can try a different one each month. They include Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and the 10 Crus. “Cru” literally means “named vineyard” and denotes a wine of greater quality so the Crus are something to look out for if you fancy something a bit special. All the wines are great to drink any time of the year and are delicious served slightly chilled. Pop a bottle in the fridge for half an hour before serving. It should not be as cold as for white wine but just cool to the touch - ideally between 12 and 14°C.

Brouilly
This is the largest of the Beaujolais Crus, where the vineyards flank the volcanic Mount Brouilly. The area produces some of the most full-bodied of Beaujolais wines – deep, ruby red, and full of fruit aromas. As a result, Brouilly is the business with those meats that like a bit of fruit with them such as lamb and pork.

Chénas
This is the smallest area of the Beaujolais Crus and the ancient oak forests seem to give this wine a hint of wood, with floral notes and a velvety texture. A cracker with strong cheese.

Chiroubles
Some say this is the archetypical Beaujolais and certainly, geographically, it’s the highest. Light and genuinely refreshing with aromas of violets, peonies and lily of the valley – it is lovely with roast chicken.

Côte de Brouilly
As its name suggests (‘côte’ simply means slope or hill), the Côte de Brouilly vines are on the granite slopes of Mount Brouilly. A wonderful deep purple colour, you can really smell the grapes in this one. The pâté partner.

Fleurie
Not only a contender for the prettiest name in wine, Fleurie also does just what it says on the bottle – beautifully gentle wines which always deliver a fabulous floral perfume. Lamb and chicken casseroles are the partners for this most feminine of Beaujolais. And don’t let anyone call you a prawn for ordering Fleurie with shellfish – it’s simply wonderful.

Juliénas
This Cru uses its power with a light touch. The intensely ruby red wine has real backbone but has heady notes of peaches and flowering meadows. It’s the vin to drink with the coq.

Morgon
The wines produced around the commune of Villié-Morgon are amongst the most dense and structured of Beaujolais and therefore one of the most suitable for ageing. Because the local soil is so challenging, the grapes create a full-bodied wine, garnet red, rich and intense. Its heavy fruitiness makes it a dark star when serving rich meat dishes and game.

Moulin à Vent
Of all the wine produced in the Beaujolais region, Moulin à Vent is expected to last the longest and taste most concentrated. Uniquely for the area, Moulin à Vent has been known to still be refreshing after some 5-6 years in the bottle. As you’d expect, red meats and good cheese should be on the table with it.

Régnié
This only joined the other nine Crus in 1988. It might be the newcomer, but the winemakers are no greenhorns. They add the supple structure of youth to violets and redcurrants in a cherry-red wine that’s simply top of the shop with cold meats.

Saint-Amour
There are more myths about the origins of the name Saint-Amour than there are Crus in Beaujolais. What’s in no doubt, however, is its flavourful, refined nature, ruby-red with the aromas of Kirsch and herbs. You may be unsure what sweetmeats are, but be sure this is the wine to drink with them. Chicken is a little more usual however.

Beaujolais-Villages
The 38 communes which produce these beautifully-light wines can be found amongst rolling granite hills. Cherry-red in colour, with red and black fruit aromas, these wines are well-balanced, easy on the palate and are brilliant with a wide variety of dishes.

Beaujolais
The wines in this appellation mainly come from vineyards in the south of the region. These aromatic wines, with their heady fruit flavours are made for sharing and year-round enjoyment.

Winemaking with a difference

Another unique feature of Beaujolais production is the winemaking technique of semi-carbonic maceration. This is where whole bunches of grapes are put into vats to ferment. The grapes at the bottom of the vat are gently crushed by the weight of those above and begin to ferment. As the sugar begins to turn into alcohol, carbon dioxide is given off which, because it is heavier than air, remains trapped at the bottom of the vat. Surrounded by the gas, the other berries begin to ferment from inside out and then to split gently. The effect is a very light wine, with vibrant fruit flavours and almost no perceptible tannin.

Big change

Gamay grape variety in Beaujolais
© Daniel Gillet

The Gamay variety has some very specific characteristics: it is very resistant to disease and is fertile, yet is particularly difficult to train. It requires very careful attention and so the vines are traditionally planted very close together: from 8,000 to 10,000 vines per hectare. However, since 2004, this can now be reduced to 6,000 vines/ha and many winegrowers are re-shaping their estates and decreasing planting densities.

Hard pruning is applied so that only three to five arms are left on each vine and a maximum of 10 eyes (buds). “Green harvesting” is also carried out in July to reduce the number of bunches per vine to gain better yield control. Even a decade ago this “pre-harvest” was unusual, yet today, it is becoming more widespread with every vintage. Yields are also being lowered (a reduction from 64 to 52hl/ha from 2000 to 2008 for the Beaujolais appellation; from 60 to 52hl/ha for Beaujolais-Villages and from 58 to 52 hl/ha for the crus). As they say, the best things come in smaller packages.

Harvesting in Beaujolais has always been done by hand. But mechanical harvesting trials are now being tested on small areas of the region. The new mechanisation is part of an evolution in the Beaujolais vineyard where traditional gobelet vines (ancient method of vine training using no wires or other systems of support resulting in a goblet-shaped growth) are also in the process of being replaced by the palissé (trellised) method of vine training.

Gamay grape in Beaujolais
© Daniel Gillet

Beaujolais winemakers have green fingers in more ways than one. They want to make a positive impact on the environment and are working to fight against soil erosion in the vineyards. It was in fact in the Beaujolais region that Terra Vitis was founded. Not to be confused with organic producers, this is a group of winemakers from all over France who believe that the only way to produce quality grapes for wine is through respect for the ecosystem. They believe in using integrated vine growing and winemaking techniques (taking into account natural factors and the cultural know-how – vine variety, pruning etc – of an area in order to reach the best possible quality and typicity of the wine). However, more and more organic wines are also being produced in the region.

Ultimately, these changes and improvements are aimed at producing the best wine possible from the region. With trends in the UK veering towards the lighter, fruitier, lower alcohol wines, the genie in the Beaujolais bottle will make all wine drinkers’ wishes come true.

To visit welcoming winemakers in Beaujolais for a tasting, see Rue des Vignerons and book your visit online.