Years from now, when the history of Beaujolais is written, it will be fascinating to see how the wine is portrayed over the first part of the 21st century.
Will that period, 2000 to 2020, be perceived as a turning point — the era when the wine finally shed its reputation as joyous but inconsequential? Perhaps it will be remembered as the time when prices went through the roof and top Beaujolais became unaffordable.
Or maybe Beaujolais finally came to be recognized during that time as encompassing many different sorts of wines, from mass-processed to honest; refreshing and smile-inducing to complex and thoughtful, yet still joyful.
Here at Wine School, we hope to avoid the easy answers. We recognize that almost every time a simple definition is pinned to any sort of wine, a deeper look reveals complexities that require elaboration.
A flashcard system of quick associations may be fine for a wine quiz, but that’s not the way we work. Instead, we accept that few subjects in wine have easy answers, and we’ve made peace with that.
Such is the case with Beaujolais, a wine that long has been typecast as simple, easy and thirst-quenching. Wines like these may have been epitomized by Beaujolais Nouveau, which began as a regional ritual celebrating the first wine of the harvest and became a global craze in the 1970s and ’80s. But Beaujolais had that reputation long before Nouveau left its dominant impression.
In his essential 1988 book, “Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France,” Kermit Lynch wrote of speaking to old-timers, who recalled “real Beaujolais” as light and tart, and quoted Richard Olney, the food and wine writer, describing its flavor as “a rush of green fruit.”
(What a curious description, and what fruits did he have in mind? Greengage plums? Green apples? Gooseberries? Green figs? Or did he mean unripe?)
The wine they remembered was necessarily light and lively, maybe 11 or 12 percent alcohol, Mr. Lynch suggested, to accompany the heavy, rich cuisine of Lyon, the city that legendarily is situated at the confluence of three rivers: the Rhône, the Saône and the Beaujolais.
It’s fair to say that though Mr. Lynch’s company, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, imports some of the best Beaujolais producers in the world, including Jean Foillard and Domaine Lapierre, those wines bear little resemblance to the Beaujolais of old, beyond being made entirely of the gamay grape.
It’s still possible to find refreshing Beaujolais on the simple end, or at least wines that live in that same spirit. Lapierre makes a wine, Raisins Gaulois, that carries the Vin de France appellation but comes from Beaujolais. It’s juicy, fruity and pure, and I imagine it would be deliciously refreshing with blood sausage, tripe and other essentials of cuisine lyonnaise. We included it in our lesson on thirst-quenching wines.
Wines labeled simply “Beaujolais” would also fall into that bright, lip-smacking territory, especially as good producers reclaim this appellation, the lowest category in the Beaujolais hierarchy, underneath Beaujolais-Villages and the Beaujolais crus, 10 appellations judged to have the potential to yield superior gamay grapes.
They are, in order from north to south: St.-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly, a recitation that one reader, Paul Adams of Stony Brook, N.Y., said always felt like a little poem.
Our focus for the last month has been on Fleurie, one of the two most popular and easy-to-find crus in the United States along with Morgon, which we explored in 2018. As always, I suggested three bottles to drink. They were: Clos de la Roilette Fleurie Cuvée Tardive 2019 $29, Domaine Chapel Fleurie Charbonnières Vieilles Vignes 2018 $37 and Jean-Louis Dutraive Fleurie Domaine de la Grand’Cour Clos de la Grand’Cour 2019 $39.
As quite a few readers have pointed out, these are not inexpensive wines, certainly not if they were the sort of jolly, casual bottles for which Beaujolais has long been known.
Let’s be clear: I am not demeaning simple, delicious wines. I revere them and always have a place for them. But cru Beaujolais are not those wines. They offer more to taste and more to think about. Yet they are not solemn wines. Good gamay wines, no matter how they are made or where they come from, always seem to have an intrinsic element of joyousness.
While these three all come from Fleurie, they were nonetheless distinct. The Cuvée Tardive from Clos de la Roilette comes from old vines, and generally improves with a few years of aging. Yet even drinking it young, as we did, it was fresh, expressive and calm, both fruity and floral with touches of citrus and a chalky minerality, maybe even a touch of Mr. Olney’s green fruit, as in greengage.
The Dutraive was strikingly different. It was flamboyant in its flavors, with a pronounced floral quality that reminded me of violet pastilles. It also had a touch of effervescence, perhaps because a little carbon dioxide is added to protect the wine as Mr. Dutraive uses very little sulfur dioxide as a preservative.
You’d expect the Chapel also to differ, as it comes from the weightier 2018 vintage while the other two were 2019s, a vintage in which the wines seem to be brighter and fresher. True to the vintage, it was denser, more concentrated and less energetic, yet also with an earthy, violet flavor that was both pretty and intriguing.
I also got a slight cinnamon flavor on the Chapel, which I often associate with semi-carbonic fermentation, a method historically common in Beaujolais in which whole bunches of grapes are piled into vats. Those on the bottom are crushed and begin to ferment, releasing carbon dioxide, which induces a different, intercellular fermentation in the bunches on top.
Each of these producers uses that method, which has become more popular elsewhere in the world even as more Beaujolais producers seem to be employing more conventional methods of fermentation. The method does partly account for the easygoing reputation of Beaujolais, as it often results in wines that are immediately accessible. Yet as these wines demonstrate, it can do a lot more than that.
I asked people whether they thought these wines were floral, as the wines of Fleurie (which means flowery in French) are almost reflexively described that way. I found the Dutraive and the Chapel particularly floral with their violet flavors, less so the Roilette.
But I’d nonetheless be cautious about generalizing. A lot of wines, including other Beaujolais crus, can be described as floral. I think in this case the description speaks as much of an association with the name as it does an indelible characteristic of Fleurie.
I also asked participants whether they thought these wines could age, because the conventional wisdom is to drink Beaujolais young. As I recently enjoyed an exceptional 2005 Morgon Delys from Daniel Bouland, I would say, of course these wines can age. I would put away the Roilette and the Chapel without hesitation, though I’d be more inclined to drink the Dutraive young. Peter of Philadelphia, a reader who loved the Dutraive with boerewors, a South African sausage, also did not see much potential for aging in the Dutraive.
Just because a wine can age does not necessarily mean it should be aged, as several readers pointed out.
“Cru Beaujolais can and does age well,” wrote TLeaf of Seattle. “Whether it will improve with tertiary flavors is another question.”
David from Warsaw wrote of the pleasure he recently took in a “pure and bright” 1999 Morgon Côte du Py from Jean-Marc Burgaud.
As with any wine, when you drink it is a matter of taste. Cru Beaujolais just so happens to be versatile enough to enjoy young and aged. The Clos de la Roilette in particular, I think, will be even better in two or three years. The Chapel will improve, too. But from then on, it’s a question of personal preference.
Mike from Boston made an interesting point. “We’re starting to talk about Beaujolais the way we talk about Burgundy,” he said, “and I’m not so sure that’s for the best.”
I inferred he meant we are taking it more seriously, which implies we are losing some of the casual fun of Beaujolais.
I understand what he means, but it does not have to be a problem. The more a wine costs, the greater the expectations that arrive with it. Cru Beaujolais can fulfill those expectations if not held back by preconceptions of what Beaujolais ought to be.
At the same time, Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages often provide the thirst-quenching pleasures that can be enjoyed uncritically.
The great thing about Beaujolais is that you can have it many different ways because it’s not just one type of wine.
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