By Ellen Clifford
For such a friendly, early-budding, easy-going grape, Gamay has had a rough go of it.
In 1395 Duke Philip the Bold (bold enough to be a jerk to Gamay anyway) kicked it out of the more northerly regions of Burgundy. He deemed it disloyal and bitter. Then banished it from the Bourgogne limestone majesty north of the Maçon. Cut to 1982 and George Duboeuf ‘s marketing coup: Beaujolais Nouveau. These are the first releases of the fall harvest in Beaujolais. They are released on the third Thursday of November and not allowed to be sold past August 31st.
1982 was when Duboeuf first brought this darling monster to the USA. His efforts could have saved the grape’s rep… if there had been more examples that were good. There is good Beaujolais Nouveau out there, but some wine-lovers find much to be desired in the lesser examples that made their way across the pond.
Poor poor Beaujolais.
It still gets little love. Many of its wines are made using a technique called carbonic maceration, in which whole clusters of grapes are blanketed in carbon dioxide and undergo intracellular fermentation. It is a technique that creates wines that taste of bananas, cotton candy and a flavor I’d describe as “red scented marker.” Think fake fruit. It can be quite pleasant and fun, but sadly there is a lot of Beaujolais Nouveau out there that tarnished the region’s reputation.
Basic Beaujolais can be pleasant albeit, well, basic. The fertile soils and flatter land of southern Beaujolais, upon which most basic level Gamay is grown, are blamed for it being a simpler, lighter style of beverage. Moving north, you find Gamay labeled as Beaujolais-Villages. It comes from the middle of the region where the soil is poorer, sandier (good for drainage!), and more granitic. The vines struggle more, which leads to more enticing berries and a richer juice-making. Villages level Beaujolais wine can be a contender.
Go north of that, and you hit the ten crus of Beaujolais. Producers label bottles using their Cru names: St-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. Cru Beaujolais is often being fermented without carbonic maceration, or use semi-carbonic fermentation. They are sometimes aged in a spot of new oak, and they are so incredibly drinkable!
So, give me a Beaujolais-Villages wine for a workaday sip. It can be excellent value for the money, and I am a basic chilled-Gamay bitch. However, Give me cru for a special day. Each of the ten crus has their own story and style.
To start, I’ll give you some general notes: The wine is purple with a distinctly floral note. There is a candy called a pastille that tastes of anise and violet. Get these pastilles candies on Amazon if you cannot find them locally and you will say “holy moly that is what Gamay tastes of”! At least I say “holy moly,” but you may be cooler than me. However, these candies will forever cement the classic cru Beaujolais taste in your mind. They also taste of red cherries, red currants, and happiness. The tannins will be light and mellow.
I feel that Gamay pairs with almost anything, but the personalities of the crus lend themselves to different occasions. From north to south, here are your excuses to get into the cru Beaujolais:
If you don’t have a way with words, say it with wine. It is hard to say “I love you” but St. Amour is easy to drink. Calon-Segur, a St-Estephe third growth over in Bordeaux is a contender for lovey-dovey wine, as it has a heart on the bottle, but I’d still pick St. Amour. It is appropriately named even more poetic on the taste buds. You’ll get those pastilles notes, plus some stone fruit and a pinch of spice.
Celebrating a Victory
Got the job? Fantasy football win? She or he said yes? Did the laundry? These are wins. Okay, laundry should be standard, but it’s a win for me. These wins deserve a wine named for someone who knew something about stunning victories: Juliénas! Named for Caesar, Juliénas is a powerful expression of Gamay. Granitic, volcanic, and clay soils give Juliénas a full body and bold flavor, yet it can still have a rougher texture—call it earthy. After all, even if you are winning, you want to remember your roots. Look for wines from the lieux-dits Les Mouilles and Les Capitans.
Bring the cru that will show them they are one of a kind: Chénas. The tiniest of the crus, it is hard to track down. Like its (I imagine) rustic picnic surroundings, Chénas can be more, oh…call it woodsy. After all, Chénas was believed to be named for the “chênes” aka oak trees that were cut down in 1316.
So picture a forest. Then picture blueberry pie having a love child with said forest, and that is Chénas. Then bring blueberry pie AND Chénas on this love picnic. Godspeed.
Changing homes, transitioning jobs, breaking up or getting married…pick the Beaujolais named for a moving structure: Moulin-à-Vent! Windmills produce power, and the wines from this cru do in fact exhibit strength. Which you probably need to get through whatever changes you are making. Moulins are light-bodied but have gravity that brings to mind pinot noir. Spices, black cherries, a whiff of autumn leaf…Fun fact—this cru is known as The King of Beaujolais. That’s power all right. Use it to get through those tricky life changes.
I suppose St. Amour would also work for this category. However, so would bringing flowers, aka Fleurie. On that note, bring your date flowers too-Omigod the men who should have brought me flowers…I digress. Like many French wines, its name uncannily presages its contents. Fleurie is indeed floral. It like lying in a bed of lilacs and having cherry and red plum juice (that happens to be boozy) siphoned into your mouth. That’s a thing, right?
Fleuries are known for their lightness and litheness, but if it is sourced from vineyards higher in clay on south-facing slopes, like La Roilette or Les Moriers, they can be voluptuous and totally sexy. If you’d like to show your intentions most clearly bring a bottle, or two, of Fleurie. It is light enough not to weigh you down later, and you are going to need the stamina.
Chill Beach Day
Beach days call for the lightest of the crus. We want a glass of wine that welcomes a light chill. Chiroubles is the highest in altitude of the crus, with sandier soils, and tends to be lighter bodied, making it extra chill-friendly. Don’t age these—get a bottle and frolic off to the beach asap–violet-berry scented heaven awaits.
To Make a Battle Plan
Requesting a raise or promotion, asking for advice, or asking someone out? Get Morgon! The soils are rich with iron and manganese, and if we learned nothing else from Popeye, we learned iron makes you big and strong. Like Morgon.
Cote de Py best-known climate in Morgon for its schist—a metamorphic rock soil. I’d say the land has a bit of an attitude, too: the schist of the region is called “roche pourrie” or “rotten rock” and is believed to contribute to gunpowder and black pepper nose of the juice. Cote de Puy can get big and muscular, swarthy and earthy.
There are six other climates with soils ranging from granitic (Les Grands Cras, Douby, Les Charmes and Corcelette), to alluvial (Les Micauds). Pick your poison and beef up. I believe in you.
For the Seder
Okay, so I’m not sure which wines from Régnié are certified kosher—but perhaps there are some? All I know as a wine novice friend once described Régnié as “What Manischewitz wants to taste like.” Which is to say light, fruity and spicy. Moreover, I think it would pair marvelously with matzo ball soup, haroset, and doughnuts. It is rich in blackberries and spice, and the tannins are heartier but smooth. Régnié was the last to get cru status. However, I wouldn’t wait to try.
Pregaming the Night
Brouilly is your cru of choice! The largest of the crus. Brouilly provides a variety of aspects and angles to the sun. Accordingly, the wines of Brouilly vary in body and concentration, but the unifying factors of warmth and sun lead to the wines being fruit forward. Cherry, plum, strawberries and red currant jam are the charming, playful flavors you want to sip while applying lipstick to match your wine and getting festive. Now go out and play. Brouilly will get you in the mood for a juicy night on the town. I am guessing vodka soda will see you home. Enjoy.
Côte de Brouilly! A big deal deserves a big wine. Mont Brouilly is not a volcano, although it is made of ancient volcanic rock. The Côte de Brouilly is grown on the highest part of the Mont that gives Brouilly its name. The vineyards’ aspect combined with the high diurnal range creates potent Gamay. Blue diorite heats up the region. The top wines are sometimes are aged in oak up to a year. These are ones you can hold onto for several years. And crack open when something worth celebrating happens.
Now for some bonus categories!
JK don’t do that, its stupid. Your wine will get hot. Bathtub wine is okay but not with bubbles because they will get in your wine and ruin things. That being said, if you must bring wine in the shower enjoy some standard beaujolais.
April Fools Day
This is the only day I permit you to give a wine snob Beaujolais Nouveau. However, that would be a nasty joke. I’d posit there are tolerable versions out there. And I’m known to even take an honorary sip on the third Thursday of November. In fact, last year I tried the Nouveau imported by Kermit Lynch, an importer whose taste I trust, and it was very pleasant. But there are those amongst us who might choose other things…
If you need a lot of wine that can jive with the multiple dishes and flavors of a Turkey Day table and is light on price but solid on flavor, go for the Beaujolais-Villages. You can stock up for the feast without breaking the bank, and it’s an enjoyable wine no matter the pairing, from turkey to cranberry sauce.
Okay kids, you now have 13 reasons to try Beaujolais. Do it up.
The Oxford Companion to Wine (Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding)
The Wine Bible (Karen MacNeil)
The World Atlas of Wine (Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson)
Land & Wine: The French Terroir (Charles Frankel)