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Kicking Beaujolais up a notch

You might have enjoyed a bottle of nouveau.  But a whole other world of Beaujolais awaits. Jon Bonné considers the crus.

All Beaujolais is not created alike.

There’s the — notably those sold under the eye-popping labels of Beaujolais king Georges Duboeuf— and many nouveau drinkers have gravitated to the less-common Beaujolais Villages, made from better grapes using a lengthier winemaking process.

Then there is cru Beaujolais— made from the region’s best gamay noir grapes grown on one of 10 specific parcels of land. Each offers its own style, from light and tart to dark and brooding, depending on which tiny plot of east-central France it called home.

If Beaujolais has been simultaneously revered and reviled thanks to nouveau’s obvious fruitiness, cru Beaujolais bears little resemblance to its easy-drinking cousin. “It’s got about as much relation to that as zinfandel does to white zinfandel,” says John Ragan, wine director at Campton Place restaurant in San Francisco.

Most Beaujolais is made using carbonic maceration, a process largely unique to the region, which harnesses the weight of uncrushed grapes to help ferment large vats of wine. Nouveau and Villages wines are drained off after four to 10 days, and quickly bottled to retain gamay’s fresh, fruity characteristics (and to make a fast buck).  Over the decades, most Beaujolais has been quickly shipped off— once in casks to the bistros of Paris and Lyons, nowadays in colorful bottles and supermarket-ready sales displays. That haste has often made wine aficionados sneer.

Cru Beaujolais stays out of the rush. It often sits on the pressed remains of grapes for two weeks to gain color and structure. Barrel aging for a year or more is not uncommon. 

Some crus, like those from the communes of Saint-Amour and Chiroubles, offer light, straightforward wines to drink right away. Other areas, notably Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent and the rare Chénas, have gained fame for producing relatively large, powerful wines that demand at least a couple years aging.

In good years, winemakers from these locales approach the respectability of their rarified winemaking neighbors to the north — people like vintner Robert Drouhin, whose winery harnesses pinot noir and chardonnay to create famed Burgundies from appellations like Montrachet and Gevrey-Chambertin, along with seven gamay-based cru Beaujolais.

Not long ago, recalls Drouhin’s son Laurent, Robert served his children an unmarked bottle of red and asked them to identify it.  The four siblings ran through the various pinot-based possibilities. A Côte de Beaune? Perhaps a Santenay?

It was a Moulin-à-Vent, the most celebrated cru Beaujolais, from 1969.

“They can be very interesting when you age them,” says Laurent Drouhin, the winery’s U.S. sales director.

No one expects the crus to trump a first-growth Burgundy, but they are the kings of Beaujolais — and affordable at that. For once, a French region’s finest wines can be sampled for under $25 a bottle, often under $15.

It's all in the huntYet Americans largely ignore their appeal. While Drouhin sells about 20 to 25 percent of its other wines on the U.S. market, just 15 percent of its Beaujolais arrives on these shores. “These wines, most of the time, are enjoyed in Europe,” says Laurent Drouhin.

Perhaps that’s because it can be tricky to sort through the options. Our recent tasting of over 30 cru Beaujolais revealed wide variances in winemaking style and quality. A solid understanding of different styles and crus (or at least a cheat sheet) is essential.

“You’ve got to know the region and you focus on what you know,” says Alan Sobczak, president of west coast operations for Robert Chadderdon Selections, which specializes in traditional European wines.

Fortunately, Beaujolais has been blessed with two excellent vintages. Extreme heat in 2003 made for an exceptional year and lush, fruit-filled wines that appeal even to Beaujolais skeptics. A year later, 2004’s traditional growing season resulted in a balanced, classic vintage. The first of the 2004 crus are just appearing on the market, and even some 2003s have only recently been released.

Savvy retailers are learning to leverage nouveau’s runaway popularity, using it to gently push nouveau drinkers into the mysterious domain of the crus.

“That gets everyone a pretty big foot in the door right away,” says Patrick Watson, a one-time sommelier who now owns Smith & Vine, a wine store in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The latest vintage of nouveau is always unveiled in November, and not coincidentally, Watson bolsters his cru Beaujolais offerings in the weeks before Thanksgiving with picks from quality producers like Guy Breton, Thevenet and Trénel.

Beaujolais’ food-friendly tendencies are even more pronounced in the crus, which makes them a perfect match for the fruity, filling flavors of the Thanksgiving table. If Beaujolais is in your holiday plans, maybe it’s time to make the leap: Out with the nouveau, in with the cru.

We considered 31 Beaujolais wines by individual cru. These showed the best. More substantial cru Beaujolais often benefits from being opened a few hours early so it can breathe. You could even decant older vintages.

Potel-Aviron 2003 Chénas (Frederick Wildman and Sons, $16): Best of the tasting, from the rarest of all the 10 crus. Aromatic and brooding, with blueberry, black cherry, licorice, nutmeg, hints of dry earth and a firm mineral core.  Silky, if forceful, at the beginning, with a long, chewy finish — though the tannins still need time to settle down. Keep this one around a few years.

Château de Pizay 2003 Morgon (David Milligan Selections, $13): Strong perfumed raspberry and cherry, with warm spice notes from some new oak and a hint of Burgundian gaminess. Luscious and full on the open, with a soft finish bolstered by fine tannins. Elegant and sizable.

Trénel et Fils 2003 Saint-Amour (Robert Chadderdon Selections, $19): Earthy, rich and heavily spiced, a Saint-Amour with substance. Full red fruit gives way to fine tannins, with a distinct mineral core.

Potel-Aviron 2003 Morgon Château-Gaillard (Frederick Wildman and Sons, $20): Burgundian winemaker Nicolas Potel is drawing attention to his Beaujolais project with wines like this, made from 65-year-old vines. Rich and earthy, with sour cherry, fresh herbs and warm vanilla. Bright in the middle, and finishes with a mix of warmth and tartness. Should keep blossoming over the next few years.

Georges Duboeuf 2004 Morgon Jean Descombes (W.J. Deutsch & Sons, $12): One of Duboeuf’s limited selections, drawing on top-notch plots like Bellevue and le Py and made in a traditional style, without oak. Big ripe strawberry to open, with floral hints in back. Bright and engaging.

Joseph Drouhin 2004 Juliénas (Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., $14): Aromatic strawberry and green leaves, with a smooth opening and a bright tart finish.  Already juicy and drinkable, with a crisp, clean minerality that helps define its structure.

Georges Duboeuf 2004 Domaine des Rosiers Moulin-a-Vent (W.J. Deutsch & Sons, $14): Dark and pungent, with blackberry, kirsch and cooking spices.  Already soft and approachable, with a chewy finish and enough weight for hearty foods.

Trénel et Fils 2002 Fleurie (Robert Chadderdon Selections, $17): Light floral and tangy fruit notes. Silky up front, with some tannic kick on the back. Ready to match a hearty meal. Did we mention Chadderdon often takes a couple years to release its Beaujolais?

Joseph Drouhin 2003 Moulin-a-Vent (Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., $19): Foresty and herbal, with sweet butterscotch notes and a strong, tannic finish.  Needs time to fully round itself out.

Domaine des Houdières 2004 Fleurie (Winesellers, Ltd., $17): Full andfleshy, with fresh berries and wet forest scents. Fine tannins on the end; it’s still a baby but ready to grow.

Prosper Maufoux 2003 Brouilly (House of Burgundy, $15): Rich scents of strawberry jam, with a strong mineral note. A heady, rustic aroma, though it finishes a bit short.