So what makes Beaujolais so special?
At its best, there is little that can match its perfumed, juicy fruit flavours. Beaujolais tends to drink beautifully upon release; indeed, extolling the wines' youthful virtues has been hugely successful.
Le Beaujolais Nouveau est passé
At one time more than half the crop was sold as Beaujolais Nouveau, released on the third Thursday of November. There were races for the first case of Nouveau in the UK and Nouveau breakfasts being held at improbable hours. Selling was easy; producers became complacent and merchants kept prices down. Inevitably quality suffered and suddenly there were far nicer wines to drink on the market. Nouveau fell out of fashion.
But of course there was always far more to Beaujolais than Nouveau, and away from the limelight the other kind of Beaujolais continued to be made, often using very traditional methods of production and reflecting a complexity of terroir that still comes as something of a surprise but was revealed in all its glory in top vintages like 2016, 2015, 2009, and 2005.
Beaujolais: Vital Statistics
Total vineyard area: 18,500 hectares, and some 2,600 growers producing nearly 1.5 million bottles.
Of the 18,500 hectares, a little over 200 is planted with chardonnay, which is growing in popularity because it is easier to sell and can be turned into sparkling cremant de Bourgogne. White Beaujolais is sold either as Beaujolais blanc or Beaujolais-Villages blanc, and the best comes areas with chalk in the soil.
The rest is planted with a single red grape: the gamay, or to be more precise, gamay noir à jus blanc.
The region lies between the towns of Mâcon and Lyon with most of the vineyard confusingly coming into the Département du Rhône. Indeed, more dismissive Burgundians sometimes refer to Beaujolais as "Vins du Rhône."
A Little About The Gamay Grape
There are some 35,000ha of gamay planted worldwide, mostly in France, and plantings take up more than half of Beaujolais' area under vines. The problem is that it doesn't work everywhere. No wonder then that a ducal decree was passed in 1395 outlawing its use in Burgundy.
The grape variety is an ancient one and it was always thought that gamay was a poor cousin of the pinot noir. There is even a village called Gamay, on a road between St Aubin and Puligny, which might have seen the birth of this variety. In reality gamay and pinot noir are quite distinct varieties and gamay might have come from further south. It remains important in many Alpine vineyards and is also present in the Rhône Valley.
Gamay can be a vigorous variety, difficult to fruit and tricky to ripen. To control this vigour, the grape is planted densely, typically at 10,000 vines per hectare in Beaujolais. Furthermore, the vines are often pruned hard and very low, making work in the vineyard particularly labour intensive. In most cases harvesting is still done by hand and many vineyards in the Crus are so steep that mechanisation is more or less impossible.
Gamay reveals its southern roots by the fact that in order for it to ripen properly it needs at least a short spell of real heat, which it usually gets in Beaujolais. Yields can be huge, but best results are found between about 40-45hl/ha.
In terms of soil, gamay does not do well on sedimentary rock types. Much of Beaujolais is granite with outcrops of schist in part of Morgon or Andesites in the Cote de Brouilly. In the Auvergne, gamay is planted on basalts and in the Côtes Roannaise there is again granite.
Finally, gamay is susceptible to rot and needs constant attention. It usually ripens early but the mistake that many make is to harvest too soon. Beaujolais is a mountainous region with hills rising up to about 1000m. Violent storms are not uncommon and many vineyards have been devastated by hail.
All in all then, for a wine that seems so uncomplicated, the grape from which it is made is fraught with difficulties.
In essence there are two methods to make Beaujolais. The classic method is by semi-carbonic maceration in which grapes are fermented whole in a carbon dioxide rich environment. Carbonic maceration ferments with the grape, releasing lots of colour and attractive fruity flavours without tannin. The length of maceration depends on the style of the wine. For nouveau, the time spent in contact with skins is minimal. There is also an 'express' way to macerate which is by heating the grapes. Thermo-vinification as it is called does the job well, but it is often over-used, with the result that all wines end up tasting much the same.
Beaujolais is also capable of making fine wine that can keep. Here winemaking is more traditional: crushing, then maceration with pumping over.
While there are about 2600 growers, not so many of them own land. Land ownership remains somewhat medieval with many absentee land-owners living in Paris or Burgundy. So most growers are tenants and they pay landlords either in cash or in half of their crop.
Making a living in Beaujolais is not easy. Production costs are high while selling prices remain quite low, especially for simple Beaujolais and Villages where the outlook remains bleak. Historically, négociants were very strong though gradually they have been reduced in number with the many co-ops now selling directly to the big supermarket groups. Meanwhile the negociants are increasingly reliant on wines from elsewhere, notably the Rhône Valley and Languedoc.
Not all is gloom. Far from it, as there is a growing realisation that the Beaujolais is quite unique and its granitic terroir a positive asset. There has been investment from Burgundian Houses, notably Bouchard (where the family has owned land for generations) and Louis Jadot (whose Chateau des Jacques in Moulin à Vent has become a standard bearer for the region).
How to Buy
Below is a list of the appellations and the last 20 or so vintages. But what is important more than anything else is the name of the grower. Avoid mass production as the wines nearly all taste the same. Go instead for producers with passion, dedication and a more handcrafted approach to things.
Trenel is a négociant but on a very small scale and they are fastidious in their selection. Other names to watch out for include Jean Marc Burgaud, Pierre-Yves Perrachon, Bernard Metrat, Cédric Chigniard and Laurent Guillet.
The Wine Society buys from growers and négociants, and we blend wines from very good estates to come up with exclusive blends which we often sell under the Exhibition label. These are often very good and offer very good value for money.
Most Beaujolais is sold as Appellation Contrôlée (though there can be a Vin de Pays called Vin de Pays des Gaules which allows for higher yields and cheaper prices but is rarely used). In total, there are twelve separate appellations.
About 40 million bottles. Mostly from the south where the soils are often of a limestone called pierres dorées, which makes excellent building material. But there are granites as well and a great many styles of wine possible though a major part of the productions continues to be made as Nouveau.
Also around 40 million bottles. The Villages wines come from the north and are set among the ten crus and planted on the same granitic soils. 38 parishes are allowed to produce Beaujolais-Villages. They offer a midway point between Nouveau and the greater complexity of the crus, and often represent excellent value for money.
Some of the village names to look out for: Vaux en Beaujolais, which Clochemerle was based on, Le Perreon, Ste Etienne des Ouilleres, Lancé, Lantigné. Villages can come in all colours and styles. The ten cru villages on the other hand only produce red wine which or course has to be made using the gamay grape. Around 50 million bottles can be produced each year but in practice there is rather less as many growers (especially those in less well-known crus such as Chénas and Chiroubles) prefer to declassify, in which case they can often sell as AOC Bourgogne rouge.
Each village has a style of its own. From north to south they are:
Only 320ha with vineyards that are often interspersed with blocks of chardonnay that make Macon Villages or St Verand.
The vineyards were once the property of canons belonging to the chapter of Saint-Vincent in Mâcon. Prior to 1789 the canons held the hardly saintly droit de cuissage as one of their feudal rights which gave rise to the cru's romantic name.
The wines are generously flavoured, often a little rustic and always need a little more time. A marketing initiative that linked Saint-Amour with Valentine's Day ensures that this is usually the most expensive of the crus.
One of the largest crus (600ha), but often plagued by hail storms. Juliénas, named after Caesar, is on steep slopes of granite or schist, and produces a succulent style of Beaujolais, deeply coloured, fleshy and thickly textured.
Generally, wines from Juliénas (you don't pronounce the 's') are ready early and maybe kept for three or four years. Perfect steak and chips red in my book.
With only 250ha, this is the smallest of the ten 'crus' and the hardest to find. The sad fact is that 85% is sold off as AOC Bourgogne in some years, making it even rarer.
The granite soils used to lie beneath oak forests, hence the name. A good Chénas is flavourful and spicy with an ability to age, especially in good vintages.
* Chenas was hit by hail in 2009 which had an effect on many wines. 2010 is the better vintage.
This 660ha appellation is the grandest of the 'crus' that in good vintages may be spoken of in the same breath as other great wines of Burgundy. The soil is the same pink granite as in Fleurie, but with seams of manganese and iron that are said to account for extra colour in the wines.
The wines are fleshy, round and full and always need a year after the harvest. The most structured of the 'crus', Moulin-à-Vent responds well to ageing in oak barrel and is the least Beaujolais-like.
A major study has been conducted into the geology of Moulin-à-Vent with a view to creating a premier cru appellation, which would be a first for Beaujolais. Some of the vineyard names to look out for include les Thorins, Rochegrès and la Rochelle.
Prettily named, the wines of Fleurie are a delight to the senses: fragrant, floral, silky and charming.
Fleurie comprises 890ha. Vineyards closest to Morgon or Moulin-à-Vent are fuller-flavoured while those around the village itself are often more floral.
Vineyard names or climats are much in use. Some of the best ones are Poncié, la Roilette, Chapelle des Bois and Clos des Moriers. The best known is probably La Madonne with its little Chapel perched above the village.
Good Fleurie ages quite well but few producers make the effort to make serious wine. The restaurant "le Cep" run by the mildly eccentric Mme Chagny is an excellent place to explore the cru.
A 'mountain wine' made from grapes grown at an average altitude of 1,000 feet. Soils of this 360ha cru are light and made of shallow granitic sands. Some of the vineyards are very steep, more akin to the Rhône than Burgundy.
The wines are light, fragrant and delicate, more floral than fruity and should be drunk young, and just on the cool side. Always refreshing and the cru that is readiest soonest.
Morgon covers 1100ha. The best soils are of weathered schist on the south-facing slope of the Mont du Py. The gamay here ripens well and produces a wine that is dense, richly flavoured and rewarding.
Good Morgon ages well, up to ten years, and with time develops great complexity. If Moulin a Vent goes Burgundian with age, then there is something definitely Rhône-like about Morgon. Always loads of personality and flavour. Again look out for individual climats such as Côte du Py, Les Cras or Les Charmes.
Wines from the 'club des crus' most recent member's 370ha often lack real identity, coming some way in style between Brouilly and Morgon. At their best, they're full-flavoured, honest wines that go well with food. Always good value.
With 1300ha, this is the largest of the crus. Can usually be relied upon to produce the perfect 'bistro Beaujolais' favoured by Parisians to go with their steak-frîtes; flavoury, sappy, easily forthcoming and good value for money.
Within such a large district, there is room for some variation: Brouilly from the area known as Pisse-Vieille, for example, is softer and rounder.
Côte de Brouilly
Though an enclave of Brouilly, its 310ha makes up what is a quite separate district, planted on the slopes of the remains of an ancient volcano. The soil is quite distinct being of a blue grey andesite. The wines have real bloom, deep purple, aromatic and a piquant, spicy, mineral flavour. The wines keep well too.
By and large Beaujolais is meant for drinking young but some do keep. A 1976 Morgon Côte du Py from Trenel was still fabulous four or five years ago. Wines from Moulin à Vent and Chénas also keep well as can Côte de Brouilly.