Years ago, while I was tasting exquisite Bordeaux vintages with a high-flying collector, he described Beaujolais in a memorable way: “Sadly stuck in the shadow of Burgundy.” He dismissed it with a wave of his hand. The way he said it, referring to its neighbor to the north, you’d think the region was a sickly Dickensian orphan with no hope.
Until recently, the region struggled mightily from a bad rap—and for good reason. In the 1970s and ’80s, the late, legendary wine merchant Georges Duboeuf created a whole November festival around the release of Beaujolais Nouveau, the entry-level wine named for its being bottled and distributed so soon after harvest.
It succeeded but also created a “crisis,” says Sonja Geoffroy, who works on the winemaking team at the wonderful family-owned Chateau Thivin, in the town of Brouilly (try their Cote de Brouilly). “People didn’t know there was anything beyond Nouveau.” The success created such a demand that many producers planted new versions of Gamay vines that delivered on yield but not quality.
By the late 1990s, Beaujolais was the wine that dared not be sipped in some circles—even though great stuff was still being made by the top producers in the region’s best vineyards. Critics and collectors wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot wine stem.
Fast-forward to today, when the crus of Beaujolais—the wines from 10 areas in the northern part of the region officially designated as producing the highest quality—are some of the most talked-about bottlings among wine lovers in the know. They can age very well, but most are not made to cellar for more than a decade. We still need something to drink tonight with dinner, right?
Nearly all wine made in Beaujolais is red, made from the Gamay grape. Bright with acid and bursting with cherry and strawberry tastes, unburdened by big tannins, the Beaujolais crus are among the best values in the wine world, bar none, given that they rarely top $60 and most remain well under that price. They’re the single easiest go-to for people who like complexity and don’t need to show off. The flavors are juicy but in a smart way that’s not overly ripe.
And they’re some of the most flexible reds out there. Yes, they are great at Thanksgiving—a whole generation of wine writers and marketers pushed that idea, and I can’t argue—but they are also steak wines, fish wines (that lack of tannins helps), anytime wines. And they’re best chilled.
The consultant and sommelier Erik Segelbaum, a Beaujolais fanatic who used to run the corporate wine program for restaurateur Stephen Starr, put it to me this way: “The difficulty isn’t getting people to like it. It’s getting it into their glass in the first place.”
Memorizing the names of the crus is a handy start—Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly—but you’d be better off asking your wine shop about what crus are available from one of the top producers. Marcel Lapierre, Jean-Paul Thévenet, Jean Foillard, George Descombes and Guy Breton are the frequently cited A-teams that rarely make a false move. A hallmark of these great vineyards is the soil, referred to regionally as lardon: In a cross-section you’ll see layers of iron oxide with granite and silica, looking like a slab of fatty bacon.
On a recent hot day, I tasted through a tub full of current-release Beaujolais crus on ice. Because I love my work.
It would be hard to improve on the roasted red-fruit flavors and slyly serious texture (it sneaks up on you) of the Julie Balagny 2018 Fleurie en Remont or the supple clarity and fresh cherry profile of the Charly Thevenet 2017 Grain and Granit Régnié. The elegant Domaine Anne Sophie DuBois Fleurie l’Alchimiste has an incredible nose of flowers and spice—truly a match for a roast duck.
Another winner is a 2018 Morgon with strawberry charm to spare. This very consistent wine from year to year highlights that Morgon is perhaps the best introduction to all the crus. Start there if you’re a newbie.
Once you taste, you’ll wonder why you haven’t tried them before and marvel over the payoff-to-price ratio. Keep drinking. Beaujolais is full of surprises.