An insider’s wine guide to Beaujolais.
It’s about time Beaujolais made a comeback! For too long it has sat in the shadow of its more northern neighbour - Burgundy - but now it finally has its time in the spotlight. Sommeliers love it, wine nerds love it, and we could all benefit from having more of this wonderful wine in our lives.
So, before I get too carried away, let’s have a look into this wonderful region, the grape variety, and the wine it produces!
Location and geography
Beaujolais is a wonderfully small region, just 34 miles long and 7-9 miles wide. It’s bordered on all sides with Burgundy to the north, the Saône river to the east, Lyon to the south, and the Monts de Beaujolais (the hills of the Massif Central) on the west.
For those who are more into their geography, Beaujolais is subject to three main climatic influences: continental currents, oceanic air movements and Mediterranean winds. The climate is temperate (average 11.3°C) with a wide difference in temperatures between summer and winter (continental climate with Mediterranean influences).
The Haut-Beaujolais mountain range shelters the vines and the Saône river acts as a regulator of extreme temperature.
It only receives around 740mm of rainfall, on average, per year.
Beaujolais is naturally divided into two sections by the Nizerand river and because of this, you’ll find different soils on each side of the river. This is important as the soil types hold the key to Beaujolais’ flavour. There’s mostly granite and schist (decomposed rock) to the north and clay-based soils (marl) to the south.
A brief history
It was the Romans (yet again) who were the first to plant vines in the area in the 14th Century, but the monks of the Middle Ages were the ones who initiated quality viticulture. These monks had a wonderful knack of finding some of the best vineyard sites up and down Burgundy!
The Dukes of Beaulieu were actually the ones responsible for making the wines of Beaujolais fashionable and the city of Lyon was the main market for Beaujolais wine at the time. Most goods from outside the region were subject to heavy taxes, so this gave the local producers an important market for their wines and due to its proximity, coupled with big urban growth in the Rhône and the Saône, Beaujolais was soon found on every dinner table in the area.
In 1395 Philipe the Bold, Duke of Burgundy ordered that all Gamay vines be uprooted by the following Easter. He believed the cultivation methods used in raising Gamay were damaging the reputation of Pinot Noir and that it was a “bad and disloyal” grape variety. As Gamay grapes ripen earlier and are easier to farm than the more “finicky” Pinot Noir, Philipe believed they made a far lower quality of wine and were less elegant than Pinot Noir.
This decision sparked such an uproar among the public in and around Dijon, that the Duke needed to appoint a new mayor, who he hoped would contain the situation. Although the Duke’s attempts at eradicating Gamay were thorough, enforcement of his ordinance did not reach Beaujolais, where pockets of the grape continued to grow.
In 1459, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy renewed his grandfather’s ordinance, and the cultivation of Gamay in Burgundy remained banned.
It wasn’t until 1937 that Beaujolais became a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), and the unique qualities of Gamay were finally recognised.
So, what is Gamay?
Historically, Gamay was a variety that existed widely in France, where it covered more than 160,000 hectares before the Phylloxera epidemic of the mid 1800’s. Today, of the 30,000 hectares that exist around the world, over 50% are in Beaujolais where it represents a massive 98% of all its vines!
There are now increasing amounts of Gamay being grown throughout the world in places such as the Touraine in France, Australia, Canada, USA and New Zealand.
According to DNA analysis, Gamay is a member of the extremely vast family of Burgundian grapes parented by Pinot Noir and the obscure white grape variety Gouais Blanc. True Gamay, known as Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc has been grown in Burgundy at least from the 14th century. It demands great skill and meticulous care when growing and the winemakers of Beaujolais have long understood this, and over the years have developed unsurpassed experience which has enabled them to fully understand Gamay and bring out the best of its qualities.
Gamay’s versatility means it can produce elegant wines that can be consumed young as well as wines capable for cellaring when produced from some of the higher quality Cru areas. With a preference for granite soils it has proven to be very adaptable.
Visually, the grapes are delicate, with dark violet-coloured skins, and are cylindrical in shape, growing in compact bunches.
These early-maturing grapes produce beautifully bright red wines which are wonderfully aromatic, with notes of raspberry, wild strawberry, blackberry and black cherry, sometimes with slightly peppery and floral notes.
Beaujolais is extremely lucky that with the many different appellations you can find a wonderful mix of styles to drink or match with a wide variety of foods.
So why does my Beaujolais taste like bananas or smell like bubble-gum?
One of the things that sets Beaujolais apart is a style of wine-making that is extremely well suited to Gamay. This is called carbonic maceration, which highlights the amazing fruity aromas of the wine. Gamay is a grape variety that has low tannins to begin with, so wines made with carbonic maceration are among the lowest tannin red wines you can buy on the market today (but not the trendiest!)
Rather than being destemmed upon arrival at the winery, the grapes are left in whole bunches. These bunches are put into closed fermenter tanks (without being crushed) which are then pumped full of carbon dioxide gas. This gas causes intracellular fermentation (also known as anaerobic or enzymatic fermentation) to begin inside each individual grape berry.
After the juice within the grapes reaches about two degrees of alcohol, the grapes burst, and the natural yeast on the grape skins begins a regular alcoholic fermentation, creating carbon dioxide that forces any excess oxygen out of the tank. From this stage the juice will finish fermentation and complete as a regular wine with normal alcohol levels. This style of fermentation is also responsible for the distinctive aromas of banana, candied fruits, pear, raspberry and cranberry in the finished wine!
Semi-carbonic maceration is another method that is also used. This is a variation that omits the addition of carbon dioxide gas as CO2 occurs naturally when grapes are put in the tanks in whole bunches. This technique does not result in as many fruity aromas compared to full carbonic maceration but does let more of the structural tannin remain. Semi-carbonic maceration is used on higher quality Cru Beaujolais.
There are 3 main Classifications of Beaujolais wine:
Beaujolais Villages AOC
Beaujolais AOC – 5,398 ha
This AOC is the largest appellation in Beaujolais. It covers the most area in the south of the region of Beaujolais and comprises roughly 96 wine-making villages. Most Beaujolais is produced from the more southern villages within the Appellation. It is situated between Arbresle and Belleville and includes a few parcels along the eastern side almost as far north as Saint-Amour.
This appellation also grants producers the rights to make whites from Chardonnay and Rosés (also made from Gamay). 42 communes have the right to label their wines AOC Bourgogne Blanc, but for the rest, they must only label as AOC Beaujolais Blanc.
Nine of the ten Beaujolais Crus (except Regnié, because it only became a Cru in 1988) have the right to use the label AOC Bourgogne, with the restriction that if the wine contains more than 30% of Gamay, the label must be AOC Bourgogne Gamay (a new AOC).
Beaujolais AOC are easy to drink because they have refreshing acidity and low tannin. You’ll find the flavours are fruity with notes of raspberry, cherry, cranberry and, sometimes, a touch of tropical banana and bubble-gum (carbonic maceration).
The clay soils and flatland terrain in the south of Beaujolais make it more difficult to properly ripen grapes. Therefore, you’ll find a wide variance of quality.
Wines from the region labelled as “Supérieur” will be a touch higher in alcohol and most likely darker and more concentrated. They are made to be enjoyed young!
Beaujolais Villages AOC – 4,209 ha
Moving up from classic Beaujolais, we come to the 38 official “Village” wines with roughly 36 of those having their village names appear on the label.
These ruggedly steep vineyards face east to south east and sit at between 200 and 500 metres in altitude. These steeper vineyards surround the 10 Crus of the northern area and the wines they produce are generally better than the straightforward Beaujolais.
As Beaujolais Villages is more specialised than normal Beaujolais AOC, the wines are a little deeper and darker in colour and character. Many of these villages are located on granite or schist soils, so they tend to have a more sophisticated fruit character. A small amount of Beaujolais Blanc is also produced from Chardonnay in and around the Mâconnais region with some even labelled as St-Veran (Aligoté is still allowed to be included in the blend but it is being phased out).
Although most of the wines are red with notes of strawberry and blackcurrant, the white wines are also delicious with notes of pear, tropical fruits, and blanched almonds.
These wines should be enjoyed between 2-5 years after production!
There are 10 Cru Appellations in Beaujolais which only produce red wines. All the appellations are in the northern part of the region and follow the course of the River Saône as it flows through the region. Starting at the southern edge of the Mâconnais is the most northerly of the Beaujolais appellations, Saint-Amour, which is followed by (from north to south) Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon and Régnié, and lastly in the most southern parts of the appellation, Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly.
Usually, the wine labels will simply state the name of the Cru and not the fact that it is Beaujolais. Most French wine labels assume knowledge, and this is no exception. Each Cru will have its own distinct personality as a result of different factors such as climate, soils, altitude, aspect.
1. Saint-Amour – 304 ha – AOC - 8 Feb 1946
This region sits at 240 – 320 metres above sea level. It is the most northerly region that borders the Mâconnais and has 12 different “climats” that can add their name to the label. The soils have enormous diversity, including not only ancient alluvial clay and flinty clay but also granite, slate and even some limestone rock.
Two styles of wine are produced here: a light, fruity, floral wine that shows notes of violet and peach and a more powerful version that becomes more Pinot-like with age with notes of kirsch and spice.
With a name like Saint Amour it really is no wonder most wine from this region is consumed on the 14th of February every year…
2. Juliénas – 554 ha – AOC 11 Mar 1938
Juliénas are wines of extreme character, which is very apt seeing as though they are named after Julius Caesar!
These ancient Roman vineyard sites are planted on extremely steep and mostly south facing slopes at between 230 – 430 metres above sea level. The soils are a wonderful mix of granite, volcanic, sandstone and clay soils which give the wines power, structure and terrific aging ability.
Expect wines of finesse, with mineral characters, violets and fruity notes of strawberry and redcurrant, as well as notes of cinnamon.
3. Chénas – 227 ha – AOC 11 Sep 1936
This is the smallest and rarest of all the Crus of Beaujolais. The name Chénas refers to the ancient oak forests that once covered the hillsides but were cut down by both the Romans and the local monks by decree of Phillip V who ordered that all the trees be removed and replaced with vines!
To the west are high and steep granite hills, whilst to the east the terrain becomes more gently sloping, with ancient alluvial soils and layers of small round river stones.
These are generous wines which are full bodied and smooth. It’s their floral notes of rose and iris, plus silky tannins, that earned them the nickname “bouquet of flowers in a velvet basket.”
4. Moulin-à-Vent – 642 ha – AOC - 11 Sep 1936
Sitting at 278 metres high above the vines is the historic windmill that gives the region its name. Dubbed “The King of Beaujolais” this region’s vineyards are grown on decomposed pink granite and soft flaky quartz, giving the wines a dark ruby and garnet colour, good structure and complexity.
These are the most tannic and full-bodied wines of all the Cru. When they’re young you’ll notice lots of plum, cherry and violet notes, but if you can allow the wine to age up to 10 years you’ll be rewarded with more dried fruit, earthy truffles, meat and spice.
5. Fleurie – 810 ha – AOC - 11 Sep 1936
If Moulin-à-Vent is the King, then undoubtedly Fleurie is the Queen. It has 13 different climats or named vineyards in the region, each producing their own unique style of wine. The vineyards are planted at a higher altitude on the steep slopes at the foot of La Madone.
The landscape is also characterised by its very steep and sometimes very dramatic inclines.
The soil is almost exclusively made up of a pinkish-coloured granite which is completely unique to this part of the Beaujolais.
The wines are lighter in style and highly aromatic with a softer more “feminine” quality. Picture floral notes such as roses and violets, with a dash of red fruit and peach. These wines are a more elegant and refined style of Beaujolais.
6. Chiroubles – 314 ha – AOC - 11 Sep 1936
Chiroubles is grown at the highest altitudes of the regions at 250 – 450 metres above sea level. This is also the coolest Cru and the last to start harvest each year! This is most likely due to the fact the surrounding hillsides act as an arena around the tiny village of the same name.
With soils of extremely meager and sandy pink granite, this is another Cru for those who adore the lighter style of Beaujolais.
Temperatures in Chiroubles are lower than in other parts of Beaujolais, which means that the vines can be up to 5 to 10 days behind everywhere else and harvesting starts around one week after the official go-ahead is given for the region.
7. Morgon -1127 ha – AOC - 11 Sep 1936
Morgon is the second largest of the Crus (second only to Brouilly) which explains the wide diversity of its soils.
Its three principal terroirs encompass granite soils on the hillsides, seams of “blue stone” on the summit and the eastern slopes of the Côte du Py, which progressively give away to the foothills with their ancient alluvial soils, and finally clay blocks which covers the granite along the ridges between Morcille and Douby.
Morgon is comprised of six climats, all with slightly different styles, but it is dominated by the Côte du Py, (the most sprawling of the Crus). This famous climat is composed of disintegrated slate and their wines are some of the most age worthy of all the Crus of Beaujolais. These are wines which are full bodied, rich, powerful, and structured, meant to age 5–10 years (at least). The young, fleshy palate of peach, apricot, cherry, and plum will develop into a more earthy wine reminiscent of Burgundian Pinot Noir.
8. Régnié – 428 ha – AOC 8 Dec 1988
A hard one to pronounce - “rehn-yay” It is the newest Cru of Beaujolais as it was only given AOC status in 1986. It is most famous for its church (which uncharacteristically has two spires) which was built in 1867.
It is one of the most granitic Crus, with slopes of varying inclines, which allows soils at different stages of evolution to emerge. Several of the hilltops are topped with ancient stone formations,
whilst at depth it is clay which dominates. This allows producers to create wines with distinct personalities and varying character across the appellation.
Vines are planted at an average of 350 metres above sea level and all on south east facing slopes. Grapes from this region tend to ripen early and the wines produced are terrific when young, with tons of cherry, black currant, and raspberry flavour. The wines show great freshness, fine tannins and good structure.
9. Côte de Brouilly – 323 ha – AOC 19 Oct 1938
Known as the “Elegant Wine on the Hill” some say it was created by the Ogre Gargantua, who upturned a bucket of stones.
Here you will find vineyards planted on the volcanic slopes of Mount Brouilly, giving the wines a unique flavour and delicate minerality. Their complex soils are formed of seams of blue stone mingled with very resistant micro diorites and shale. It is estimated that almost two thirds of the vineyards are planted on steep, stony slopes.
The wines of Côte de Brouilly are generous, with fine tannins and aromas evocative of pepper, with small macerated black berry fruits and mineral notes.
10. Brouilly - 1263 ha – AOC 19 Oct 1938
This is the most southerly and the largest of all the Crus of Beaujolais. It is thought that Mount Brouilly is named after Brulius, a famous Roman lieutenant stationed in the region nearly 2000 years ago.
It is probably the most complex of all the 10 Crus, with half the region being composed of steep slopes of pink granite and the other half a mixture of clayey scree, “blue stone”, ancient alluvial pebbles and small limestone hills.
It seems to be just a little bit more Mediterranean in climate, with slightly warmer temperatures than the rest.
Full of fruit (plum, small red berries) with some mineral notes, it is perfectly representative of Gamay and is best appreciated in its youth.
Brouilly is probably the most well-known of all the Crus of Beaujolais around the world.