There will be a day—not too far in the future, I'm betting—when we will look back and realize that we were getting a sweet, sweet deal on Cru Beaujolais back in 2012. This stuff offers some of the best value in red wine that you can find right now—it's seriously well-made, balanced, food-friendly, delicious, and evocative of place, and it's way underpriced. "It is the most delicious wine in the world," says star sommelier Rajat Parr, but it often sells for under $25—or even under $20—a bottle. And that can come in handy today while you stock up for Thanksgiving.
Let's back up a little. While cru Beaujolais is a personal favorite of many wine professionals, there are still plenty of folks who don't know what's up. Is there a grape called Beaujolais? Are we talking about that "la nouveau est arrivé" stuff? Let's break it down, and get you some recommendations for your Turkey Day festivities.
For starters: Beaujolais is a region, and the grape in any wine labeled Beaujolais is Gamay. It's a thin-skinned grape that has some things in common with Pinot Noir, including fresh, tart acid and light-to-medium body. "Cru Beaujolais is playful and serious wine at once," Juliette Pope, the beverage director of Gramercy Tavern in NYC, told us: "If you like Pinot Noir, serious Gamay is an excellent alternative to explore: like Pinot, the tannins are gentle and the fruit juicy and the body light (-to-medium); and it also can be very expressive of its granite-heavy terroir, showing intense minerality like Pinot can (and often does) coming from Burgundy."
Be certain of this: a bottle of Cru Beaujolais has almost nothing to do with a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau, which you'll see tons of advertisements for this time of year. "Beaujolais Nouveau," warns Rachael Ryan, sommelier at Quince in San Francisco, "is a totally different beast." The Beaujolais Nouveau was originally made as simple, chuggable wine for celebrating the harvest. It's fermented fast (using carbonic maceration, "which is where the grapes begin to ferment internally," explains Ryan, "before the berry itself has been crushed and the skins broken, which preserves the inherent fruitiness of the Gamay grape.") While there are a handful of good producers who make versions of this harvest-time wine, the vast majority on the market is mass-produced. "The grapes are of poor quality, from god knows where in Beaujolais. The winemaking practices are dubious, and the quality questionable. It's a factory-made wine, quite simply."
Selling truckloads of Beaujolais Nouveau for cheap devastated the region as a whole. Master marketer Georges Duboeuf, says wine writer Alice Feiring, "turned the region into one that was known for bad wine that was imperative to drink, one month out of the year. Generations forgot that Beaujolais is actually a gorgeous wine. People have been committing suicide over there in the Beaujolais because they could not make a living. Low prices and no respect."
This sad tale is part of why you can now get amazing deals on the best wines of the region—for now. "Because of low cost for land, more people have been able to rent land (if not buy) and work it," says Feiring. "And the land is terrific terroir, so lots of new talent is moving in and making beautiful wine. There's plenty of new energy and the old energy seems revitalized."
So what should you look for? What does the word 'cru' tell us? "Beaujolais is a fairly large area south of Burgundy (though for wine classification purposes, often classed as an extension of Burgundy)," says Rachael Ryan, "While the crus are ten small villages clustered together at the northern end of the region." On the bottle, you'll see the name of the village, much bigger than you might see the word Beaujolais itself. "These ten special villages are equivalent to premier and grand cru of northern Burgundy," notes Feiring.
Get to Know the Crus
10 top villages can print their names on the label of a bottle of Cru Beajolais. What's the difference between them? Of course the wines vary depending on who makes them and the specific soils of the vineyard, but here's a little shorthand, starting with the regions known for lighter-bodied wines and moving up to the bigger ones. We highly recommend that you choose a few to compare this Thanksgiving—they're all fantastic with turkey and stuffing.
Chiroubles is among the lightest of the crus, and is often "fragrantly perfumed," according to Juliette Pope. We recommend Christophe Pacalet Chiroubles 2010, which has a vivid aroma of sticky stewed cranberries and cherries. The wine is silky and quite herbal, with the fruit wrapped in blackberry brambles and thyme. On the finish, it softens into a blanket of fruit. Pacalet rents land in a few different crus, uses indigenous yeast, and tries to avoid herbicides, fertilizers, and fungicides. His uncle is Marcel Lapierre, a famous natural winemaker in Morgon.
"For those that prefer more delicate, floral wines, I would suggest Fleurie or Chiroubles," says Quince's Rachael Ryan. "Both are just, well, pretty. They are super fine in texture, with aromas of cranberries, cherries, pomegranate and gorgeous acidity to match." She recommends Chiroubles from Chapelle des Bois.
Rajat Parr told us that Fleurie "is the most feminine and delicate version of Gamay." At our sommeliers' Thanksgiving, we loved Julien Sunier 2011 Fleurie with turkey and stuffing, and we also recommend Clos de la Roilette Fleurie 2010. This wine's a little more structured than you might expect from Fleurie—winemaker Alain Coudert says the soils in Roillette are 25% clay, while the rest of the AOC is granite. The wine has flavors of plums and black currants that seem to tunnel into the core of each sip, while the finish is mineral and spicy, with a bit of tobacco dust and black licorice softening into violets.
Régnié is the newest of the crus; the area didn't win Cru Beaujolais status until 1988. It's often considered to produce lighter-styled wines, but Charly Thévenet, son of Morgon natural wine superstar Jean-Paul Thévenet, purchased a parcel of 80 year old vines in Régnié, and Charly Thévenet Régnié 2010 is intense stuff, impressive and dense. When first opened, this wine showed ripping acidity that scrubbed the palate, but as it gets air it develops deeper flavors, settling into mushrooms and loamy wet forest floor.
St. Amour is known for being charming and soft, and we fell head-over-heels for Domaine des Billards Saint Amour 2009. This wine is inviting, with soft, silky cherry fruit—it's a friendly, delicious gamay with supple texture, a flavor that evokes just-picked juicy strawberries and a soft river-rock finish. We couldn't stop drinking it—this is the kind of wine you want to crawl into bed with. Unfortunately you won't see tons of St. Amour around; the cru is small and production smaller. (We had a similar problem with the smallest of the crus, Chénas; we weren't able to track down a bottle in all of San Francisco, though we hear good things about producer Dominique Piron.)
As you move up the scale into more earthy, robust wines, you hit the pink granite soils of Brouilly, and Côte-de-Brouilly, which is located on the high slopes of Brouilly (resulting in more powerful, concentrated wines.) We adore Nicole Chanrion Côte-de-Brouilly 2010 , which has gorgeous aromas of fresh raspberry jam, and flavors in layers of graphite, deep, vivid fruit, bunches of violets, and a little copper. It's a focused wine with gorgeous streams of juicy acidity and deep underlying minerality.
And fuller yet? Look for spicy and rich wines from Juliénas. Producer Michel Tete's Clos du Fief Juliénas 2010 is full of smooth black cherries that burst with juice, backed up with rich, mushroomy earth. This is gorgeous, elegant wine, round and supple in the mouth with a tart, fresh finish—we couldn't sip it without swearing a little. You'll see a lot of 2011 on the shelf now; they're selling for around $22, while the older-vine cuvée prestige is still a steal at $28. I'd like to buy a case of this and hold it a year or three.
Ask a wine pro for their favorite cru, though, and they'll often pick Morgon, naming a few of their favorite growers located there, such as Marcel Lapierre and Jean Foillard. Says Rachael Ryan: "Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent are the most structured of the crus, with more intensity, concentration and savory flavors. The soils here are rich in iron and manganese, and it comes through. I love giving someone a Morgon and watch their world change as they realize that Beaujolais Nouveau has nothing in common with these rustic, brooding specimens," she says. Want to try some? Start with Jean Paul Brun 2009 Terres Dorées Morgon, which sells for under $23. It starts out quite tightly wound, full of tart cherry fruit and lots of drying tannins. But then it opens into gorgeous pomegranate and soft blueberry spiced with star anise, rosemary needles, and whirling minerality. The texture is both focused and luxurious, like high-thread count sheets. Give it a little time to get friendly; decant an hour before serving, and you'll be smacking your lips once you taste. At our sommeliers' Thanksgiving, a Morgon from J. Chamonard was one of the best bottles on the table.
Moulin-à-Vent has the most tannic structure of the crus, and is sometimes called the King of Beaujolais. "It's a more masculine style," says Rajat Parr, " with more spicy and gamey flavors.The wines are rich and age-worthy." Domaine Diochon Moulin-à-Vent 2010 is a powerful example with little in common with the easy-drinking grapey Beaujolais you might have tried. It's grown on pink granite and sandstone, and it feels as if the inky purple fruit is cut through with a million needles of dark earth. This is elegantly textured, intense wine with a long, lingering finish. I'm not certain there's better red wine to be found for under $25.
Have you explored cru Beaujolais? Do you have a favorite producer?
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All wines provided as samples for review consideration.