An Introduction to the Wines of Beaujolais: Why Everyone Should Love Beaujolais!
What is Beaujolais?
Beaujolais is wine from a region called, unsurprisingly, “Beaujolais.”
Most Beaujolais is red wine made from Gamay grapes, but there is some rosé (also made from Gamay) and a tiny bit of white wine, mostly from Chardonnay grapes.
Why should I be so passionate?
Beaujolais has been one of our favorites since we opened Flatiron. There’s probably no region that we, the Flatiron staff, drink more regularly. Here’s why:
First and foremost, Beaujolais is delicious! Our favorite Beaujolais all have an ineffable quality we point at with words like “crushability” and “gulpability.” It’s wine that wants to be drunk joyously.
Partly, that’s a function of Beaujoais’ delectable flavors: it balances pretty fruit notes with earthy, mineral and savory characteristics, depending on the bottle. But the body and structure of the wine also tend to make Beaujolais the kind of bottle you finish once you’ve opened it. It’s relatively low in alcohol and tannin, but full of fresh acidity which keeps the wine feeling and tasting fresh, sip after sip.
Beaujolais is also great in almost every situation. Cold winter night? Open a bottle of Morgon or Cotes de Brouilly. Hot summer day? Chill a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau or Beaujolais and treat it like a rose.
And while it’s delicious on its own, Beaujolais is one of the best food wines in the world. You can pair an aged bottle with all sorts of fancy dishes, but it’s also great with the sorts of food we actually eat on the regular. Burger night? Beaujolais. Pizza? Sure! Salad Nicoise? Mais oui! In fact, it’s so versatile that it’s the number one recommended (non-American) wine for the wildly diverse Thanksgiving table.
Beaujolais is also fascinating. Like most great wine regions (e.g. Burgundy or Bordeaux) Beaujolais produces a range of wines from simple, gulpable pleasures, which the French think of as “Festive” wines (Beaujolais Nouveau and straight Beaujolais), through the expressive Beaujolais Villages wines, and on up to the complex and age-worthy Cru Beaujolais that embody their singular terroirs.
The fact that the whole region uses just one grape makes it a wonderful region for enjoying the subtle (and not so subtle!) effects of terroir and producer choices on the final wine.
You can spend (and we have spent!) years sampling what different producers make from every inch of Beaujolais from simple but honest little wines to profound, single-vineyard gems.
It’s a great value!
Best of all, especially for the budget conscious, Beaujolais remains one of the best values in the world of wine. Really top quality Beaujolais starts under $20 and even the greatest producers rarely charge more than $40 a bottle. Far cry from the 3-figure (and higher) prices in Burgundy and the Rhone.
What does Beaujolais taste like?Different Beaujolais wines from different parts of the region made in different ways by different producers in different vintages will make wines that taste… different! Over the course of this series of posts on Beaujolais we’ll dive into what the wines of Beaujolais have in common, but also what makes them different from each other and worth exploring.
But for now, we can make some generalizations.
Aromas.Beaujolais has aromas of bright red fruits (raspberries, sometimes strawberry or even cherry). Some Beaujolais (especially from the Crus) can have distinct floral scents, as well as mineral and other savory notes. With time in the cellar the wines can evolve more towards a Burgundian or Pinot Noir-like combination of forest floor and animal. The French call this “Pinoté”
Taste.Beaujolais wines taste similar to how they smell: pretty fruit, subtle earthy and mineral notes.
The Gamay grape (its full name is Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc, or “Black Gamay with White Juice”) is relatively low in tannin and very fresh. Local winemaking techniques (called “Carbonic Maceration” and discussed below) accentuate this lightness. So most wines end up without much tannin (making them a good red wine pairing for fish) but with lovely acidity of the type that brings out food flavors and keeps your palate feeling alive, excited. The alcohol levels tend to stay reasonable, so you can have a few glasses without overwhelming either your mind or your palate.
Underpinning all of this -- beneath the crushability, the beautiful flavors and aromas, the complexity and the pairings -- lies the sense of something important revealing itself, but just out of reach. Some regions (most notably Burgundy and Piedmont) are famous among wine lovers for a magical essence, something subtle but enrapturing and unique to the region that defies words. Beaujolais can do that too, and for a fraction of the price.
Where is Beaujolais and what’s it like there?
The region is located just south of Burgundy and just north of the start of the Rhone Valley, towards the middle of France. The climate is basically continental: cold winters, hot summers.
Isn’t Beaujolais just another part of Burgundy?
No, it’s not! People often think of Beaujolais and Burgundy together, because they have a bunch in common: they’re both delicious French wines -- often, low tannin -- that can pair with a wide variety of foods. Not only are they close, the Beaujolais region is, technically speaking, part of the same administrative region as Burgundy.
But Beaujolais isn’t Burgundy.
It’s very much its own thing, with its own terroir, history, winemaking styles, personalities. And important for most of us wine lovers: with much lower prices. You’ll sometimes hear somms recommend a bottle of Beaujolais as a sort of “poor man’s Burgundy.” There’s a logic to that. And if it gets people to try Beaujolais who wouldn’t otherwise, we like the line. But it obscures as much as it shows. We prefer getting to know Beaujolais on its own terms. It just has so much to offer.
But for many of us the easiest way to get to know Beaujolais is by comparing it to Burgundy. So...
Burgundy vs. Beaujolais, what’s the deal?
ClimatesBoth regions are continental, but whereas Burgundy is decidedly northern, Beaujolais, is the first region to get a hint of Mediteranean influence. Some sun, warmer winds. While grapes have historically struggled to ripen in Burgundy, in Beaujolais it’s quite a bit easier.
SoilsBurgundy is famous for its hodgepodge of limestone and clay soils, the subtle variations of which collectors will obsess over. Beaujolais, on the other hand, is most famous for granite soils (and to a lesser extent, schiste, clay and sandstone). But as in Burgundy, a lot of the magic is in the variations: across Beaujolais’ considerable expanse, there are sites with old volcanic rocks, bits of limestone, manganese and other oddities that give complexity not just to the maps, but to the wines themselves. Like Burgundy, Beaujolais’ soils vary from village to village, a factor which does much to make the region. This is catnip to winegeeks!
Red Wine vs White Wine vs RoseBurgundy makes some of the world’s great white wines from Chardonnay and even has, in Marsannay, one of its leading rosé appellations.
Beaujolais is mostly about red wine from Gamay. But more and more producers are making Beaujolais Rosé. And good thing too: all the characteristics that make red Beaujolais so crushable also make for great rosé. Beaujolais also makes a tiny bit of white wine, mostly from Chardonnay planted on some of Beaujolais’ rarer clay-limestone soils.
WinemakingBeaujolais is famous as the home of a kind of winemaking known as “carbonic maceration.” If you want to really geek out, we’ll have a blog post up specifically on winemaking in Beaujolais soon. But here are some basics:
In Burgundy, winemaking mostly follows the tradition of picking grape bunches, destemming and “crushing” them. This breaks the skins and let’s the juice come into contact with the yeasts that live on the skins and in the air. This starts the fermentation process, which proceeds with the juice/wine in contact with the skins. Allowing the skins to macerate in these liquids means any tannin in the skins can soak into the final wine, where they give structure.
In Beaujolais, par contre, there is a historical practice of dropping whole bunches of grapes into a vat to begin fermenting with all the juice still inside each grape. This can radically reduce the amount of extraction from the skins, and can create much of Beaujolais’ unique flavor palette. Of course, Beaujolais also has plenty of winemakers who work in the Burgundian style, as well as a myriad versions of the carbonic maceration. All this variety, again, makes for fascinating as well as delicious drinking.
ExperimentationLand in Burgundy is about as expensive as it gets, the culture is very traditional, and the growing and marketing pressures are intense. Not surprisingly, it is a land of tradition first and experimentation only a very distant second.
Beaujolais is different. It has been as good a value as you could find in French vineyard land. The economic and growing pressures are not quite the same. Young and open-minded growers have established themselves and made it into a hotbed of experimentation. One of our favorite up and coming growers released his first commercial vintage when he was 12! We can’t imagine that happening in Burgundy.
TL/DRCompared to Burgundy, Beaujolais has:
- a similar, but more forgiving, climate;
- complex but different soils;
- a focus on red wine;
- unique winemaking traditions, and
- a youthful, experimental spirit.
Is Beaujolais New?
A (very) little on Beaujolais’ History
We get this a lot: “I’m hearing more and more about Beaujolais all the time, what’s changed?”
Beaujolais is far from new.
In fact, the region has been making wine at least since Roman times. (I know, I know, they all say that. But it’s fact… the Roman’s conquered a lot of land and really liked their wine!)
There are historical records of Beaujolais’ grape, Gamay, going back at least to the 1390s. True, that earliest record was the Duke of Burgundy’s order banning the grape. But still, the ordinary people were planting Gamay for good reason: it made tasty wine, it was easier to farm than Pinot Noir, and the vines made more fruit and wine than Pinot Noir.
Those advantages made Beaujolais a natural when Lyons, just a few miles to the south, exploded in population in the 18th and 19th centuries. All that work on the new silk looms and in the factories was thirsty-making and Beaujolais, which could be floated right down the Saone River to Lyons’ merchants, was the fix. Beaujolais’ Gamay became the go-to wine in the city’s bistros and “bouchons” -- the little familial restaurants that still serve Lyons’ local dishes to tourists and natives alike. There’s even a traditional Lyonnais breakfast that is washed down with Beaujolais!
When the train lines first connected Beaujolais to Paris, what had been mostly a local wine (unlike Burgundy’s Pinot Noirs, which went as far as London and Rome), suddenly had a huge market in the capital. Beaujolais’ ability to produce good quantities of delicious wine made it perfect for the city’s working classes, and the wine has been a staple of Parisian bistros ever since. Even today it’s hard to think of a better pairing for a French Onion Soup than a delicious Beaujolais.
Many Americans only really began to hear about Beaujolais with the advent of Beaujolais Nouveau as a cultural phenomenon in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The “Nouveau” is the first wine of the vintage, released in November mere weeks after the harvest. It’s light, simple, fun stuff and the parties people used to throw to celebrate its release were, no doubt, a blast. French magazines still circulate videos of Japanese wine lovers bathing in the stuff.
But the association of Beaujolais with Beaujolais Nouveau made many Americans think that all Beaujolais is a light, simple novelty wine, fun to drink for a few weeks in November and December, but not worth a regular place in their lives or at their table.
More recently, as Burgundy and other food-friendly old world wines have gotten pricier, Americans have rediscovered Beaujolais. Ten years ago, when we mentioned Beaujolais almost nobody knew anything but Nouveau.
Seven years ago, when Jeff published his Guide to the 10 Crus of Beaujolais, there was almost nothing else about them online. Nobody was interested in the wines. We could buy as much of any of them as we wanted. Today, they seem right on the cusp of becoming one of the world’s “it” wines.
This renewed interest (in America, but also in France and even Japan) gave some economic support for young growers who moved to Beaujolais looking to do great things. Today, Beaujolais is one of France’s most exciting and dynamic regions. It was one of the birthplaces of “Natural Wine” and a hotbed of experimentation in farming and winemaking styles. Beaujolais’ top natural wine producers (Lapierre, Foillard etc.) have become household names in international wine and gastronomy, and have inspired two generations of winemakers around the world to try to make pure, minimally interventionist wines that express their local terroir in direct and delicious ways.
Beaujolais Vintages: Is Beaujolais vintage sensitive?Beaujolais is vintage sensitive -- after all it is from a continental climate where the weather can vary a lot from year to year.
But the combination of terroir and grape makes the region less sensitive than, for instance, Burgundy. Some years, the weather makes for a bigger harvest; some years, a smaller one. Some years are hotter, or drier and make for bigger, more powerful wines; some years are cool and make for more lithe, tenser wines. But it’s very rare (especially in the era of global warming) to see a vintage that is a real washout.
In fact, all of the recent vintages you are likely to find in a neighborhood shop or restaurant were good, and some of them were truly great. On the other hand, they are all different and some will appeal more to certain palates than others. Here are brief notes on recent vintages that you may still find around:
2018 - Great.It was a hot year but the wines somehow have ended up with beautiful freshness as well as the kind of gorgeous fruit that made us fall in love with Beaujolais in the first place. Good for Beaujolais aficionados and newbies alike.
2017 - Very Good.Summer hail reduced yields terribly, so there wasn’t as much wine around as usual. But what there was tended to have exuberant fruit.
2016 - Good.Bad hail in the north, especially in the Crus, reduced yields, but in the south good growers made very tasty, if not profound, wines.
2015 - Great.A hot year blessed with cooler nights and some timely rains made what are, by Beaujolais’ standards, big, bold wines. The fruit tends to be a little darker than usual and alcohol levels a touch higher. But the wines maintained freshness and the wines were very, very popular. A particularly good year for newcomers to Beaujolais who are more accustomed to California or warm climate wines.
2014 - Great.This was the kind of vintage we love at Flatiron: beautifully-drawn, precise fruit, vibrant, chiseled structures and clear terroir signatures. A wonderful introduction to Beaujolais for Burgundy refugees and very much a classic vintage for dyed-in-the-wool Beaujolais fans.
2013 - Good to Very Good, but mixed.
The growing season was a bit of a challenge, but producers who were able to wait and wait and harvest late made some delicious, fresh wines.
Serving Beaujolais wines: Temperature, Decanting and Storing
How should I serve my Beaujolais?It depends on the Beaujolais! Our first caveat for serving wines is always the same: most Americans serve their white wines too cold and their red wines too hot. This definitely applies to Beaujolais. But our second caveat is even more important: start with the wine a little cooler than you probably want it and experiment to see where, as it warms up, you like it best. Because, of course, it’s subjective. One thing we never do: Get a thermometer out and obsess over serving temperature. This stuff we very much do by feel.
Here are some guidelines on Beaujolais serving temperatures:Most people keep their fridge between 35 and 40 degrees (F). Even a basic Chardonnay, like a simpler Beaujolais Blanc, shouldn’t really be served any cooler than about 45 degrees, or you’ll lose a lot of the subtleties that make it worth drinking -- and possibly make the wine feel out of balance acidic. Of course, a wine that’s just out of the fridge will pick up five degrees pretty fast in a glass, especially if you hold it by the bowl rather than the stem.
The lightest, simplest Beaujolais, like Beaujolais Nouveau or a basic Beaujolais (i.e., not Villages or Cru), should only be a few degrees warmer than a Chardonnay: 50-55 degrees. As these wines warm up to room temperature or higher, the acidity that gives them definition and so much charm will start to fade.
Beaujolais Village, and the lighter Crus should be served a touch warmer, to bring out more of the subtleties without losing acidity -- just around 60 degrees. The very best Beaujolais Crus can be treated like a great Burgundy; you might like them served even a bit over 60 degrees.
Should I decant my Beaujolais?It’s almost certainly not necessary, but, as always with wine, there are a few exceptions.
- Some very young wines can be helped by a bit of decanting.
- Some much older Beaujolais can also be decanted.
How should I store my unfinished bottle of Beaujolais?There are lots of technologies to preserve wines but we tend to keep it simple: put a cork in the wine and stick it in the fridge. If the bottle is half full, it’s going to last a couple of days like that. In fact, if it’s a very young bottle of a more ageworthy Beaujolais Village or Cru, it may open up slowly over 24 hours in the fridge and show more complexity or more expressive fruit than on the first day.
Can I pair Beaujolais with food?As we said above, one of the great thing about Beaujolais is how good it is with food. Of course, as we’ve been discussing, Beaujolais is a big area and Beaujolais wines take a lot of different forms so there’s a Beaujolais to go with almost every dish out there. We will go into a little more depth in each of the sections of this guide on the different levels of Beaujolais, but for now here are some general ideas:
- We often drink the simplest, lightest Beaujolais on their own. Chilled down like a rose at a party, maybe. But they’re also great with snacks and light foods. A little pre-dinner snack of meats and cheese are a no-brainer, but you can do a lot more. The high acid and low tannin make them a fun choice when you want a red wine to go with a light fish dish or even with sushi. An earthier Beaujolais will also bring out the umami side of a Japanese meal, while the fruit flavors will contrast with it. A very lively experience!
- Beaujolais Village wines can have a little more weight and texture (depending on exactly how the grower works and where the fruit comes from) so they can do everything the lighter Beaujolais can do and also stand up to slightly weightier meats.
- Cru Beaujolais, which tend to have even a little more going on can stand up to more. One of the best meals I’ve ever had in france was on a cold and rainy winter day when a grower in the Cotes de Brouilly served us multiple vintages with a giant, roasted pork.
But the key thing is that the wines have flexibility, as evidenced by the common practice of drinking Beaujolais with Thanksgiving dinner. A super-light wine will still have the acidity to cut through the fat of a turkey’s dark meat, and the flavors will complement many and clash with few of the myriad flavors on the table.
With so many great producers in Beaujolais, where do I even start?
Stick with us! This series of blog posts will talk about a bunch of them. Better yet, sign up for our newsletter. Our emails feature interesting stories and special pricing on the best and most dynamic growers in Beaujolais (and around the world…).
Of course, the best way to get to know the growers is to taste their wines, and you can see all in stock Beaujolais wines in the New York store, and the SF store.
But the best place to go if you want to get started today, is to look at our local blogs on Beaujolais from the NY Store and the SF Store which each have links to some of our favorite producers.
Fast Facts about Beaujolais
How big is it?
- Beaujolais covers over 35,000 acres (or over 14,000 hectares, as the French would say).
- It stretches over 35 miles, from St. Amour in the north, to its southern tip, but is no more than about nine miles across!
How many appellations are there in Beaujolais?
There are 12 appellations in Beaujolais
- Beaujolais Village
- The 10 Crus
- St. Amour, Julienas, Fleurie, Chenas, Moulin a Vent, Morgon, Chirouble, Regnie, Brouilly, Cotes de Brouilly.
How much wine does Beaujolais make each year?
- In 2019 there were 70 million bottles of Beaujolais made, across all 12 appellations.
How many colors of wine do they make in Beaujolais?
- There are three colors, red, white and rose.
- But 95% of the wine is Red, while only 3% is rose and 2% white
What grapes do they grow in Beaujolais?
- The main grape (98% of the plantings) is Gamay, known officially as “Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc” -- “Black Gamay with White Juice”
- Chardonnay represents about 2% of the plantings.
- Trivia for bonus marks: There are still tiny amounts of Aligote planted, which is a permitted variety until 2024
How big a deal is Beaujolais Nouveau?
- It’s about 20% of Beaujolais’ total production.
- Nouveau can come from either Beaujolais Village, or Beaujolais, but Beaujolais Nouveau can’t be made in the 10 Crus.
This blog was produced thanks to the kind support of
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