Beaujolais, a distinct wine growing region historically considered the southernmost section of Burgundy, is internationally renowned in its own right for the production of high-quality, vibrant red wines produced from the Gamay grape. Yet a more recent campaign by buyers, critics, sommeliers, and a new host of low-intervention winemakers to boost its popularity, the area has often been overlooked for the marquee vineyards and big-name appellations in Burgundy proper.
The winegrowing area extends from the northern edge of Beaujolais at the southern edge of Burgundy's southernly Maconnais region 40 miles to the city of Lyon on the Saône river. It is expansive, with about 14,500 hectares of vines within 12 Beaujolais AOC appellations, practically all planted with Gamay (98%). Within, there are ten primary crus (Chenas, Brouilly, Chiroubles, Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Regnie, and Saint-Amour) and a total of 12 AOC appellations that can each express noticeably different styles of the Gamay grape.
The region first gained viticultural eminence in the 1800s through its youthful, fruity "nouveau" carbonic maceration wines. Without barrel aging after primary fermentation, these wines were sold and consumed only weeks after harvest and found growing popularity in Western European metropolises, including Paris and London.
Terroir and Climate of Beaujolais
Beaujolais experiences a borderline continental climate, warmed by the presence of the Massif Central (a highland region in the center of southern France) to the west and the Alps to the east. These geological features provide a relatively temperate growing season and promote an ideal climate for the ripe, fruit-driven flavors and, in particular, nouveau-style (carbonic maceration) wines.
The northern section of Beaujolais is dotted by rolling granite hills with small areas of clay and limestone, while richer clay- and sandstone-based soil, in addition to flatter plains, are found in the south. This difference often explains highly aromatic, structured, and complex wines made in northern Beaujolais, instead of the lighter, younger-drinking, and fruitier style of the south.
White Wines of Beaujolais
Overwhelmed by Gamay plantings, Beaujolais has only a minuscule production of white varietals. The Beaujolais Blanc label is always 100% Chardonnay, and the grape varietal comprises only around two percent of the region's wine output.
Beaujolais Blanc is a light and fresh white wine, with prevailing notes of stone fruit, pears, and melon on the nose. Unlike in Burgundy, winemakers here almost always produce these whites to be consumed young and fresh in the glass.
This Beaujolais appellation includes vineyards on the land between the Saône River and the eastern foothills of the Massif Central mountain range, stretching from the hills just south of Macon to the plains that lie northwest of Lyon.
Under the regional appellation regulations, white wines cannot comprise more than 15 percent of any single vineyard, essentially capping the white wine produced in the region. Only about 480 of the roughly 3,000 vineyards in Beaujolais include appreciable amounts of Chardonnay plantings.
Red Wines of Beaujolais
Naturally acidic, the purple-colored grape variety Gamay grape dominates both red wine and overall production in Beaujolais. In general, the ten crus offer the highest quality, with some crus (like Morgon) producing notably fuller-bodied, meatier expressions of Gamay and others showcasing the grape's lighter, floral side (like Fleurie). However, Beaujolais Gamay generally has delicate red fruit, subtle earthy and mineral notes, and is relatively low in tannin and fresh acidity.
More than any other style, Gamay in Beaujolais is perhaps best known worldwide for Beaujolais Nouveau, the specific regional style in which the grapes undergo Carbonic Maceration. During this process, whole grapes are fermented in a carbon dioxide-rich environment before crushing during fermentation. Carbonic maceration is bottled only 6 to 8 weeks after harvest, and this production method creates higher acidity and very little tannin in the wines. However, most Beaujolais producers don't traditionally practice total carbonic maceration but rather a "semi-carbonic" process in which whole clusters of grapes are stuffed into wooden, cement, or steel vessels without the addition of CO2.
In France, Beaujolais Nouveau Day is the third Thursday in November, marked with fireworks, music, and festivals. Under French law, Beaujolais Nouveau producers release the wine at 12:01 a.m on that day, and the release has become a worldwide wine retail and restaurant event.
Cuisine of Beaujolais
Beaujolais has long been intricately tied to the more well-known Lyonnaise cuisine, as the city of Lyon bookends the region to the south and has a significant influence on the food scene. Beaujolais Gamay wines' light and extreme food-friendly versatility are well suited to local dishes as diverse as charcuterie plates like patés, terrines, and rillettes, various local cheeses, and Lyonnaise Potatoes (sliced pan-fried potatoes and thinly sliced onions, sautéed in butter with parsley).