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Cru Beaujolais Is the Wine World’s Rising Star

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At the tail end of Burgundy—France’s revered wine region whose Côte-d'Or slopes are praised as pinot noir’s perfect fit—a different grape takes over. Here, in the Beaujolais zone, the best sites, running along the forest-topped granite hills in the area’s north, are given over to gamay—a variation more specifically named gamay noir à jus blanc. When grown in these hills and vinified with local yeasts, this thin-skinned dark grape yields complex, aromatic, and totally affordable wines. Boasting an array of peppery, dry-herb-flecked fruit notes that range from watermelon to raspberry to cherry, with robust lilac and peony aromas, Beaujolais' best wines are made from fruit grown in the area's 10 crus, or top vineyard sites. Generally a well-kept secret, in the past few years, partly thanks to special attention in the 2015 documentary film Somm: Into the Bottle, cru Beaujolais’ star is steadily rising.

Stateside, the region is better known for its Beaujolais Nouveau wines, easy-to-drink juice with flavors some liken to bubblegum or cotton candy that's just weeks old, released annually on the third Thursday of November. "This isn’t just Thanksgiving fodder," says California-based Somm-subject and Master Sommelier Brian McClintic about cru Beaujolais. Those bottles are Nouveau’s local antithesis, pale garnet-colored, with deep, layered fruity aromas and a structure of soft tannins and refreshing acidity.

Though the term "natural wine" bears no official definition, many of the tastier cru wines produced in Beaujolais are made with a hands-off approach. Cru Beaujolais's resurgence can, in fact, be credited to the vin naturel, or natural wine, movement which took off in the 1980s thanks to now legendary small area producers Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thévenet, and Jean Foillard—dubbed the "Gang of Four." These men set off a return to chemical-free, traditional Beaujolais winemaking.

While cru Beaujolais production has always been limited, bottles are becoming even more allocated.

While the number of bottles cru Beaujolais producers release annually has always been limited, with widening exposure thanks to sommeliers who champion the region, and movies like Somm: Into the Bottle that bring attention to the area, supplies are becoming even more allocated for both restaurants and retail shops. McClintic adds, "Social media has [also] been big. Combine that with [the popularity of] vin naturel and a customer that’s far more open to trying new things." In California, up to 70 percent of bottles land on restaurant lists, while wine shops who stock cru Beaujolais can be harder to find: "Most importers are protecting it a lot with very special retailers," McClintic continues.

L to R: Vineyards at Domaine Louis-Claude Desvignes in Morgon; and unofficial fifth "Gang of Four" winemaker Georges Descombes at his vineyards in Villié-Morgon. [Images courtesy of Louis/Dressner]

At retail, cru bottles now command around $30 (up from about $10 during the 1990s)—still, as McClintic notes, a great value. Wines with claim to these labels are the world’s great showcase of gamay, a grape that was once a component of many Burgundian reds, but is now all but banished (with the notable exceptions of Côteaux Bourguignons and Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, appellations that allow some gamay to be fermented with pinot noir) to the region’s southernmost zone, where winemakers believe the mostly granitic soils—with limestone and volcanic schist there too—are a better match. In these hills, gamay is capable of a liveliness and depth comparable to pinot noir in Burgundy's finer sites, with which it can sometimes be happily confused after a little bit of aging.

Examples of gamay's headiness can be found from France to Eastern Europe, to Oregon and Australia, but the grape's spiritual base is here in Beaujolais, its potential for a deeply perfumed and food-bound wine nurtured by these lands that lie just north of the mythical culinary city of Lyon. Echoing the Côte-d'Or's legendary topography and climate—but in this case on a foundation of volcanic schist, overlaid by varying sand and clay soil textures, and with a unique mixed continental and mediterranean climate—the gamay grape shows off its many sides, from fresh and mineral-driven, to complexly fruity and age-worthy.

Yet, a small part of cru Beaujolais complexity may spring from another aspect of the land itself. Like many of the world’s oldest winemaking regions, some Beaujolais vineyards still hold vestiges of the centuries-old European practice of mixed vine plantings (contributing to Europe's preference for location over varietal labeling): up to 15 percent of cru wine is permitted to be a mix of chardonnay, aligoté, and melon de bourgogne grapes so long as they are grown, harvested, and fermented with gamay.

At around $30, cru Beaujolais wines offer a great value.

Cru plantings take up about one third of Beaujolais's vineyards. Named Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Chiroubles, Chénas, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié, Saint-Amour, the vineyards run along a jagged and irregular set of hillsides that overlap briefly with Burgundy’s Maconnais area (home mostly to chardonnay), then progress down into the Rhône department, covering a diversity of soils from pink granite, to volcanic rock, to limestone-flecked clay. The word Beaujolais rarely appears on these bottles. Instead, look for one of the 10 cru names instead. In his recent book The Food and Wine of France, Art of Eating founding editor Ed Behr writes, "The names are important because cru labels rarely mention ‘Beaujolais,’ as if to say that their wine is not to be confused with the mass of Beaujolais."

The vineyards of Beaujolais, France. [Image via Shutterstock/Jakez]

With its proximity to Lyon, Beaujolais wines have been filling Lyonnaise glasses for centuries. The city is home to the bouchon, small, traditionally women-run restaurants with informal atmospheres and elaborate meat-centered dishes, as well as Eugénie "Mère" Brazier, the woman who launched France’s modern food era and Lyon's place at the head of it in 1933 when her La Mère Brazier restaurant earn three Michelin stars—she was the first woman to receive such an honor. Also from Lyon was her protégé, chef of the century Paul Bocuse, and his protégé, chef Daniel Boulud, along with grand French classics like poulard demi-deuil, and the area’s famous, and geographically designated, Bresse chicken dressed with truffle velouté (a dish created by Eugénie Brazier’s mentor, Mère Filloux). And that's not to mention gratins from potato to leek, and unshy sausages like pork intestine–stuffed andouillette and blood-based boudin noir with stewed apples. The cru wines from delicate, elegant Saint-Amour, to more rustic, full-bodied Juliénas, to meaty Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent can match them all.

Cru Beaujolais Wines to Try

Drink these cru bottles. [Image by Alex Ulreich]

  • Damien Coquelet, Chiroubles, 2014 ($23): Chiroubles wines are often the lightest of the crus. Coquelet’s is fresh and fruity, with lots of acidity and a chalky texture. Expect aromas of raspberries, currants, and orange and grapefruit peel.
  • Coudert Père & Fils, Fleurie Clos de la Roilette, Cuvée Tardive, 2014 ($28): As a cru in general, Fleurie is known for producing aromatic wines, and this bottle is no exception. Think pretty and complex flavors: concentrated cherry, raspberry, and blackberry, plus more savory notes of cooked meat and tarragon. Notice a bitter tinge along with Beaujolais’s signature acidity.
  • Charly Thévenet, Régnié "Grain & Granit," 2014 ($27): Producer Charly Thévenet's (son of revered "Gang of Four" Morgon maker Jean-Paul Thévenet) Régnié is a lively rendition of red currants and strawberries, dried herbs and black licorice, grounded by a damp, stony earthiness.
  • Jules Desjourneys, Moulin-à-Vent, 2011 ($53): Moulin-à-Vent is Beaujolais's best known cru, and bottles can age for a decade or more. Desjourneys’s is big-bodied, with ripe cherry and blackberry aromas, punctuated by clove and allspice. There's a touch of leather, a deep tannic structure, and bright acidity.
  • Georges Descombes, Brouilly, 2014 ($19): Brouillys tend toward dark fruit flavors. Descombes’s is a tannic, savory wine, with stony minerality. Anticipate notes of dried meat, black cherry, and blackberries, plus plenty of acidity.
  • Louis Claude Desvignes, Morgon, Côte du Py, 2014 ($23): Powerful Morgon, from grapes grown in iron-rich soils, is a funky, floral wine. Think red cherries, raspberries, mint, along with violet and lily notes, plus grippy tannins and tingly acidity.
  • Editor: Kat Odell


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