Beaujolais, which is located in the middle of western France and is just to the north of Lyon, is sandwiched between three of the most famous wine areas in the world. As a result, the region’s wine has a distinctive flavour that is unmatched by any other in the country. Despite the fact that many Americans originally associated the region with red wines that were simple to drink and accessible, as well as the much-hyped Beaujolais Nouveau releases that were only available for a brief period in the 1990s, customers are now returning to the region for something different: a wide selection of wines that are one of a kind.
“I personally believe that a great advantage for the producers in Beaujolais is that demand has increased; [it’s] probably the highest I’ve seen since I’ve been in the industry,” says Nicole Ward, a certified wine specialist who represents North Berkeley Imports in Southern California. “It’s probably the highest I’ve seen since I’ve been in the industry.” The region is experiencing a surge in the number of younger sommeliers, which is attracting younger wine lovers to the region’s wines.
Because Beaujolais encompasses a huge territory (about 12,500 hectares) and has 12 appellations de provenance (AOCs), each of which has its own distinct soil types, microclimates, and altitudes, the gamay grape, which is the most planted grape in the region, may be expressed in a variety of ways. In the region of Fleurie, for instance, the soils consist of pink granite, shale, and clay, which results in a wine that is delicate and has flowery flavours. Régnié, the most recent cru to be added to the area (it was introduced in 1988), is located a little way to the southwest of Fleurie. The wines produced here are fruity, cheap, and even have the potential to mature.
As Ward says, “Beaujolais is a melting pot of various soil types depending on the appellation,” Beaujolais is a geographical region. She goes on to say that the region’s distinctive microclimate is determined by the fact that warm winds from the south blow in from the north, where they combine with damp Atlantic currents and colder continental winds from the north.
Not only that, but the region has always favoured a low intervention method to winemaking, which dates back to a time long before the concept of “natural wine” became fashionable. According to John Burns Paterson, managing partner of Frankies Nashville, this often involves allowing fermentation to occur naturally rather than introducing specific yeast strains, as well as reducing the amount of chemicals that are included in the wine.
As an example of a pioneer in the field, he notably mentions Marcel Lapierre, who is widely considered to be one of the most renowned winemakers in the area. In the 1970s, Lapierre collaborated with a researcher from the University of California to vinify his wines without the use of yeast or sulphur dioxide, and he also worked with the researcher to develop his wines in an organic manner. The end result was a wine that was centred around the terroir of the region and the plant biology of the plants, rather than the involvement of the winemaker. The method is still carried out by Domaine Lapierre to this day, and many other wineries in the region have followed suit, long before customers began looking for wines that possessed these distinct characteristics.
“There is a lot of credit given to Marcel Lapierre as being one of the first winemakers to use little to no sulphur in winemaking,” says Grant Reynolds, sommelier and creator of Parcelle. “He was making wine at a time when sulphur was extremely scarce.”
The rich, almost juicy qualities that are distinctive of Gamay wines from Beaujolais are another reason for their popularity. The broad application of carbonic maceration throughout the fermentation process is responsible for this result. Instead of crushing grapes and then putting them to a fermentation vessel, winemakers will add complete bunches of grapes to the tank, add carbon dioxide to seal it, and then add the grapes to the fermentation vessel. The absence of oxygen makes it possible for the fermentation process to take place inside of each individual grape, which are subsequently crushed when the process has been completed.
According to Paterson, “the technique can lend the wine a juicy, fruity, and altogether irresistible quality as long as it is used in moderation.” This means that you want to keep drinking the wine.
However, this does not mean that all of the producers in the region are carrying out their operations in the same manner. As Paterson says, some people are shifting away from complete carbonic maceration and towards semi-carbonic maceration, which produces a gamay that is still fruity but has structure. There are even some producers who are going even farther than that, such as combining the use of ancient oak with more conventional vinification techniques, in order to get a more complex type of wine, some of which is even suitable for ageing.
“You actually are seeing more producers after true wines of place, paying attention to farming, and taking a hands-off approach in the cellar,” was the explanation that he provided.
In addition to gamay, the Beaujolais area is also responsible for the production of chardonnay, which is referred to as Beaujolais Blanc. Despite the fact that chardonnay only accounts for roughly four percent of the region’s total output, you should not let the figures alone deceive you; it is not something that should be ignored. Beaujolais Blanc is a wine that is light, fruity, and simple to drink; it may even reveal hints of tropical fruit at certain occasions.
The region is able to encourage a certain amount of experimentation in addition to more conventional approaches, and this is not just due to the distinctive soil types or winemaking processes that are utilised, but also due to the real estate that is available. According to Ward, “there is land in Beaujolais,” in contrast to other regions in France that produce wine, where vines can be particularly difficult to acquire. It is because of this that former sommeliers from larger wine-making areas, as well as winemakers, are able to establish their own businesses in this region. “The new winemaker in Beaujolais is more likely to have access to cru vineyards as well as village-level vineyards through purchasing, leasing, and sharecropping agreements,” the article states.