What is the most successful and lucrative wine produced in Burgundy? The answer is Beaujolais (boh-zhuh-LAY). These red wines are made from vineyards strung across a number of enchanted mountainsides. The region of Beaujolais is 34 miles long from north to south and 7 to 9 miles wide. The granite mountainsides range in height from 2,300 feet to more than 3,400 feet and provide a backdrop for what is one of France’s two most beautiful viticultural regions (the other being Alsace). There are nearly 4,000 growers making a living in this area. Some of them sell tiny portions of their crop locally, but most prefer to sell to one of the large firms that dominate the business.
The only grape permitted by law to be used in making Beaujolais is the Gamay grape, and it accounts for 98 percent of the plantings in the region. It thrives in the stony, granite-based soils of the region. The compelling characteristics of Gamay wine is its youthful, fresh, exuberant, bright fruit and perfumed aroma, which the vignerons of Beaujolais have learned to maximize by producing it by an unusual method called carbonic maceration. In this style of vinification, the grapes are not pressed, but are simply dumped unceremoniously into a vat in full bunches. Grapes at the very bottom of the vat burst because of the weight on top of them. That juice begins to ferment, warming up the vat and causing fermentation in the unbroken grapes to begin inside their skins. The advantage of this technique is that a wine’s perfume and fruit intensity is largely related to what is inside the grape skin.
Beaujolais wines are marvelous with a slight chill and are the ideal introductory wine for those consumers who are venturing into trying red wine. There are three distinct tiers of red produced within Beaujolais. The first, simply labeled Beaujolais, is a light-bodied, fresh and fruity-style red that can be grown and produced anywhere within the Beaujolais region. Beaujolais-Villages is the next tier up and is slightly fuller bodied than Beaujolais and has more fruit intensity. These wines are still very easy drinking, with little to no detectable tannins, and must be produced within 39 selected communes.
The real glories of Beaujolais, aside from its narrow, winding roads, sleepy valleys, photogenic hillsides and quaint old villages, are the 10 Beaujolais Crus. These wines all come from a village or a group of villages in the northern end of the Beaujolais region, with each Cru believed to have an individual style of its own. The Cru Beaujolais are more perfumed, more luscious, more concentrated and altogether more complete and enjoyable wines. The 10 Crus are from the most northerly: Saint-Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. The following Crus are featured in order by the most complex and full bodied to the lightest and most easy drinking.