Beaujolais, the Ultimate Guide
Beaujolais is a French wine region in two departments, Rhône and Saône-et-Loire. The region is nestled between the acclaimed Burgundy and the Rhône Valley and enjoys the best of both - a prestigious terroir blessed with dry soils and a warm, continental climate.
The Beaujolais wine route covers 140 kilometres of roads amongst verdant vineyards, showing there’s more to Beaujolais than meets the eye. Beaujolais has twelve appellations or AOP for its fine wine, and they’re all worthy of getting to know better. This is the ultimate guide to Beaujolais - all you need to know about this vibrant region.
History of Beaujolais
Beaujolais is an ancient wine region that goes back to the Ancient Romans, and it is often linked with its northern neighbour, Burgundy. The Saône Valley, where Beaujolais’ vineyards are located, has always been a critical trade route and gained special significance during the Middle Ages. The very same Duchy of Burgundy oversaw Beaujolais during the 15th century. Still, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the construction of railroads gave producers in the area the opportunity to share their wines with the Parisian market.
Beaujolais’ modern history starts in 1951, when the fresh Nouveau wine style was first commercialised, and in the 1980s, when it gained popularity. A brilliant marketing campaign championing one of the region’s more expressive and fruit-forward styles, the Beaujolais Nouveau, gave the region’s wines global popularity. This very same fruit-forwardness and apparent simplicity eventually made Beaujolais fall out of fashion. However, the 21st century saw Beaujolais rise back to fame, this time for the extraordinary quality of their wines in a modern, competitive market.
Wine Styles in Beaujolais
Beaujolais is a vast wine region. It covers over 13,500 hectares of vines planted in 300 different types of soils, with distinct sun orientations and altitudes - this means not all Beaujolais wines look, taste or smell the same.
Producers in Beaujolais can make red, white and rosé, although the region’s red wine is the best known. Differences exist even within these styles, as microclimates produce wines with distinct profiles - the tools and techniques available to the area’s winemakers are also a significant factor. Before we explore the wide range of Beaujolais wines, we must meet the region’s signature grapes.
The Grapes in Beaujolais
Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, or just Gamay, is the most planted red varietal in Beaujolais. This thin-skinned varietal arrived in the region in the 14th century. The grape is the offspring of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc and has a famous sibling, Chardonnay.
Gamay produces light-bodied wines with silky tannins and persistent acidity; it often results in wines with ripe red fruit aromas and floral undertones. Some wines, especially in the Crus are aged in oak barrels, from which they gain brown spices, vanilla notes and age-worthiness. Gamay is Pinot Noir’s prodigal son, and they share similarities at many levels. Beaujolais rosé is made exclusively with Gamay, but white Beaujolais is always made with Chardonnay, the queen of white grapes in the region.
Appellations of Origin in Beaujolais
Beaujolais AOP was created in 1936 as a regional appellation covering the entire wine-producing region, and it allows for red, white and rosé. These are often pleasing wines made to be enjoyed young; they’re rarely overly complex on the nose or palate, but they embody their terroir beautifully. Wines at this level are also good ambassadors for what Gamay can do in the warm region - they’re a reliable expression of the grape.
Beaujolais Villages AOP is a designation for wine with higher quality and concentration coming from specific vineyards surrounding 38 villages in the north of Beaujolais, where the altitude is higher and the soils warmer.
There’s no doubt Beaujolais Villages wine is more complex and sophisticated than entry-level Beaujolais, and they can also be red, white or rosé, but most of them are red. At least twenty-five percent of all wines made in Beaujolais are labeled as Beaujolais Village, so the category is well represented on the market. Beaujolais Villages is an excellent place to start if you have never tried the region’s wines.
Beaujolais Nouveau rings a bell worldwide. The “new” wine is fermented, bottled and sold in the same year of the harvest, all in a matter of a few weeks, resulting in fruity wine with a youthful and charming personality.
To achieve this feat, nowadays most producers in Beaujolais rely on a unique fermentation technique: semi-carbonic maceration. The grapes are picked and thrown into a fermentation tank whole, where the fruit below is crushed by the pressure and ferment naturally. The winemakers don’t allow the carbonic gas produced to escape, and the interaction of whole grapes with the CO2 results in a unique intracellular fermentation. The resulting speedy fermentation also produces fruity wines that are easy to recognise and hard not to love. Beaujolais Nouveau hits the shelves worldwide on the third Thursday in November.
Beaujolais Blanc is rare indeed, especially compared to the copious amounts of red wine produced in the area, but over 1000 producers in Beaujolais make white wine with ripe Chardonnay. These wines can be racy and lean or rich and creamy, but they never disappoint. Every winemaker shows a unique expression of the noble Burgundian grape.
Most of the Chardonnay grows in the south over clay-limestone soils and up north, in vineyards neighbouring the Chardonnay-specialist Mâconnais. Although only 4% of the vineyards in Beaujolais are planted with white grapes, the golden wines are gaining popularity and complement the region’s reds beautifully.
The finest wines in Beaujolais come from the region’s ten Crus, hillside sub-regions that have the best conditions to ripen Gamay: Brouilly, Régnié, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Saint-Amour, Chénas, Juliénas, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent.
Unlike wines labeled as Beaujolais or Beaujolais Nouveau, Cru wines are more concentrated, complex and much more age worthy. Since every Cru has a distinct geographical location, soil and sun exposure, one can taste specific expressions of the region’s wine, making Cru Beaujolais wines extraordinarily terroir driven. Let’s explore the Beaujolais Crus and discover what makes each special. These are the best sources of fine wine in Beaujolais from north to south.
Saint-Amour is the most romantic Cru in Beaujolais. With 315 hectares of vineyards at 335 meters, most of them planted in sand and clay soils, Saint-Amour wines are round and plump, never too astringent or light.
Legend says the area was named after a Roman soldier, Amor, who founded a monastery in the area in ancient times. This hasn’t stopped people from opening a bottle of Saint-Amour every Saint Valentine’s Day. These wines are all about ripe red fruit and a harmonious back palate.
Juliénas, the Cru named after Julius Caesar, had immense significance in ancient times. Today, the region is still a reliable source of bold red wines made with Gamay. Juliénas covers 575 hectares of vines at a relatively high altitude of 330 meters.
The steep slopes in Juliénas often have a favorable southern exposure, allowing the grapes to ripen fully. Experts describe wines from Juliénas as expressive, fresh and fleshy; medium- to full-bodied wines that can evolve if cellared.
Chénas is a small appellation. In fact, it is the smallest Beaujolais Crus. Still, the northern region has been priced for its grapes since the Roman Era. This was once an oak forest, which gave the Cru its name, but the area is now covered with 250 hectares of vines at an average altitude of 260 meters.
Chénas wines are medium-bodied, structured and generous. Notes of small black fruit and spices over a silky palate are typical of the style.
Known for its iconic windmill, Moulin-à-Vent is one of the most highly regarded Cru appellations in Beaujolais. The region covers 640 hectares at an altitude of 255 meters. The area’s granitic soils have hosted vines since the 15th century, and the appellation has gained a reputation for robust, inky wines.
Moulin-à-Vent wines are bold and sophisticated - this is one of the most forward expressions of Gamay, and the wines can age. Expect black cherries and flowers on the nose and palate, with undergrowth scents in well-aged bottles.
Fleurie covers 840 hectares of vines at an average altitude of 340 meters. The region is known for its floral and elegant reds, amongst the most delicate wines made with Gamay in Beaujolais. La Madone is one of the most famous sites in Fleurie, but the appellation’s quality is overall high.
Fleurie wines have tart red and black fruit along with scents of flowers over a silky and juicy palate held together by a firm acidic backbone. These are gastronomic wines deserving of any table.
Like Fleurie, Chiroubles is known for its light-bodied, approachable Gamay wines. Chiroubles covers 315 hectares of vines at an average of 410 meters — these are the highest vineyards in Beaujolais. The altitude makes the vineyards in Chiroubles cold spots that produce tart fruit, while the predominant granite soils in the area guarantee concentration and complexity.
For fresh red wines in Beaujolais, extraordinarily compatible with food, Chiroubles is hard to beat, but the wines are more than delicate, thirst-quenching easy sippers; they’re also generous on the nose and palate.
After Brouilly, Morgon is the second largest Cru in Beaujolais; its rocky soils are immensely varied and are said to influence the wine’s robust personality. With 1090 hectares of vines planted at an average of 310 meters, Morgon’s vineyards are overlooked by the Mont du Py, one of the most distinguished sub-regions in the area, the Côte du Py, which you can find in some Morgon labels.
Morgon produces fleshy, concentrated and age-worthy Gamay wines not dissimilar to those made with Pinot Noir in Burgundy. These are amongst the most age-worthy expressions of Beaujolais - they’re ideal additions to any cellar.
Régnié is a relatively recent appellation, as it is the last Cru to receive its noble status. Régnié covers 550 hectares of vines at an average altitude of 350 meters. Here, producers champion organic and sustainable farming practices to offer a more modern side of Gamay.
Régnié wines are fruit-forward, often with red fruit aromas, floral scents and a complex palate. People also visit the area for its two-spire Church, built in 1867, not far from an ancient Roman villa - an excellent symbol for the region’s philosophy of merging the old with the new.
Brouilly is the southernmost Cru appellation and covers 1,200 hectares of vines planted with Gamay. This is the largest and most diverse Cru, with varied slopes and soils. Here, granite, volcanic rock and limestone give diversity to the vineyards, resulting in complex wines - some of these vineyards were first planted by the Ancient Romans!
Most of the vineyards in Brouilly are planted at a considerable altitude, although the highest slopes in the area, those on the Mont Brouilly, have their own Cru appellation. Brouilly wines are often described as fruit-forward, jammy, round and smooth.
10. Côte de Brouilly
Cote de Brouilly covers the summit and the slopes of Mont Brouilly, and it’s surrounded by Brouilly AOC. This high-altitude site has only 310 hectares planted at an average altitude of 300 meters. Gamay is the only variety grown in the region’s steep slopes, blessed by stony, volcanic soils.
Côte de Brouilly has enjoyed popularity since the 19th century, and it’s for its elegant wines. Since the grapes are planted at an altitude, they retain refreshing acidity, resulting in light, fragrant, and expressive wines. The “elegant wine on the hill” is one of the most delicate expressions of Beaujolais.
Beaujolais, the Most Vibrant French Wine
Beaujolais might just be one of the world’s most approachable and easy-to-drink wine styles, but its finest renditions are memorable and worthy of any table. Beaujolais is not a wine style, but many, and the category is more diverse than one thinks.
Beaujolais has a wine style for every palate, budget and occasion and is a worthy addition to your wine rotation. For its history, tradition or uniqueness, Beaujolais is hard to replace - it has a fantastic quality-price ratio, so it’s always an easy pick. When was the last time you poured yourself a glass of Beaujolais?