This guide to Beaujolais Wine AND Beaujolais Nouveau is part of our wine resource web series. Discover wines, grapes, wine regions and other insightful information surrounding the wine world.
What is Beaujolais Wine?
Beaujolais is a couple of different things, and understanding French wine and wine regions can be difficult if you’re new to learning about wine. In short, Beaujolais is a French wine region with the regional designation of AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée). This means that growing practices and wine production techniques are regulated by a French regulatory body. But Beaujolais is more than that. Not only does the name signify the region, it’s also used as the name for various wines produced in the area.
Most French appellations do not describe their wines by putting the name of the grape variety on the bottle. Instead, wines are defined by their regional designation. Because of this, being able to discern the grape varieties and production techniques to make the wine depend on your knowledge of the appellation.
Where is Beaujolais in France?
Beaujolais is located immediately South of the famed Burgundy wine region, Northwest of Lyon and along the Saône River. In fact, Beaujolais slightly overlaps Burgundy within the Northerly portion of the appellation. Given its central location within France, the climate throughout the area where vines are grown (which only spans 34 miles) is largely moderate. This is conducive to producing wines that are light in body and refreshing in flavor from the Gamay grape variety.
The Grape Variety Used in Beaujolais Red Wine is Gamay
Gamay is the only black grape variety approved to be utilized when producing a Beaujolais red wine (Chardonnay is used to produce Beaujolais Blanc). Gamay naturally ripens early, which is why it can do so well in both moderate and cool climates. It’s also high-yielding while remaining remarkably easy to grow. This makes it suitable for production of large quantities of wine.
In terms of flavor profile, wines made from Gamay are most commonly light in body and color while maintaining an elevated acidic content. The skins of this particular grape are thin, and in addition carbonic maceration is utilized in order to ferment the wine without extracting much tannic content. Whole grapes are fermented in stainless steel or cement tanks with only a third of the volume being crushed under the weight of gravity. Thus, these wines are lighter in tannins and quite easy to drink.
Gamay tends to be red-fruit-forward in taste (think cherry, red currant, strawberry), and the best examples will often have hints of black pepper or sweet spice. Most of the time, these wines are un-oaked.
There are only about 2,600 total wine producers within the Beaujolais region, yet it’s one of the most high yielding wine regions in the world. Up to 13,000 hectolitres of wine can be produced within a single square mile, with a total annual production of 850,000hL of mostly Gamay based-wine being produced across the appellation.
Beaujolais Wine Region Terroir
This region is special and ancient. Wines have been pumped out of much of France since before the ancient Romans, and Beaujolais happens to be one of the regions where success has persisted for thousands of years.
The soil composition here is largely made up of granite, with smaller concentrations of schist (similar to slate), clay, limestone and sandstone.
Throughout the growing season, the climate is categorized as being moderate. Slightly warmer than Burgundy, Beaujolais days are long and sunny, and most vines bask in the sun on rolling hillsides.
Beaujolais Wines are Divided Up Into 3 Levels of Quality
In order to classify and control the wines of Beaujolais, three different designations are used throughout the region. There are a total of 12 appellations within Beaujolais, with 10 of them being classified as “Crus.” In addition to and despite the quality levels cited below, all grapes throughout the appellation are harvested by hand in order to maintain the finest quality of wine within each respective quality level.
This is essentially the first tier in quality level throughout the region. These wines are often the most inexpensive and are best consumed while young, fruity and fresh. Any one of the 96 villages within Beaujolais can use this designation on the label, but typically only 60 or so do every year. Most of the famed Beaujolais Nouveau (discussed below) wine comes from villages the use this most basic designation.
Moving on up to the second tier in quality, wines with this designation tend to be a bit more refined given that many of the 39 villages permitted to use the designation grow their vines on hillsides rich in granite and schist rocky minerals. This not only adds more mineral complexity to the wines, but it also allows for better water drainage. This essentially forces the grape vines to work a little bit harder for their nutriment, which helps to better concentrate flavors within the grape clusters. In order to further enhance and regulate quality, yields here are limited to 50 hectolitres per hectare.
Producers who make wines from a single vineyard property within the Beaujolais-Villages AOC are also permitted to attach the name of that particular vineyard to the Beaujolais-Villages designation on the label.
“Cru” is a classification that’s typically used in other wine growing regions throughout France to describe an individual vineyard property. However, when it’s used in Beaujolais, it refers to micro-region as a whole and can include multiple vineyards. There are a total of 10 Crus within Beaujolais, and they’re limited to yields of 48hL per 1ha. Most wines produced within these Crus are more refined and medium-bodied when compared to the other two classifications. These producers are not allowed produce Beaujolais Nouveau, and most will not even include the word “Beaujolais” on their labels in an effort to separate themselves from the lower quality appellations. That being said, if you’re looking for a Cru Beaujolais wine, be sure to keep an eye out for the names of the Crus listed below on the label. Each Cru offers slightly different flavors and complexities in their wines.
From North to South, the 10 Beaujolais Crus are listed below:
- Côte de Brouilly
What is Beaujolais Nouveau?
Produced from the Gamay grape, what sets Beaujolais Nouveau apart from other styles of Beaujolais wine has to do with its youth. As has been tradition since 1985, Beaujolais Nouveau is shipped around the world annually before the Third Thursday of November. At 12:01 AM local time on the morning of that Third Thursday, retailers begin to sell the wine, which at that point is little more than a few weeks old.
This practice is due in large part to producers jumping on a potential marketing opportunity. Back in 1937, Beaujolais wine had a regulated release date of December 13th set by the Union Interprofessionnelle des Vins du Beaujolais to celebrate the end of harvest. In 1951, this was edged up a month to November 13th. Given this unique practice, some suggested that it could help sell the wines of the region. Seeing the potential for profit, the practice came full swing and it became a race to get the first bottles of that vintage to Paris as quickly as possible. Today, it’s a race to get those bottles around the world just in time for the Third Thursday of November.
As we mentioned earlier, all Beaujolais Wine is hand harvested. The majority of it comes from the Beaujolais AOC with a much smaller portion coming from Beaujolais-Villages AOC. Carbonic Maceration is employed in large stainless steel or cement tanks, with the grapes at the bottom naturally being crushed and releasing CO2 as they ferment. Additional carbon dioxide is also pumped into the tanks to aid in quickening the fermentation process. The majority of the juice is fermented aided largely by carbon dioxide while still within the grape skins. During the entire process, there’s no exposure to oxygen which helps to bring more freshness to the grapes to taste. In the glass, and due to their youth, these wines emit a bright red and purple magenta hue.
How to Serve Beaujolais Wine
Theses wines should be consumed immediately to get the best flavors. Aging Beaujolais Nouveau offers no benefit. Given the youth of the wine and its refreshingly acidic red fruit flavors, chill Beaujolais Nouveau to around 56 degrees Fahrenheit to help enhance the perception of freshness while also gently calming the acidic tones.
Food Pairing Beaujolais Wines
In order to accentuate the lighter-berry style, consider fresh salads or poultry dishes. Chicken Ceasar Salad or Wrap, Rotisserie Chicken and Roasted Turkey with Maple Cranberry Glaze are some of my favorite pairings. You could also nix the cholesterol and try a Berry Quinoa Salad Recipe. Conversely, go a bit heavier and try a Veal Marsala Dish with Garlic, Cloves and Sliced Mushroom.