It’s the season of feasting, and people are looking for wines to drink with those epic Yuletide meals. Champagne is festive, though it will never be my favorite wine. It doesn’t always go with food, and the French stuff is costly. If you don’t want fizzy, and feel overwhelmed by the whole wine/food pairing game, there’s a modestly priced alternative the French would love to sell you. It tastes good, it goes with many kinds of food, and it’s easy to pronounce.
Meet Beaujolais (BO-ZHA-LAY). For government administration purposes it’s a part of the Burgundy (Bourgogne) region of France. Wines of Burgundy are some of the most respected (and sought after) vintages in the world. The principal red wine grape of Burgundy is the pinot noir.
By contrast Beaujolais, a 35-mile long, nine-mile wide strip of land, is planted pretty much entirely with gamay noir (gamay for short), itself the progeny of pinot noir and gouais blanc. The soil of Beaujolais also differs substantially from that of Burgundy. They also make the wine differently. Conclusion—it’s Beaujolais, not Burgundy.
Gamay is most often described as “fruity,” and that translates into the scent, taste and soul of the Beaujolais wines. The character also comes from the fermentation process, called carbonic maceration. Clusters of grapes are thrown into fermentation vats. The grapes on top crush the juice out of the ones on the bottom.
That juice ferments—thanks to yeasts on the grape skins—releasing carbon dioxide gas. That blankets the grapes on top, pressuring them to explode and ferment as well. The already fruity quality of the gamay is enhanced by all this organic chemistry, producing intense fruit, floral and spice flavors. The wine is also ready to drink without long periods of aging, though the best Beaujolais does well with a few years of aging.
There are three types of Beaujolais— standard, Beaujolais-Villages, and Beaujolais Cru. “Cru” means “village” here, though in other parts of France it can also mean “vineyard.”
Beaujolais Cru, which are aged, are most highly regarded, and come from 10 villages in the northern part of Beaujolais—St. Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Brouilly, and Cote de Brouilly. You will not always see the word “Beaujolais” on their labels.
I bought and tasted six kinds of Beaujolais—a Beaujolais-Villages, four Beaujolais Crus, and a Beaujolais Nouveau. The latter is “new” wine, only weeks old, released once a year on November 16. Some were bought locally, some out of town. All are 13-percent alcohol by volume, and prices ranged from $9.99 to $19.99.
Beaujolais-Villages Louis Jadot 2015 ($10.49). Louis Jadot produces a variety of wines. This one was thin in body, with a taste of strawberries, a buttery mouth-feel, and a quick finish, with little tannic “pucker.”
Domaine Pardon Cuvee Hugo Fleurie 2015 ($19.99). Dark red, with a purplish edge, a floral and herbal nose, lots of fruit, juicy and refreshing. There’s no pucker, just luscious, velvety cherry and cranberry flavors. The longer it aired in the glass, the more fragrant it became. A good choice for holiday meals—with light or dark meat, dressings and rich side dishes.
2013 ($16.99). The oldest Beaujolais I tried. The nose is cherry, then raspberry, with some mustiness. The first taste was sour cherry, then fresh black plum peel. The finish is thin, not long, with more of a pucker. It’s light in body, like fresh-squeezed juice.
Domaine des Maisons Neuves Cote de Brouilly L’Ecluse 2016 ($14.99). Bluish red color. There’s a touch of wood and flowers on the nose, followed by currant jelly. Body is fuller, almost chewy. The taste is tart black plums, blueberries, raspberries, pie cherries, a slightly tannic pucker, and a jammy finish. The wine had more power, though it was no higher in alcohol than the others. Grapes were grown on the slopes of an extinct volcano.
Pardon & Fils Julienas 2015 Les Mouilles ($16.99). Dark in color, blue-red. There’s a little spice and fruit, like holiday conserve or currant sauce, on the nose, which continues in the taste. Medium body, more subtle than the others.
Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau 2017 ($9.99). Just in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas every year, the Nouveau is said to “age on the boat,” and any restaurant with even a hint of Frenchness pours and serves Nouveau by the carafe. The nose is floral, rose, violet. The taste is fresh strawberries, pie cherries, cranberry juice cocktail, with a tangerine finish. Less flavorful than the others, but it’s young and you can drink it over ice if you feel like it.
Roast turkey, ham, chicken, salmon, and fish pair just fine with Beaujolais. At prices this low, you can get it by the case. This season, learn to love the French.