On October 5th 2010 I had a “come to Jesus” meeting with Beaujolais. I had on many occasions thoroughly enjoyed Cru Beaujolais, but rarely if ever ordered them from a wine list or grabbed them from a wine store shelf. Not because I didn’t like them, I had loved them in the past, but because they where not in the forefront of my mind. I mean how often do you hear anyone talking about Beaujolais unless it is to speak ill of Beaujolais nouveau.
Ok so back to my religious awakening. So I got the opportunity to try the new 2009 vintage of the Cru Beaujolais at RN74 in San Francisco. I was a guest of the Inter Beaujolais, the trade organization that is in charge of promoting the region and funded by the French government. This is just one of the perks that a wine-geek and blogger gets, besides the look of disdain from “traditional” media when you mention you blog about wine. Any way I digress. The event was entitled “Fusion by Beaujolais” and its goal was to highlight the regions vinous virtues by pairing the much-heralded 2009 vintage of Cru wines with an Asian influenced four-course menu. Nonetheless, I was not about to have my palate influenced by a bunch of bureaucrats. But I must admit they were on to something!
But before we get the day’s highlights let me give you the 5 cent tour of the Beaujolais region. All the red wines from the Beaujolais region, which is regarded administratively as part of Burgundy but geologically as part of the northern Rhone, are vinified from the thin-skinned, prolific early-ripening Gamay grape. These grapes, by law must be harvested by hand. The region is stilled made up of many small independent growers and vignerons. The greater Beaujolais region is divided into two; The Haut-Beaujolais of the north and the Bas-Beaujolais of the south. Granite tends to dominate the northern Haut-Beaujolais where the wines of the Beaujolais-villages and Crus come from. The Cru wines account for a quarter of the production and are AOC labeled with the village name that they herald from; there are ten in all. So get yourself ready to meet the 10 Motley Crus of Beaujolais:
- Saint-Amour – The wines from Saint-Amour are noted for their spicy flavors with aromas of peaches. Soils of mixed granite, clay, and schist.
- Juliénas-This cru is based around the village named after Julius Caesar. Soil is clay mixed with sandy granite.
- Chénas – the smallest Cru Beaujolais with wines that are noted for their aroma of wild roses. Soil is pure sandy grantie mixed with some gravel.
- Moulin-à-Vent – Wines are very similar to the nearby Chénas. This region produces some of the longest lasting examples of Beaujolais wine, with some wines lasting up to ten years. Some producers will age their Moulin-à-Vent in oak, which gives these wines more tannin and structure than other Beaujolais wines. The phrase fûts de chêne (oak casks) will sometimes appear on the wine label of these oak aged wines The resulting wine from Moulin-à-Vent are the most full bodied and powerful examples in Beaujolais. Soils are dominated by manganese and salmon pink granite.
- Fleurie – One of the most widely exported Cru Beaujolais into the United States. These wines often have a velvet texture with fruity and floral bouquet. The slopes are east facing and the soil is made up of pink granite shingles.
- Chiroubles – This cru has vineyards at the highest altitudes among the Cru Beaujolais. Chiroubles cru are noted for their delicate perfume that often includes aromas of violets. Soils are pure granite with fine clay sand.
- Morgon – Produces earthy wines that can take on a Burgundian character of silky texture after five years aging. These wines are generally the deepest color and most rich Cru Beaujolais behind Moulin-à-Vent with aromas of red cherries, apricots and peaches. The soils here are called roches pourries or “rotten rocks” and are composed of decomposed schist and iron.
- Régnié – The most recently recognized Cru, One of the more fuller bodied crus It is noted for its red currant and raspberry flavors. Local lore in the region states that this Cru was the site of the first vineyards planted in Beaujolais by the Romans. Soils are part sandy granite and part schist.
- Brouilly - The largest Cru in Beaujolais, The wines are noted for their aromas of blueberries, cherries, raspberries and currants. Soils here are varied with granite, schist, river alluvium, and sandy clay.
- Côte de Brouilly – Located on the higher slopes of the extinct volcano Mont Brouilly. The wines from this region are more deeply concentrated with less earthiness than Brouilly wine. Soils are composed of granite with blue diorite and schist.
The Bas-Beaujolais is a different in soil make up of the north, here limestone rains supreme and many say it is not the ideal soil for the Gamay grape and thus is responsible for the often boring regular old Beaujolais, Beaujolais Supérieure, and of course Beaujolais nouveau. As you can see there is a lot more to Beaujolais then just nouveau!
Here is a little background on Beaujolais nouveau. For those that may not be familiar; Beaujolais Nouveau began as a local French phenomenon being served in the local bars, cafes, and bistros of Beaujolais and Lyons. Each fall the new Beaujolais would arrive with much fanfare. In pitchers filled from the grower’s barrels, an eager population consumed the wine. This was wine made for fast consumption (and even faster generation of cash flow for the producers) to be consumed while the better Beaujolais Villages and Crus were taking a more leisurely course to market. This French phenomenon quickly spread to neighboring countries in the 70’s, to England in the 80’s and finally to the U.S. in the 90’s.
By French law, Beaujolais Nouveau is to be released no earlier than the third Thursday of November. However, it is hard to believe that this wine was, just a few weeks earlier, a mere cluster of grapes hanging on a vine. These grapes, 100% Gamay incidentally, are harvested, rushed through a rapid fermentation (using the carbonic maceration method), and a speedy bottling to insure that they are ready to fly out the door in advance of their November release date. Thanks to brilliant marketing and sales savvy, by the time it is all said and done, over 65 million bottles of Beaujolais’ nouveau, nearly half of the region’s total annual production, will be distributed and drunk around the world. Such is the fever that has been created that it has become a worldwide race to be the first to serve to this new wine of the harvest. In doing so, it has been carried by motorcycle, balloon, truck, helicopter, Concorde jet, elephant, runners and rickshaws to get it to its final destination. So one would think that this stuff is good right? I mean if 65 million bottles are sold and people are lining up around the world, Well the truth is it is actually just a couple of notches up from battery acid, in my humble “everyman’s wine snob’ opinion. Furthermore it has been credited, rightly so, for giving the rest of the Beaujolais region, an undeserved, bad reputation.
Ok, enough about the French battery acid that is Beaujolais nouveau let me tell you about the oft sublime, low alcohol, fruit forward, food friendly, and 100% Gamay wines that are the Beaujolais –villages and Beaujolais Crus, and which I had occasion to sample at RN74 in San Francisco. I am SUPER excited about these wines, that’s right I am excited enough to spell out super in all caps. Each pairing was introduced by none-other then acclaimed Sommelier Rajat Parr, the wine director of Mina Group of restaurants. Raj paired the wines with Asian influenced French cuisine, here is my recap.
Sautéed Pork Belly – Honshimeji Mushrooms, Leeks, Ginger, Barrel Aged Tamari. This was such an exquisite dish, and I am a sucker for Pork Belly! The Asian flavors just exploded in my mouth, and the texture of the Pork Belly was just incredible.
Domaine de Colette Beaujolais Villages 2009 – Wine was more extracted then I would have thought possible from Beaujolais, let alone a Villages level wine, it showed deep colors and aromas of ripe cherry, cranberry and strawberries. Less acid then I would have expected but the mouth feel offered a medium plus body, which was supple, round and nicely textured. Lacked acid to make it a perfect match for the Pork Belly, but nonetheless delicious!
Price at retail is $13 Score = B
Duboeuf Beajolais Villages 2009 – The initial aromatic impression of this wine was that of cotton candy and sweet fruit, which lead me to believe that this pairing was not going to work. However, I was wrong, the wine showed ripe flavors of blackberries, cherries, and cassis. The mouth feel was plush with primary sweet fruit juiciness and had enough acidity to pair beautifully with the dish. The acid and sweet fruit complimented the Asian spices and fattiness of Pork Belly. A home-run in my book.
Price at retail is $8 Score = A
Roasted Quail- Chanterelle Mushrooms, Caramelized Onion, Burnt Orange. The Quail was out of this world good! It was tender and delicate and beautifully spiced.
Villa Ponciago “la Reserve” Fleurie 2009 – This was perhaps the most disappointing wine of the day. At first whiff I picked up a reductive quality and burnt rubber that overshadowed the muted fruit. In the mouth the wine showed good acid and simple red berry flavors. Overall a disappointment.
Price at retail is $15 Score = C-
Raosset Chiroubles 2009 – In a word Delicious! The nose is driven by primary fruit and floral aromas of violets, cherries, cranberries, and cotton candy. The palate shows medium plus acid, juiciness, low tannin, medium minus body, lower alcohol and a purity of bright fruit flavors consisting of red cherries, cranberries, canned apricots. It paired well with the delicateness of the Quail flavors and the acid extenuated the rich texture of the butter-roasted fowl.
Price at retail is $13 Score = B+
Raosset Grille Midi Fleurie 2009 – Another great example of what Beaujolais can be. This had richer fruit aromas then the previous wine offering up dark cherries, plums syrup, and sweet backing spice. The wine starts dry with a medium minus body, medium plus acid, balanced alcohol, and medium plus flavors cherries, flowers, spice, and green strawberries. This wine allowed the dish to shine while cleansing the palate with its refreshing acidity and lively fruit.
Price at retail is $20 Score = B+
Domaine Dupeuble 2009 – Described by Par as a wine designed for easy drinking, however I found it to offer some complexity not found in many wines at this price point. On the nose it showed aromas of laser sharp red berry fruit, candied cherries, violets, and cinnamon. The palate is concentrated (for a Beaujolais) with mouthwatering acid, supple tannins, medium body and flavors of sour cherries, raspberries, red and black current and caramelized sugar. The finish is complex and as delicious as the first sip.
Price at retail is $13 Score = A
Braised Beef Short Ribs – Sour Cherry, Star Anise, Szechwan Pepper, Bone Marrow Dumplings. Another culinary stunner that offered tones of flavors, I loved this dish but wondered initially how the wines would hold up to this gustatory power play.
Christian Vergiers Morgon 2009 – The nose was clean with medium aromas of roses, red cherries, and boysenberry. Medium light body, with lower then expected acid, light tannins, but shows extracted flavors of black fruits that offer some complexity to an otherwise uninteresting wine.
Price at retail is $17 Score = C-
Maison Louis Tete “Les Charmeuse” Morgon 2009 – This was a wine had the most Pinot like quality of any of the wines I tasted in the lineup. The nose offered enticing aromas of nutmeg spice, cloves, violets, roses, and lots of juicy red fruit. The palate offered a medium body, medium plus acid, nice integrated tannin, and balance alcohol. The flavors here where more extracted then in previous wines, offering plums, black cherries, raspberries, underlain with earthy notes and spice. The finish offered both juicy acid and great complexity not usually seen in Beaujolais, even Rajat Parr agreed that it would be hard to peg this wine, in a blind tasting, as a Beaujolais rather then a Pinot from the Cote Chalonnaise. One of the surprise finds of the luncheon, and at the price point worth buying by the case!
Price at retail is $15 Score = A
Chateau Des Jacques Louis Jadot “Clos de Rochergres” Moulin-A-Vent 2009- Opening aromas of earth and some reductive qualities followed by a very muted nose, not at all what I expected from this wine. The palate impression revealed bright acid, slight oily texture with low tannin and medium minus alcohol. Fortunately the flavors were more impressive then the aromas, showing savory beef jerky, and tart mostly red fruit. The wine was a disappointment considering its reputation, provenance, and price point. It also did not stand up to the flavors of the food pairing when compared to the other wines.
Price at retail is $30 Score = C
Henry Fessy Moulin-A-Vent 2009- What the previous Moulin-A-Vent lacked this one made up for. The nose was a little muted but aromas of red cherries, blueberries, blackberries fought their way through. The palate showed bright acid, balanced alcohol, firm yet light tannin that gave this wine a medium body. Flavors of light oak, licorice, black currant, blackberries and cherries. The finish was complex and considerably lengthier then the previous wines. This is a true example of the wines that the Cru of Moulin-A-Vent is capable of producing.
Price at retail is $17 Score = A+
Like I said earlier this was a true religious awakening for me as I was reminded of what I had been missing for so long. Lower alcohol wines that are fun and don’t break the bank or your liver. I could now finally stop my very public bellyaching about how it is so hard to find red wines that offer lower alcohol, brighter acid, and food matching affinities. They have existed all along in the wines of Haut Beaujolais. They had merely been overshadowed by their battery acid cousin Beaujolais nouveau to the south and their regal cousin red Burgundy to the north. If you, like me, truly enjoy wines that compliment food, rather then dominant them then the Cru wines of Beaujolais deserve your earnest attention. You get a lot more bang for your buck from these wines then you ever would from similarly priced Pinot Noirs.
Say hello to the Motley Crus of Beaujolais and remember Wine is truly a journey of discovery not merely the destination of an empty bottle.
As my friend Josh from DrinkNectar.com always says Drink Happy!
Chris Oggenfuss, DWS