Let’s take a look at one of the smaller French wine regions. The Beaujolais wine region is home to some exquisite red wine, but it is also home to one of the more hotly debated topics in the wine world. The topic is Beaujolais Nouveau.
Many argue that this is simply a marketing ploy which is used to pump out cheap wine. However, some treat it as an event. It is simply a style of Beaujolais wine that shouldn’t take itself too seriously. Indeed, a more laissez-faire approach to appreciating wine may sound appealing to many who can see the subject as austere and unapproachable to newbies.
Whatever side of the debate you come down on, Beaujolais wine is much more than this single topic and we are here to take you through the world of Beaujolais wine.
Our guide will include the terroir of the region, the grape variety which calls it home, as well as the debate around Beaujolais Nouveau and the differing styles of Beaujolais wine.
Let’s get started!
The Beaujolais Wine Region
The Beaujolais wine region, sits just to the south of Burgundy. While it may administratively be the same as Burgundy, the two regions are completely different.
The climates differ, as does the soil and geology. The grapes are different. Even the actual way that the wines are produced differs greatly. It’s best to think of the Beaujolais wine region as a separate entity, even if it isn’t in the most legal sense.
It spans 35 miles from north to south and around 9 miles across, with 42000 acres of vines covering this expanse of land, (MacNeil 231).
To the east of the region you have the Sâone River valley, then to the west is the Monte de Beaujolais. This is an offshoot of the Massif Central that runs in the Rhône Valley and the Languedoc-Roussillon wine regions.
There is also a notable divide in the region. The Haut Beaujolais to the north which is home to the best soil and the cru villages, (more on that shortly). Then, the southern portion known as Bas Beaujolais which produces much of the simple wine from the region.
The concentration of granite soil varies greatly between these two portions of the Beaujolais wine region. Granite soils are low in nutrients which means that it inhibits yields.
This may sound like a negative, but in fact limiting yields can be a real positive for winemakers. Basic Beaujolais wine has been accused of being thin and lacking in flavour. This is because winemakers will prioritise high yields.
When yields are high, more grapes grow. This means that the grapes can’t fully ripen and produce the same level of intense flavours.
Through limiting yields, the winemakers may obtain a smaller number of grapes. However, the grapes that do grow have a much stronger concentration of flavour.
So, in Beaujolais, the best wines come from low nutrient granite soil which limit yields. Now, we’ll look into greater detail at the grape variety behind Beaujolais wine and the different levels of this great grape juice.
How Is Beaujolais Wine Produced?
Standard level Beaujolais has sometimes been described as the only white wine that happens to be red. What this means is that it is expressive, fresh and thirst-quenching. It can also benefit from being slightly chilled, (MacNeil 217). 15 minutes in the fridge should be plenty.
Indeed, Beaujolais wine is wholly unique. This is both because there is only one grape variety that is used to produced it, but it is also in the method of production which is used. We’ll review both of these points in this section, as well as a comparison between the ‘New’, (but not necessarily the ‘nouveau’), style of Beaujolais and the more classical old world style.
Give It Up For Gamay!
There is just one grape variety which makes an impact in this wine region. The wines all come from the Gamay Noir grape variety. This is basically the only grape which you’ll find on vines in Beaujolais.
For many, it is a Beaujolais grape. However, this close relative of Pinot Noir has found success in other areas of the world such as Washington State in America and more famously the Loire Valley, where it can be found in red and rosé wine.
It was historically grown in Burgundy as well, (from as far back as the fourth century), but a Burgundian duke took particular exception to the grape and issued a decree in 1395 that it was to be banished from Burgundy’s fabled Côte d’Or region, (MacNeil 229).
Phillipe the Bold described Gamay Noir as, ‘a very bad and disloyal variety’. He even cited it as being ‘harmful to human creatures’, to the point where people were ‘infested by diseases’ due to the grapes, (MacNeil 229). A bold statement indeed!
Obviously, none of that can be strictly the truth and history has proven that Gamay has a lot to offer, it just fell on the shoulders of the Beaujolais wine region to show us that fact.
While it is often found to be a very light and fresh style of wine, more structured, serious and concentrated examples can be found. You’ll get floral and spicy flavours which include rose, violet, pepper, along with flavours of raspberry, cherry and strawberry. It’s also very low in tannin which helps allow these fruity notes to fly out even more.
Whole Bunch Fermentation
This is the crucial point to Beaujolais wine. It is usually fresh and fruity. Beaujolais winemakers employ a method of whole bunch fermentation known as carbonic maceration when they’re making wine. This helps to accentuate the fruity flavours of the wine.
In this process, entire clusters of grapes are put into a fermenting tank. The grapes go through a process known as intracellular fermentation when the juice in the grapes hits 2% ABV. Then, the grape skins split, due to a combination of the pressure and increased levels of CO2 from the sealed tank. Then, more yeast is exposed to the batches which increases the speed of the fermentation process.
Now, this method is particularly useful when producing the light and fruity style of Beaujolais wine. These wines were cheap, easy to produce and marketed in rather a brilliant way that led people to clamour and try them. We’ll look into Beaujolais Nouveau in greater detail later.
However, as the initial hype wore away it meant that winemakers tried to recreate the ‘Nouveau’ outside of the Nouveau bubble. They prioritised yields and this led to large scale production and commercial yields. From this, you got thinner wines with less concentrated flavours.
However, there are more ‘serious’ styles of Beaujolais wine. These are structured, concentrated and even age-worthy in their best examples. In the next section, we’ll review the three levels of Beaujolais wine and show you what you should be looking out for if you want something special from Beaujolais wine.
Beaujolais – Basic, Villages and Cru Wines
There are three ‘levels’ to Beaujolais. The standard version, the villages level wines and finally, the cru wines.
The basic level of Beaujolais wine accounts for around 50% of all Beaujolais, from the less granite heavy soils in the south. Instead, you’ll find greater levels of clay and sand. This is the portion of the Beaujolais wine region known as Bas Beaujolais. The land is flat, fertile and produces lighter, concentrated wines, (MacNeil 230).
Next up is Beaujolais-Villages. This accounts for 25% of the wine. There are 39 villages in the hilly middle portion of the region. The soil is poorer, with a higher level of granite. This means yields are smaller and grapes are riper, (MacNeil 230).
Individual village names will rarely appear on wine labels. Instead, these wines tend to be made from blending wines from different villages. Although, 10 of these villages can be assigned cru status (MacNeil 230). At the highest end of Beaujolais are the Cru level wines which make up for the last 25% of the wines.
These villages are all located on steep granite hills, about 300 metres above sea level in the northern section of Beaujolais. The wines are dense, rich, structured and concentrated. Some can also be aged for a good amount of time, in spite of a lack of tannins.
The most famous villages are Brouilly, Fleurie, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. The latter two are most well known for providing structured age worthy wines due to slightly higher levels of tannins and a greater concentration of flavour. Whereas Brouilly and Fleurie are more classic, light and perfumed styles of Beaujolais wine, but with an intenser flavour and longer finish.
If you spot any of these four villages on a bottle of Beaujolais wine, you’re more than likely in for a treat.
How Is Beaujolais Nouveau Made?
We couldn’t review the world of Beaujolais wine without looking into the famous Beaujolais Nouveau. It’s time for you to decide whether it’s simply a marketing ploy to shift wine quickly, or just a fun event to enjoy some wine.
Beaujolais Nouveau is also produced via the whole bunch fermentation that we’ve touched on before. However, there are further stipulations which must be adhered to when producing Beaujolais Nouveau.
Namely, It cannot be released to the consumer until the third Thursday in November, which is shortly after the harvest. Then, growers and négociants aren’t allowed to sell it after the 31st of August the following year. This relates to the idea that that this style of Beaujolais wine is intended for early consumption.
Tradition or Marketing?
The festivities behind the new Beaujolais vintage actually dates back to the 19th century. The local growers would open some of the new harvest together each year. Yet, this is not anything particularly novel.
It was when they began shipping it to nearby cities that a trend began to develop. Winemakers began shipping the wines to Lyon in big barrels. These barrels of the ‘new Beaujolais wine’ were stuck into bars across the city. Then, people would dip pitchers into the barrels and share out this new grape juice. It was intended to be fun. It was a chance to enjoy wine in a laid back manner.
This trend continued in a similar fashion right up until the second half of the 20th century. It was the 1960s, when a group of Beaujolais winemakers saw the chance to up the ante in this annual tradition. A contest began. It was spearheaded by the famous George Duboeuf, who still produces his own Beaujolais Nouveau each year.
The goal was clear. Each winemakers would race to get a bottle of their own Beaujolais Nouveau wines to Paris first! Things quickly escalated. The races weren’t limited to Paris. They tried to get their wines throughout Europe, North America and Asia. To achieve their goal a variety of unique methods of transportation were utilised. They used everything from the Concorde to elephants to get Beaujolais Nouveau to their intended destination.
Today, events are held as people acclaim, ‘Le Beaujolais Nouveau es’t arrive!’. So, the cynical will claim that all of this is simply a marketing ploy. The optimistic will see it as a chance for people to have fun and celebrate the new vintage with some simple, enjoyable wine and some friends.
The only way for you to decide is to try some for yourself! When the third Thursday of November rolls around, keep an eye out for a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau. Decide for yourself as to whether they’re just trying to make a quick buck, or it’s a nice excuse to share a bottle of wine.
We hope you enjoyed our look into the Beaujolais wine region. If you’re a fan of light red wine, or like white wine and are looking to branch out then this is the place to start! Be it a Beaujolais Cru, or a Beaujolais Nouveau, there’s plenty out there to try.
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.
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