“Yes, you read that correctly…Beaujolais. I’m not talking about Beaujolais Nouveau, the overproduced wine that’s rushed to market right after the harvest, more as a gimmick and celebration wine than anything else.”
As I type this, I’m enjoying some good roasted chicken. While this may not be the best way to keep the laptop keyboard clean, I find it’s easier to write about wine when I’m enjoying wine, and roasted chicken is a great match with a few different wines. Possibly the best is a top-notch aged Burgundy, but drinking one of the few older Burgs in the cellar by myself on a Wednesday night isn’t the best way to score points with the wife. And yeah, you can drink Oregon or other New World Pinot and have a decent match, as long as the wine isn’t too big, too oaky, and has decent acidity. That leaves about 10-15 producers between OR and CA. So, what’s the next best wine with roasted chicken when you don’t want to open a $30-75 Burgundy? Would you believe Beaujolais?
Yes, you read that correctly…Beaujolais. I’m not talking about Beaujolais Nouveau, the overproduced wine that’s rushed to market right after the harvest, more as a gimmick and celebration wine than anything else. Not only is most of that from mediocre to poor producers, but it usually tastes like berry Kool-Aid and is better off suited to washing back Aunt Edna’s yams than it is as a serious wine. What I’m referring to are the Cru Beaujolais, the best wines produced in the region, and some of the most underrated wines in the world.
Beaujolais is a region in Southern Burgundy, south of the Macon, and while it’s technically in Burgundy, it’s south of the Cote d’Or and is generally not considered part of Burgundy proper. Like most wine regions in France, grapes have been grown in Beaujolais for hundreds of years, if not thousands. And during this time, the vintners have learned which areas produce the best wines, which hillsides have prime exposure, and which areas have the best soil. Again, like most growing regions in France, these preferred sites have been determined to be better and are given a separate classification. So, while Beaujolais may be one general area, there are three separate classifications. The most general is the generic Beaujolais appellation (the French term for a controlled wine-growing area), which includes most of the vineyards in the 45-mile stretch of land that forms Beaujolais. The next step up is the Beaujolais-Villages appellation, a group of 35 villages with better sites that allow for more body, depth and intensity than generic Beaujolais. The best wines from Beaujolais, and the wines I’m referring to here, are the Cru Beaujolais.
There are 10 Cru Beaujolais villages: Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Régnié, Chiroubles, Chénas, Morgon, Juliénas, St.-Amour, Brouilly, and Côte de Brouilly. The best Gamay Noir on the planet comes from these ten villages, and the wines from the best producers are not only extremely tasty, but they are also inexpensive. Most generic Beaujolais retails for $6-10, and is generally best avoided. There are a few good producers of Beaujolais-Villages (usually $10-15), most notably Jean-Paul Brun and Pierre Chermette, but most of the top Beaujolais producers are located in the Crus.
While you don’t see many wines locally from Chiroubles, Chénas, Juliénas, Régnié or St.-Amour, the other Crus are easier to find, and have a high concentration of top-quality producers. Morgon has a large number of excellent producers, including Jean Foillard, Marcel Lapierre, Jean-Paul Thevenet, Guy Breton, Claude Desvignes, and Savoye. Moulin-à-Vent boasts Jadot’s Chateau du Jacques estate as well as Diochon. The Côte de Brouilly counts Perroud and Pacalet among its top wineries, while Brouilly’s best include Michaud and Thivin. Fleurie also has a number of excellent producers including Michel Chignard (whose 2001 Fleurie Les Morieres was the inspiration for this column), Pierre Chermette and Coudert. Most of these wines retail for between $15-20, with only a few going up to $22-23. If you’ve had Beaujolais in the past, you may ask “Where’s Georges Duboeuf?” Georges Duboeuf is a huge negociant in Beaujolais, and while he bottles everything from Nouveau to a number of Crus, I’ve found the quality of the Duboeuf wines to be fairly mediocre, and they have a generic, banana-like aroma due to the type of yeast that they use. Another thing to focus on is the importer, as about 75% of the better wines I mentioned above are brought into the U.S. by either Kermit Lynch or Louis/Dressner Imports.
What will you get for your money? Tonight’s Chignard shows a lovely nose of strawberry jam, clove, meat, spice, and a light whiff of earthy barnyard. On the palate, it’s medium-bodied, with juicy strawberry fruit, spice, clove, lots of earth, as well as hints of tea, barnyard and meat. Depending on the Cru, you will find more depth and intensity, more earth, more spice, more structure, or more floral notes. But no matter the Cru, one of the great things about Cru Beaujolais is that they are already fairly complex on release and can continue to improve for 3-5 years, developing even more at a fairly young age compared with many other wines. They are refreshing, lighter reds in the summer as well as being hearty enough to match a wide variety of foods, and are served in many cafés in France as “house” wines because of their versatility.
If you haven’t experienced the joy of a good Cru Beaujolais, go out and try a few different wines. If you avoid Duboeuf, you’ll get wine from true artisans, wines that match well with different foods (especially roast chicken…we’ve really liked the Coastal Range Organics, which are available at Fred Meyer and actually taste like chicken), and wines that are cheaper than most Oregon Pinots. On your mark, get set…Beau!