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The Beaujolais Renaissance
The Beaujolais region, or more precisely, the northern half of the area, where the ten villages entitled to the status of “Cru Beaujolais” are located and where I generally concentrate my tasting and buying efforts, is a sweeping and beautiful area with quilt-like vineyards covering the sides of pitched hillsides. The roads snake back and forth between the different villages and more isolated domaines along the valley floors, and cling precipitously to the steep sides of the hills, with intrepid vignerons whipping along in their Peugots and more circumspect wine tourists navigating at a more genteel pace. This beautiful and rambling area just northwest of the city of Lyons, the gastronomic capital of France, is today in the midst of an amazing quality renaissance.
For many wine lovers, Beaujolais still means Nouveau, the vibrant and frolicking first wine of the new vintage that arrives to fanfare the third week of each November in cafés, bistros, and wine stores the world over. The concept of Beaujolais Nouveau was one of the regional marketing brainstorms 35 years ago when sales were flagging and interest in the wines outside of its unofficial capital of Lyons were at a nadir, and it met with immediate success. However, the success of Nouveau was a double-edged sword. While it worked wonders in finding homes for a very serious percentage of each year’s crop within weeks of the harvest (at its apogee more than a third of Beaujolais production was consumed by the end of that year as Nouveau), it also tended to tarnish the reputation of the more serious wines in the region; in particular, the cru bottlings from villages such as Fleurie, Morgon, and Moulin-à-Vent. What this cloud has done is both inspire the top growers in the region to make the very finest wines possible, and has kept market prices for these superb wines very low.
For lovers of traditionally styled wines who lament the dizzying price spiral upward for many favorite regions in the last several years, there has never been a better opportunity to discover or reacquaint yourself with the glories of top-quality Beaujolais. The wines are shockingly inexpensive for the quality they offer. The region just had two outstanding vintages, the deeply powerful and atypically structured 2005s that will impressively reward mid-term cellaring, and the utterly classic and irresistible 2006s that offer immediate appeal. Many of these beautiful wines are overlooked by the majority of wine connoisseurs, who treat them primarily as a stepping stone over which they have already passed in the early days of their wine travels, and which no longer offer the complexity and potential for cellaring of other wine regions. However, I have to respectfully disagree. The top bottlings of Beaujolais offer a degree of complexity and flexibility at the table, and potential for superb development in the bottle that clearly surpasses many other wine regions today. If you are one of those wine lovers that has been out of the Beaujolais loop for a while now, then I implore you to reintroduce yourself while the brilliant 2005 and 2006 vintages are still available in the marketplace.
The best wines made in Beaujolais are from the ten “cru” villages of Régnié, St. Amour, Chénas, Brouilly, and Chiroubles (generally the more flamboyant and wide open of the crus when young), the more structured wines of Morgon, Côte de Brouilly, and Moulin-à-Vent, and the crus of Fleurie and Juliénas which fall stylistically about halfway between the two camps. Some of my favorite producers of cru Beaujolais include Château Thivin, Nicole Chanrion, Jean Foillard, Louis and Claude Desvignes, Domaine Chignard, Clos de la Roilette, Bernard Diochon, Michel Tête, Alain Passot, and the Beaune-based firm of Joseph Drouhin. Two other absolute superstars in Beaujolais are Pierre Chermette of Domaine du Vissoux and Jean-Paul Brun of Domaine Terres d’Orées. Both of these producers also make outstanding crus, but in addition make brilliant “basic” Beaujolais bottlings called Cuvée Traditionelle and Cuvée Ancienne respectively that compete with many of the best crus and sell for a song.