First cultivated by the Romans, Beaujolais is a French wine best known for its forward red berry fruit and bright aromatics, as well as its ruby color. It’s made from 100% Gamay grapes and comes in several designations from Beaujolais AOC, to Beaujolais Villages and the Beaujolais Crus. But another reason you may have heard of Beaujolais wine is down to a certain week in November when restaurants and wine stores in France and around the world begin to advertise the release of the year’s Beaujolais Nouveau.
Beaujolais Nouveau is not the same as Beaujolais. Its name actually means “new Beaujolais” in French, and here’s where the history becomes important. Traditionally, winemakers in the Beaujolais region of France made a quick and easy drinking wine, called “Vin Primeur” to celebrate the end of their grape harvest. This wine was only fermented for two to three days so it was light in alcohol, with fresh, fruit-driven, notes.
In the early 1950s, restaurants and stores in Paris began to serve this “Vin Primeur” wine to much fanfare. Then in 1951, the Beaujolais Association of winemakers set an official release date of November 15th for the wine (this was later changed to the third Thursday of November) and gave it the name Beaujolais Nouveau.
How is Beaujolais Nouveau different?
Because Beaujolais Nouveau goes through a much shorter fermentation process compared to other Beaujolais wines, it’s fresh and less refined. You can think of it as more an expression of the Gamay grape than the terroir where the grapes were grown. That being said, it does share many characteristics with the other Beaujolais wines, but it has less tannins, lower alcohol and less depth to its fruit. Beaujolais Nouveau is also lighter in color.
More on Beaujolais Nouveau
When Beaujolais Nouveau first became popular in Paris, some restaurants engaged in a contest to be the first to serve the year’s new wine. They would send their waiters down to wait outside the winery doors at the official time on the designated day of the wine’s release and then have them rush back to their respective restaurants carrying fresh bottles of the year’s Nouveau. Momentum carried on from there, and Beaujolais Nouveau’s popularity crossed the Atlantic, where it was adopted as a red wine for Thanksgiving. This was especially the case given the proximity of the Beaujolais Nouveau’s release date to the November holiday.
In the late 20th century, wineries and winemakers releasing Beaujolais Nouveau started to put different labels on the bottles each year. They hired artists to create light, colorful and sometimes flowery designs specific to a particular harvest, which added to the overall excitement over the wine’s release.
How should you drink it?
Beaujolais Nouveau is a wine that’s made to be drunk right away, ideally in the first few months, and no later than six months to a year after its release. You can have Beaujolais Nouveau as a drinking wine if you’re inviting friends over. In fact, it makes a fun talking point to bring a bottle of this year’s Nouveau to a November gathering. It’s also a wine that will go well with food, including most appetizers and hard cheeses.
Depending on the time of year, finding a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau shouldn’t be too hard. Most producers who make wine from the Beaujolais region will have a Nouveau. As for the turkey-day connection, Beaujolais is a good wine food pairing for a holiday dinner. This is because of the Gamay grape which complements the flavors in turkey and cranberry sauce. Note, the wines we’ll discuss next are also good holiday choices and will have more depth to their flavor profiles.
What are the other Beaujolais wines like?
One of the most striking things about naturally made Beaujolais is the really up front fruit flavors you get with these wines. From cherries to raspberries, blackberries, and red currants, you’ll find they are not dissimilar to reds from Burgundy in their weight, though red wines from Beaujolais do tend to be a little darker in color and fuller flavored. They’re also much less expensive than a typical red from Burgundy, making them an affordable alternative.
Most red Beaujolais is made with 100% Gamay, though it is possible for them to have up to 15% Pinot Noir. But because Pinot Noir is so expensive, this doesn’t happen very often.
Where are they grown?
The Beaujolais appellations are located in a designated growing area in France, south of the Mâcon and Côte Chalonnaise regions of Burgundy, and just North of the city of Lyon and the Northern Rhône appellation. To the East you’ll find the Alps, and to the West, the Massif Central, a high plain in central France. The soils of the northern part of the region, where the ten Crus are from, are primarily granite with some sand. As you go further south, there’s more clay and limestone.
The 3 levels of Beaujolais
Made from 100% Gamay (and sometimes 15% Pinot Noir) a Beaujolais AOC wine will have bright acidity, light tannins, and a lot of up front fruits. It can be made in any one of 96 villages which are mostly in the southern part of the region. Beaujolais AOC has its own designation and is governed by a unique set of rules and regulations for wine production.
French Wine Tip: AOC stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée and is a certification the French government gives to wines that come from a particular area within a region, known as an appellation. The wines must follow a set of production guidelines for that specific appellation.
This wine is a bit higher in quality, deeper in color and has more pronounced fruits and minerality. It’s made in just 36 of the 96 Beaujolais villages and has stricter regulations for production than AOC wine. A Beaujolais Villages wine tends to be higher in alcohol, with less yield per acre in the vineyards. The soils where it’s grown often have more granite in them as well. One of the characteristics of the Gamay grape is it does best in granite soils, giving you more fruity notes and minerality in the resulting wine.
One rule-of-thumb that applies particularly well to Beaujolais wine is, the smaller the appellation, the better the wine. The Crus Beaujolais come from ten different towns which are each located on the top of a granite mount or hill. Though the region where the Crus are produced is relatively small, the villages have their own individual characteristics and set of production standards. Accordingly, they make wine that is more intense, unique and can be aged. A Beaujolais Cru is typically made from older vines, grapes are hand harvested, and the wines get longer skin contact during fermentation. Note, the Crus’ peaks can be up to 3000 feet high with most vineyards located on the southeast facing slopes, so the vines get good sun exposure.
The wine fermentation process
The typical fermentation process for Beaujolais, called Carbonic Maceration, looks quite different than for other wines. Instead of crushing the clusters and berries to make a juice, winemakers put them all in tanks and float CO2 on top. They don’t use traditional yeast at the start, because the combination of the enclosed tank and no oxygen with C02 causes the enzymes in the grapes to start breaking down the sugars in the juice and creating alcohol. The yeast, whether induced or what’s naturally there, then takes over and finishes the process. This means you end up with a wine that has lower tannins, brighter colors and more prominent fruit flavors. Keep in mind, when it comes to Cru Beaujolais, some vineyards don’t do Carbonic Maceration, but rather follow a traditional Burgundy style maceration so the wines are more like Pinot Noir and can age longer.
The 10 Beaujolais Crus, from light to intense
- St-Amore, Chiroubles and Fleurie are the light styles of the Beaujolais Crus. These wines are delicate and can be described as soft and more perfumed. Fleurie is called the queen of Beaujolais because of its strong floral aromatics.
- Juliénas, Régnié, Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly are the more medium-bodied Beaujolais Crus. Note, Juliénas is named after Julius Cesar. All of these wines are fruit-driven and generally have more complexity to them. Régnié is the quickest to mature and the most aromatic. The vineyards at the Côte de Brouilly are grown on volcanic soils. Brouilly is a ruby-colored wine that can have purple hues.
- Chénas, located near an oak forest, the village of Chénas makes a fuller-bodied wine that has more concentrated fruits and ages well.
- Moulin-à-Vent is considered the king of the Crus. Its name means windmill (no surprise there’s a windmill on the top of the hill). It’s the most full-bodied and tannic and if it’s from a healthy vintage can age for up to ten years.
- Morgon is a full-bodied wine known for its distinctive cherry notes, density, and depth of flavor. It’s also a wine that can age quite well.
7 Things to know about Beaujolais wines
- Open wine from Beaujolais young (unless you have a Cru). Beaujolais AOC, Villages, Crus and of course, Beaujolais Nouveau, are all ready to drink when they’re released. In fact, these wines are meant to be drunk young. Just keep in mind a Nouveau is best right away and a Cru can age quite gracefully in your cellar for 5-7 years.
- Expect to pay between $15 to $38 a bottle. As you go up in levels from a Beaujolais Nouveau to a Cru, so will the price. A bottle of Nouveau, AOC or Villages should fall in the $15-$20 range and a Cru will typically be around $25 to $38, though smaller-production bottles can go up to $45.
- Pair Beaujolais with food. You can drink Beaujolais on its own, but it’s delicious with food like turkey or duck. These wines are also great with the kind of fun food you’ll find in casual dining spots – think hamburgers and barbecued ribs. Surprisingly, Beaujolais is a red wine you can pair with certain seafoods, including salmon, swordfish and tuna. It’s one of the best red wines to have with sushi too!
- Look for smaller production wine. Many of the larger producers use commercial yeast.The smaller ones tend to use the indigenous yeast found in their vineyards and hand harvest their grapes. Wines from smaller producers are often associated with more refined aromatics.
- Serve Beaujolais in a Burgundy glass. A Burgundy glass has a big bowl to it. The reason you want this glass is because Beaujolais, like Pinot Noir, is a high acid wine so funneling it to the center of your tongue helps you focus more on its fruitiness. The sides of your tongue pick up acidity, but you don’t need this because Beaujolais is a high acidity wine to begin with.
- You may need to lightly chill your wine. If it’s summer and/or your red wine has been sitting in a hot kitchen, you might want to put it in the fridge for 15-20 minutes before opening it, to make sure you can taste the fruit notes in the wine. Learn more about which red wines are best served lightly chilled in this article.
- Try it for Thanksgiving. French wine for an American holiday. Why not? Roasted birds like duck and turkey are often served with berry sauce accompaniments. You’ll also have a lot of food made with different warm spices. Wines from Beaujolais are the perfect complement and will be popular with most guests. The cherry, raspberry, and blackberry notes in a Cru make it an ideal wine food pairing for your Thanksgiving dinner.
Beaujolais and the natural wine trend
After WWII, many local winemakers in France were encouraged to use leftover ingredients for gunpowder as commercial fertilizers in their vineyards. Moreover, commercial yeast was introduced and employed to control the consistency of wine from one vintage to another. This gave an almost bubble gum, candy aroma to the wine, replacing the natural fruitiness of the Gamay grape. But in the 1970s and 1980s, a group of four French winemakers began to change things back again.
Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton, and Jean-Paul Thévenet believed in doing as little as possible to change the wine production process. No chaptalization (adding sugar to the grape juice to increase alcohol), using less sulfur dioxide, and a return to natural winemaking techniques were their trademarks. Their wines were imported to America and they began influencing other Beaujolais makers in France as well. Gradually, more and more winemakers began allowing the grapes to stay on the vines longer, and to only use indigenous yeast from the specific vineyard where the grapes were grown during the fermentation process. To the extent that it was possible, they also started farming more sustainably, organically and bio-dynamically.
Each wine was a reflection of the weather the grapes were exposed to and the particular terroir where they were grown. So in a sense, this revival of natural winemaking in the Beaujolais region of France was the precursor to today’s natural wine trend.