Friday, September 01, 2006

Beaujolais -- It leads to harder stuff...

Beaujolais is seductive -- the quintessential "gateway wine." Many casual wine drinkers who find red wines "too strong" often give Beaujolais a try at some point -- only to find themselves drawn inexorably into the world of berries and tannins. Before long, such a person is planning trips to Sonoma, building shelves for a wine cellar, and debating the merits of merlot over cabernet for their rare strip steak. Not that I'd know anything about that.

Beaujolais is also the perfect gateway for an introduction into about French wines. France is the leading producer of wine in the world, followed closely by Italy. France churns out around two billion gallons of wine per year. France alone produces more wine per year than the US, Spain, Argentina, and Australia combined. The French have been at this a long time, and their wines are the world's most famous (although the Italians might argue with that assessment).

In America, we're used to classifying wine by varietal -- merlot, cabernet, chardonnay, etc. In France, a wine’s primary classification is the region where the wine is produced. Chablis, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone -- these are all French regions. Beaujolais is a district within Burgundy. When the California wine industry started pumping out jug wine, "Burgundy" and "Chablis" came to by synonymous with cheap red or white wine when, in actuality, some of the best pinot noirs and chardonnays in the world come from those respective regions. To know what you're getting when you purchase many French wines, you have to become at least passingly familiar with the major grapes grown in a particular region.

Beaujolais is one of the few red wines from Burgundy that's not pinot noir. Beaujolais is made from a grape varietal called Gamay. Gamay produces a wine that's generally light in body, somewhat fruity, and very easy to drink. Beaujolais is a light enough red that you can often serve it interchangeably with white wines. There are certain classes of Beaujolais, however, that have enough body to stand up to grilled red meats. Many Beaujolais taste best when served slightly chilled, making them an ideal summer red.

Now, regarding those classifications I just mentioned. The French are meticulous about categorizing wine. They have a strict system for classifying their wines based on region, history, grape varietal, winemaking techniques, alcohol content, and various other factors known as the "Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée" or AC. Within each region, a wine's AC definition usually provides a good baseline for determining the quality of a wine. In the Beaujolais AC, there are three basic classifications, in ascending order of quality and price:

Beaujolais -- These wines are produced from grapes grown anywhere within the Beaujolais region.
Beaujolais-Villages -- These wines are produced from grapes grown in one of thirty-nine villages in the southern part of the region, known to produce consistently high quality wine.
Beaujolais Cru -- There are ten villages known to produce the best wine in the region, and the wines are designated simply by the name of the town. Moulin-A-Vent is generally considered the best of the bunch, but there's not a lot of drop-off from there to the other nine. (Brouilly, Côte-de-Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Saint Amour, and Régnié are the others.) Many of these wines do not have "Beaujolais" anywhere prominently on the label -- so if you see what appear to be random French names in the Beaujolais section, chances are you're looking at a cru.

Here are examples of each:

Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Reservé 2005 – One reviewer called Georges Duboeuf the “benevolent dictator of Beaujolais” – fully 30% of the region’s production are Duboeuf wines. This wine will jump off the shelf at you because of its multicolored “painted” bottle. "Reservé" has little meaning in this context – it refers mainly to the fact that these grapes weren't shipped out as Beaujolais nouveau (I’ll touch on that a bit later). The nose of this wine carries a strong strawberry scent, with an undertone of slightly burnt toast. Even though this is a fairly light wine, there's a fair amount of tannin on the "attack" (WineSpeak for "what you get on the first taste of the wine") which moves on a tart blackberry taste. The finish has some citrus to it, as well as a continuation of the tannin. This wine is light, a little dry and, I think, best enjoyed by itself on a warm day, assuming you’ve chilled it a bit first. You could serve it as an aperitif, or pair it with a medium flavored cheese and crackers. Probably about $6-8.

Louis Jadot 2004 Beaujolais-Villages -- A very "fresh" smelling wine -- a little mineral, blackberries, and licorice. This wine has a very earthy character for such a light wine, coupled with more of a smooth berry taste and a little pepper. The finish is mildly dry, but contains a refreshing tartness. This is $8-11. I had this one with a light dinner of artichoke, tomato, and white bean bruschetta and it worked wonderfully. It was light enough not to overpower the fresh tomatoes, but still had enough body to hold its flavor afterwards. It's a very flexible wine -- you could put this up against chicken, pork, hamburgers, lighter red sauces -- and it would still do fairly well. If you have a large group coming over for dinner, this isn't a bad idea to have around -- because it's something for everyone. It's an ideal Thanksgiving wine, for instance.

Georges Duboeuf 2003 Beaujolais Chiroubles -- Back to Duboeuf again, since it was the only Beaujolais cru I could find in my local wine store at present. This one has a much more pronounced nose of cherries and plums. There's hardly any tannin on the tongue when you taste it -- and those berry flavors last a long time. The body is markedly fuller than the other two wines. The finish is light, crisp, and slightly tart. While you can certainly give this wine a slight chill -- there's enough body to carry the fruit tastes, so you can drink it at room temperature if you like. I'd put this with grilled tuna, chicken in any kind of sauce (like coq a vin), veal, or even kabobs and Mexican food. Crus can also be aged for a couple of years, but the 2003 I found was probably about as old as you'd want to drink a Beaujolais. The others should be consumed within a year or two. This will probably be $11-14 or thereabouts.

A couple of other quick notes: Around the globe, there's a huge rush every year on the third Thursday of November to snatch up a wine called Beaujolais Nouveau. 65 million bottles, almost half of the region's production, gets sold in the several weeks following. Beaujolais Nouveau goes from barrel to bottle to store in a matter of weeks. This wine should not be confused with regular Beaujolais – it’s an entirely different animal. This wine is incredibly light (some would almost say watery) and fruity. There's not enough time for the tannins (or much else, really) to get engaged in this wine, so you end up with a "sluggable" product. Beaujolais Nouveau is not a wine to be savored -- it's a party wine. That, of course, doesn't mean that it's not fun to get caught up in the rush of the world running out to snag a bottle. You want to drink this as soon as you get it.

Second, although most French wines are sold by regional classification, some French producers have begun putting the varietal name on exported wine. For a number of reasons, France actually is in the midst of a wine glut – and is trying to improve their wineries’ marketing, especially among inexpensive wines. Since most consumers don’t know offhand, for instance, that a white wine from Burgundy is going to be a chardonnay. I haven’t tried any of these “new labels” yet – perhaps down the line.

Until next time…À votre santé!

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