Vino & Veritas: Good Beaujolais — is it possible?

BY JOSH SOLOMON

I wasn’t sure a column on Beaujolais would be worth the effort. My experience with Beaujolais, while limited, suggests that it is just not that interesting. Then, RECORD editor Jonas Blank asked me if I would write about it. Particularly, I’m told, people might be curious about the phenomenon of Beaujolais Nouveau. So in a shameless effort to suck up to the boss, hoping he might raise my wine budget and allow me to actually taste and recommend something decent one of these days, here goes.

First, the basics. Beaujolais, like most French-wine names, is a region, not a grape. Actually, it is officially a sub-region of Burgundy. This official joinder, though, is about all the two have in common. Burgundy produces both red and white wine of high quality. Beaujolais produces almost exclusively red wine. Burgundy reds come from the pinot noir grape. Beaujolais from gamay. And Burgundy makes wines that include some of the most interesting and tasty in the world. Beaujolais makes, well . . . Beaujolais.

On that last point, though, I must tread lightly. As the New York Times reported last month, a French magazine was recently held liable for the equivalent of $375,000 for publishing a wine critic’s statement calling Beaujolais Nouveau “vin de merde.” According to the Times, this comment was found to violate the “press’s obligation to objectivity.” Apparently, Article 11 of France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man — which begins with “[t]he free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man” — is a far less serious take on our First Amendment. It is, if you will, the beaujolais of free-press protections. Vive La France!

Speaking of Beaujolais Nouveau, if you have come across Beaujolais at all, it is likely to have been of the Nouveau persuasion. This probably explains Jonas’s inquiry. Beaujolais Nouveau has been a marketing marvel. Each year, on the third Thursday of November, Beaujolais Nouveau from that year’s harvest is released — the first French wine of the year. It is shipped by air all over the world for a now-fashionable first taste of the vintage. So commercially successful has this nouveau phenomenon been that almost half of all Beaujolais, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine, is now sold as Beaujolais Nouveau.

Beaujolais Nouveau offers an exaggerated interpretation of general Beaujolais features. It is made to drink young, within months of production, compared to the one to three years for other Beaujolais. I have found that it can become virtually undrinkable when left open for even a day. I have assumed, but don’t know for sure, that this is in part a result of light fermentation — given the speed with which it is made and released, there is no time for extended fermentation. Even non-nouveau Beaujolais is likely to be lightly fermented, but for slightly different reasons. On the whole, Beaujolais, and Beaujolais Nouveau in particular, is light and fruity, often more grape juice than wine.

At the opposite end of the Beaujolais spectrum from Beaujolais Nouveaus are Beaujolais Crus. These are a bit harder to identify, as occasionally neither “Beaujolais Crus” nor even “Beaujolais” will appear on the label. Instead, the wine is labeled with the name of the village from which it comes. Some of the most common crus you are likely to run into are Moulin-À-Vent, Fleurie, and Morgon. While these are still grapey, monolithic wines, they are thought to be a bit finer than the rest of Beaujolais’s production.

In between the crus and the nouveaus in terms of purported quality are Beaujolais-Villages and just plain ol’ Beaujolais. The former comes from specified areas within the northern part of Beaujolais. The latter can come from anywhere within the region, but tends to come from the southern Bas Beaujolais area. One thing to be careful of is the label Beaujolais Supérieur. This does not mean that the wine is of particularly superior quality. It simply means that there is likely to be more alcohol in it.

At the risk of violating my “obligation to objectivity,” Beaujolais, on the whole, while not truly “vin de merde,” is not going to blow you away. But it’s not supposed to. Don’t try to think about it. It will disappoint. Treat it as the refreshing, simple, easy-drinking wine that it is, and you won’t expect too much.

I chose a cru, a village, and a village nouveau to taste. All came from Martignetti’s.

The first was a 2002 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau ($6.49). A strong aroma of bananas hit me on first sniff, which I’m told is fairly common for Beaujolais. There were also berries on the nose. There was not much to taste: It was light, very thin, and grapey; there was a slight bitterness, and an even slighter taste of berries. I didn’t expect much, but it still failed to meet my expectations.

I next tried a 2001 Louis Latour Beaujolais-Villages Chamery ($8.99). It was even more disappointing than the Nouveau — not so much because it was worse as because I expected more. Latour is a highly-regarded producer of Burgundy wines, and I hoped his Beaujolais-Village might stand out a bit. It didn’t. I got an earthy, wet-leaves odor, mixed with raspberries. This too was thin and light to taste, but with a bit more tannin than the Nouveau. There were almost no other identifiable flavors beyond that. Several friends who tasted it with me literally grimaced.

My final selection was a 2001 Georges Duboeuf Morgon ($11.99), a Beaujolais Cru. From the same maker as the Nouveau, this Morgon stood out as a firmer, slightly more enjoyable wine. It too had bananas and berries on the nose, but reversed in terms of prominence compared to the Nouveau. To the taste, the Morgon was a bit meatier than the other two, but still relatively thin. There were clearly identifiable berry and grapey tastes. On the whole, it was noticeably better than the other two, but there are many more wines for twelve bucks that I would rather drink.

Moral of the story: I probably don’t really like Beaujolais.

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