Talking about Beaujolais in May feels weird, like donning thermals in the height of summer. This vibrant, juicy red is so closely associated with Beaujolais nouveau day, a worldwide celebration held on the third Thursday in November, that it’s all but ignored for the rest of the year. Nouveau only accounts for a third of what the region produces, but to many people the two are synonymous.
There’s nothing wrong with nouveau – a wine that is released within a few weeks of the harvest and is meant to be glugged rather than savoured – but it has cheapened and trivialised the image of Beaujolais as a whole. Like a classical actor who appears in a soap opera to earn a few quid but finds himself typecast for life, Beaujolais has become the prisoner of nouveau’s success. All 65 million bottles of it.
The only other time Beaujolais appears in the news is when it’s embroiled in a minor scandal, such as large-scale creative blending with wines from lesser areas or the prosecution of a few growers using illegal quantities of sugar to boost the alcohol levels of their wines.
That may be about to change, however. The 2009 vintage was very good all over France, but Georges Duboeuf, the area’s most famous winemaker, reckons it’s the best Beaujolais harvest in 50 years. Berry Brothers & Rudd, the UK’s leading independent merchant, concurs. In an offer of 20 wines released this week (see www.bbr.com) it describes the wines as “exceptionally exciting”. The men from St James’s are not known for their use of hyperbole.
I don’t need an excuse to drink good Beaujolais, but I too am impressed by the concentration, balance and purity of the 2009s. The best of them are even better than the 2005s, which is high praise. If ever there were a time to start drinking serious Beaujolais, this is it.
Did I say serious? Indeed I did. Nouveau may be intended for immediate consumption, but that’s not the case with all of the region’s wines. Beaujolais doesn’t make the most structured and age-worthy of reds, but the leading examples can be kept for three to five years or more. As they mature, they can resemble red Burgundies, taking on the aromas and flavours of aged pinot noir.
Talking of which, Beaujolais is much easier to understand than its northerly neighbour. The reds are all made from a single grape and are sold as: nouveau, straight Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages (from one of 39 named villages) or as one of the ten “crus”, regarded as the region’s elite.
These crus are situated on granite soils in the hilly, beautifully bucolic northern part of the region, while basic Beaujolais and nouveau tend to hail from the sandier and generally flatter south. They aren’t always easy to tell apart in a blind tasting, but you can divide them stylistically into three groups: light and aromatic (Chiroubles and Saint Amour), middle-weight (Côte de Brouilly, Brouilly, Fleurie, Chénas and Régnié) and chunky (Juliénas, Morgon and Moulin à Vent). There are exceptions, but the generalisation still holds.
Sadly, there is still a lot of bad Beaujolais produced, even in the crus. (I have to choose my words carefully here, as a French hack was taken to court by the ultra-sensitive locals a few years ago for describing Beaujolais as a “crap wine”.) But the average quality is much higher than it is in Burgundy and the wines are considerably cheaper. For less than £20, you can find reds of real personality, and that’s not something that can be said of Burgundian pinot noir.
Beaujolais satisfies my growing preference for balanced red wines with less than 13% alcohol. It is sometimes dismissed for being light and inconsequential, but its freshness and elegance are part of its charm. Even an oak-aged Morgon, Juliénas or Moulin à Vent tastes subtle when you put it alongside an Aussie shiraz or an Argentinean malbec. With these wines, it’s easy to finish a bottle.
I think Beaujolais is one of the most adaptable, food-friendly reds of all. It’s also perfect served chilled from the fridge. So shelve your prejudices about Beaujolais day and think summer rather than autumn. I promise you you’ll never drink nouveau again.
2009 Marks & Spencer Beaujolais (£5.99, 12.5%)
Sourced from the southern end of the appellation, this is packed with youthful, crunchy raspberry and red cherry fruit. Perfumed and soft with a touch of sweetness and minimal tannins, it’s very drinkable.
2009 Beaujolais Villages, Château de la Terrière (£7.49 each for two, 12.5%, Majestic)
A steal at the two bottle price (down from £8.99) this is impressive stuff for a villages wine. It’s bright, aromatic and juicy with masses of bramble and strawberry fruit and bright, palate-cleansing acidity.
2009 Juliénas, Esprit de Marius Sanguard, Trenel (£9.50, 13%, The Wine Society)
Showing the concentration you expect from a top Juliénas in a great vintage, this is densely fruity for a gamay, with no oak to get in the way of its charms. Youthful, yet well-structured with notes of plum and black cherry.
2009 Brouilly, Henry Fessy (£9.99, 13.5%, Waitrose)
Brouilly can vary in quality, given the size of the cru, but this unoaked example is spot on. It’s a little closed, so make sure you decant it before serving to allow its cherry and strawberry fruit to strut its stuff.
2009 Moulin à Vent, En Brenay, Jean-Paul Dubost (£15.95, 12.5%, Berry Brothers, www.bbr.com)
One of a handful of outstanding 2009s from Berrys, this was aged in older oak to soften its tannins. It’s not as dense as some Moulin à Vents, but it more than makes up for that with its charm and fruit purity.
2008 Morgon, Côte du Py, Jean Foillard (£18.99, 13%, Les Caves de Pyrène, 01483 554750, www.lescaves.co.uk)
2008 wasn’t as good a vintage as 2009, but while we wait for Foillard’s releases we can enjoy this sublime Morgon from one of the best single vineyards. Subtle, and quite pinot noir-like, this is remarkably elegant for a Morgon.
Originally published in The Times