Cru Beaujolais: Deep Dive
While I've written about Cru Beaujolais previously, I think it's time for a deep dive, and what better timing than the holidays as it happens to be one of my favorite holiday wines! Let's go!
Just south of the Maconnais in southern Burgundy lies the region of Beaujolais. The star grape here is Gamay, and both the variety and the region have been made infamous by the mostly mass produced Beaujolais Nouveau that comes out in November each year. Beaujolais Nouveau is a wine that is meant to be drunk young while it is fresh and easy to enjoy. Sadly, the mass production often results in a wine stripped of its inherent deliciousness.
Thankfully, there exists salvation for the region in the Crus (aka sub-regions) of Beaujolais. (Click here for a great map!) This is where a quiet revolution began in the 1980s led by Jules Chauvet who used old vines, farmed without chemicals, harvested ripe grapes, used natural yeast, bottled without fining/filtering, and used little sulfur dioxide. He began mentoring a group of young winemakers that became known as the Gang of Four: Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thevénet, and Guy Bréton. Supposedly, other “unofficial” members were Georges Descombes and Jean-Louis Dutraive.
They were until recently unsung heroes that brought the Crus of Beaujolais to their full potential. These sub-regions (aka crus) produce Gamay on the granite slopes of the northern Beaujolais where the Gamay grape has just the right amount of stress to produce beautiful and interesting wines. (Most Beaujolais Nouveau comes from less provocative sites.)
For Cru Beaujolais you will see the Cru listed in large type-face on the front label (i.e. Morgon in the above photo is a Cru). Each Cru has its own distinctive terroir, and of course, each winemaker has their own distinctive style. Consequently, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between the influence of earth vs. the influence of man, but it is certainly a delicious and nerdy adventure!
Two things are for certain, the wines featuring a named Cru of Beaujolais offer a more complex reflection of the Gamay grape than those coming from the more general Beaujolais appellation. And secondly, Gamay is in fact a perfect partner at the holiday table. Its bright, red fruited characteristics make for a pairing that’s just about as classic as turkey and cranberry sauce!
Final conclusion? I suggest grabbing a few different Crus and featuring them at your holiday table for maximum nerdiness and enjoyment. Prices can range from upper $20s to $60 (for more rare bottlings).
P.S. Yes, there has long been an association between Beaujolais Nouveau and Thanksgiving as the release date for Nouveau is always the 3rd Thursday in November (according to French law)! This happy coincidence with Turkey Day proved a great marketing strategy for many years, but many folks have now caught on to the lesser quality of all that grocery store nouveau. (And while there is some quality nouveau; those bottles are few and far between.)
P.P.S. Yes, there are white wines in Beaujolais (made from Chardonnay) and rosés (made from Gamay) and sparkling (made from Chardonnay or Gamay).
Here’s a primer to the ten crus if you want to really impress your guests!
Cru Beaujolais In Detail
10 Crus of Beaujolais (from north to south)
319 ha; about 2 about bottles annually
very mixed soils here
like Fleurie and Chiroubles, usually provides a lighter and less concentrated expression of cru Beaujolais
578 ha; about 3 million bottles annually
varied elevation and soil = varied concentration in wines
yet generally exhibits greater depth and fuller body than Saint-Amour
named for Julius Caesar!
249 ha; about 1 mil bottles annually
high altitude, smallest cru
pink granite = poor soil = powerful wines
similar to its southern neighbor, Moulin-à-Vent
supposedly takes name from from oak trees that grew here at one time
717 ha; about 3.5 million bottles annually
also pink granite = poor soil = powerful wines
often considered longest-lived and most full-bodied Beaujolais cru along with with Morgon
named for historic "windmill"
914 ha; about 4.5 million bottles annually
also pink granite
but higher elevation = fragrant, floral
334 ha; about 1.75 million bottles annually
also pink granite
highest & coolest = lightness, elegance
birthplace of Victor Puillat – pioneer in grafting French scions on American rootstock
1114 ha; about 7 million bottles annually
known for roche pourrie—“rotten rock,” an unusual mixture of iron-rich schist and basalt streaked with manganese; locals even refer to the soil type as “morgon” and say that the soil gives the wines their unique cherry flavor
one of the most revered crus
many prominent domaines based in the appellation include Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thevénet, and Guy Bréton—the “gang of four”
newest cru (established 1988)
also pink granite
tend to be aromatic and lively
1257 ha; about 7.5 million bottles annually
carpets the broad lower flanks of the Mont Brouilly, an extinct volcano that rises to 484 meters
largest app = mixed soil types; variable quality; producer is important
the name itself derives from brûlé meaning “burnt”
Cote de Brouilly
340 ha; about 2 million bottles annually
smaller area inside Brouilly; steeper volcanic slope
less granite near the surface and more schist and grey-blue diorite rock, which colors vineyard soils in the appellation (it is a rock that is so hard that stonemasons in ancient Egypt used it to carve granite!)