Ah, Beaujolais — my favorite underrated summer wine. Beaujolais is usually made from gamay grapes, and the resulting beverage is often an insouciant, light-bodied, easy- drinking red wine, featuring bright fruit, low tannins, and refreshing acidity. The far less common white Beaujolais, which accounts for roughly 1 percent of the production, is generally made from chardonnay grapes and may contain aligoté grapes as well.
Located at the southern reach of Burgundy, just west and north of the city of Lyon, the region can be divided, like Gaul, into three parts. Ascending upwards, one encounters the simplest expression, known as Beaujolais AOC. This district also produces much of the (in)famous Beaujolais Nouveau, discussed in greater detail below. Moving upwards on the map, we find Beaujolais-Villages, a more refined version and, finally, nosing north into the territory of pinot noir Burgundies, the finest expression of the gamay grape, Beaujolais Cru.
So why is this delightful, modest, pocket- and food-friendly wine overlooked by serious wine lovers? Well, the circus-like theatrics surrounding the annual release of the district’s fresh and fragile Beaujolais Nouveau doesn’t help — on the third Thursday of November, one minute after the clock strikes midnight, some one million cases are released to be transported all over the world, and it’s a mad, mad race to see who will get it first. Beaujolais Nouveau has been parachuted into London, rally-raced to Copenhagen, and run through the streets of New York City by intrepid waiters, eager to pop the first cork. The problem is that Beaujolais Nouveau isn’t particularly interesting, and it has a very short (six-month) shelf life. Most years, it is markedly lightweight with little complexity or structure to recommend it — not surprising, since its grapes were literally on the vine a scant two months before it was shipped. And in the process of celebrating the least of the regions, the best has suffered a bit by association.
The following wines are all great value, and well worth your attention. I love them with all summer foods, from hot or cold roast chicken to salads of seared tuna and poached salmon. They brighten a picnic like no other wine, complementing all charcuterie, such as patés, terrines and salamis, and Beaujolais also marries well with rich, triple-crème cheeses and even berry tarts. Be sure to chill them a bit, and maybe buy a second bottle, just in case — at these prices, one can’t lose.
Wines for review were provided by their producers or importers at no cost to the writer.
Château du Châtelard Cuvée les Vieilles Vignes (Beaujolais-Villages) 2015 ($16).This is a lovely, old-vine, mid-level Beaujolais, and it is everything such a wine should be: Gorgeous ruby color, juicy red fruit and blackberry notes in the nose and on the palate, a pleasing medium body with really nice structure, soft tannins and commendable fruit-acid balance. I found it for even less than the suggested retail price, and promptly bought half a case.
2016 Domaine Christophe Pacalet Chenas NV ($18). Neophytes could be forgiven for thinking this bottle was misshelved among more traditionally bottled Beaujolais — not only does the producer eschew the conventional shape, preferring a tall, sleek column of dark glass, but nowhere on the bold, modern label does the word “Beaujolais” appear. (This is normal for Beaujolais bearing the coveted “Cru” designation; the key is the word “Chenas,” which wine lovers will recognize as one of the 10 Beaujolais Crus districts in the north of the region. All Cru Beaujolais are identified by their district names).
This Beaujolais boasts all the classic gamay notes: Ripe red fruits, notably cherry and raspberry with some violet in the nose, gentle tannins, and a zippy, acidic finish, all well-balanced and presented with a wink in that snappy new bottle.
Domaine de la Prébande “Anna Asmaquer” 2015 ($16).This is probably the purest expression of Beaujolais among the group, since the vintners are dedicated to interfering as little as possible in the wine-making process. The grapes are fertilized with natural compost, vinified without additional sulfur dioxide, aged in cement and stainless steel and bottled unfiltered.
The vineyard’s soil is exceptionally sandy, and the resulting wine boasts exceptional minerality. The raspberry and strawberry notes in the nose intensify on the palate, and the strong mineral notes dominate the finish. The body is light, and the low 13 percent alcohol of this bright and sassy wine make it exceptionally easy-drinking and fresh.
Fabien Collonge Chiroubles “L’Aurore des Côtes” 2015 ($14). Another Beaujolais Cru identified by its terroir, this pleasing gamay noir from fourth-generation winemaker Fabien Collonge is another exceptional value. Made from 50-year-old vines planted in the higher slopes and cooler climates of the small region of Chiroubles, the wine is especially fragrant and fresh. Floral, black cherry and berry flavors perfume the nose and dominate the palate. The low-key acidic finish and modest (13 percent) alcohol are both refreshing and exceptionally food-friendly. Looking for interesting bottles to bring to your table? Check out this collection of 25 geographically diverse wines.