Beaujolais is often overlooked, not least because it is caught between the two more illustrious regions of Burgundy and the Rhône Valley.
Beaujolais has also suffered something of an image problem, with wines of a certain style gaining more attention than more seriously made wines. This has proven to be a double-edged sword – while it has increased awareness globally of this region, many people have started to believe that simple, thin and fruity wines is all that this region is capable of.
As usual, the ignorance of others can be an opportunity for the better informed. If you know what to look for, there are still great value wines to be had.
The Two Faces Of Beaujolais
Gamay is the main grape of the Beaujolais region, accounting for ~98% of wine production.
(There is a little white wine made from Chardonnay, but this is negligible.)
With the Gamay grape, winemakers can produce two main styles of red wine:
- Basic, light, refreshing and fruity wine, expressing raspberry, cherry, banana and bubblegum. Typically does not improve with age.
- Serious wines showing fuller body and more earthy and floral characters (in addition to fruit), with ability to age. Similar to Pinot Noir.
This is the key technique to the first style, producing aromas that are not usually found in red wines (e.g. banana and bubblegum).
- Grapes are harvested as whole bunches (i.e. berries are not removed from stems)
- Bunches are placed in a vat that can be completely closed
- The tank is flushed with carbon dioxide to clear out all the air
- The grape’s own enzymes attack the structure of the grapes, releasing sugar
- Enzymes then attack the sugar, producing alcohol (i.e. this is a fermentation that occurs without yeast)
This process accomplishes a few things that define the final style of the wine:
- It extracts colour without tannin, giving a softer texture on the palate
- Malic acid (think green apples) is reduced, and glycerol increases ~10x
- Ethyl acetate is produced, giving flavours of banana and bubblegum (less pleasant aromas like nail varnish are possible in poorly made wines)
- Alcohol of ~3% is achieved
3% alcohol is still far from the ~13% that is traditionally made and expected from red wines, so the juice undergoes a further, more traditional fermentation, with added yeast working on any remaining sugar.
Therefore in most cases you will see reference to Semi-Carbonic Maceration, as it would not be possible to produce a wine fermented to dryness with carbonic maceration only.
The production of this “New Beaujolais” is distinguished by the speed at which it hits the market.
The grapes undergo carbonic maceration for as little as four days, then the wines are bottled and released on the 3rd Thursday of November that same year.
This can be a problem in difficult years where flowering is late and ripening is slow – if grapes must be picked before they are ripe (to meet the release deadline), additional sugar may need to be added (known as “Chaptalization“) to meet minimum alcohol requirements, which can lead to unbalanced wines.
This is what will separate the first, simpler style from the second, more serious styles of Beaujolais wines.
If carbonic maceration is used at all, it is more leisurely and allowed to continue for up to 10 days.
Traditional winemaking techniques used can include:
- Use of oak (old vs. new)
- Maturation prior to release
- Temperature control
- Blending between vineyards vs. Single-vineyard wines
What has also happened in recent years is that winemakers from Burgundy, where land prices are at atmospheric heights, have invested in Beaujolais where land is comparatively cheaper. Thus they are also able to bring in their expertise from making wines in Burgundy and apply them to Beaujolais.
The Ten Crus of Beaujolais
These ten areas are known for the higher-quality styles of red wines, and their names may appear on the label with no reference to Beaujolais at all.
From north to south:
- Côte de Brouilly
If you see any of the above names on the label, the wine will be less likely to have undergone carbonic maceration.
Rather than climate or terroir, the style of Beaujolais wines depend much more on technique.
Between the extremes of Beaujolais Nouveau and the Cru wines, there are also Beaujolais-Villages wines that fit somewhere in the middle.
Many of these are made by négociants who, much like in Burgundy, buy up wines in bulk to sell under their own label.
Once again, do not assume that these négociant wines are of low quality, because often they will have the ability to surprise you.
I suppose the final message is to not underestimate Beaujolais. Know what you want, know what to look for, and you will not be led astray.
(All images in this article courtesy of Beaujolais.com’s Twitter account.)
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