Drinks Atlas: Beaujolais, France - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Drinks Atlas: Beaujolais, France

There isn’t a wine grape in France that’s had a tougher go of it than Gamay Noir. In 1395, the duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, exiled the grape from its Burgundy home, calling Gamay a “disloyal plant,” demanding it be “destroyed and reduced to nothing.”

Cultivation moved south and took hold in Beaujolais. By the 17th century, Gamay was enjoying a prosperous second act there. “The soil in Beaujolais is rockier, granite soil, and Gamay does better in those soil types,” explains Chevonne Ball, a sommelier and certified French Wine Scholar, and the owner and operator of wine-centric travel company Dirty Radish.

The Beaujolais region, north of France’s gastronomic capital Lyon— where the high-acid wines pair well with the region’s rich foods—has been a winemaking hub since the era of ancient Rome, due to its mineral- rich terrain and sun-facing slopes. As railway lines spread across France, bottles from Beaujolais became popular bistro wines, says Ball. In 1937, Beaujolais was granted an official AOC—by then, most of the area’s crus were already established.

Cru Beaujolais is 100 percent Gamay Noir, grown and produced in ten villages in the region’s north, each displaying distinct characteristics and often labeled only by the cru name. The wines are excellent examples of Gamay’s diversity, from fruit-forward and light-bodied to robust and age-worthy. The region’s categorizations beneath cru include Beaujolais-Villages, which is produced by 38 communes, and simply Beaujolais.

Then come “bananas and bubblegum”—descriptors lobbed at Beaujolais Nouveau, a category of wine released each year in mid-November almost immediately following the harvest and intended to be drunk just as quickly. While the practice began as a regional tradition, it turned into a ’70s global marketing shtick. Eventually, thirst for mass-produced nouveau dried up and left Beaujolais with a lowbrow reputation.

Beaujolais has undergone a reputational shift of late, and today it is considered the birthplace of modern “natural” winemaking. Beginning in the 1980s, a group of winemakers revised their farming and production methods—adopting organics and native yeasts, and ditching preservatives. As a global audience turns once more to Beaujolais, Ball believes the merit of its crus will be the region’s crowning distinction. Every time she opens a bottle from Beaujolais, she’s transported, she says. “I don’t get that from all of the wines that I drink, but Beaujolais is very clear for me.”

Fun Facts

  • Gamay Noir accounts for 98 percent of production in Beaujolais. “There’s this sort of disconnect,” says Ball. “I ask people all the time, ‘Are you familiar with Gamay Noir?’ and they say ‘no.’ I say, ‘Have you ever had a Beaujolais?’ and they say ‘yes.’ Well then, you’ve had Gamay!”
  • Beaujolais is most often associated with carbonic winemaking, a style in which whole clusters of grapes ferment in a vat and undergo the process from inside out, releasing their juice naturally. Semi- carbonic maceration, in which carbonic wine undergoes an additional yeast- derived fermentation, is also popular. The hands-off approach results in the wines’ approachable, silky texture.
  • What’s next for Beaujolais? A premier cru classification is being discussed. “People are working on making that happen in a couple areas in Brouilly,” says Ball. “I think that will be a game changer, but that’s still another three to five years out.”

5 Bottles to Try

Franck Besson NV Méthode Traditionelle Brut “Rosé Granit Sparkling Gamay Noir is a little understood yet burgeoning category, says Ball, with no legal definition. Organically farmed, hand harvested, and aged 12 months, Besson’s sparkling Gamay is delicate, lively, and delicious.
$24, leonandsongr.com

Jean Foillard “Les Charmes” Eponym’ “Les Charmes” Eponym’ is made from grapes grown in the Les Charmes vineyard—the highest altitude in the appellation. A silky, mineral-rich bottle from one of Beaujolais’ most renowned producers based in the Morgon, the wine displays the natural complexity of the area’s terroir. $37.95, crushwineco.com

Nicole Chanrion NV “Effervescence” After taking over her family’s domaine in 1988, Nicole Chanrion worked 6 and a half hectares of 50-year-old vines by herself— which remains her practice today. Chanrion’s “Effervescence” has touches of Beaujolais’ distinct savory notes, and
is produced using méthode champenoise, aged 18 months, and hand riddled twice a day prior to manual disgorgement. $31.99, shophenryandson.com

Robert Perroud “L’Enfer des Balloquets” Named for the slanting slopes of Balloquets hill, “which are indeed a real hell for the harvesters” according to Perroud’s website, this 100 percent Gamay Noir from one of Brouilly’s top producers is full of dark, juicy berries. $16.99, warehousewinesandspirits.com

Yohan Lardy “Poppy” A fifth-generation Beaujolais vigneron, Yohan Lardy balances biodiversity in his organically farmed vineyards. His juicy, red berry–full “Poppy,’” Lardy’s Vin de France, is produced from Beaujolais-Villages vines, with added grapes from Moulin- à-Vent, and undergoes semi-carbonic maceration. $18.99, gramercywine.com

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