Warm weather is upon us, and wine drinkers are probably consuming lots of white, rosé, and sparkling wines now. As am I. But I never forsake red wines entirely, even in the hottest portion of summer. I just change the type of red wines that I drink.
Unfortunately, the red wines that I have cellared are mainly Classified Bordeaux and Barolos—both quite unsuitable for the climate, and also for the food that I consume in the warm weather. I hoard the small store of red Burgundies that I have, as they are expensive and difficult to replace. Even Bourgogne Rouge, a blend of Pinot Noir from lesser vineyards, is retailing for over $25 for the better wines (I recently paid $38 for one from a local store in New York).
And so, around June of each year, I buy some of my favorite, lighter-bodied wines: Barberas, Dolcettos, and young Nebbiolos from Italy, plus Beaujolais from France. This year I have been buying Beaujolais. In the Beaujolais region of south-central France, the Gamay grape—not regarded highly in the rest of the planet—reaches its peak as a star variety.
The least-expensive Beaujolais wines, the ones simply called “Beaujolais” or the typically better “Beaujolais-Villages,” are a bit too light-bodied for my palate—even though the retail price is right: $12 to $18. If that is what is available to you in your local store or restaurant, I would choose the Beaujolais-Villages of the two; it’s generally a safer bet.
Better yet are the ten Beaujolais wines sourced from villages called “Crus.” They are made from the same grape variety, Gamay. But their location makes the difference. The ten Crus are situated in the northern part of the Beaujolais district. Soils in this northern portion of Beaujolais are generally poor; vineyards are sited mainly on upper slopes, with granitic or schist soils. From this poor soil, the sturdiest and firmest Beaujolais are produced, with real depth of flavor. The climate is cooler than in the southern part, where the soils are also more fertile. With wine grapes, poorer (less rich) soil and cooler climate produce smaller, more concentrated grapes with higher quality. The retail prices for Cru Beaujolas wines remain reasonable: most retail for $20 to $26; a few of the best examples may go as high as $40 or more, especially for Moulin-à-Vent Cru Beaujolais.
The 10 Cru Beaujolais wines list only the name of the Cru on the label, without the word “Beaujolais.” I have divided the Beaujolais Crus by reference to the fuller-bodied, medium-bodied, and lighter-bodied wines they tend to produce. Below I give my opinion of each Cru, and cite some of the better producers from each one.
Moulin-à-Vent: The Moulin-à-Vent appellation covers part of the towns of Chénas and Romanèche-Thorins. In French, Moulin-à-Vent means “windmill,” and a windmill does dominate the area. Moulin-à-Vent wines are generally regarded as the fullest-bodied, most tannic, longest-lived Beaujolais wines…and the most expensive. Jean-Paul Brun, Domaine Dominique Piron, Château des Jacques (owned by Louis Jadot), and Diochon are four of the better Moulin-à-Vent producers. Frankly, I have enjoyed a few really fine Moulin-à-Vent Beaujolais, but also consumed quite a few mediocre, over-priced ones. Here, the name of the producer is the vital key to finding a good wine. Many critics regard Moulin-à-Vent as the best Cru, but for me it is not the style of Beaujolais that I most often seek out.
Juliénas: The village of Juliénas is in the northernmost part of Beaujolais; the Juliénas region, along with neighboring St. Amour, make up the northern border of the region. Juliénas wines are full-bodied, and, for me, more consistent in quality than the more expensive Moulin-à-Vent wines. Because they are not as well-known as other Cru Beaujolais, you can buy decent Juliénas wines for $15 to $17, although the very best retail for $20 to $24. Juliénas producers to look for include Marcel Lapierre, Domaine Chapel, Domaine Laurent Perrachon, Domaine des Chers Vielles Vignes, and Pascal Granger. Juliénas is at its best two or three years after the vintage, but can age for five years or more. We like this Cru so much that we named one of our cats Juliénas.
Morgon: The village of Villié-Morgon anchors the Morgon Cru. In some ways, Cru Morgon might be called the Château Latour of Beaujolais. Morgon is full-bodied and fleshy, with a dark ruby hue. Without perhaps the elegance of the best Moulin-à-Vent Beaujolais—Morgon is a wine that is clearly long-lived. Another plus for Morgon is that it’s fairly easy to find; it’s the second-largest Cru after Brouilly. Many good producers make a Morgon, including Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton, Dominique Piron (from a vineyard in Morgon’s best region, Côte de Py), Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thévenet, and the always excellent Georges Descombes.
Chénas: Beaujolais from the Chénas Cru, located between Juliénas and Moulin-à-Vent, are more difficult to find in the U.S. This is partly because Chénas is the smallest Cru, but also because the Chénas appellation borders the Moulin-à-Vent region on the north, and the village of Chénas is actually located today within the Moulin-à-Vent appellation because of border changes. Producers of Chénas are therefore allowed to use the more popular Moulin-à-Vent appellation for their wines, if they choose. Beaujolais Cru that are named Chénas are similar to Moulin-à-Vent in that they are long-lived, and also because they usually improve with several years of aging. However, they are not as expensive as Moulin-à-Vent wines. Producers to look for include Dominique Piron, Paul-Henry Thillardon, and Domaine Jules Desjourneys.
Medium-Bodied Beaujolais Crus:
Saint-Amour: The most northerly Cru appellation, Saint-Amour takes its name from the village of Saint-Amour-Bellevue. It is a small appellation; only Chénas is smaller. But enough Saint-Amour seems to find its way to the U.S. around Valentine’s Day. I have heard Saint-Amour described as light-bodied and easy-drinking, but the Saint-Amour wines I have come across in the U.S. have not been light-bodied. Apparently two styles of Saint-Amour do exist. Producers to look for include Pierre-Marie Chermette, Jean-Paul Brun, and Domaine de Fa (A.&M. Graillot).
Fleurie: The Fleurie Cru, located in the center of Beaujolais’s Cru zone with Moulin-à-Vent to its north and Morgon at its southern end, is probably the most popular cru, at least in the U.S. It is quite a large Cru and is well-represented in the U.S., perhaps in part because Fleurie has such a melodious name—meaning “flowery” in French. It lives up to that name, with aromas of roses and violets. Fleurie is rich, velvety, and reliable, with enough body to satisfy red wine enthusiasts and yet with the elegance of a thoroughbred. It’s often referred to as the “prettiest” Cru. But that popularity comes at a price; It is usually the second-most expensive Cru, after Moulin-à-Vent. It can age four years or more. Good Fleurie producers include Patrick Brunet, Dutraive’s Domaine de la Grand Cour, Georges Descombes, Jean-Paul Brun, and Pierre-Marie Chermette’s Domaine du Vissoux. Fleurie is also the place to stay on a visit to the region. The town itself is larger than others in the area, which are really villages, and it has a number of good restaurants, including the excellent Auberge Du Cep. I’ve dined there, and it did indeed live up to its reputation.
Côte de Brouilly: Although the Côte de Brouilly Cru is within the large Brouilly Cru, it is quite different because the Côte itself is considerably higher in altitude; the Côte de Brouilly Cru’s vineyards actually cover the slopes of the dormant Mont Brouilly volcano in Brouilly. The location of the vineyards of Côte de Brouilly creates wines that are a bit riper, more concentrated, and more age worthy than those of the Brouilly Cru, and are definitely more full-bodied. Leading producers of Côte de Brouilly Beaujolais include Château Thivin, Daniel Bouland, Guy Breton, Domaine Lafarge, Nicole Chanrion, Pierre Cottin, Stephane Aviron Vieilles Vignes, and Jean-Paul Brun.
Lighter-Bodied Beaujolais Crus:
Chiroubles: Bordering Fleurie on its east with Morgon to the south, Chiroubles is one of the smallest crus, and the one with the highest elevation. Chiroubles Beaujolais, with the coolest temperatures in all of the Cru locations, are the lightest-bodied of the crus and are often referred to as the “most-Beaujolais like.” They are delicate, perfumed, and taste of young red fruits. For me, this is the quintessential Beaujolais, very pretty and delicious; my favorite cru. They are best when young—two to three years old. Producers to look for include Domaine Cheysson, Domaine Coquelet, Daniel Bouland, Jules Metras, Guy Breton, Domaine de la Grosse Pierre, and Georges Descombes.
Régnié: This is the newest of the 10 Crus, awarded Cru status in December, 1988. It is the westernmost cru, located around the village of Regnié-Durette, bordering Morgon on its east with the large Brouilly cru directly south. Régnié Beaujolais combines the lightness and fresh fruit of Brouilly with a touch of the structure and body of Morgon. Closer to Brouilly in style, but a bit more full-bodied, Régnié often shows spicy, raspberry fruit flavors. It is best when consumed young. Producers to look for include Domaine Jules Sunnier, Antoine Sunnier, Charly Thevenet, Guy Breton, Georges Descombes, and Château Des Reyssiers.
Brouilly: The largest of the Cru Beaujolais wines, and the most available one in the U.S.A. Brouilly Beaujolais wines are light and fruity, best when consumed within three years. They are variable in quality, and are at their best when made by a good producer like Georges Descombes, who produces an awesome Brouilly. Other Brouilly producers to look for include Domaine Jean-Claude Lapalu, Château Thivin, Château des Tours, Château de la Chaize, and Joseph Drouhin.
I have always maintained that the name of the producer is the most important information in buying or drinking wines, and that is true with Beaujolais wines as well. But with the Cru wines of Beaujolais, it is also the style of the Cru itself that should influence your selections. For example, I personally am not a fan of Morgon; it is too heavy and dense for me. Even when a fine producer like Georges Descombes makes a Morgon, it does not appeal to me—especially at first—although it will improve with aeration the second or third day after it’s opened. My favorite Crus are Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Julienas, St.-Amour, and Fleurie, roughly in that order. I seek out the better producers of these wines when buying Cru Beaujolais. On the other hand, when I am in a restaurant that has Georges Descombes Brouilly on its wine list, I will order it because I know it’s a good Beaujolais.
I recommend all the producers that I have mentioned in this article,especially Jean-Paul Brun and Georges Descombes. Don’t give up on reds during summer…just shift your targeting a bit!