Since mid-November, store shelves have been filled with Beaujolais Nouveau, but there’s more to this wine than many people realize.
If you are a wine drinker, chances are you’ll receive a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau for Christmas. The colorful labels jump out from among the hundreds of other wine bottles on store shelves, and special displays beckon buyers with very affordable prices, usually about $8 to $10 a bottle. Most people describe the light and fruity Beaujolais Nouveau as easy to drink, so it’s often a fun, no-fail gift.
The one thing you should remember, however, is that Beaujolais Nouveau is meant to be consumed within weeks. Simply put, it’s not a wine to save for next Christmas — or even next summer. In fact, wines that were released on “Beaujolais Day,” which is always the third Thursday in November, should be drunk before May. In France, they are enjoyed as part of harvest celebrations. You may be able to still drink a 2014 vintage, but the wine won’t have the same flavors as it did when released. Anything older could be vinegar by now.
Made from 100 percent Gamay grapes, Beaujolais Nouveau is called vin primeur, or first wine. The grapes are handpicked in France’s Beaujolais area of the Bourgogne/Burgundy region. The wines are fermented, bottled, and available to retailers in a matter of weeks after the grape harvest. Some California wineries label their wines “Gamay Beaujolais,” but it is not the same grape variety as France’s, and the taste is much different.
Beaujolais Nouveau wines are young, meaning they haven’t been aged. Their easy drinkability comes from a winemaking process called carbonic maceration — or whole berry fermentation. The technique allows the fresh, fruity quality of the wine to be preserved, without extracting bitter tannins from the grape skins. In addition to giving winemakers a nice cash flow immediately following harvest, the “new” wines are a preview of the quality of the vintage. Wine drinkers also get a taste of the style that winemakers will produce in their regular Beaujolais releases the following spring.
And that brings us to Beaujolais wines that can be cellared for longer than six months.
“People who are familiar with only Beaujolais Nouveau are surprised and sometimes confused when they see a Beaujolais-Villages or a Beaujolais Cru,” says wine consultant Heather Hitson of ABC Fine Wine & Spirits in Lady Lake. “They think all Beaujolais is the same, but it’s not.”
For slightly more money, Beaujolais-Villages is the next quality level for Beaujolais wines and one of the most food-friendly wines you will ever find. In the Burgundy region, there are 35 villages that consistently produce better wines. Most Beaujolais-Villages are blends of wines from these towns or villages, hence the reason that no particular name is included on the label. Typically, Beaujolais-Villages can be stored between one to three years.
I recently tasted both a 2013 and a 2014 Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages ($9.99), and both were easy-drinking wines with slightly more body than a Nouveau. They had notes of strawberries and black cherries with a nice hint of spice. I thought the older vintage was better than the 2014, thus proving they can be cellared for a couple of years. It also helped that 2013 was a very good year for the Beaujolais harvest, according to Keven Zraly, author of the “Windows on the World Wine Course.”
Both Beaujolais Nouveau and Beaujolais-Villages should be served slightly chilled, which brings out the fruit and the acidity.
The crème de la crème of French Beaujolais is a cru, which is named for the village that produces it. There are only 10 crus: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Régnié, and Saint-Amour.
Crus are much more complex with more fruit and tannins. Some can be held for years depending on the quality and vintage. They are often compared to an expensive Côte du Rhone in taste.
Interestingly, grapes grown in one of the 10 crus cannot be used to make Beaujolais Nouveau.
Beaujolais Cru is considered the quintessential food wine, which is not surprising since the region is known for its wonderful cuisine. One of the classic desserts of the area is simply fresh peaches, topped with black currants, and drenched in chilled Beaujolais.
The only problem you may have with Beaujolais Cru is finding it. I ordered a bottle from Joyce Huey at Leesburg’s Two Old Hags Wine Shoppe because I was unable to locate a bottle anywhere in Lake County. My Cru du Beaujolais Brouilly ($24) was well-worth the wait. In a side-by-side tasting with a Beaujolais-Villages and a Beaujolais Nouveau, I learned just what a difference terroir makes when it comes to distinguishing Beaujolais wines.