Beaujolais is an intensely pretty region, with rolling hills and extinct volcanoes in the north and flatter land in the south, with delightful villages and important monuments throughout.
The Wines of Beaujolais
The wines are mainly red made from the Gamay grape, which is considered a filler grape in most parts of the world (with the exception of Switzerland), really comes into its own on the granitic soils here. Small amounts of Rosé (also from Gamay) and excellent crisp white (from Chardonnay) are also produced.
The wines from the Beaujolais region can be broadly classified in 3 groups.
This is mostly light red wine from the Gamay grape that comes from the southern part of Beaujolais, near to Lyon. The range of styles and quality is enormous. The region is crippled by the low prices Gamay brings, which is a shame.
Mainly in an area to the north of the Beaujolais appellation and there are also odd pockets located in the areas around the Cru villages where there are plots not classified as having Cru status. Typically a Beaujolais Villages will have rather more body and structure than a Beaujolais and flavours and aromas may be somewhat more complex, although again there is a wide range of styles.
There are ten Beaujolais Cru wines, these appellations being from the most northerly part of the region. They are all red and all come from the Gamay grape. In most cases the names reflect the name of a village at or near the centre of the appellation. Each has its own distinct character and style, arising from geography, soil, altitude, exposition to the sun etc., but there will often be many styles within a given Cru appellation.
The Cru wines age for longest of all Beaujolais wines, especially Chénas, Morgon, Juliénas and Moulin-à-Vent.
What makes a good vintage?
Generally speaking this depends on what you like.
In years when there is plenty of sun and the grapes ripen early the resulting wines will have much body - this was the case in the exceptional years 2009 and 2011.
More typical years result in wines with a bit less body but being more aromatic and fruity.
1998. A wet spring, late frosts and hailstorm damage in June in some area,s but a very hot latter part of the summer resulting in a successful vintage.
1999. In the end a truly exceptional year although it seemed a bit touch and go at the time. These were exceptionally easy wines to drink and kept well.
2000. This vintage got off to a good start with a warm spring. This however was followed by a rather poor summer leading many to fear it would be a poor vintage. However an excellent September gave birth to a really wonderful vintage.
2001. The previous vintage was always going to be a hard act to follow. Many growers produced wines with a slightly lighter style than is typical.
2002. The weather was poor for much of the time in many parts of the continent, including Beaujolais. September was however an excellent month. The resulting quality depended on the rigour of the winemakers in their work.
2003. An extraordinarily hot summer and one of the earliest harvests ever. Very full wines of great concentration with lots of tannins and very high alcohol levels, but perhaps less fruity than in most years.
2004. A welcome return to something approaching normality. Lower concentration but better keeping qualities than those of 2003.
2005. A very good year, although it only became apparent that this would be so as the harvest approached. High degrees of ripeness yielded wines which were highly concentrated with lots of fruit and which were highly coloured with lots of pigment.
2006. This vintage was a very mixed year climatically and did not get off to a good start. The overall result was an average vintage.
2007. A generally good vintage producing high quality wines in most cases. Expressive, elegant and fruity, with ripe fully developed tannins and great texture. The crop was some 10-15% smaller than normal. Good ones still taste very fine in 2016.
2008. Not a great vintage for a number of reasons and one which many growers will wish to forget, with the harvest starting 2 weeks later than normal. Very heavy grape selection was called for and despite the difficult climatic conditions competent growers have made quite acceptable wines, though not quite as good as in 2007. Intriguingly our 2008 vintages tasted better in 2013 than they did in 2011 and 2012 and still fine in 2016!
2009. Is considered an extraordinary year for Beaujolais. "A miracle vintage", "one to clear your cellar for". A warm, sunny summer season followed by cooler temperatures and abundant sunshine throughout August and September were perfect for the region and allowed for a later harvest. These wines are fuller bodied than usual but with perfect levels of acidity and will age beautifully for many years to come.
2010. A good classic year which would have been hailed if it wasnt between 2009 and 2011. The wines are more typically fruity than either 2009 and 2011 and if you want a Beaujolais full of fruit for drinking in 2016 this might still be a better choice than either vintages.
2011. Another excellent vintage, very similar to 2009. The jury is still out as to which of 2009 or 2011 will be the better year as the wines age. The warmth of the year makes it less typically Beaujolais and a little bit "Rhone".
2012. Was a very tough year on the vines, with a cold winter, rainy spring, late frosts in May and a humid early summer. This caused a large amount of loss in the vineyards. The end of summer was perfect, allowing the grapes that had made it through to mature well. Quantities are low and many wines are fairly light in body and colour. All our winemakers consider themselves lucky to have only lost between 25% and 40%.
2013. Due to a very late cold and wet spring everything started about a month late. A good summer and a good autumn means the quality caught up. The Nouveau was excellent!
2014. Part of the summer was very wet, rescued by a lovely autumn. The wines are smooth and perhaps of darker colour than usual. The wines were a little too smooth making them unimpressive when tasted early in 2015, still very closed, but is starting to taste like good classic Beaujolais in 2016. It will resemble the 2010.
2015. A perfect year that had the producers excited, but perhaps too warm to be classic Beaujolais. Wines are too young to tell just yet, but the high degree of ripeness and sugar might lead to 2003 (drink young!) rather than 2005.
2016. Early spring, and devastating hail in parts of the vineyard in May.
Generally speaking, Beaujolais is a wine to drink young and is not to be thought of as having the aging qualities that are found in the best wines from, for example, Bordeaux or Burgundy. Indeed, many Beaujolais wines, particularly the mass-market offerings, are actually made for virtually immediate drinking and will not improve in any way by being kept.
That said, good Beaujolais wines, in particular those from the Crus, especially Juliénas, Morgon, Chénas and Moulin-à-Vent, will mature particularly well. You can assume that most of the Beaujolais wines in our list have been selected with the potential to be kept in mind, although the Nouveau should be drunk within a year or so.
It is important to recognise that the changes in their character that arise during the ageing process happen rather more quickly than wines from other regions - this is the flipside from the immediate drinkability of the wine. The character can change quite significantly around 3-4 years from the vintage. As the Beaujolais Cru ages it will lose some of the fresh fruity grapeiness of its youth and take on some of the characteristics of red Burgundy wines made using the Pinot Noir grape. We offer a small number of Beaujolais wines that have already aged well and now show very well what good mature examples can be like, but which also have more years left in them.
In 2016, the 2006 and 2007 we still have on our list have been tested and are still excellent and should keep another year or two without worry. 2009, 2010 and 2011 will keep for a long time yet.
If you wish to age Beaujolais Cru wines at home yourself, you would be well advised, beyond about the third year, to open a bottle twice a year to check on progress to ensure that they have not peaked and are not in decline. Please realise though that wines can go through a "flat" phase and then improve again, for example several of our 2008 Beaujolais tasted better in Summer 2013 than they had in Autumn 2012. So don't lose faith too quickly either.
The following are guidelines only and do not relate to specific wines. There will always be exceptions....if a wine is still listed for sale on our site, it means we have checked it in the last 6 months and found it to be fine :)
Relatively short lived appellations
Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages, Brouilly, Regnié, Chiroubles - 2-5 years from first availability.
Medium life appellations
Côte de Brouilly, Saint-Amour, Fleurie - 5-8 years from first availability.
Longer lived appellations
Morgon, Chénas, Juliénas, Moulin-à-Vent - 10 years from first availability.
The technique used to produce red Beaujolais wines is a combination of classic Burgundian techniques and a technique known as Maceration Carbonique.
In Maceration Carbonique the grapes are left whole so that the activity of enzymes inside uncrushed grapes, in the absence of oxygen, causes internal fermentation and extraction of colour and flavour from the inner skin, giving the wine the fresh fruity grapeiness which is so characteristic of Beaujolais.
In this process, whole bunches of grapes on their stalks are placed inside a closed vat which has previously been filled with carbon dioxide thus excluding the oxygen. Great care is taken not to crush or damage the grapes as they are placed in the vat.
Eventually, the weight of the upper grapes crushes those at the bottom of the vat and these will start to ferment naturally, using the natural yeasts present in the bloom on the outer skin. As this fermentation takes place, carbon dioxide is produced and this rises blocking oxygen from the upper layers in the vat.
The upper grapes eventually split open and after typically a week or so, the free liquid is removed and the remaining solids are pressed to extract the remaining juice. Typically, about a third of the total liquids extracted will be free juice and the remaining two thirds come from from the pressing of the solids (the vin de presse). These two fractions are then blended, there will still be unfermented sugars remaining and the fermentation still has to continue for some time before all the sugars are converted to alcohol.
"Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé..."
What is it?
Beaujolais Nouveau (or Beaujolais Primeur as some call it) is a relatively recent phenomenon dating from the early 1950's. It evolved from the harvest festival and the traditional end-of-harvest party, as a cross between a wine from the new vintage, which everyone could enjoy as soon as possible, good commercial sense and (the cynical might say) a good way of getting some early cashflow. Beaujolais Nouveau is today probably the first wine of the new vintage anywhere in the northern hemisphere and is released on general sale on the third Thursday each November.
Nowadays the wine is available at the same hour worldwide and there is something incredible to knowing tens of thousands of people from Japan to Antartica are opening a bottle at just about the same time. Incidentally, the Japanese absolutely love Beaujolais Nouveau.
What is it like?
A bit of a debate rages about Beaujolais Nouveau, not least amongst the winemaking community in Beaujolais. Not all vignerons make it, some disapprove, others take it very seriously, whilst some dabble with small quantities so as not to miss the party.
It is most certainly not a serious wine and as with all wines, there are good and bad examples.
The technical problems to be overcome in the production of Nouveau are many, the main ones being associated with the early release date.
Given that most Crus will be released sometime around the Easter following the vintage, with a few exceptions as early as February, to bottle ready for release in the third week of November does seem rather demanding. To achieve this, vinification must also be completed early and this means that there is also a limit on how late the grapes can be harvested. This is OK in a good early-ripening year, but is not so good if the spring was cold, the vines flowered late, the grapes have not had time to fully mature and natural sugar levels are low.
It can be a balancing act deciding when to harvest To achieve the best possible ripeness the grapes should be left as long as possible, but later harvesting means potential problems with the weather and puts pressure on vinification times to meet the release deadline. So in the worst case, we have under-ripe grapes, chaptalisation, shorter than ideal vinification time, lack of colour and a thin acidic wine which is not particularly palatable - such as one I recently tasted from a well known Beaujolais co-operative, bought in a UK supermarket, both of which shall remain nameless.
On the other hand, some producers manage to consistently create wines packed with tremendous concentration of fruit, incredible depth of colour and grapey-fresh flavours and Gamay aromas - summer in a bottle. This is more likely to be achieved by skilled makers with vines having particular microclimates where earlier ripening helps tremendously. This coupled with the character the individual terroir imparts, means that success is more probable even in a poor year, when the winemaker's skill must come to the fore. These better wines will put to shame any Nouveau to be found on a supermarket shelf.
My own view is that Beaujolais Nouveau should be seen for what it is - a light, fruity, fun way of experiencing the first output of the year, completely without pretension and not to be taken at all seriously. It is an achievement, a cheeky challenge and the biggest celebration of harvest worldwide. It is undoubtedly real wine but if it's serious Beaujolais you want, then look elsewhere - there is plenty of it in our list.
One other thing that Nouveau does do for us however is to give an early hint of the possible quality of the Crus, though again this is not a reliable indication as there is so much variation in terroirs, microclimates, winemakers style and skill.
One further problem with Nouveau, not directly concerned with the wine itself, stems from the tremendous success of the marketing machine behind it. This has left other Beaujolais wines in the shade and as a result many are little known in the UK. Say the word Beaujolais and many people think of Nouveau, and are blissfully unaware of the joys to be found in the rest of the region.
Hotel Restaurant La Maison Blanche, Romaneche. http://www.hotel-lamaisonblanche.fr/ (in French). Very pleasant hotel with swimming pool and a good restaurant.
Hotel Restaurant Le Mont Brouilly, Quincié-en Beaujolais. http://www.hotelbrouilly.com/en/ Relais de France Hotel. Swimming Pool.
Hotel Nuit d'un Jour. Bed & Breakfast. Meant as a stopover on the way to the South, but quite a good choice to stay a few days while staying in Beaujolais, especially for families who might not want to eat out every meal. There is a swimming pool as well as a large conservatory with a kitchen available to residents.
Chez Jean-Pierre, La Poyebade
Auberge du Cep, Place de l'Église, Fleurie (Michelin 2 stars). An institution, and the owner is a matriarch. We've had amazing Frogs Legs here as well as some most illuminating desserts.
Hotel Restaurant Le Mont Brouilly, Quincié-en-Beaujolais
Rivage, Montmerle-sur-Sâone. Sit out on the terrace in summer, by the river.
Trois Canards, at St.-George de Reneins. Simple but in a fantastic spot. Super terrace directly on the River Sâone.
Le Coq, Julienas. Classic french food & lots of top producer Beaujolais by the glass.
L'Etape Cavaliere, Beaujeu. A horse rider's "Gite" as well as self catering cottages, with a simple, but delicious restaurant in summer.
Just outside Fleurie - "La Grappe Fleurie".
Summit of Le Mont Brouilly. If you take your car, try and park under one of the trees for shade in summer.
On the hill above Fleurie by la Chapelle de La Madone (picnic tables provided).
Down by the river at Montmerle-sur-Sâone.
By the river at St.-George de Reneins.
More things to see
The Rock of Solutré is a natural fortress with a bloody past. At its foot lies a massive deposit of broken prehistoric animal bones, the theory being that prehistoric hunters drove the animals to their deaths over the precipice. It also provided the venue for the gathering place of the Gauls, prior to their final battle for autonomy in 511, an event celebrated here every midsummers day.
A key site in the history of Christendom, only a tower remains of the Great Abbey of Cluny, which gives an idea of the scale of this incredible abbey.