Well, in some ways a lot, and in some ways, nothing. Beaujolais as a region has a lot more to offer than just Beaujolais Nouveau, and often gets an unfairly bad rap because of the simplicity of that one wine- however, that wine is also pretty widely loved as a table wine. To top it off, there have been some interesting scandals in the region that I'll go into in a little more detail below.
Here's the basic deal with the Beaujolais region- The Beaujolais AOC is technically part of France’s Burgundy region (and is Burgundy’s biggest wine producer), but borders on Rhone and shares many of its climatic elements with warmer temperatures than the rest of Burgundy. It is best known for producing red wines but also does some rose and white (which is usually Chardonnay and referred to as Beaujolais Blanc.)
The traditional red grape of Beaujolais is Gamay Noir, an ancient cross between Pinot Noir and the white varietal, Gouais. Its skins are deep purple and it tends to grow well in climates where Pinot Noir can grow. However, it ripens earlier and makes a stronger, fruitier wine than Pinot Noir. Gamay wines from Beaujolais tend to have slightly higher acidity due to water stress in the region and are light bodied and fruity. Gamay’s flavors range from light candied fruit, red cherry, strawberry, and even banana notes, to richer raspberry, and pepper notes. Gamay roses tend to have a candied fruit quality and hints of watermelon. (One of my absolute favorite roses is a Gamay- though not from Beaujolais- it is from Savoie.)
Most of Beaujolais’ red wines are fermented using whole cluster or carbonic maceration. Remember? This is done to extract lots of those juicy, fruity flavors without introducing too much tannin from the grape’s seeds and skins. Therefore, they tend to be deliciously light (a good red choice for American Thanksgiving- something the French surely couldn't have anticipated) yet are still decently complex and flavorful. If you don't love tannins, give red wines from Beaujolais a whirl.
Of course, so far, I've simplified things a little too much (and frankly, upheld that old stereotype that ALL wines from Beaujolais are like the simple Nouveau.) Not so, actually! There are also some pretty fancy, complex, and ageable wines produced in the region- and, in keeping with the French tradition of breaking things down to super, super, super specific categories, the following general classifications can be used: Beaujolais AOC (this one covers about 60 villages, and Nouveau usually falls into this category.) Beaujolais Village (39 villages,) Cru Beaujolais (higher quality, and includes only 10 villages- often doesn't even put Beaujolais on the label, in order to escape the stigma!)
So, while you generally know that most red wines from the region (especially those from the AOC and Village denominations) will be light, fruity and low on tannins, what if you find a higher quality Cru Beaujolais wine in the store?What can you expect? Well, it's tricky! There's a lot of variation and they range from light to heavy with varying recommendations for aging! I'll try to break it down a little- just because I find it interesting. If you do not, feel free to skip ahead! Remember, I had to research these, I haven't yet tried them for myself.
Lighter wines (meant to be consumed within 3 years):
- Brouilly- Largest Cru in Beaujolais.
- Régnié- most recently added. Fuller bodied wines.
- Chiroubles- High altitudes.
- Côte de Brouilly- from slopes of Brouilly volcano. More concentrated, less earthy than Brouilly.
- Fleurie- Velvety, floral. Meant to be aged 4 years or more.
- Saint-Amour- Peachy, spicy. Age well for up to 12 years.
- Chénas- Smallest of Crus. Known for aroma of wild roses. Drink 5-15 years after harvest.
- Juliénas- Wines are rich, spicy, with aroma of peonies.
- Morgon- Deepest colored. Aroma of peaches and apricots. Can take on silky Burgundy texture after 5 years of aging.
- Moulin-à-Vent- Similar to nearby Chenas. Longest ageable wines. Can go 10 years. Some producers age in oak, which gives a unique tannin and spice. Reduced yields due to manganese in soil means concentrated berry flavors.
If so much of the production from the region is Beaujolais Nouveau (50%) and they are popular enough to merit an international celebration, then why do these high quality wines try to shirk its reputation? What gives?
Well, part of it is that while tasty, the Nouveau wines aren't really much to write home about- you'll drink them, you'll like them, but they won't be game changers for most people. You're unlikely to take extensive notes on them, remember them for years, or rave about them to your friends. However, there's more to the story than just simplicity...
The 2001 vintage was not a universally good one for ol' Beaujolais Nouveau... Some winemakers were accused of making such terrible wines that year, that a lot of it had to be destroyed, in order to salvage the reputation of the other producers who'd made wine that year- a sort of "one bad apple" situation.
OK, so not the biggest deal- moving on... right? Well, kinda. In 2005, one large producer in the region also had a pretty crappy year. In order to avoid throwing out the whole batch, they secretly blended in some higher quality wines from other vintages (big no-no in France- or anywhere really, but especially France) and did not label the wine as such. Word got out and people were NOT happy. They felt they couldn't trust wines from the region. Then in 2007 (yes, again! the aughts were not good to Beaujolais,) 100 producers were accused of illegally adding sugar to their wines at the beginning of fermentation (a process called Chaptalization.) To the average wine drinker, these things might not seem like the biggest deal, but to the international wine community, it was just another series of reasons not to trust wines from the region or expect quality from them...
So... What Now? :
Are you wondering what to make of all this? Understandable. Well, I think my bottom line is "give it a whirl!" I'm personally excited to see what the 2013 vintage will have to offer. I've been underwhelmed by Beaujolais Nouveau in the past, but am willing to give them another chance- and, I'll say, on behalf of the region, I've had some pretty tasty Gamay reds that were not Nouveau, so give those a try too! Head to your local wine shop and give them a try!
Best yet, check out these food pairings for Gamay wines and wines from Beaujolais (hint- it is versatile...) Chicken, Salmon, Morroccan lamb. Mmm.
Questions? Comments? Boring? Overwhelming? Share in the comments! (Sonja, thanks as always, for reading and commenting!)