Gamay Glorified: Cru Beaujolais

Summer’s here, and the time is right – for drinking Beaujolais, whatever else the Rolling Stones may have thought.

Of course, you can enjoy Beaujolais all year round, but it does seem to be the quintessential summertime red wine – light and fresh, good drinking with all sorts of food (yes, even fish and shellfish), and yet a real wine, with subtlety and nuance enough for the most demanding palate. The Beaujolais that best supply that kind of pleasure are the cru wines – bottles from the ten named districts that constitute the heart of Beaujolais country. There, they don’t just grow Gamay: They apotheosize it.
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Right now, crus Beaujolais are probably finer than they have ever been. Producers and consumers have outgrown the obsession with Beaujolais nouveau, a to-my-mind-inexplicable phenomenon of what seems the distant past (though in fact not that many years ago). But Beaujolais’ past is checkered like that.

The Gamay grape first enters history – written history, that is – in 1395, when Duc Philippe le Hardi of the then-powerful Duchy of Burgundy ordered it to be extirpated from all his territories as a variety “tres-mauvaiz et tres-desloyaulx” and producing a wine unfit for human consumption.

Obviously, Duc Philippe, like the hero of the movie Sideways, was Pinot noir man, though it still seems more than a little bit odd to accuse a grape of disloyalty. Whatever the truth of the matter, Gamay was banished from most of Burgundy, leaving the Côte d’Or free for Pinot noir and Chardonnay. Gamay migrated a bit south, where it was welcomed by the dukes of Beaujeu and where it thrived, continuing its history under the name of Beaujolais and producing wines quite fine for human consumption.

Today, as more and more producers (both traditional firms and winemakers new to the region) give Gamay respectful treatment in field and cellar, the variety is, to quote Jancis Robinson, “showing more purely its fine, refreshing, sometimes peppery, red fruit – and surprising longevity, in the case of some wines from the ten crus of Beaujolais.”

Those ten crus form the heartland of the Beaujolais growing zone, which can be thought of as a concentric (if irregular) ring: outermost, simple Beaujolais appellation; then Beaujolais Villages; then, at the core, the crus – Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié, and Saint-Amour. The soil in these vineyards is quite different from the clay-laced soils of the other Beaujolais zones: Dominated by granite and slate, it confers much greater mineral character and complexity to its wines.
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Each of those crus has a character at least slightly distinct – and in the best vintages, markedly so – from the others. Noted British wine writer Jancis Robinson rates Chiroubles as the lightest, and then in ascending order of heft, Saint-Amour, Fleurie, Régnié, Brouilly, Côtes de Brouilly, Juliénas, Chénas, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. I don’t fully agree with that: I usually find Côtes de Brouilly and Brouilly among the lightest-bodied of the crus, and Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon, and Chénas among the fullest, with all the others strung out between them. But that may be a function of which wines by which producers find their way to New York, where I drink most of my Beaujolais, and what Ms Robinson has access to in Britain and France.

The key thing to remember is that all these crus share intense Gamay fruit, decent tannins, and lovely acidity – all of which place them among the most versatile of French wines for matching with foods of all sorts. Lyon, which lies to the south of the Beaujolais, is rightly regarded as one of the gastronomic capitals of France, and the Lyonnaise drink prodigious amounts of Beaujolais – so much so that Lyon is often said to be watered by three rivers: the Saône, the Rhône, and the Beaujolais. ‘Nuf said?

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I don’t want to leave this ode to Gamay too general or impersonal: I love cru Beaujolais and I wish it got more respect among wine lovers. My favorites are Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliénas, and Morgon. I would drink a lot more Chénas if I could get hold of it: It’s the smallest of the crus, and very little Chénas ever seems to make it to these shores. If you can find any, be sure to try it: It has a marked mineral character and a distinctive, round, dry fruit.

So far this summer, I’ve been enjoying:

Chiroubles 2016, from D. Coquelet, a young grower who learned from an old master (his stepfather is Georges Descombes, a top-tier producer). If you can imagine a whole chorus of basso profundo strawberries singing in unison, then you’ve got a good idea of what this bright, zesty wine is like.
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Fleurie Les Moriers 2016
, from Domaine Chignard, where fifth-generation winemaker Cedric Chignard a few years ago took over from his father Michel. Fleurie Les Moriers is their prized vineyard, generally regarded as one of the best in the appellation. This wine seduces with lovely, brambly, black raspberry and cherry flavors, with intriguing notes of black currant. At the upper end of the medium-bodied range.
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Juliénas Beauvernay 2016
, also from Domaine Chignard, represents a new undertaking for the family. The vineyard’s old vines (average 60 years) yield a wine very much in the Chignard style: full-bodied and a symphony of fruit – black cherry shading into plum, with black berry overtones, thoroughly enjoyable.
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Morgon Javernières 2015
, from Louis Claude Desvignes, a fat, juicy, purple-hued wine, one of several fine single-vineyards Morgons from this eighth-generation producer.
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7 Responses to “Gamay Glorified: Cru Beaujolais”

  1. jennifer Lee Says:

    Tom, thank you for the map!

  2. dgourmac Says:

    Touché. Well-written piece that makes my mouth water while I’m reading it. Thanks. Would love to meet you in NY and share a bottle together.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thanks for the compliment. The NY wine-and-food world is a very close knit one: We’re bound to bump into each other sooner or later.

      • dgourmac Says:

        Thanks, Tom. The only problem is that I live near Boston, so I am only in NY a few times a year, specifically for friends, food, and wine. If possible, perhaps we can plan a time in the future.

  3. Jonathan Levine Says:

    I agree that these wines are under rated. I do not drink them enough.

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