One of the predictable pleasures of wine, paradoxically enough, is that you can count on the unexpected. There we were, two weeks ago, in a lodge in the middle of the Honduran rainforest, expecting a week of cold beer punctuated by an occasional Margarita and, if we were lucky, a glass of Argentinean Chardonnay – when we found ourselves staring at a modest but quite serious and varied wine list: bottles from France, Spain, and Italy, as well as North and South America. O frabjous day! Calloo! Callay! Saved again!
A closer look deflated our joy substantially. The vintages shown were ominous: 2006 Faiveley AOC Chablis and 2007 Faiveley Beaujolais Villages. A little long in the tooth, both of them – and in that climate? A vision of dead wines, sun-baked and long gone, replaced the previous picture of cooling nectars reviving a pair of parched wino birdwatchers. But, what the hell, it was the best offer we were going to get in the middle of the jungle, so we tried ‘em.
They were wonderful. Somehow or other, they’d been stored perfectly, and both were in fine condition. The Chablis showed just the slightest edge of oxidation, a little bit of the goût anglais that I don’t mind at all in a white Burgundy any more than I do in a Champagne, but otherwise a nice, medium-bodied, minerally white wine that went excellently with the fresh fish and chicken we had ordered. Nothing complex, nothing subtle, but an enjoyable dinner wine, and very refreshing in that Honduran heat and humidity.
The next night the Beaujolais provided a similar experience. Despite its seven years of age, it was still juicy and fresh. Light-bodied for a red wine, to be sure, with no depth or complexity, but a simple, good-tasting – Gamay is just a lovable grape – and thoroughly enjoyable dinner wine, just like our basic Chablis. 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 95 degrees of humidity don’t want complex, deep, big wines: They want purity and simplicity and ease, and that’s what these two wines provided.
Accordingly, I hereby nominate simple Chablis and basic Beaujolais or Beaujolais Villages as members 3 and 4 of CCAW – my Cheerful Confraternity of Amiable Wines.
You can spend a bundle of money on Chablis if you’re so minded. Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis easily run to three figures, and they are usually worth it for the intensity of their minerality (that famous Kimmeridgean limestone on which they grow). That and their complexity, their great ability to age and deepen, all place them within the select group of the world’s greatest white wines.
But even though it’s not in that league, basic Chablis – simple Appellation Controlee Chablis – grown in the wider zone that surrounds the restricted Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards, is no negligible wine. It has a small amount of that characteristic minerality, and, as our bottle in Honduras showed, it even shares a bit of the ability to age well. Most important, it’s enjoyable with many sorts of food, where it will reward attention if you want to pay it or quietly partner with your dinner if you don’t. And it doesn’t cost a fortune: Many are available – from small growers or from Burgundian negociants like Faiveley – at around $20. These days, that ain’t bad for an ideal warm-weather white wine.
Certainly, Beaujolais is the red wine equivalent of that: an ideal inexpensive warm-weather drink, light to medium-bodied, with charming fruit, low tannins, and a bracing acidity that allows it to match with foods of all sorts. (In the Beaujolais, they drink it even with fish.)
As with Chablis, you can spend a lot more on single-vineyard wines from the named Beaujolais crus (Brouilly, Fleurie, Morgon, etc.). I don’t mean to belittle those: In fact, I love ‘em – but the two broader zones that surround those crus, Beaujolais Villages and the even larger Beaujolais, produce an ocean of delightful wines, all made with the same Gamay grape and all designed for easy drinking. That, I find, is especially true in summer: Beaujolais is very hard to beat as a hot-weather red wine. And its price is equally hard to beat: I’ve seen several on sale for as little $12, and rarely do they exceed $20.
Just one caveat: I am emphatically excluding from my praise any and all Beaujolais Nouveau. I’ve never understood the fad for this wine, which arrives every November after harvest accompanied by hoopla and balloons: It always tastes sickly sweet to me, like liquid cotton candy (and with some of the same palate-coating character). I know some people like it (a lot, apparently), but I’m not one of them. So I hereby blackball Beaujolais Nouveau from CCAW, while warmly (pun intended) welcoming Chablis and Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages to membership.