Extraordinary Cru Beaujolais
The Beaujolais region acquired a bad reputation in the 70s and 80s, as people associated it with sub-par Beaujolais Nouveau. The tides have begun to turn though as wine lovers are discovering that there is a whole world of exceptional Cru Beaujolais wine. While all red wine from the region is made with the Gamay grape, Cru Beaujolais is light years away from Nouveau wines that come out every November. You may not even realize they are from Beaujolais, in fact, as it is the name of the village that will appear on the label. The Cru villages are, from north to south: St-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly.
What accounts for these differences in quality? The winemaking technique is one factor, but many would argue that topography and soils also play a major role. The southern part of Beaujolais, where the Nouveau wines hail from, is flatter and its soils are more fertile. It has a higher proportion of clay, which is not ideal for higher quality grapes. In the north, where the Cru villages lie, the landscape is hilly and the soils tend to be granitic and schist soils.
Now, let’s take a look at the idiosyncrasies of the Crus.
In Juliénas there is a bit more altitude, with deeper soils ranging from alluvial clay in the east to granite in the west. The region is named after Julius Caesar and the wines are likewise powerful. They tend to be fuller and more tannic.
St-Amour’s soils are somewhat varied and the wines are known for being lighter on their toes than the other villages. This is also an area to look for Beaujolais Blanc which, like almost all of Burgundy, is made from Chardonnay.
Chénas also has alluvial soils and granite and this is where we begin to see Beaujolais’ famed pink granite, along with red sand and quartz, in the west. It is the smallest of the ten Crus, so harder to find, but well worth the quest. In the 18th century it was known as a favorite of Louis XIII.
Moulin-à-Vent is perhaps the most highly esteemed of the Crus, for its most powerful yet refined nature. The flavors are complex and the tannins, while abundant, are velvety, making Moulin-à-Vent a pleasurable drink both in youth and with some age on it. Some point to the region’s pink granite with veins of manganese as the source of its excellence.
We also see pink granite in Fleurie, where the wines quite appropriately tend to exhibit floral aromas. Both dark and red fruits along with violet aromas are part of the Cru’s charm.
In Chiroubles the soils shift from pink granite to thin and sandy granite with some quartz. These conditions, along with boasting the greatest altitude of the villages, creates wines that are some of the lightest and brightest of the Crus.
Going south into Morgon, the wines once again exhibit great power. The soils here are schist and, like Moulin-à-Vent, contain a good deal of manganese and iron. There is also old volcanic rock the locals call ‘la roche pourrie’. While this translates to ‘rotten rock’, the wines are anything but rotten.
Régnié is another Beaujolais Cru boasting pink granite, with lighter wines that can be attributed to the shallow and sandy nature of the soil.
Côte de Brouilly is located within Brouilly on the slopes of Mont Brouilly. The soils here stand out due to their blue appearance that comes form diorite, an ancient igneous rock that is incredibly hard. As such the wines exhibit strength and structure.
Brouilly has a variety of soils, from pink granite to limestone, to alluvial clay. Winemakers often blend from an assortment of areas, creating a style that has tannic grip, making them heavier than those of, say, Chiroubles, but with lightness that differentiates them from the some of the crus with heavier or more powerful character.
As for what producers to look for in the region, it is hard to go wrong with the wines made by the “Gang of Four”: Jean-Paul Thévenet, Guy Breton, Marcel Lapierre and Jean Foillard. They were given that moniker by Kermit Lynch for spearheading a movement in the 80s toward quality wines made with minimal intervention. Other notable producers include Jean Claude Lapalu, Jean-Marc Burgaud, Richard Rottiers, and Thivin.
If you can, assemble a lineup of the Crus to try side by side.
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