Friday, 26 April 2013

Beaujolais - back to the Eighties?

Margaret Thatcher in the news, David Bowie in the charts, Beaujolais in my glass – is this really 2013, or have I travelled back in time to 1983? 

Back then it was Beaujolais Nouveau that had us all aflutter:  a wine bottled and released almost as soon as it had finished fermenting.  Its charms are all about immediate drinking, with its cherryade fruit, mere suggestion of tannin and sometimes more than a hint of Hubba Bubba.  

At least part of its success was due to the publicity raised by the race that developed around this wine that was released annually on the third Thursday of November.  Trains, planes (or helicopters) and automobiles were involved in bringing Beaujolais to British drinkers post haste from the vineyards, brightening up an otherwise dull time of year and providing a perfect excuse for a liquid lunch.

Beaujolais Nouveau is still made, although in much smaller quantities than its 1980s heyday, when it accounted for around 60% of all Beaujolais produced.  The Nouveau is designed to be drunk over weeks, rather than months or years – though the distinction between it and regular wines is really not that great.

Wine geeks (me included) will want to know that the Nouveau style is achieved by the use of carbonic maceration (or in many cases, actually semi-carbonic maceration – I did say this bit was for geeks).  In classic red wine making, the grapes will first be crushed (though not pressed) to release their juice and to allow the skins to contribute colour and tannin during the subsequent fermentation.

Carbonic maceration, in essence, involves leaving the berries whole in the fermentation vats.  Yeasts on the grape skins will start to feed on the sweet juice within the berries, leading to a gentle fermentation which results in a wine with plenty of colour, low tannins and “so bright you gotta wear shades” fruit.  However, alongside the fruit can be some less welcome aromas of banana liqueur, even bubblegum.

The Beaujolais quality ladder
If you want to leave the ephemeral charms of Beaujolais Nouveau behind, it pays to understand a bit about how the region’s wines are classified.

In some ways Beaujolais is refreshingly straightforward – the reds are all made from the Gamay grape (or Gamay Noir à jus blanc to give it its full name) which seems to have a natural affinity with the region’s granitic soils.  Large-ish grapes with thin skins make for fruity, fleshy wines which are relatively light in colour.  The tiny proportion of white Beaujolais (yes, I’m not teasing, it does exist) is made from Chardonnay.

Knowing how to interpret Beaujolais wine labels should give you a good idea of what you’ll find in the bottle.  At the most basic level is straight Beaujolais, made anywhere within the region and accounting for around half of all production.  A step up from there is Beaujolais-Villages, made from generally hillier sites which have been judged to produce better quality wines.

At the top of the tree are the ten Beaujolais “crus” – essentially villages whose wines have been judged of sufficient quality that they can simply put their names on the label.  If you’re planning a wine-themed pub quiz any time soon, naming all ten is an exquisite torture akin to recalling the names of the Seven Dwarfs.  For the record they are:  Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Chiroubles, Chénas, Moulin à Vent, Saint Amour, Fleurie, Regnié, Juliénas and Morgon.  In the interest of journalistic integrity, I hereby confess that I could only get to eight without recourse to a reference book.

Some of my current favourite Beaujolais – none with a hint of bubblegum (and shoulder pads are strictly optional)

Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Beaujolais-Villages 2010 - £6.99
If you ever set foot in a wine bar in Paris or Lyons, it’s likely that the wine you’ll be offered to accompany your plate of charcuterie is from Beaujolais.  The region’s wines are the perfect foil to salami, ham, saucisson, pâté and the like, its lively fruit and juicy acidity cutting through the fattiness of the meat.  This one is a great example of decently-priced, good quality Beaujolais with attractive strawberry fruit.

Georges Duboeuf Chiroubles 2011 - £9.99 from Waitrose

If there is one name synonymous with the region it is that of Georges Duboeuf, the man behind the flower Beaujolais labels and indefatigable promoter of the region.  This wine is a delight for Spring drinking:  vibrant, deeply coloured, with floral and loganberry-scented fruit, soft tannins and wonderful light freshness.  Chiroubles is renowned for producing the lightest wines of all the Beaujolais crus and this one is a charmer. 

Henry Fessy Brouilly 2011 - £11.99 from Waitrose
Classic Beaujolais is definitively light bodied, and this lightness can lead to it being denigrated as lacking seriousness – an unfair charge that is never levelled at its northern neighbour, Burgundy, and its decidedly light Pinot Noir.  If you’d like to see what a serious lightweight wine tastes like, then grab a bottle of this Brouilly, from the most southerly of the ten crus.  The low temperature fermentation has retained the freshness of the lively red fruit but also managed to provide enough depth of flavour to make a perfect match with spring lamb.

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