“What wines are you drinking on the regular?”
An astounding and resounding “Cru Beaujolais” is the answer heard from top sommeliers around the world. In our own little town that is Cincinnati, I concur, and continue to pull cork after cork of these bottles—hoping to turn wine drinkers on to the juicy delight that is gamay. To bring you up to speed on the hows and whys of my obsession, here’s a rundown on the region.
Doomed Juice: How Beaujolais Got a Bad Rap. Twice.
Beaujolais, though technically part of, sits geographically below Burgundy. Head south from the Côte d’Or—where skyrocketing bottle costs are similar to that of a mortgage—wind through the Côte Chalonnaise, down through the Macon and you’ll find yourself in the land of gamay. Here prices are still somewhat reasonably affordable, even from top-tier sites. The terroir is volcanic granite, prime growing for gamay.
This light-bodied red is a hardy variety, and was once widely planted in Burgundy as well. That is, until the Twelfth Century whims of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, who ripped the vines out in favor of his preference for pinot noir. Thus began Beaujolais’ ill fate, which reared its head again in the 1980s with a marketing scheme gone awry.
As tradition has it, harvests would come to an end with a celebration, and the local drink of choice would be wine fresh from the fermentor. Innovative opportunist George Duboeuf scaled these parties up, moving this inexpensive Nouveau to big cities, not only in France, but around the world. The immediate reward was an inflow of needed cash to small farmers, but the damage was done with the demand for cheap party wine. The market was flooded with poor quality product, and Beaujolais got a bad rap, as the quality and Crus were not distinguished from the plunk.
Wine of the People AKA Natural Wine Before the Trend
The good news is that while history is dramatic, tastes and trends do shift. Historical blunders and high-ABV syrupy versions aside, the Beaujolais juice we are tasting today is some serious stuff. It’s light and bright, simultaneously elegant and fun. The key here is that the wines are unadulterated.
“Natural wine” might be all the buzz today, when we have to distinguish wines that are made from grapes, from wines that—strangely enough to think about—aren’t, but the concept isn’t a recent one. In Beaujolais, it is part of the tradition, founded by Jules Chauvet. Known as a winemaker, chemist and “viticultural prophet” by Kermit Lynch, Chauvet also coined the original consortium around the Gang of Four: winemakers who believed in farming first, organically and biodynamically, to create the best product. At least some good things were going on in the 80s!
One of the founding members of the Gang of Four was Marcel Lapierre. I poured his wine in 2010 back in my Boca days, and made my first visit to the domaine in 2011.
The New School Continues the Tradition
While Marcel himself and many other members of the Gang of Four have passed away, their children and their friends carry on this legacy. Together, they are part of the powerhouse that the region is today. Distinct styles spread over ten Crus; a unique community of comradery, rather than competition; and a lot of delicious wine make this region truly one of my favorites.
With much deserved recognition and a number of great producers championing this style, Beaujolais wines have become more and more allocated. They are prestigious, but still a wine of the people—born from a place where it is clear that people like to enjoy life, and choose to take the time to appreciate it over building an empire and wealth.
Lyon is adjacently south, and bar hopping there—something I hope all passionate wine lovers get to experience in their time—unveils a lot of warmth and welcome. Be it through the Lyonnaise cuisine, à la the late, great Paul Bocuse, or a great glass of this red, the vibe is that what matters most is family, friends and having a good time. And I couldn’t agree more.
Kevin O. Hart - Founder, Hart & Cru
Lighter Villages to Bolder Villages
Saint-Amour, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Chenas, Regnie, Cote Brouilly, Brouilly, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-A-Vent.
Producers We Love
Marcel Lapierre, Jean-Louis Dutraive, Domaine de Fa, Mee Godard, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton