We partnered with sommelier, author and educator Hillary Zio for a multi-part guest blog series dedicated to discovering the classics. This fall, we’re expanding our Classics Series and Hillary’s here to share what makes each region so special and each new wine such a great find. Read on and follow along with her sips and trips on Instagram @HillaryZio
The wines of Beaujolais have seen a drastic upsurge in popularity over the last two decades. Once known for producing tart, cheap and mundane Gamay with a short shelf-life, Beaujolais is now popular among wine professionals and serious collectors alike. The main culprit for criticism was Beaujolais Nouveau. This vin de primeur is traditionally released on the third Thursday in November, in celebration of the end of harvest. Historically, this day saw heavy marketing and attracted coverage from media from all over the world. The wine, however, was fruity but often a bit sour and underwhelming. Lacking complexity, it was meant to be consumed in a matter of weeks and the region lost credibility among wine lovers.
Many wineries were destined to produce better wine and improve this region’s reputation. The focus on producing quality over quantity was an approach seen successful by the best winemakers all over the world. Italy’s Chianti, for example, was motivated in the same manner and after the 1990s, cheap, bulk wine was no longer the best strategy for even the largest producers. Several winemakers throughout Beaujolais strongly believed in the potential of Gamay from this unique region. Afterall, they were just a few miles away from the world-renowned region of Burgundy.
Like many great winemaking regions, Beaujolais is located along the banks of a river. The region straddles the Nizerand River, which is North of Lyon and South of Burgundy. There are many different soil types found in Beaujolais. Generally speaking, you’ll find granite and schist on the North side and clay-based soils on the South. The Massif Central is a highland region just west of Beaujolais with peaks that reach over 6,000 feet in elevation. These mountains and plateaus have a tempering influence on Beaujolais’ climate, allowing Gamay to ripen evenly.
There are three classifications of Beaujolais. Beaujolais AOC is the largest appellation and consists of 96 villages. Like anywhere, you can find good and bad wines all over the appellation, but most wine produced here is quite affordable. The next classification level is Beaujolais Villages AOC, comprised of 38 villages, of which 30 can add the village where the grapes are grown to their label. Lastly, the Beaujolais Crus, 10 small regions located on the North side of the Nizerand River. These special communes are able to label their wines as such and in-turn charge more per bottle due to the elevated terroir and favored soil types. Many of the best producers of Beaujolais have vineyards in these communes and their wines are steadily increasing in price each year. Recognized for producing superior wines, these Crus helped Beaujolais reclaim its status. Also, some of the best bargains can be found right outside the 10 Crus. While Cru Beaujolais has stronger age-ability, most other wines from the region are meant to be enjoyed young, perhaps over the holidays even.
Gamay is the sole grape behind every red wine with a Beaujolais label. This thin-skinned grape is usually light in color and low in tannin. The varietal often imparts flavors of cranberry, cherry, orange peel and herbs like fresh thyme and mint leaves. The grape is also quite light in body, generally speaking, with a bit of tartness on the palate. Due to this sharp nature, many winemakers practice malolactic fermentation to soften the mouthfeel. During this process, tart malic acids are converted into lactic, creamier ones, which impart richness and a round structure. This secondary fermentation is completely natural and can make Gamay from Beaujolais much more approachable.
The 2017 90+ Cellars Lot 158 Beaujolais is a classic style with notes of ripe raspberries and cranberries, bay leaf and fresh thyme. The bottle is just $10 and a serious bargain. It is classified as Beaujolais AOC, meaning the wine can come from several different regions within Beaujolais. I would drink this wine relatively young, probably over the course of three to six months. Tasting classic, benchmark styles of Beaujolais is important for understanding the region as a whole and what you can expect, especially when pairing with food. This wine would taste best slightly chilled to bring out the acidity. Beaujolais is so versatile that the temperature you’re serving it may depend on what type of dish it is being paired with.
Some of my favorite foods to pair with Gamay are aged cheese, charcuterie, roasted turkey, lightly seasoned poultry and even fish. It’s most important to consider the sauces and spices involved when pairing Beaujolais with food. Since the tannins and body are so light, you wouldn’t want to overpower the wine with intense spices or rich sauces. Instead, stick to simply prepared meats and light sauces, if any. Often, you’ll find Beaujolais enjoyed on its own, prior to a meal as the low tannins don’t necessarily require food for gratification.