Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Impressions of Beaujolais

I was never a Beaujolais fan, and one thing that always turns me off is the smugness of fans writing about it.

That may sound silly, as Beaujolais is one of the world's most commercially underappreciated wine regions. But Beaujolais lovers often open with an attack on every other red wine in the world: Too big! Too oaky! Not representative of terroir! Pathetic manipulated beverages for stupid people, not like the honest wines of Beaujolais, which are for the enlightened! The natural wine movement also has advocates like this, and I don't think they realize how much of a turnoff it is.

But I've had a few good Cru Beaujolais, and I like to be open-minded, so when I was offered the last-minute chance to visit Beaujolais in December on a press trip by myself, even though the plane ticket was booked on a Friday to leave the following Tuesday, I jumped at it.

This led directly to my column last week in Wine Review Online, because I met Georges DuBoeuf, far and away the most important man in the region, and spent a few minutes interviewing him about how he tastes 200 wines a day. It's a good story and very self-contained; the perfect column.

Yet I felt a little sad writing it, because one doesn't need to go all the way to Beaujolais to write about Georges DuBoeuf, and by narrowing the focus to him, I didn't have space to give my general newbie impressions. Those don't fit on Wine Review Online anyway, because I'm supposed to be an expert there. Here on The Gray Report is where I admit everything, including my ignorance.

So let's do that. My strongest impression, after a week of drinking nothing but Beaujolais, is this:

A vineyard at Chateau de Cercy in Beaujolais. I rarely see green lawns surrounding vineyards like this, but I saw some there.
Everybody in the region talks about how different each wine is, because of terroir. That's true, but they're much more alike than different. No matter what you're drinking, it tastes like Beaujolais. Which, I suppose, is also terroir.

That raises the obvious question: What does Beaujolais taste like?

I'll get to that in a moment, because I suspect if you're reading this blog you already know the answer. What you might not know is what Beaujolais looks like.

Empty. It looks like a rural area where the natives have gone to the big city seeking jobs. I'm sure it's different at harvest time, but in December, in two different towns, I had dinner in a restaurant where we were the only people dining. There was nobody else staying in either hotel where I slept. There were few cars on the road and nobody walking the streets of the towns. In only four days, I can't  explain this emptiness; I wasn't there to write about the economic conditions. But if you like to visit wine regions without a lot of crowds, Beaujolais is a good place to go.

That said, you may want to provision yourself ahead of time. Some towns have no stores at all. I wanted to buy bottled water, and that required a drive to the only store in one town, which had limited hours.

Unlike Burgundy to the north*, you rarely drive alongside large areas purely of vineyards. There are plenty of vines in Beaujolais, but it's much less of a monoculture, probably because the grapes aren't worth as much.

* Yes, I know Beaujolais is technically part of Burgundy.

Many of the vines are not trellised and in winter they look stumpy and old, even when they're not.

A lovely wine, one of my favorites on my visit
That's really all I can say about the region after being driven to different chateaus. Now, about the taste of the wine.

First, the fruit: It's nearly always red plum. The very ripest wines get to black plum; some of the unripe ones are red currant. But Beaujolais does not inspire "fruit bowl" tasting notes.

Then there's the body. The heaviest bodied Beaujolais would be moderate for the northern part of Burgundy and light for most anywhere else.

And there's a tanginess to most of them. That won't help sell them; I read somewhere that "tangy acidity," as a descriptor, is a negative for most consumers. No wonder many top Beaujolais sell for under $20.

The wines tend to taste fresh. Some have floral notes; some have noticeable minerality. But red plum/light body/tanginess -- Beaujolais wines that don't share those characteristics are rare.

Beaujolais rarely knocks one's socks off. I found it very hard to rate the wines on the 100-point scale for that reason -- so many wines I would consume without deep thought. They're not wines for tasting and going "wow."

People marketing Beaujolais have to go through contortions to sell these things as positives to the mainstream market. I have a "Beaujolais: Licensed to Chill" CD from a previous campaign, though we didn't drink any of these wines chilled in France. There's this little Nouveau ad campaign for the immature wines you might have seen once or twice. And there's the ad-hoc campaign of advocates against the 100-point scale; you often see Cru Beaujolais' low scores cited as one of the flaws of a rating system that compares everything to Cabernet.

But I think the best selling points for Beaujolais are things that salesmen can't say. It's not a wine that overpowers anything, yet it goes pretty well with most things. When you want to have red wine with white-flesh fish, or green salads, or other food that's normally best with white wine, Beaujolais is a good way to go. It's not a conversation-stopper; it's "mmm, nice, what were we talking about?"

The most surprising thing to me about my reaction to Beaujolais happened in Paris. I had a free day there on my way home and could drink whatever I wanted. And I thought I wanted some of the other great red wines of the country. On the train to Paris, I was telling myself I would drink something with more body; something darker, something profound.

What did I end up ordering? Morgon (a region of Beaujolais), two meals in a row. In part it was a sommelier's suggestion. In part it was what I was eating, especially one multi-course Basque blowout that switched from fish to meat to veggies to meat. But maybe I had just become acclimated.

I also have to report that when I got home to San Francisco, I couldn't face the thought of a big California red wine. I had sparkling wine my first night and then had a dinner with cocktails, not wine, as a transition back to the bigger wine world.

In finishing the tasting notes portion of the DuBoeuf column, I had to look up the prices of his top crus that I tasted in France. I really had no idea what they cost when I tasted them, but assumed, because they were presented to me as some of his top wines, that they must cost at least $35. I was stunned when every one I loved turned out to be under $20.

It took a while, but Beaujolais finally gave me that "Wow."

Read the Wine Review Online column here.

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Jay S. Miller said...

For 99% of Beaujolais, "innocuous" is the word, IMHO. They are pleasant bistro wines when it's about friends and conversation.
As you mention, they've received more attention recently because a couple of the godfathers of the "nothing added" school of winemaking are/were based in Beaujolais. Interested readers should have a look at Alice Feiring's book "Naked Wine" (which I liked).

W. Blake Gray said...

Jay: Big of you to praise Alice.

BTW, what's your Ravens' AFC Championship wine? In the run-up to their Super Bowl win I remember drinking Ravenswood. Wonder if I have an '01 Ravenswood single-vineyard Zin lying around?

Lee Newby said...

It’s the perfect turkey (and stuffing) wine, well the Morgan, Fleurie or Moulin-à-Vent are I also like them with BBQ salmon that has been done on a cedar plank, too bad they are not more widely available in North America.

Joel Brüt said...

Beaujolais is delicious and difficult to stop drinking; especially the big Morgons.

Jay S. said...

Hello Blake
Even though I live just outside of Baltimore, I grew up in Newton, Mass. I went to the Boston Patriots' first game in 1960 and have always been a fan. I'll probably have to watch the game by myself.

Dapz said...

I love Grand Cru Beaujolais, they are a really fun wine. Terroir wine Bar here in San Francisco has a great Beaujolais selection in case any of the locals wanna give it a shot.