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A dozen reasons to drink Beaujolais

A dozen reasons to drink Beaujolais

Nothing is trendy about Beaujolais. Yet for a lot of younger wine drinkers reared on a diet of either mass-market bottles or orange wines and natural wines, discovering it can be a nurturing next step.

Though Beaujolais was in many ways the region that gave birth to natural wine, I don’t hear much about it from younger people who gravitate toward more esoteric bottles.

Earlier generations of wine lovers who turned away from cabernet sauvignon, critics, wine scores and other symbols of convention, embraced Beaujolais, which had its own mid-20th-century narrative journey.

Recently, I shopped for good Beaujolais. It’s not at all hard to find. Dozens of great bottles are out there, and I assembled a group of 12 that I highly recommend.

They are largely from the 2020 vintage, and range in price from $16 to $43. I don’t say these 12 bottles are the best, but they are an excellent cross section of what’s good across all Beaujolais appellations.

Beaujolais was the original thirst-quenching wine — light, tart and low in alcohol. It was served by the pitcher (or barrel) in countless inexpensive restaurants across France. This all began to change in the 1970s, when Beaujolais Nouveau, a charming local ritual of making a new wine just after the harvest, became a global phenomenon.

Nouveau’s popularity in effect put all the region’s eggs in one faddish basket. When the craze died down, farmers who had followed the Nouveau formula of harvesting early so that the big producers could create a fruity, candied wine were left with nothing.

The 1990s and early 2000s, when Nouveau sales crashed, were a time of crisis in Beaujolais. It was often cheaper for farmers to leave grapes on vines to rot than it was to harvest them. Unsold wine was distilled into industrial alcohol. But a potential solution also presented itself.

A small group of like-minded vignerons who had rejected the mass-production Nouveau ethos of chemical farming and manipulated wines, came under the influence of Jules Chauvet. This local winemaker and scientist preached organic viticulture, avoiding the use of factory yeast and other manipulations in the cellar, and reducing or eliminating the use of sulfur dioxide, a preservative and antioxidant.

These producers, including Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thévenet and Georges Descombes, demonstrated a different path for Beaujolais.

They would make essentially natural wines that combined the thirst-quenching joy inherent in gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, with the ability to exhibit the nuances of place and to age and evolve. This was antithetical to the popular notion that Beaujolais must be consumed young.

Unlike the cheap and cheerful Nouveau, these wines emphasized the Beaujolais crus, 10 areas in the north of the region that had been judged to have superior potential for making wines distinctive of their place of origin. In alphabetical order, they are Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié and St.-Amour.

Many early fans of natural wines fell in love with these crus. Those from these modern pioneers and the producers they influenced have gotten better and better over the past 15 years, as well as more expensive. Cheap Beaujolais can now cost $50 a bottle or more.

But the crus account for only a small part of the region’s production. Two other generally less-expensive appellations, Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages, supply most of the wine, but have often been ignored as the focus has remained on the crus. They, too, have benefited from the revolution in quality.

Of the 12 bottles I recommend, seven are cru Beaujolais and the other five are Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages. The difference is evident. The crus are generally more complex. They can benefit from aging. The others are more immediately joyous. I don’t say one is better than the other. They can both be the best choice, depending on the occasion for drinking them.

Here they are, from least to most expensive.

• Michel Guignier Beaujolais 2020, 12.5%, $16

Straightforward Beaujolais are conventionally considered simple and easy to drink. But this one is more than cheap and cheerful. It has grip and depth, and is full of earthy fruit flavors. Michel Guignier, who is situated in Morgon, farms organically. I haven’t encountered his wines often over the years, but this one is a great value and well worth seeking out. (Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, New York)

• Pierre-Marie Chermette Beaujolais Griottes 2020, 13.5%, $17

Pierre-Marie and Martine Chermette, who for many years led the family estate, Domaine du Vissoux, have been joined by a son, Jean-Étienne Chermette. The estate also has a new name, Domaines Chermette. With all those changes, the wines remain excellent, including the easygoing, refreshing Beaujolais Griottes, which has lively flavors of fresh raspberries. (Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, Pennsylvania)

• Jean-Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorées Beaujolais L’Ancien Vieilles Vignes 2020, 13.5%, $20

Jean-Paul Brun has long been one of my favorite producers in Beaujolais. He’s conscientious, experimental and consistently makes good, fairly priced wines. Yet he is often overlooked in the rush to the newest discoveries. He was one of the earliest modern producers to forgo the most common Beaujolais production method, semi-carbonic fermentation. Instead, he employs conventional alcoholic fermentation, which gives his wines a calm subtlety. This basic Beaujolais is fresh, pure and plummy, with a touch of licorice. (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York)

• G. Descombes Beaujolais-Villages 2020, 12.5%, $22

Georges Descombes is one of the Beaujolais vignerons who helped shaped the region’s revival. Since 1988, when he took over the family estate, Decombes has been farming organically and turning out pure, energetic wines, mostly from the crus but also this delicious Beaujolais-Villages. This bottle is fresh and tense, with succulent, high-toned plummy, earthy fruit flavors. (Louis/Dressner Selections)

• D. Coquelet Chiroubles 2019, 12.5%, $24

Damien Coquelet is the stepson of Georges Descombes and works very much in the same vein, farming organically and minimally intervening in the winemaking. This Chiroubles is fresh and pure, yet bright and easygoing, with floral, sweet-tart fruit flavors. Though a cru wine, it’s light, joyful and easy to gulp down. (Louis/Dressner Selections)

• Domaine des Billards St.-Amour 2020, 14.5%, $24

St.-Amour, the northernmost of the 10 crus, annually gets popular around Valentine’s Day because of the romance of its name. This often leads to its being underestimated, but this bottle from Domaine des Billards is no holiday bonbon. It’s rich, ripe and well focused, with stony, earthy raspberry flavors. (Bowler Wine, New York)

• Nicole et Romain Chanrion Domaine de la Voûte des Crozes Côte-de-Brouilly 2019, 14.5%, $27

Nicole Chanrion, long the proprietor of Domaine de la Voûte des Crozes in Côte-de-Brouilly, has now been joined by her son, Romain Chanrion. I’ve always loved Côte-de-Brouilly, generally firmer and more structured than its neighbor Brouilly, which tends toward a lighter style. You can sense the tannic structure in this 2019, which shapes and tapers its floral and red-fruit flavors. (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, California)

• Christophe Pacalet Moulin-à-Vent 2020, 13.5%, $28

Moulin-à-Vent is the only one of the 10 Beaujolais crus not named for a village. Rather, it’s named for an imposing windmill — moulin-à-vent in French — that has come to signify the region. Moulin-à-Vents are among the most structured wines in Beaujolais, and you can certainly sense the tannins in this bottle from Christophe Pacalet, along with the aromas of red fruits and violets and a stony minerality. (Artisan Wine Selections, Malvern, Pennsylvania)

• Jean Foillard Beaujolais-Villages 2020, 13.5%, $33

Like Georges Descombes, Jean Foillard was among the vignerons who helped transform Beaujolais in the late 20th century by farming organically and making wine without manipulations. You can view the trajectory of the transformation by tracking the prices of the Foillard wines. His Morgon Côtes de Py, the best known cuvée, sells for roughly $50, and this Beaujolais-Villages for more than $30. Old Beaujolais hands may grumble, but the wines are superb. This bottle is lovely, with lively, earthy, stony fruit flavors. (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant)

• Clos Bateau Beaujolais Lantignié May Ga 2020, 13%, $35

This is exemplary natural Beaujolais-Villages. In this case, Clos Bateau uses the name of the village, Lantignié, as is permitted, though most producers opt for the vaguer “Villages,” and are required to if the wine is a blend from multiple villages. The exuberant, fruity aromas explode from the glass, pure and unmediated. The proprietors, Sylvie and Thierry Klok-de Visser, took over this estate in 2019. Only a small quantity of this wine was made, but it’s worth knowing about. (Selection Massale, Carmel Valley, California)

• Anne-Sophie Dubois Fleurie Les Labourons 2020, 13%, $40

Anne-Sophie Dubois farms organically and makes gorgeous wines in Fleurie. This bottle comes from Les Labourons, the particular subzone of Fleurie where her vineyard is situated. It is complex and lovely, with fine tannins, aromas and flavors of flowers and red fruits, as well as a pronounced minerality. (Grand Cru Selections, New York)

• M. & C. Lapierre Morgon 2021, 12.5%, $43

Lapierre is another of the pioneering producers of modern-day Beaujolais. Since Marcel Lapierre died in 2010, Mathieu and Camille Lapierre, two of his children, have carried on, farming organically, working in the cellar with traditional methods and making excellent wines. This is young — Lapierre Morgons always seem to be released earlier than others. It’s fruity, with earthy mineral flavors. Firm and linear, it has a spine of acidity. (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant)

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