Want to know how to buy better Beaujolais? Learn the region.
Beaujolais is the name of a little area in France just south of Burgundy. It’s one of the few wine regions of France that doesn’t pretend to be fancy. In fact, much of the Gamay wine Beaujolais produces is sold (and gulped) before the harvest year is over. What’s confusing to new drinkers of Beaujolais is the disconnect between how Beaujolais is described and how it actually tastes.
The Secret to Finding Good Beaujolais Wine
So, with the help of French wine educator, Hilarie Larson, we’ve created a guide to the Beaujolais region in the hope of shedding some detail on the topic. It’s time to uncover the mystery and learn how to find good Beaujolais wine….yes, it does exist.
What is Beaujolais?
Beaujolais is a light red wine made with Gamay Noir grapes.
- Fruit flavors: Raspberry, Tart Cherry, Cranberry
- Other flavors: Mushroom, Forest Floor, Smoke, Violet, Baker’s Yeast, Banana, Bubblegum
- Acidity: High
- Tannin: Low
- Alcohol: 10-13% ABV
- Serving Temp: Slightly chilled at 54-58 °F (12-14 °C)
Learn what basic wine characteristics mean for your taste preferences.
The French wine region of Beaujolais has long been considered part of Burgundy, but today it charts its own course.
Useful to Know: The region produces almost only red wine with Gamay Noir grapes. Beaujolais wines run the gamut from zippy, juicy-yeasty “Nouveau” style to more serious (but still affordable) Cru vineyard Beaujolais that drinks a lot like red Burgundy.
The best wines from Beaujolais are Cru Beaujolais. Expect to spend about $20 a bottle for this style. If you’re looking for value (around $10) keep your eyes peeled for Beaujolais Villages or Beaujolais Supérieur. If you get one and you don’t like it, Beaujolais makes into some of the best Sangria on the planet. So don’t fret.
Where is it?
Beaujolais is kind of like the smallest house in the fanciest neighborhood. It’s bordered by Burgundy to the North; the Saône River (which leads to Côtes du Rhône) to the East; the ‘Gastronomic Capital of France’, Lyon, to the South; and the Monts de Beaujolais (the hills of the Massif Central) on the West. Beaujolais is just 34 miles long and 7-9 miles wide.
The area is naturally divided into two sections by the Nizerand River. You’ll find different soils on each side of the river. This is important to note because the soil types hold the key to Beaujolais’ flavor. There’s mostly granite and schist (decomposed rock) to the North and clay-based soils (marl) to the South. By the way, all of the Cru vineyards are located on the North side.
Beaujolais Wine Region Map
A lil’ History of Beaujolais
The town of Lyon was the main market for Beaujolais wine. In the old days, goods from outside the area were subject to heavy taxes making the local vino even more appealing and in demand.
There are 3 Classifications of Beaujolais wine
The 3 classifications are: Beaujolais AOP, Beaujolais Villages AOP and Cru Beaujolais
Wines labeled “Supérieur” – red or rosé – will be a touch higher in alcohol and most likely darker and more concentrated.
This is the biggest appellation consisting of all 96 winemaking villages; a few in the northern half but most from the south. The clay soils and flatlands of the south make it more difficult to properly ripen grapes. Because of this, you’ll find a wide variance of quality in Beaujolais AOC depending both on producer and vintage.
Beaujolais AOC are said to be easy to drink because of lots of refreshing acidity and little tannin. You’ll find the flavors and aromas are fruity and even ‘grapey’ – raspberry, cherry, cranberry and, sometimes, a touch of fresh, tropical banana (a flavor that comes from the winemaking method). We recommend serving Beaujolais AOC slightly chilled with lunch – think burgers or pasta.
Beaujolais Villages AOC
Moving up the scale we come to the 38 official “Village” wines, 30 of which can put their name on the label.
These areas are a little more specialized and the wines a little deeper and darker in color and character. Many of these villages are located on granite or schist soils, so they have a more ‘mineral’ quality.
Although most of the wines are red with notes of strawberry and black currant, the white wines are also delicious with notes of pear, tropical fruits, and blanched almonds!
Best Served Chilled
Due to their low tannins and fruity nature, the wines of Beaujolais AOC and Beaujolais Villages AOC are best served slightly chilled – around 55˚ F. The Cru wines are perfect at 58˚ F. Learn more about Wine Serving Temperature
The crème de la crème of Beaujolais!
There are 10 Crus of Beaujolais, all in the north and producing only red wine. Usually, the labels will simply state the name of the Cru as they are that renowned!
But this is where the similarity ends.
Each has its own distinct personality, based on ‘terroir’– climate,soils, altitude, aspect and a host of other factors – that are duplicated nowhere else. These wines are much more complex and will develop beautifully over time, if you can keep your hands off!
Cru Beaujolais: starting in the North…
The region borders the Mâconnaise of Burgundy and there are 12 special ‘climats’ or vineyards that can add their name to the label. Check out Les Champs Grillés, En Paradis, Les Bonnets or Le Mas des Tines, to name a few.
Two styles of wine are produced here: a light, fruity, floral wine that shows notes of violet and peach and a bigger, spicier version that becomes more ‘pinot’-like with about 5 years of aging.
“The Saint of Love” is the logical choice for Valentine’s Day!
Named after Julius Caesar, these ancient Roman vineyard sites are planted on granite, volcanic and clay soils giving the wines power, structure and terrific aging ability.
Floral and fruity, the aromas of strawberry, peach, violet and spicy cinnamon are common.
The smallest and rarest of the Crus, the name Chénas refers to the ancient oak forests that once covered the hillsides. Both the Romans and the monks that followed thought that grapes were more important, so they cleared the land. But it was Phillip V who decreed that all the trees be removed and replaced with vines!
Appropriately, the wines often have a ‘woodsy’ quality, but it’s their floral notes of rose and iris, plus silky tannins, that earned them the nickname “bouquet of flowers in a velvet basket.”
Dubbed “The King of Beaujolais,” this region’s vineyards are grown on decomposed pink granite and soft flaky quartz giving the wines a dark ruby/garnet color, good structure and complexity. These are the most tannic and full-bodied wines of all the Cru. When they’re young you’ll notice lots of plum, cherry and violet notes, but if you can allow the wine to age up to 10 years you’ll be rewarded with more ‘Pinot’ style – dried fruits, earthy truffles, meat and spice.
It’s in the name:
Moulin-à-Vent gets its name from a local windmill that’s now the symbol of the area. The windmill became a historic monument around the same time the region became a Cru!
This is “The Queen of Beaujolais.” The vineyards are planted at a higher altitude on the steep slopes at the foot of La Madone.
The wines are lighter in style and highly aromatic with a ’feminine’ quality. Think roses, iris and violet along with some ripe red fruits and peach!
If you’re just getting into red wines, the wines of Fleurie are a great place to start.
This is another Cru for those who adore the lighter style of Beaujolais.
Grown at the highest altitudes of the region (820-1480 feet), this is also the coolest Cru and the last to start harvest each year.
The wines are “Classic Beaujolais” – refined, suave, silky and elegant. Perfumey aromas of peaches and raspberry mixed with Lily of the Valley and baking spices contribute to the fruity, delicate character.
When the vineyards of Chiroubles were originally planted, the granite soil was so hard they had to bore holes in the rock first!
The second largest of the Crus, Morgon is comprised of six ‘climat’, all with slightly different styles. Their unifying feature is the decomposed schist soil called ‘roches pourries’ or ‘rotted rocks’ and locals believe this contributes to the ripe cherry aromas found in all the wines.
These are wines meant to age – 5 to 10 years at least. The young, fleshy palate of peach, apricot, cherry and plum will develop into a more earthy wine reminiscent of Burgundian Pinot Noir.
Pronounced “reh-N’YAY”, this is the newest of the Cru.
Wines from these hillside vineyards are terrific when young with tons of aromatic peach, cherry, black currant and raspberry flavor.
More organic vineyards and winemakers are found in this young, upcoming Cru than all the others!
9. Côte de Brouilly
Known as the “Elegant Wine on the Hill,” here you will find vineyards planted on the volcanic slopes of Mount Brouilly, giving the wines a unique flavor and delicate minerality.
Look for easy drinking wines that have the aromas of fresh grape juice and cranberries, a silky mouthfeel and tons of bright, refreshing acidity.
Mount Brouilly is named after Brulius, a famous Roman lieutenant stationed in the area some 2000 years ago.
This is the most southern of all the Cru and just a little bit more Mediterranean with slightly warmer temperatures.
As well as being the largest Cru, it was also one of the original areas allowed to sell its wines to the Parisian market as far back as 1769, making Brouilly one of the most known areas in Beaujolais.
The soil here is unique: a blue/black volcanic rock called Diorite that is known as ‘cornes vertes’ or ‘green horns’.
This unique ‘terroir’ lends an exuberance to the wine’s fruity aromas of jammy plum and strawberry, red currants and peach. It is meant to be enjoyed young and often.
The Technical Stuff: Why Beaujolais Tastes like Bananas
One of the things that sets Beaujolais apart is a particular style of winemaking that is extremely well suited to the Gamay grape.
Most of the wines of Beaujolais are produced through a method known as ‘semi-carbonic maceration’ that highlights the amazing fruity aromas of the wine.
The grapes are harvested and then, instead of being crushed, the whole clusters are placed in a vat or tank. The pressure of the fruit begins to crush the grapes near the bottom of the vat, expressing their juice. When the juice comes into contact with the indigenous yeast on the grape skins, the juice starts to ferment creating CO2 gas – aka carbon dioxide – which forces the oxygen out of the tank. Often, a lid is placed on the tank to help eliminate the oxygen as well.
This lack of oxygen causes an enzymatic/biochemical form of fermentation to begin inside the grape berry that makes them explode!
After a short maceration period of around 4-8 days, the juice is racked off (the ‘free run”) and the remaining juice is pressed from the skins (the ‘hard press’), then the two are blended together. From this stage the juice will finish fermentation and completed as a ‘regular’ wine.
This style of fermentation is also responsible for the distinctive aromas of banana, candied fruits, pear, raspberry and cranberry in the finished wine!
10 Crus of Beaujolais
- Saint-Amour AOC
- Juliénas AOC
- Chénas AOC
- Moulin-à-Vent AOC
- Fleurie AOC
- Chiroubles AOC
- Morgon AOC
- Régnié AOC
- Côte de Brouilly
- Brouilly AOC
38 Official Beaujolais Villages
- Les Ardillats
- Le Perréon
- La Chapelle-de-Guinchay