When people think of Beaujolais ... well, they don't really think of Beaujolais at all, do they? Those who remember it recall a watery, acidic, too-fruity Kool-Aid called Beaujolais Nouveau that accompanies the November celebration in honor of the wine's annual release. Once the party's over, they buy some and drink it the next night or "age" it until some pitiable -- and usually drunk -- sap comes along to drink it. (Beaujolais Nouveau should be consumed within six months after bottling.) But the really downtrodden ones are the Beaujolais producers. The November rush delivers a cash windfall, but the hype for the Kool-Aid eclipses any hope they have to establish a name for their good wines: the "cru" Beaujolais.
A "cru" is basically an appellation (called "AOC" in France) or a section of land with a name. Appellations are declared when the soil and climate turn out grapes in that particular swath of land that are decidedly different from other swaths of land. All Beaujolais are made with 100 percent Gamay grapes, but when they are grown in a different place, they can take on different flavors and characteristics. For example, Moulin-à-Vent, a cru designation in northern Beaujolais, has granite-based soils that are richer in manganese than other crus, producing a spicier, more robust wine. The other nine crus are: Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Côtes-du-Brouilly, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Regnie, and Saint Amour.
Everyone who knows something about wine lauds the 2003 and 2005 vintages of cru Beaujolais, saying they produced the best juice since the historic 1945 and '47 vintages.
The '03 and '05 are two completely different stories. 2003 was the year Europe got butt-kicked with so much heat that the grapes practically raisinated on the vine. But 2005 was a more traditional vintage, with near-perfect sun and rain conditions. And it's no bull either. Virtually every wine I've tried from these years was beautiful in some way. The 2003 wines have more of a "cooked" flavor, with darker fruit like prunes, roasted cherries, and raisins. If you close your eyes, you'll swear you were drinking red Burgundy, which is made from pinot noir and costs twice the price. The 2005s, especially my favorites, Julienas and Morgon, smell and taste like velvety, ripe raspberries and in-your-face cherry.
There are two other appellations, Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages, which originate from less favorable regions than the crus. These often have great fresh and fruity aromas but destroy the moment with their acidic and sometimes tannic flavor. So I pay $5 more and go cru, which runs anywhere from $12 to $25, depending on the producer and the AOC.
One other surprising thing about cru Beaujolais: They age well. Since people tend to think of the drink-it-now Nouveau as the quintessential Beaujolais, they don't think any of them can age. On a recent trip to Beaujolais, I tried wines from 1989, 1990, and 1992, and they had a scrumptious, aged Pinot Noir appeal about them -- tamed tannins and acids, roasted red fruit, and soft leather. Not bad for an initial investment of $15 and a whole lot of patience to let it rest.
Because of its lightheartedness and fruitiness, Beaujolais is great for summer drinking. In fact, it's the perfect red-wine "bridge" for white-wine drinkers. To bring out the fruit and refreshing acids, chill it down for about an hour in the fridge. And seek out the most reliable Beaujolais producers: Mommessin, Jadot, and Duboeuf.
Duboeuf 2003 Morgon Jean Descombes -- Smells like dark red wood and leather seats in a men's cigar bar. Taste is soft layers of roasted black cherries, blueberries, and currants. $14
Mommessin 2005 Julienas -- Well-balanced acids with lively cherry, rich vanilla, bright raspberry, and a dash of earthy leather on the finish. Might be hard to find but worth the effort. $14