Situated just north of Lyon, in the center of western France, Beaujolais is couched between some of the most well-known wine regions in the globe—and adds a flair to its wine unlike any other in the country. While many Americans once associated the area with easy-drinking, approachable reds and much-hyped, limited-time-only Beaujolais Nouveau releases of the ’90s, consumers are now coming to the region again for something new: a wide variety of unique wines.
“I personally think a great advantage for the producers in Beaujolais is that demand has increased; [it’s] probably the highest I’ve seen since I’ve been in the industry,” says Nicole Ward, a certified wine specialist who represents North Berkeley Imports Southern California portfolio. “Younger sommeliers are hype to the region, thus turning younger wine drinkers onto the wines.”
Beaujolais covers a vast area (about 12,500 hectares) with 12 AOCs—each with unique soil types, microclimates and elevations—resulting in varied expressions of the region’s most-planted grape: gamay. In Fleurie, for example, the soils are pink granite, shale and clay, making for delicate wine with floral aromas. Régnié, the newest cru to the region (added in 1988), is just a bit southwest of Fleurie, and here the wines are fruity, affordable—yet even possible to age.
“Beaujolais is a melting pot of various soil types depending on the [appellation],” Ward explains. She adds that here, warm, southern winds come north and marry with wet Atlantic currents and cooler continental winds from the north, which create the area’s unique microclimate.
Not only that, but the region has historically leaned into a low intervention approach to winemaking, long before “natural wine” was considered trendy. That typically includes letting fermentation happen naturally, rather than adding specific yeast strains, as well as not including additives in the wine, John Burns Paterson, managing partner of Frankies Nashville, explains.
He points specifically to Marcel Lapierre, one of the region’s most regarded winemakers, as a pioneer in the space. Back in the ’70s, Lapierre worked with a researcher from the University of California to vinify his wines without added yeast or sulfur dioxide, as well as to cultivate his wines organically. The result was a wine centered around the region’s terroir and plant biology—rather than winemaker intervention. Domaine Lapierre continues the practice to this day, and many winemakers in the region followed suit—long before consumers were seeking wines with these qualities.
“There’s a lot of credit given to Marcel Lapierre as being one of the first winemakers to use little to no sulfur in winemaking,” says Grant Reynolds, sommelier and founder of Parcelle.
Gamay wines from Beaujolais are also known for their fruity, almost juicy, characteristics. This is thanks to the widespread use of carbonic maceration during fermentation. Rather than crushing grapes, then adding them to a fermentation vessel, winemakers will add full bunches of grapes to the tank, then seal it with carbon dioxide. The lack of oxygen allows for the fermentation process to take place within each individual grape, which are then crushed after the process is finished.
“In moderation, the technique can lend the wine a juicy, fruity, altogether irresistible quality—you want to keep drinking it,” Paterson says.
That isn’t to say that all producers in the region are doing things exactly the same way. As Paterson explains, some are moving away from full carbonic maceration to semi-carbonic, which results in a gamay that’s still fruity, but with structure. Other producers are even taking that a step further, such as using old oak with more traditional vinification, to get a more complex style of wine—some of which is even age-worthy.
“You actually are seeing more producers after true wines of place, paying attention to farming, hands-off in the cellar,” he explains.
Besides gamay, the Beaujolais region does produce chardonnay as well, known as Beaujolais Blanc. Here, chardonnay only makes up about 4 percent of the area’s production—but don’t be fooled by numbers alone — it’s not to be overlooked. Beaujolais Blanc is light, fruity and easy drinking—sometimes even showing tropical fruit notes.
The region is able to foster a bit of experimentation alongside more traditional techniques, not just because of unique soil types or winemaking methods, but because of real estate. Unlike other wine-producing regions in France, where vineyards can be particularly competitive to purchase, “there is land in Beaujolais,” Ward says. Former sommeliers from larger wine making regions, as well as winemakers, are able to set up their own ventures here because of that. “The new winemaker in Beaujolais is more likely to have access via purchasing, leasing [and] sharecropping agreements to cru vineyards as well as village-level vineyards.”
With an influx of both new producers and new drinkers, it’s likely that the region’s hype won’t be fading any time soon.
Art Director: Clara Shader-Seave
Prop Stylist: Katrina Rozeville
Beverage Stylist: Micah Morton
Producer: Hannah Lee