Culinary Arts

Learn About Beaujolais: Wine, History, Characteristics, and Pairings for Beaujolais Wine

Written by MasterClass

Jun 18, 2019 • 6 min read

Fun, fruity Beaujolais is the red wine that doesn’t act like a red wine. This low-tannin value is the definition of glou-glou (French for “glug-glug,” the sound it makes as you gulp it down!). From banana and bubblegum-scented Beaujolais nouveau to funky, mineral cru Beaujolais that could pass for pinot noir, this wine offers a style for every occasion.

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What Is Beaujolais?

Beaujolais is the name of both a region in France and the kind of wine that comes from that region. The Beaujolais region is located in the center-east of France, north of Lyon, France’s gastronomic capital. Beaujolais sits just below Burgundy and above the Rhône Valley. Red Beaujolais wine is made from the gamay noir grape. Beaujolais Blanc, the region’s rarely seen white wine, is made from chardonnay or aligoté grapes.

What Is the History of Beaujolais?

The Romans planted the first vines thousands of years ago in what is now known as the Beaujolais region. During the following centuries, Benedictine monks cultivated the vineyards, then local lords. Most of the wine made was consumed in the region or in the surrounding areas which were reachable by river.

Beaujolais has a reputation as the less prestigious sibling to Burgundy, the highly-regarded wine region directly to the north that is home to the pinot noir grape. This dates back to 1395, when Philipe the Bold, a Duke of Burgundy, outlawed the cultivation of the gamay grape in Burgundy, calling it a “bad and disloyal” vine. Gamay grapes ripen earlier and are easier to farm than finicky pinot noir, and Philipe believed they made for a lower quality wine than the “elegant” pinot noir. Gamay grows well in the granite soils of Beaujolais, where it was still allowed to be grown, so it became associated with the region.

When the railway system connected Beaujolais to Paris in the nineteenth century, Beaujolais wine became a fashionable choice in the city’s bistros. Its popularity owed something to the fresh, fruity aromas of these wines, which came from a winemaking technique called carbonic maceration that was first studied by French scientist Louis Pasteur.

Carbonic maceration also allowed the wines to be made and released very quickly, even within the same year as the harvest. These vins de primeur, called Beaujolais nouveau, were released on the third Thursday of November following the harvest. The excitement surrounding the release every year lead Beaujolais nouveau to become wildly popular during the 1970s and ’80s, but eventually a glut of low-quality wines resulted in a backlash and drop in popularity.

How Is Beaujolais Made?

Beaujolais nouveau’s unique fruitiness and drinkability come from a winemaking process called carbonic maceration. Rather than being destemmed upon arrival at the winery, the gamay grapes are left in whole bunches. The bunches are put into closed fermenter tanks, which are pumped full of carbon dioxide gas. The gas causes intracellular fermentation (also called anaerobic or enzymatic fermentation) to begin within each individual grape, without the grapes being crushed first, as in a normal fermentation. After the juice within the grapes reach about two degrees of alcohol, the grapes burst, and the natural yeast on the grape skins begins a regular alcoholic fermentation to bring the wine up to its final alcohol content.

Carbonic maceration also reduces the amount of tannin in the wine. Because gamay is a grape variety that has low tannins to begin with, Beaujolais nouveau wines made with carbonic maceration are among the lowest tannin red wines you can buy.

Semi-carbonic maceration, a variation that omits the addition of carbon dioxide gas, happens naturally when grapes are put in the fermenter in whole bunches. This technique does not result in as many fruity aromas compared to full carbonic maceration, but lets more of the structural tannin remain. Semi-carbonic maceration is used on higher quality cru Beaujolais.

What Are the Characteristics of Beaujolais?

All beaujolais is made from a single grape variety, gamay, which is a thin-skinned red grape that is related to pinot noir. Structurally, beaujolais wines made from gamay are:

  • Light bodied
  • Moderate in alcohol
  • Low in tannin
  • High in acidity

Flavors commonly found in across different Beaujolais include:

  • Blackberry/bramble
  • Raspberry
  • Cherry
  • Cinnamon
  • Violet
  • Barnyard/earth

Beaujolais AOC wines tend to be simple and juicy, with straightforward fruit flavors. Cru Beaujolais wines are more complex, with floral and earthy notes complementing the ripe fruit flavors.

What Are the Different Appellations of Beaujolais?

Beaujolais wine is available at three different quality levels:

  • Beaujolais AOC: This appellation covers all of the region’s 96 villages, but in practice, most basic Beaujolais comes from the 60 villages in the southern part of the region. Beaujolais AOC wine accounts for about half of all Beaujolais wine and the vast majority of Beaujolais nouveau.
  • Beaujolais-Villages AOC: There are 39 villages that produce wine that can be labeled Beaujolais-Villages. Many of them will also list the name of the village on the label. These wines are from schist and granite soils that give more sophisticated fruit and mineral notes than basic Beaujolais.
  • Cru Beaujolais: These are ten crus, top villages or areas, which each have their own AOC. There are many producers within each cru. The crus are all located in the northern part of Beaujolais, arrayed in a row along the west bank of the Saône River. From north to south, the crus are: Saint-Amour (or St-Amour), Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly, and Côte de Brouilly. Each cru has slightly different terroir that results in a range of expressions of the gamay grape, from the more tannic, earthy wines of Moulin-à-Vent to the delicate, floral wines of Fleurie.

What Are Some Tips for Buying Beaujolais?

It’s easy to find good values when buying Beaujolais: most bottles can be had for under $25. Beaujolais nouveau is not as popular as it once was, so examples may be harder to find, but those that do make it to the States are likely to be of relatively good quality. Only a few dollars more will get you a Beaujolais-Villages wine, perfect for drinking on a weeknight or at a picnic. After getting a taste for Beaujolais, try the more serious wines from the ten crus. Morgon and Fleurie are most well known, but great values can be found from the less recognized crus of Chénas and Chiroubles.

Basic Beaujolais is released very young, and should be drunk immediately before its fruitiness starts to fade. Beaujolais-Village wine is aged a little longer before release, and it can hold up in bottle for a year or two. Wine from the Beaujolais crus is the most age-worthy, but generally should be aged no longer than five to seven years and certainly does not need age to be enjoyable.

How Do You Pair Beaujolais?

Beaujolais should always be served with a slight chill for maximum refreshment. The light body and low tannin of Beaujolais make it a good match with leaner meats and vegetarian cuisine, and especially dishes with fruit elements like raisins, prunes, or a fig or cherry sauce.

  • With fish. Beaujolais is one of the few red wines that goes well with fish because of its low tannin content. Sushi can work with Beaujolais, as well as seared tuna or white fish.
  • With meats. Roast chicken is classic with an earthier cru Beaujolais, as is charcuterie like paté, saucisson sec, and cured ham. Beaujolais is perfect for a picnic or a French bistro lunch with a salade aux lardons.

Beaujolais is often recommended as a Thanksgiving wine, but this has more to do with the November release date of Beaujolais nouveau than any harmony between turkey and gamay. Save the Beaujolais for lighter fare and drink a spicy Côtes du Rhône at Thanksgiving instead.

Learn more about wine appreciation in James Suckling’s MasterClass.