Today there is something of an odd perception of Beaujolais. This may be based on SUCCESSFUL marketing. Everyone knows Beaujolais nouveau and for some time it was extremely popular (it is still popular, but I'd hesitate to say "extremely"). That is part of the problem; people have had Beaujolais nouveau which is a simple, fruity wine. It is also wine that has a reputation for not being, shall we say, fine wine. Because of the A-list, multi-year marketing campaign when many folks think of Beaujolais they think of nouveau. This is an unfortunate side effect of wine makers doing what they do--selling wine.
Beaujolais is a place, not a grape. It is actually part of Burgundy, although in function, if not fact, it is a separate wine region. When you look at many, if not most, European wines, you will find the place name is what is on the label. These places, however, come with specific grapes that are allowed. The place is the thing in Europe. Remember that, because it isn't just Beaujolais. Champagne, Bordeaux and Cote de Rhone are all places that give their names to wines.
In Beaujolais the red grape is gamay. Some other grapes are allowed in the mix here and there and there is a small amount of Beaujolais white (which is usually chardonnay). But for our purposes here? We are talking about gamay.
So why do I think it is worthwhile to give Beaujolais a chance? First the wine, even from a relatively small area, demonstrates how one grape can be many things. Gamay can be light fruity and easy to drink. Gamay can even get to be a sort of "big" wine with high alcohol, body, fruit and tannins (while acknowledging that it is generally not "huge" by today's standards). Even though prices have been rising rapidly? You can still get excellent Beaujolais at a decent price.
-What is the grape (or grapes)?
-Where is it from?
-Who made it?
-What year is it from?
If it says “Beaujolais” on the bottle? It is gamay. This does not mean that all Beaujolais is created equal.
Who made it is on the label as is the year. For folks buying wine for everyday drinking? The year matters but, frankly, it is not always easy to keep up with this. Some years are hot, some are cold, some have hail and all these things matter but for most people? This is way more detail than they can deal with when buying a bottle. Find a wine shop where employees can fill in the details.
Who makes the wine is pivotal. There are some Beaujolais producers that fall into the “cannot go wrong” category. These include Foillard, Breton, Thevenet, Dutraive, Thivin and many others. I’ve heard distributors say that certain producers won the “gene pool lottery” by inheriting such great vineyards.
Beaujolais nouveau--An inexpensive, fruity version of the wine that comes out every November. Drink it soon.
Beaujolais-The next level up. Wines vary wildly at this level and knowing your producers is a big help.
Beaujolais-Village-Technically a step up from wines labelled Beaujolais and again, pay attention to the producer.
Cru Beaujolais--You will read people saying wines from these areas all have certain flavors, or are made in a similar style. It is true, up to a point. That is the reason for these small, geographically distinct areas. But there can be as many differences between wines within a cru as there are similarities. The ten crus are;
-Moulin a Vent
-Côte de Brouilly
You will see gamay grown in other parts of France like the Loire. It has also found a home in Oregon. Likewise, inspired by the fact they only know Beaujolais nouveau, you may hear disparagement of Beaujolais. This is simply a display of ignorance. There are good, mediocre and terrible wines from Beaujolais. Likewise there are good, bad and terrible wines from Bordeaux, Rhone, Burgundy, Napa, Chianti, Rioja and damn near every other well known wine producing area.
Embrace Beaujolais and it will reward you.
Want more detail? These are all interesting pieces.
An interesting piece on wine regions, AOCs and the controversy they inspire.
Maps, details and more on Beaujolais.
Another discussion of Beaujolais.