Wine of the Week: The beauty of Beaujolais

WASHINGTON — The French wine region of Beaujolais has an identity crisis.

Long considered part of the Burgundy region of France, where chardonnay and Pinot Noir reign supreme, the tiny Beaujolais region, located just to the south of Burgundy, has always done things a little differently.

Officially established as an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in 1936, the Beaujolais region is dedicated almost exclusively to the red Gamay grape varietal and is known for producing two very distinct styles of wine.

The Nouveau (Beaujolais-Nouveau) is a quaffable young wine that is traditionally released the third Thursday of November each year in which the grapes are harvested. (When I said young, I meant really young.) Beaujolais-Nouveau accounts for about one-third of the region’s production. The balance is dedicated to the more serious Cru Beaujolais wines that tend to be more fruit-dense and solid than their younger cousins.

Gamay noir — as it is officially known — is cross between Pinot Noir and a white variety called Gouais. The Gamay grape gained popularity in the region because, in contrast to Pinot Noir, Gamay ripens two weeks earlier and is far less difficult to cultivate.

As an aside, it became so popular among the peasants that towards the end of the 14th century, the Duke of Burgundy Philippe the Bold outlawed the cultivation of Gamay as being “a very bad and disloyal plant,” due, in part, to the fact that the Gamay grape was occupying land that could be used for the more “elegant” Pinot Noir.

Sixty years later, Philippe the Good issued another edict against Gamay, in which he stated the reasoning for the ban is that, “The Dukes of Burgundy are known as the lords of the best wines in Christendom. We will maintain our reputation.”

These edicts pushed the Gamay plantings to the south of Burgundy and into the granite based soils of Beaujolais where the grape took to the terroir like a match to a fireworks factory.

Today, according to Wikipedia, there are 12 main appellations of Beaujolais wines that include production from more than 96 villages in the region. About half of all Beaujolais wine is sold under the basic Beaujolais AOC designation. However, there has recently been a rise in the in the number of terroir-driven estate-bottled wines made from single vineyards or in one of the Cru Beaujolais communes, where the name of the commune is allowed to be displayed on the label.

Wine expert Karen MacNeil once described Beaujolais as “the only white wine that happens to be red.” Both Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Nouveau should be served slightly chilled to take advantage of their lighter style. Best of all, Beaujolais wines are very food friendly and versatile. They can be paired with a variety of food including pork, poultry and, best of all, Thanksgiving turkey.

The current popularity of Beaujolais can be traced back to one man who changed the world’s perception of the quality and versatility of the region: Georges Duboeuf. Born 1933, Duboeuf is the founder of Les Vins Georges Duboeuf, one of the largest and best-known wine merchants in France.

His influence in the Beaujolais region is so popular that his nickname is le roi du Beaujolais (the king of Beaujolais). He has done a remarkable job of forming partnerships with growers throughout the Beaujolais region to vinify and market wines from their properties. Here are a few of Dudoeuf’s offerings available in our area.

In 1968, the Descombes family was the first grower that Georges Duboeuf started working with when he started Les Vins Georges Duboeuf Georges. At the time, Jean Ernst Descombes was considered one of the finest winemakers in the region. Today, daughter Nicole Descombes Savoye, known as “the Queen of Beaujolais,” is now running the winery and vineyards. The 2015 Jean Ernest Descombes is a first-class wine from the Morgon AOC and features a bright garnet color and great harmony of aromas between cherry, kirsch and peach. It is full of black cherry, dark raspberry and clove flavors in the mouth, backed up by substantial tannins. The finish is round and full. This wine has the potential to age another five to 10 years. Try it with sirloin steak, roasted duck breast or stuffed Portobello mushrooms. $22

A wonderful introduction to Beaujolais is the 2015 Domaine Cotes de Berchoux. While is classified as a Beaujolais-Villages wine, it comes with quite a pedigree. The vineyards of the estate are over 50 years old and produce a wine with extraordinary aromas of black fruit, especially blackberries and cassis. The flavors of black cherry, red plum and dark cassis are round and generous in the mouth and land softly on the tongue, thanks to silky tannins. The finish is pretty and satisfying. Pairs well with charcuterie, prosciutto, and soft cheeses. $17

There is plenty of history in the 2015 Domaine de Quatre Vents. The vineyards and winery, located in the Fleurie AOC, have been owned and operated by the Darroze family since the mid-1950s. Fresh aromas of black fruits, red cherries and mild spices permeate the nose and are repeated on the palate where baking spices and tea combine with silky tannins on the fresh finish. Try it with roasted chicken, oven-roasted salmon, lamb or beef and aged cheeses. $22

If you’re looking for romance in a glass, then pick up a bottle of 2015 Chateau de Saint Amour by Les Vins George Duboeuf. Saint Amour is the northernmost Beaujolais Cru, and also the smallest.  The “romance” of wine is especially pronounced in this region by virtue of its name.  The Sidaurin family owns the Estate and has been aligned with Les Vins Georges Duboeuf for many years. Complex aromas of ripe black fruits, blackberry and Morello cherry are predominant, along with floral notes such as roses. It is extraordinarily rich and full-bodied; heady and generous with silky and unctuous tannins. The fruits follow through to the palate and play out to the persistent finish. This wine is a great match for rich foods, such as filet mignon, beef bourguignon and aged, hard cheeses. $22

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