A Brave New World of Beaujolais

The region's wine has been tainted by Nouveau's lightweight image, but a quiet revolution taking place among innovative producers just may change all that.

Beaujolais is a wine with an image problem. Every November since the 1970s cafés and bars all over the wine-drinking world have been plastered with posters proclaiming LE BEAUJOLAIS NOUVEAU EST ARRIVE! ("The Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived!"), and boy, has it ever. Of course, Beaujolais vignerons love it. They harvest in September, sell their wine in October, and have money in the bank by Christmas. It's a cash-flow situation other winemakers can only dream of.

Unfortunately, the very success of the campaign in marketing Beaujolais Nouveau has proved to be the undoing of the rest of the region's wine, because today its image has become linked with an insubstantial product that most charitably can be called fruity, fun, and food-friendly. It hasn't helped that Beaujolais producers, seduced by the rewards of Nouveau's success, created a distinctive method of winemaking designed to yield vast quantities of light, fruity wine that could be drunk young—a method still predominant in the region today. (OK, I admit it, I'm prejudiced. I like my reds older, with body and structure. And if I want something lighter for a charcuterie lunch, or supper on a summer evening—the kinds of situations exponents of Nouveau say it's ideal for—I'll pull the cork on a nice fresh Sauvignon Blanc, though for another opinion, see "In Defense of Nouveau.")

This is not the end of the story, though. Over the past decade or so, a small but growing number of very different, very good wines have been coming from Beaujolais, and the world has begun to take notice. During a recent visit to the region, just north of Lyon, I spoke with more than a dozen mostly small producers at the forefront of this quiet revolution. What they are doing, in part, is turning back the clock on how Beaujolais is made, reverting to more quality-driven pre-Nouveau methods. In addition, they are introducing techniques that have never been part of Beaujolais winemaking but are the norm elsewhere. The result: what New York Times critic Frank Prial has called "a wide range of more complex, more sophisticated wines capable of holding their own against 'big' wines made anywhere in the world."

That's just the kind of reception Chantal Brochier, whose family owns the beautiful Château de Briante in Brouilly, was hoping for when she began making her Réserve du Château de Briante, a rich wine bursting with the aroma and concentrated flavor of ripe red fruit. As she put it: "I wanted to break the image of Beaujolais as an easy wine, very light. I wanted to prove that from gamay"—a grape varietal known for its bright, fruity taste, and the only one used in red Beaujolais—"it's possible to get complicated, more interesting wines." It was a sentiment that was expressed repeatedly during my visit.

Most of the winemakers I spoke with were from the so-called crus, 10 communes in the hilly north in whose granite soil the majority of Beaujolais' best wines begin. Below them in the quality pecking order (though there are exceptions) are those labeled Beaujolais-Villages, made in 38 villages scattered throughout the north and center of the region; and a vast amount of generally indifferent wine, simply labeled Beaujolais, that comes from the clay soil of the south. The cru wines are entitled to their own appellations—Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon, and Brouilly, the three best known, as well as Fleurie, Juliénas, Côte de Brouilly, Chiroubles, Chénas, St.-Amour, and Régnié—and as if to distinguish themselves from their more plebeian neighbors, most don't even use the B word on their labels.

The most obvious thing the region's innovators are doing to improve the quality of their wines is making special cuvées, or premium wines, alongside their regular Beaujolais. Certain climats, or plots of land, usually those planted with very old vines, are known to consistently produce superior wines; it has been the custom in Beaujolais to mix these into an overall blend, but now they are increasingly being vinified and bottled separately. A few years ago father-daughter team Louis-Claude and Claude-Emmanuelle Desvignes, whose family has been vignerons for generations, decided that wine made from land they own in two of Morgon's prime subdivisions, Côte du Py and Javernières, was too special to end up in a generic blend. Sitting on a stool in the cellar of their pretty winery in Villié-Morgon, savoring the depth and complexity of their special-cuvée wines, I couldn't help but applaud the decision.

Makers of this new style of Beaujolais are also tweaking the region's customary methods of fermentation and aging. These include the semi-carbonic maceration process, which subjects the grapes to a shorter fermentation period than is usual elsewhere; one result is that only a minimal amount of tannin (which tends to obscure a wine's fresh fruit taste, but also increases a wine's ability to age) leeches out of the skins. Aging then takes place in stainless-steel tanks or huge old-oak vats called foudres that impart little or no flavor to the wine. Now, however, winemakers are experimenting with variations on the fermentation formula, and "more and more producers are aging in oak barrels," as I was told by Gino Bertolla, the proprietor of the estimable Domaine du Granit winery in Moulin-à-Vent. "For this you have to have long fermentation as well as very well structured wine. You can't do this with generic Beaujolais because it is too light. If you oak-age a lighter wine, all you end up with is wood juice."

Bertolla's two special cuvées, Les Caves and La Rochelle, are huge, muscular wines made from vines 65 to 100 years old and aged for 12 months in new oak barrels (which impart more flavor than older ones). He started making them in 1995 because he was lucky enough to have famous-name vineyards on some of the best land in the appellation. Over the past ten years, he says, consumers have begun demanding better-quality wines, "so in the cru area many of the growers are starting to concentrate on the special climats."

According to winemaker Pascal Granger, for many years no one was exploiting the possibilities of old vines. His family has owned land in Juliénas for two centuries, and he has plots of 80- to 90-year-old vines, but before 1987 all the grapes went into the blend. Now they go into his Juliénas Cuvée Spéciale Grande Réserve. Because old vines produce a much lower yield of smaller grapes than do young ones, the result is a higher concentration of sugar and flavor; the wine he makes from his old-vine grapes has so much structure that it can stand up to two years of oak aging without losing its complexity.

Fleurie's Alain Coudert makes his Clos de la Roilette Cuvée Tardive from vines 60 to 80 years old and ages it for six months in old oak foudres. Unlike most Beaujolais, which should be drunk within a year or two of bottling, this is an intense wine rich with flavors of cherries and crème de cassis that will go on improving in the bottle for five years or longer.

Georges Duboeuf is the region's largest and best-known négociant (a wholesaler who buys grapes or young wine in bulk from various growers and then blends and bottles the wine under his own name). While decades of his tireless promotion deserve a good share of the blame for the popularity of Nouveau, even he has responded to the increased interest in special-cuvée and single-vineyard wines by coming out with two longer-fermentation, oak-aged versions of his Moulin-à-Vent: Domaine de La Tour de Bief and Domaine des Rosiers.

Genetically, gamay is closely related to pinot noir, the red-wine grape of Burgundy, just to the north. While its origins are obscure, it is commonly believed to have been developed from that more illustrious relative in the Middle Ages for the purpose of producing high yields and early-maturing wine. Of course, what was an advantage 500 years ago is a handicap today as the wine world's tastes evolve up the quality scale.

Given its origins, then, it is not altogether surprising that when you treat gamay like pinot noir, it begins to taste like pinot noir (called "pinotizing" in Beaujolais). This is apparent in the winemaking of Louis Jadot. Since 1996, when this prominent Burgundy négociant purchased Château des Jacques in Moulin-à-Vent, it has acquired land in several crus, bringing Burgundian techniques along with it. While a majority of Jadot's Beaujolais is made using variations on the standard local methodology, it also produces small amounts of single-vineyard wines from Château des Jacques' Champ de Cour and La Roche climats, two of the cru's best. These longer-fermented, oak-aged wines are big, full-bodied, and, well, Burgundian in style.

For some, who are fans of the best Beaujolais made in the usual style, this is a problem. As a friend closely connected to the Beaujolais wine trade explained to me, "Jadot is making lovely wine, but many people don't regard it as Beaujolais." One of those people is Joe Dressner, the U.S. importer of several fine Beaujolais. In his opinion, barrel aging is not the way to produce better Beaujolais. In fact, he so disapproves of techniques like this that he won't handle Bertolla's special cuvées even though he's an enthusiastic importer of the winemaker's regular Moulin-à-Vent.

Compared with the relatively young California wine industry, where producers are free to experiment willy-nilly with every element of winemaking, this might seem like a tempest in a café au lait cup, the Beaujolais equivalent of the culture wars, with defenders of the current orthodoxy battling the innovators who are using—gasp! shock! horror!—Burgundian techniques. But French producers are constrained by a vast array of rules about what they can and cannot do, as well as by the weight of centuries of accepted custom. The French countryside is a very conservative place, and strongly resistant to change.

Philippe Bardet has encountered this problem all too frequently since he took over as head of the négociant Mommessin—in his family for five generations—in 1997. His biggest obstacle in trying to make better Beaujolais has been persuading his growers to reduce yields in order to get better, more intensely flavored grapes—one of the most important strategies being used to improve the region's wines. "In Beaujolais, when the old people say it's a good vintage, they're talking about the large quantity of grapes produced," Bardet told me. Then, putting the whole of "new" Beaujolais in a nutshell, he concluded: "This is the thinking we are working to change, a shift in emphasis from quantity to quality."

Resistance can be encountered even close to home. When winemaker Jean Bererd of Le Perréon, a picturesque village just south of the cru area, first heard that his two sons were experimenting with a limited-edition, special-cuvée wine, he thought, "Oh, my silly boys, what are they doing?" He just did not believe that there was any market for it. But they persevered and came up with the very successful Domaine de la Madone Vieilles Vignes Fûts de Chêne by implementing some of the same innovations being used in the crus, starting with a small climat with vines up to a hundred years old, then reducing the yields, harvesting late for riper grapes, and aging in oak.

"So what do you think now?" I asked Bererd.

"Now I find it very interesting," he replied, before adding, with practiced relish, "because it makes me money!"

I spent a couple of pleasurable, informative hours one afternoon at the enormous table in the family dining room, listening to Jean's son Bruno explain what he was trying to accomplish with this special cuvée. Echoing the other vintners I spoke with, Bruno told me, "We prefer bigger wines than the traditional Beaujolais, and I want to prove that we can make more concentrated wines than Beaujolais-Villages is known for." (Rumor has it that Le Perréon was going to be named the 11th cru until politics got in the way, so for now the family's spectacular wine will have to make do with the less-exalted appellation.)

Fetching some glasses from an enormous walnut armoire, Bruno started pouring samples in order to show me exactly what he was talking about. It was the 1995 that impressed me most. It had opened up more than the newer vintages, there was a ton of ripe fruit flavor, and although you could certainly detect the influence of oak (Fûts de Chêne means "oak casks"), it didn't dominate as it does in so many California reds. I was amazed that a Beaujolais-Villages could be such a structured, complex wine, and would have pegged it for a Burgundy in a blind tasting.

That evening I had dinner at Le Cep, a wonderful restaurant in Fleurie. At the next table a young vigneron was entertaining a buyer from Holland. It was well after midnight, and they had obviously enjoyed several wines already. When the producer pulled out his big showcase wine, a magnum of 1961 Morgon, the client was so impressed that he insisted on sharing it with us. It was magnificent, soft and velvety with good, intact structure, and you could still taste the fruit. At 40 years old this wine wasn't finished yet and showed the remarkable elegance and sophistication of which Beaujolais, under the right circumstances and in the right hands, is capable.

While the special-cuvée and single-vineyard wines that so impressed me represent only a tiny proportion of the region's overall production, they could well be the first rumblings of more widespread change in the region. I'm not suggesting that Beaujolais will be the next Rhône or Chianti—I have my doubts about just how far you can take gamay—but I do think we are going to be seeing a lot more serious, and seriously regarded, wines from there over the next few years. In fact, I'm looking forward to it.

In Defense of Nouveau

Though many wine types (like me) turn their noses up at Beaujolais Nouveau, there's no doubting its popularity: Last year 80 million bottles were exported to 192 countries. The frenzy of past years may have died down, but this year as always the new vintage will be celebrated at midnight on the third Thursday in November (the moment when it officially is released for sale) at parties in bistros from Lyons to Laos.

Even among wine pros, Nouveau has its (qualified) defenders. Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews, for one, while conceding that "it isn't a great wine," considers it worthwhile for a number of reasons: "Its fresh, grapey, lively taste makes it a perfect introduction for people who don't know wine. Even if you love wine, there are foods Nouveau goes better with than would a wine of more depth." (The Times' Frank Prial proclaims it "great with turkey," but I disagree! Perhaps with turkey sandwiches on Thanksgiving evening, but for the main event I want a more full-bodied wine.) Matthews also appreciates the "renewal aspect" of Nouveau. As the first release of the vintage, "it signals the start of a new wine year—a new year of pleasure and interest."

There's a lot of bad Nouveau out there, but among the houses that do it best are GEORGES DUBOEUF, MOMMESSIN, OLIVIER RAVIER, LOUIS TETE, JOSEPH DROUHIN, and DURDILLY. The 2002s will be priced at an easy-to-swallow $7 to $17.

At the Wineshop

While in most of the wine world $20 for a very fine bottle would seem a bargain, Beaujolais' less-than-stellar image makes such a price tag raise eyebrows. But the bottles listed here are very far from ordinary Beaujolais. Some of the best sell for less than half the price of a California Cabernet or a Burgundy of comparable quality—and wouldn't you rather pay $20 for a great Beaujolais than $50 for a mediocre Burgundy?

The wines on this list tend to be bigger and richer than standard-issue Beaujolais, generally a lot bigger and richer. While all are imported into the United States, most are made in limited quantities and are not always easy to find, so don't get hung up on a particular name—go shopping with this list (either locally or online) and buy whatever you can find. You won't be disappointed.

The most readily available vintage, the 2000, was super, and these wines can be drunk with pleasure now, but most will benefit from a few years of bottle aging; the Clos de la Roilette Cuvée Tardive 2000, for one, will improve for at least ten years. If you do find older vintages, grab all you can carry.

LOUIS CLAUDE DESVIGNES Morgon, Côte du Py, $15; Morgon, Javernières, $15.
ALFRED GINO BERTOLLA Domaine du Granit, Moulin-à-Vent, La Rochelle Réserve, Vieilles Vignes (V.V.), $25; Moulin-à-Vent, Les Caves Réserve, V.V., $25.
P. GRANGER Juliénas, Cuvée Spéciale-Grande Réserve, $20.
CLOS DE LA ROILETTE Fleurie, Cuvée Tardive, $19.
LOUIS JADOT CHATEAU DES JACQUES Moulin-à-Vent, Champ de Cour, $24; Moulin-à-Vent, La Roche, $24; Moulin-à-Vent, Clos de Rochegrès, $22.
MOMMESSIN Moulin-à-Vent, Réserve du Domaine de Champ de Cour, $14; Brouilly, Réserve du Château de Briante, $13.
DOMAINE DE LA MADONE Fûts de Chêne, V.V., $15.
GUY BRETON Morgon, V.V., $22.
CHATEAU THIVIN Côte de Brouilly, $16.
MICHEL CHIGNARD Fleurie, Les Moriers, $21.
JEAN-PAUL BRUN Terres Dorées, L'Ancien, V.V., $13; Moulin-à-Vent, $16.
DOMAINE DIOCHON Moulin-à-Vent, V.V., $19.
NICOLE CHANRION Domaine de la Voûte des Crozes, Côte de Brouilly, $17.

Nick Passmore's "Wine of the Week" column appears on Forbes.com.