France's Beaujolais Wine District - dummies

France’s Beaujolais Wine District

By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

The Beaujolais region is unique among French wine regions because it makes wines that are happy to please without trying to impress. Beaujolais wine is the product of the Beaujolais region of France and the red Gamay grape variety.

Administratively, Beaujolais is a district of the Burgundy region, but the red wine of Beaujolais is very different from those in the rest of Burgundy — made from a different grape variety grown in different soil and a warmer climate.

The soil and climate of Beaujolais

Beaujolais is a large wine region by Burgundy’s standards: It’s about twice the size of Rhode Island and larger than any Burgundy district. The region encompasses nearly 50,000 acres of vineyards, which extend 34 miles in length and seven to nine miles in width. The vineyards are situated in the eastern part of the region, on undulating hills.

Beaujolais is near enough to the Mediterranean Sea to experience Mediterranean-like summer weather, which is warm and dry; but the region is also interior enough to experience cold, dry weather from the northeast, including spring frosts. Overall, the climate is temperate.

Soil variations are the most significant factor in defining the character of the region’s various wines:

  • In the southern part of the region, south of the town of Villefranche, the soils are sandstone or clay and limestone.

  • In the north, the soils are granite or schist (crystalline rock) on the upper slopes, with stone and clay soils on the lower slopes.

Just as the soils are different in the north, so are the wines. The sturdiest, firmest Beaujolais wines come from the northern vineyards, while the lightest, most supple wines come from southern vineyards.

The Gamay grape variety

Except for a small amount of Chardonnay, 99 percent of the Beaujolais vineyards are covered by a single grape variety, Gamay; all red Beaujolais wine derives entirely from Gamay.

Gamay exists in a few other places — France’s Loire Valley, for example, and Switzerland — but the Beaujolais region is truly the stronghold for this variety, and the finest Gamay wines come from this area. (Neither the grape called Gamay Beaujolais in California nor the grape called Napa Gamay is true Gamay.)

The Gamay variety makes wines that are fairly deep in color, with a bluish tinge. They tend to have light to medium body, relatively low acidity, moderate tannin, and aromas and flavors of red berries.

Beaujolais winemaking

A winemaking technique that’s widely practiced in the region contributes significantly to the style of Beaujolais wines. That technique is called carbonic maceration (because the grapes macerate, or soak, in a carbon dioxide-rich environment). It’s a fairly simple process in terms of what the winemaker does, but it’s more complicated chemically. The effect of the process is a reduction in the wine’s tannin and an enhancement of particular fruity aromas and flavors in the wine.

The principal behind carbonic maceration is that when whole grapes are deprived of oxygen, they begin to ferment (their sugars convert to alcohol) from the inside; certain other changes occur within the grape berries, such as the formation of particular aroma and flavor compounds. This internal fermentation happens without the help of yeasts; normal fermentation, in contrast, occurs because yeasts come in contact with the juice of crushed grapes.

For the lightest Beaujolais wines — specifically, the style called Beaujolais Nouveau — the fermentation can be as short as three days. Other styles ferment for about ten days, during which time they gain more color and tannin from the grape skins than the lighter styles do.