Saturday, September 10, 2011

Luscious French Wine for less: Food-Friendly Cru Beaujolais

The shoulder season between the dog days of summer and the nip of full-on autumn is a perfect time to explore lighter red wines such as pinot noir, sangiovese or (a rediscovered delight) cru Beaujolais.

The Beaujolais area of France lies between two more widely known wine regions, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley. Almost all of the red wine produced in this 30 mile-long valley comes from the gamay grape. And the best wines carry the "cru" designation, meaning they each hail from one of ten villages (a list of which I'll post below). In these small towns and rural areas, winemakers turn out carefully crafted table wines that often achieve a pretty balance between fruitiness and depth. I've found that they pair wonderfully well with anything from shrimp cocktail to turkey or bison burgers, roast chicken, or a hearty vegetarian stew heavy on winter squash or mushrooms.

The ten names to look for in the French wine section of a moderately well stocked wine shop, listed north to south, are:

St.Amour: pretty, delicate wines
Juliènas: like St.Amour, but slightly beefier
Chénas: often keenly acidic, with notable minerality and fine tannin
Moulin-à-Vent: a top cru, very complex and muscular
Fleurie: aromatic, pungent wines of medium length
Chiroubles: at their best, these are raw, gamey, and delectable
Morgon: another top cru; powerfully ripe fruit, amazing depth
Regnié: fresh, clean wines; generous, not terribly complex
Brouilly: dark wines, with notable bouillon flavors and strong tannin
Côte de Brouilly: a top cru: intense minerals & richness on the palate

Note: the word "Beaujolais" is not required to be placed on the label of these wines.

Reliable top crus, year after year, are Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent, but any town of origin is worth a try.
Georges DuBouef is the beaujolais producer with the longest reach into the American market, and it's not hard to find their Morgon, Julienas or St. Amour, among others. Louis Jadot is another major producer with cru beaujolais distributed widely in the U.S.

In addition to these wines' versatility at the table and their pleasing mouth-feel, they tend to be moderate in alcohol content (around 12 or 12.5 percent) and inexpensive for the quality level.
You should be able to find a cru beaujolais you'll love for anywhere from $13 to $20, with some highly rated (by the wine press) Morgons inching toward $30.
The 2009 vintage was spectacular, so look for that. Because beaujolais tend to be underappreciated, your wine shop might have a couple of dusty bottles on the shelf.  That vintage produced wines with enough depth and structure to improve for a couple more years, although they're terrific now as well.
2010s should be widely available, and it too got good reviews, although these tend to be fresh and fruity -- at least compared to the 2009 wines -- and ready to pour with dinner tonight.

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