The Autumn arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau is one of the wine calendar’s liveliest landmarks—but there’s much more to the wines. (photo by Elena Skalovskaia)

It’s the third Thursday in November, so winemakers in Beaujolais release the 2020 vintage. Yes, pandemic or no, it’s that time again—Beaujolais Nouveau Day! (French law says wines from the current vintage can’t be released any earlier than the third Wednesday in November.) This day, while celebrated by many and reviled by others, is a moment to celebrate that we’ve almost made it through the year. And while celebrations may be a little subdued in some places, make sure you tuck a bottle of the obligatory “new wine” into your next wine shop run.

What makes Beaujolais Nouveau so, well, new?  Gamay from this year’s harvest is made into wine via carbonic maceration, a process that shortcuts much of the traditional wine making finesse by sealing grapes in tanks with enough carbon dioxide that they ferment from the inside out. As the berries burst open, the result yields a wine that tastes distinctly different: bright, fruity, and, well, new. Wines made with this technique are designed to drink young, making them perfect for the Thanksgiving and winter holidays.

However, we would be doing an enormous disservice to these truly special wines if we only focused on Nouveau. The more significant wine contribution of this region, by far, are the stunning Gamays of the Cru Beaujolais.

Beaujolais is tucked into an area just south of the Macon (and still north of Lyon). While technically part of Burgundy, Beaujolais feels remote. Rolling hills around the village of Fleurie are covered in vineyards sloping along the hillsides. Nearby, landmarks like the Chapel of La Madone and the windmill at Moulin au Vent keep watch as the vines change over time from the free-growing goblet-pruned vines to trellised beauties.

If it sounds like winemakers in Beaujolais are getting serious about their wines, it’s because they are. After many years of difficulty brought on by the marketing campaigns for Nouveau, fine winemakers in the region feel they’re finally getting some notice and respect. An influx of new owners from Burgundy and the Rhone have brought new blood and investment into the region’s ten crus, or terroir driven demarcations, including those of Morgon, Fleurie, Moulin au Vent, Chiroubles, and Brouilly. Surrounding the designated crus are Beaujolais-Villages areas, also making wines with a rich punch, at a price that’s still pleasing.

Gamay is the primary red grape for both the Nouveaus and the Cru Beaujolais. Any whites are generally Chardonnays. Historically, as much as 65% of the Gamay grown in Beaujolais goes into Nouveau production each year, but what started as a marketing strategy by winemaker Georges Duboeuf in the 1980s left the more traditional wines somewhat undiscovered. Better vineyard management and winemaking techniques over the past decade are really beginning to pay off.

The region is remote and rustic, but it’s worth the trek to discover these beauties. So, while you’re enjoying that bottle of Nouveau, make sure you also pick up a few bottles of the really good stuff! Gamay for everyone! 

Below, some recommended producers:

Old School:  Marcel Lapierre 

No survey of Beaujolais would be complete without mentioning the rich history of winemakers like Marcel Lapierre. Off the beaten path near Villie Morgon, the famous producer’s caves feature the funky art (Sex, Rock, and Gamay!) and ’70s vibe this producer is known for. Lapierre and his “Gang of Four” stuck with these wines as the world threatened to forget the elegant beauty of traditional Gamays. These pioneers focused on viniculture, chemistry, organic farming, and careful winemaking, and their wines show it.

New School:  Jean-Marc Burgaud

When you’re traveling for wine, sometimes you skip lunch for a “drop in” tasting—which is exactly what happened one day when my gang found ourselves driving past the front gate of Jean-Marc Burgaud. The producer had just been written up in the American wine press. We rang the bell and he graciously introduced us to his spectacular, classically made Beaujolais Village and Morgon.

Refined Beauty:  Chateau Moulin au Vent

This grand estate, in the same family for over a century, has transformed in the past 10 years from a co-op supplier to a producer of elegant, terroir-driven wines. With renovated cellars, and vineyards replanted and restored with top techniques, this domain is a perfect example of excellence that makes people pay attention.

Newcomer:  Domaine Lafarge-Vial 

If you’re wondering if this is *that* Lafarge, the answer is yes! Respected Volnay producer Frederic Lafarge and his wife, Chantal Vial Lafarge, started this domain in 2014 making well reviewed Chirouble and Fleurie. This producer is one to watch – and definitely to try.