Remember Beaujolais? Seems like almost a year since I've heard anyone talk about it. Yet like clockwork, the winemakers of Beaujolais capture our attention every fall with their simple after-the-harvest message of “Happy! Happy!” In fact, the third Thursday of November is the happiest day of the year for them. Beaujolais Nouveau is released to the world, and the world buys almost two-thirds of the winemakers' annual production of Beaujolais. No other region in the world sells so much wine so quickly.
And no other wine merchant in the world sells as much Beaujolais as Georges Duboeuf, the “King of Beaujolais.” Happily, Duboeuf is more than just a huge wine factory. He and his son, Franck, maintain an amazingly high level of quality while keeping prices reasonably low. In addition to Beaujolais Nouveau, they sell a wide range of wines from every corner of the region: regular Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and exclusivities from individual crus (villages with above-average soils and exposures are called crus, or exceptional sites).
Beaujolais Nouveau may be a fleeting pleasure, wisely forgotten after Christmas or New Year, but the other Beaujolais wines provide outstanding value year-round. Red wine made from Gamay grapes that are grown within the region may be labelled Beaujolais if the minimum alcohol strength is 10 per cent when the grapes are picked; at 10 1/2 per cent, they can be called Beaujolais Supérieur. Within the region some villages do yield better wines than others. Production limits are stricter for these favoured sites, which deliver both greater concentration and richer fruit flavours. For instance, Beaujolais-Villages can be aged for a year or two and normally sell for a few dollars more than simple Beaujolais.
Ten hillside vineyards produce wines that are so highly prized they merit being individually named on the label. From north to south they are St-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly. Wines from these areas offer great variations within a narrow flavour spectrum. Though all of these wines will have a bright ruby-purple colour and will express nuances of crushed strawberry, raspberry and red cherry, Moulin-à-Vent is the fullest and firmest in style and has an aging potential of up to 10 years, Fleurie has additional sweet floral nuances, and Juliénas is always soft, supple and stylish, while Chiroubles is so delicate that it loses its more fragile aromatic elements during overseas shipping.
Duboeuf's cheerful labels capitalize on Beaujolais' image of fun and frolic. Vividly colourful squiggles and blobs, and floral designs grace his bottles, while some of Duboeuf's crus come in delightfully tall, elegant bowling-pin-shape bottles. Having recently opened a dozen Duboeuf wines from a soon-to-be-released sampler pack that includes a Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and the 10 crus, I can declare with confidence that any time a lightly chilled bottle from this region is sipped, with or without food, it's going to be a wine-wine situation.