Why Beaujolais wine – like the region’s forgotten princess – is woefully underappreciated

Made from the Gamay grape, these wines are fruity and delicious lightly chilled: unashamedly different from the big boys in Burgundy and the Rhône.

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Why have we forgotten Anne of Beaujeu? A 15th-century king’s daughter, she governed one kingdom and altered the fate of another, vanquished great numbers of the so-called “stronger sex” without the benefit of weaponry, and wrote a wily book on handling powerful men several years before Machiavelli’s The Prince. Her father, Louis XI of France, called her the least foolish woman in his kingdom, which is pretty glowing praise for the 1400s. As her brother’s regent, Anne kept France stable; a woman of vast wealth, she managed her money carefully, and without the men and gold she loaned Henry Tudor, he might not have beaten Richard III, so she probably changed the course of England’s history.

If Anne’s book, Lessons For My Daughter, had received the attention The Prince did, would we now talk of Beaujolaisian cunning instead of Machiavellian? How would that have affected the cherry-scented red wines that are Beaujeu’s only remaining claim to fame? If women in Anne’s time needed guile to outwit the powerful men around them, Beaujolais winemakers, sandwiched between the great regions of Burgundy and the Rhône, can surely relate.

These wines are survivors, with an allure and adaptability that Anne might have admired. Made from the Gamay grape, they are fruity and delicious lightly chilled: unashamedly different from the big boys to the north and south.

[see also: Stuck in London due to Covid, I travel to Portugal via my imagination and my wine glass]

In the 1980s, that difference was trumpeted via Beaujolais Nouveau – cheap, easy-drinking wine available the November after harvest, in marked contrast to great Burgundian Pinots and Rhône Syrahs that need years of cellaring. This marketing phenomenon eventually backfired – but although fresh Beaujolais can be insipid, that’s no reason to underestimate the whole region.

Gamay also thrived in Burgundy until 1395, when the duke ordered it all uprooted. His disparaging comments about “déloyal Gamay” have outlived his reasoning – was he protecting his precious Pinot Noir, or just insulting the “lesser” variety? – but the upshot was that Beaujolais’s granite soils gained exclusive rights to the grape for centuries. And Gamay thrives on granite.

Today, once again, powerful neighbours are turning out to have their uses. Top Rhône and Burgundy wines have become unaffordable for most of us but just next door, even the best producers, like Jean Foillard, Marcel Lapierre, Jean-Claude Lapalu, Château Thivin or Thibault Liger-Belair, sell wines for under £30. Skilled Burgundians in search of a challenge are trickling into Beaujolais. Liger-Belair, whose Burgundy Grand Crus include Clos de Vougeot and Richebourg, now also makes outstanding wine in Moulin-à-Vent, one of Beaujolais’s ten named Crus. So does Louis Boillot, of Chambolle-Musigny, while Volnay’s Frédéric and Chantal Lafarge have a sideline in Fleurie.

Many winemakers prefer to emphasise the name of the Cru, believing that Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon, Brouilly or Fleurie possess a cachet that Beaujolais lacks. Jean-François Garlon, with no Cru, works hard to publicise Pierre Dorées (golden stones) as a catch-all for his part of southern Beaujolais which is, he feels, unjustly unloved. But then, underestimation can be a very effective tool. Beaujolais winemakers have a fine example very close to home, if they are only cunning enough to emulate her. 

[see also: Drinking pink: why rosé is more than an insipid pastel prop]

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Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

 

This article appears in the 20 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation

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