How Cru Beaujolais Became A Somm Favorite
By Courtney Schiessl
Sommeliers tend to be opinionated people. We have given a lot of thought to grapes, regions, producers, pairings, serving temperature, and glassware, and are more than happy to vehemently discuss and debate all of them over bottles of wine.
Yet certain wines are are almost universally loved by the wine community. These inexplicably agreed-upon grapes and regions are such somm favorites that they act as quiet indicators of, “yes, this is a wine person,” when ordered at a bar or restaurant.
Enter cru Beaujolais, the light and lively Gamay from one of 10 elevated regions in the heart of Beaujolais, France, just south of Burgundy. Not to be confused with Beaujolais Nouveau, the Thanksgiving standard, cru Beaujolais is a year-round industry favorite that has soared in popularity over the past five to 10 years.
Hardcore wine lovers avoid Beaujolais Nouveau like the plague, but the “Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” campaign pioneered Americans’ awareness of the Beaujolais region. For better or worse, this 1970s and 1980s push brought Beaujolais into the homes of Americans every third Thursday of November. In the 1990s, U.S. wine professionals saw the first arrivals of quality cru Beaujolais, and it’s largely thanks to one importer: Kermit Lynch.
“Without Kermit Lynch’s seal of approval in the formative days of importing Beaujolais into the U.S., we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” says Caleb Ganzer, wine director and managing partner of La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in New York. Known for seeking out natural and terroir-driven wines, Lynch became acquainted with a group of Beaujolais producers informally banding together in a quality-minded, “back-to-nature” movement in the 1990s. Dubbed the “Gang of Four,” they are generally considered the standard-bearers of cru Beaujolais production, and include Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thévenet, and Guy Breton.
Another naturally-minded importer, the late Joe Dressner, brought other top Beaujolais producers like Jean-Paul Brun and Clos de la Roilette to the U.S. around the same time. But even though quality Beaujolais bottles were available — former Bar Boulud, Épicerie Boulud & Boulud Sud head sommelier Michael Madrigale noted that New York’s Burgundy Wine Company stocked all 10 Beaujolais crus as early as the late 1990s — they didn’t start receiving cult somm status for another decade.
“During the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, people were looking for more inexpensive alternatives to Burgundy,” says Rajat Parr, winemaker and partner of Sandhi Wines, Domaine de la Cote, and Evening Land Vineyards. Before that, he says, “Beaujolais wines were mostly served at bistros and casual restaurants in Paris. Now, it’s served at most of the top restaurants in the world.”
Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group was a leader of this movement. Wine director Daniel Johnnes pushed to add more Beaujolais wines to the group’s lists and was aided by the fact that Boulud’s hometown of Lyon, France is very close to the Beaujolais region.
Today, Beaujolais lives on wine lists large and small, at fine-dining and casual establishments. New York’s three-Michelin-star Eleven Madison Park offers standard- and magnum-sized bottles of cru Beaujolais. Freek’s Mill in Brooklyn almost solely features Beaujolais among its red wine selections, while Seattle’s Le Caviste commits to offering all 10 crus on its list.
Sommeliers love its easy-drinking, fruit-forward, charming characteristics. “Beaujolais is great because it has that fresh, thirst-quenching quality that makes it very very easy to drink the entire bottle by yourself,” Madrigale says. “And I mean that as a compliment!”
Price is another factor, today as it was 10 years ago. “One can get top Burgundian levels of quality for nearly rock bottom prices,” Ganzer says. Madrigale agrees, saying, “It has a lot of similar qualities of red Burgundy but is much cheaper.”
(Let’s hope that Beaujolais’ quality-price ratio remains high as the region gains recognition; earlier this year, a case of Fleurie wines garnered a record-setting price of €1,800 at a French auction.)
Beaujolais also has the benefit of capitalizing on another somm trend: natural winemaking. One of the forefathers of natural wine, Jules Chauvet, was based in Beaujolais and had a great influence on the region’s vintners.
“Beaujolais became the early testing grounds for what is now the natural wine revolution,” Ganzer says. “Coupling that with its proximity to Burgundy, the affordability of the wines, and the high quality of the wines, the groundwork was pretty set for this region to explode eventually.”
Though cru Beaujolais is such a fixture in the sommelier community that some might consider it “old news,” most American wine drinkers still have never tasted quality cru Beaujolais. While it may be a somm darling, cru Beaujolais has a way to go before it can be considered an American standard, which means that today’s Beaujolais-focused establishments are important for broader regional recognition.
“I love the wines and see them as woefully under-appreciated,” David Butler, owner of Le Caviste in Seattle, says. “I’m not sure the U.S. has really even begun to ‘discover’ Beaujolais.”
Check out some of Regal’s Beaujolais producers: