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Beaujolais (April 9, 2009)

Try this experiment at home. Take a bottle of Beaujolais and pour out two glasses. Cover each with a piece of plastic wrap and put one in the fridge for an hour and leave the other out at room temperature. Then taste them both, starting with the chilled glass. I guarantee you will not recognize them as the same wine. (The act of chilling lowers your perception of sweetness and heightens your perception of acidity, the component that gives wine its freshness and prolongs the flavour in the mouth.)

This is what makes Beaujolais so versatile and appealing – you can serve it at room temperature with meat dishes or lightly chilled with fish dishes. In the region they enjoy it with roasted chestnuts.

Beaujolais is the foster child of Burgundy that gets no respect. It's the cheerleader of red wines that is not taken too seriously. Probably because half of the annual production of the region, some 49 million litres, is released each year as Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday of November. Beaujolais Nouveau, or Primeur as it is more technically correct to call it, is an amusing little beverage that my wine writer colleague in California, Karen MacNeil, has likened to eating cookie dough. But Beaujolais at its finest, and when it is made in great years, can last as long as red Burgundy. I tasted a 1947 Mommessin Moulin-à-Vent forty years later and it was superb, reminiscent of a mature bottle of Beaune. But then not all Beaujolais are born equal.

There are basically three quality levels: simple Beaujolais that is grown on the flat southern part of the region grown in limestone soil, Beaujolais-Villages in the hilly north grown on granitic soils, and the top wines that bear the names of ten different northern villages: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-À-Vent, Régnié and Saint-Amour. These are the named growths of the region known as Beaujolais crus. By law, Beaujolais Nouveau can only be made in the appellations of Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages, never from grapes grown in the named villages.

The simple Beaujolais is light and fruity with cherry, plum, strawberry and pepper flavours. Beaujolais-Villages has more intensity and depth and the crus have a richer flavour and a more substantial mouth-feel. If you see the term Beaujolais Supérieur on a label, this has nothing to do with a quality designation. It simply means that the wine has 1 per cent more alcohol than the basic minimum requirement of 9 degrees for the appellation.

Unlike red Burgundy, which is made from Pinot Noir, the variety used for Beaujolais is Gamay. Incidentally, there is a wine that is made in Burgundy using two-thirds Gamay grapes and one-third Pinot Noir called Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains.


Five Gamays To Quaff With Pleasure

Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais (LCBO #212480, $12.25)

Bouchard Père & Fils Beaujolais-Villages (LCBO #665448, $12.95)

Château des Charmes Gamay Noir Droit Reserve (LCBO #582353, $16.95)

Château des Jacques Moulin-à-Vent 2005 (Vintages #700187, $33.95)

Henry of Pelham Gamay 2007 (Vintages #291112, $14.95)

The traditional way to make red wines is to crush the grapes and allow the juice to ferment with the skins to extract colour. Beaujolais is produced by a unique process called carbonic maceration. The Gamay grapes are hand-harvested so as not to break the skins and the whole clusters are put into a stainless steel vat. Carbon dioxide is then added to the vat. The weight of the bunches on top presses on those below until the berries at the bottom of the tank are crushed. The yeast comes in contact with the sugar in the juice and devours it, converting it to alcohol. But the fermentation has nowhere to go with all those uncrushed berries, so it gets inside each individual berry. After a week or so the juice is pressed out of the berries and the resulting wine is very low in tannin. A wine that you can drink at the age of six weeks as Beaujolais Nouveau. Try that with red Bordeaux and you would get a shock.

Carbonic maceration is the secret of Beaujolais Nouveau and virtually all other Beaujolais wines. If you react badly to red wine you are probably reacting to tannin. Tannin releases histamines in your system, and if you are allergic to histamines you will get a headache. Since tannin is a natural compound in the skins, pits and stalks of grapes – that bitterness you experience if you bite into a pit or chew on a grape skin – this method of production cuts down dramatically the amount of tannin that ends up in the wine. And a wine with little tannin does not need to age to soften it up. So, if you suffer red wine headaches, switch to Beaujolais and see if that alleviates the problem.




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