The Beaujolais wine region is located in eastern France with Burgundy to its north (technically Beaujolais is a sub-region of Burgundy), the Rhone Valley to its south, and the Saone river hugging tightly to its eastern flank. Proximate cities are Macon to the north and Lyon to the south. The region measures 50 km long with width ranging between 10 and 15 km.
Beaujolais has a continental climate -- cold, dry winters and hot summers -- which is tempered by the Massif Central to the west, the Alps to the east, and its proximity to the Mediterranean. The region is blessed with a warm growing season but the possibility of frost in the spring, or hail in the summer, is ever-present.
Beaujolais is divided into Haut and Bas Beaujolais, based on distinctions in the soil and the intervening Nizerand river valley, with Haut Beaujolais to the north and Bas to the south. The north is characterized by rolling granite hills pock marked with patches of clay and limestone and with granite and schist in the upper slopes and higher stone and clay content in the lower slopes. The south has a flatter topographical profile than the north and has primarily clay and sandstone soils.
There are approximately 3600 vineyards in the 55,000 acres that constitute Beaujolais. The vineyards tend to be small to mid-sized plots owned by hundreds of farmers and carrying between 9000 and 13,000 vines per hectare. For the most part, the fruit is sold to negociants who produce and market the wines. In the north the vineyards sit on gently sloping hills at elevations that range between 500 and 2000 feet. The resultant exposure to the sun allows quicker ripening and harvesting in the north when compared to the south. Vine training is primarily Goebelet but, recently, some Guyot training has been utilized in the south.
One of the unique aspects of Beaujolais winemaking is the widespread use of carbonic maceration for vinification of most of its red wines. In this method of vinification the grapes are hand-picked in whole bunches and the bunches are placed serially into the fermentation tank. The weight of the most recently placed grapes causes the lower bunches to burst and the juice that is released begins to ferment. The carbon dioxide that is released during this process causes in-berry fermentation and the production of brightly colored, low-tannin wines with a characteristic fruity flavor.
A large part of Beaujolais' repute -- and disrepute -- is based on its Beaujolais Nouveau, a red, fruity, light, early drinking wine. This wine, as is the case for most of the red wine produced in Beaujolais, is made from the Gamay grape. Small quantities of Pinot Noir are used for red and rosé wines, a practice which will be discontinued after the 2015 harvest. Chardonnay and Aligoté are used for the production of the little white wine that is produced in the region as well as for blending with red wines up to a limit of 15%. The wines of Beaujolais are generally characterized by ripe, fruit-driven flavors with the wines from the north being aromatic, structured, and complex while those from the south are lighter, fruity, and early drinking. Annual production in the region is about 190 million bottles. Notable producers are Georges Duboeuf, Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton, Jean-Paul Thivenet, and Pierre Chermette.
Beaujolais has 12 appellations, each producing its own distinctive style of wine. I will detail these appellations in my next post.