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Its wines are on a high, and with plenty of appealing villages to visit and excellent restaurants to sample, Beaujolais is a region that doesn’t disappoint. Andrew Catchpole finds out what’s nouveau
Back in the day, Brits went bonkers for a drop of Beaujolais. Not only was it a popular mainstay of 1980s wine bars, but the Nouveau wine phenomenon was also championed by madcap drivers in their thousands who annually raced the new vintage home from France on its release, coming screeching to a halt back in Blighty for a full English breakfast washed down with the first taste of the wines.
All great fun, but a combination of Nouveau overkill and winemakers resting on their laurels found Beaujolais falling from fashion, with critics giving it a drubbing in the wake of uninspired banana-and-bubblegum wines. Fast-forward a decade, and Beaujolais is back – and it’s on cracking form. A hat-trick of excellent vintages, beginning with the stellar 2009, has washed away memories of poor quality, delivering superb and often fantastic-value wines instead.
So, for wine lovers, there’s never been a better time to visit this charming region and taste what’s on offer. Add in a wealth of top restaurants, honest bistros, golden-stone villages and impressive châteaux – all a stone’s throw from gastronomic capital Lyon – and Beaujolais makes for a very appealing destination.
At the region’s heart is the Gamay grape, known for its bright, aromatic and strawberryish character. Less well known, however, is the incredible diversity in Beaujolais’ wines, depending on precisely where the grapes are grown. The top cru wines are deep, complex affairs, capable of ageing in a similar way to their rivals from neighbouring Burgundy.
To really understand Beaujolais, a drive north from Lyon through the aptly-dubbed ‘Le Pays des Pierres Dorées’ (land of golden stone) towards the northernmost cru of Saint-Amour is a must. The
lower, fertile southern land often produces eminently gluggable basic Beaujolais. Head further north and you’re into Beaujolais Village territory, where, in the hands of good producers, the quality
and complexity of the wines step up several notches. Motor on up to the heady peak of Mont Brouilly and the real prize, the 10 crus of Beaujolais, spreads out before you.
Each cru has its own distinct character, running from the lighter elegance of Fleurie and Saint-Amour to the age-worthy concentration of Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon. The soils here are poor, strewn with weathered granite and mineral debris from ancient volcanic spills, and it’s this special terroir that’s captured in Beaujolais’ best wines. It’s possible to buy both current and vintage cru wines for a very fair price indeed at the moment.
Beaujolais Cuvée des Vignerons NV
(£5.99; Waitrose) A bright, bouncy and fresh expression of the fruity Gamay grape.
2010 Henry Fessy, Beaujolais Blanc
(£11.55; slurp.co.uk) Citrus fresh, good intensity with a pleasing minerally finesse.
2010 Château de Raousset, Fleurie
(£11.95; justerni.com, slurp.co.uk) Aromatic, fresh red fruits, a food-friendly style.
2009 Domaine des Billards, Saint-Amour
(£12.95; corksout.com) Attractive, aromatic, strawberryish, with a hint of spice.
2009 Loron et Fils, Xavier et Nicolas Barbet, Moulin-à-Vent
(£12.50; henningswine.co.uk) Ripe and showing well, but worth ageing for five to 10 years.
2010 Domaine Chasselay, Morgon
(£13.95; vintageroots.co.uk) Youthful, with dark fruits, complexity, spice and depth.
As you’d expect, Beaujolais offers no end of opportunities to sample its wines. There’s an abundance of appetising auberges and bistros, where charcuterie, coq au vin and hearty country salads match perfectly with the wines. This being Lyon’s backyard, Beaujolais also has a high concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants. Better yet, you can try and buy at innumerable cellar doors.
One of Beaujolais’ finest features is its liberal sprinkling of châteaux, many built by Lyonnais merchants grown wealthy on the old silk trade. A number are now wine estates, and part of the charm of touring Beaujolais is visiting fine old properties such as Château du Moulin-à-Vent and Domaine Brisson to taste their wines.
The cellar doors of good producers come in all shapes and sizes though, from rambling rustic family farmhouses, to historically intriguing properties such as La Tour de la Belle Mère (see box), to the corporate modernity of Loron et Fils. Quality-driven, forward-thinking smaller producers, such as Domaine Lucien Lardy and Maison Coquard, are aligned with others under the Terroirs Originels banner.
If you choose to visit any of these producers this summer, be sure to leave plenty of boot space in your car so you can stock up. Or if you’re filling your wine rack for a staycation, check out the recommendations opposite. With its naturally light tannins, Beaujolais is a great summer red that matches well with a wide range of foods and is particularly refreshing when drunk slightly chilled.
La Tour de la Belle Mère, Les Combes
Charming winery B&B with cellar-door wines and estate-grown saffron to boot. dutraive.com
Château de Bagnols, Bagnols
A luxury country retreat with the Michelin-starred Salle de Gardes restaurant. chateaudebagnols.com
L’Atelier du Cuisinier, Villié-Morgon
A buzzing bistro delivering unpretentious local dishes alongside an extensive wine selection. atelier-cuisinier.com
Calad’in Comptoir, Gleizé
A superb spot for flavoursome, seasonal Beaujolais cuisine and great wine in modern-rustic surrounds. (no website)
Paul Bocuse, Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or
The legendary Bocuse has held trois étoiles since 1965 at this timeless temple to haute cuisine. bocuse.fr
This feature was published in the summer 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.